Gray Bay: What’s in a Name?

The best camp spot accessibly by land
The best camp spot accessibly by land

Venice. Provence. Mongolia.

Eyebrow. Doubtful Sound. Joe Batt’s Arm.

Certain place names arouse emotion, desire, curiosity.

But Gray Bay?

If we told you we had a great camping experience at Gray Bay, could you guess where it was?

If you guessed Gray Bay is somewhere on British Columbia’s coast, renowned for the incessant gray of sky, sea and rain, score one.

And if you knew it’s on Haida Gwaii, score five.

Want ten points? Read on.

Gray Bay holds the title of Haida Gwaii’s best campground accessible by land. Even so, its name dampened my enthusiasm.

The famed camp spot is on Moresby, the large southern island, one of the more than two-hundred islands that make up Haida Gwaii. Because its on Hecate Strait, the shallow sea separating the archipelago from the mainland, it’s more protected than campsites on the wild Pacific side.

After our cruise in Moresby’s Gwaii Haanas National Park, we flew back to Sandspit and picked up Rove-Inn for our first night on land in a week, our destination Gray Bay.

You access Gray Bay via a logging road south of Sandspit called Copper Bay Mainline. Lucky for us, we were driving the twenty-one kilometres on a Sunday when loggers weren’t behind the wheels of their trucks. The copper miners cleared out a century ago.

Along the gravel road you see Haida fishing cabins at Copper River Village, renamed Laana GaayGaagings. The waters in this area abound with abalone, razor clams, Coho salmon, Dolly Varden and Rainbow trout.

Gray Bay campsite fronts a sandy, crescent-shaped beach. Small, it has only eighteen spots, some grassy, some gravelled, all free. There are no services other than hewn-log picnic tables and outdoor privies. (We didn’t know it at the time but a short drive beyond is Sheldens Bay (Kunts’ii), even more remote with only three campsites.)

The campground and shoreline are part of the Kunxalas (“pierce-nose”) Heritage Site/Conservancy, 2,350 hectares of old-growth forest of cultural value to the Haida.

Gray Bay campsite is a wee bit famous. It was the landing place, after a journey of six-hundred nautical miles from Vancouver, for paddlers of the Wave Eater—a fifteen-metre cedar canoe carved for Expo 86 by one of Haida Gwaii’s most famous artists, Bill Reid. After resting here, they paddled  the return voyage.

Loo Taas (“Wave Eater”) (Photo:

To me, lovely as the campsite’s quiet waterfront is the wilderness garden of Marguerite daisies. Renaming Gray Bay “Daisy Crescent Beach” seemed like a good idea, until I learned it’s an invasive flower that chokes the diversity of local plants.

Hiking trails bookend the campsite. A high tide impeded us from going all the way to Cumshewa Head but when it’s low you can walk five kilometres to the south end of the bay, the former site of a LORAN marine radio station. From there, trails lead to Sheldens Lagoon and Dogfish Beach, which has the remains of a settler’s cabin from 1907.

In the morning after watching an incredible sunrise, we strolled to Secret Cove, an easy one-km among tall, inky-green Sitka spruce to a pebble beach. Why this “Sunrise Bay campsite,” Juuyáay K‘adsíi in Haida?

Haida Gwaii has always been an evocative place, hasn’t it?

When we were growing up and until 2010 when it was renamed, the archipelago was called the Queen Charlotte Islands. I remember images of giant, moss-draped cedars. Misty ocean inlets. Monumental totem poles. Impressive longhouses. All this splendour reflected in paintings by Emily Carr and poetry by Susan Musgrave, whose fame also included being married to the bank-robber/author Stephen Reid.

I’m just as glad the name Queen Charlotte Islands didn’t revert to what the Haida called their lands before the British arrived: Xhaaydla Gwaayaay. Imagine trying to pronounce that. Haida Gwaii, “Islands of the People,” feels like a Goldilocks name: just right.

So where did Gray Bay gates its name? Not the weather but from one who weathered it in 1789, sea merchant Captain Robert Gray, an America fur trader.

The Haida call Gray Bay Diinal GawGa. What does it mean in English? I emailed that question to the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program. A few weeks have gone by with no reply.

Is it “a long slow sandy curve,” the subtitle of an article written about Gray Bay?

Score ten if you can tell the rest of us the meaning of Diinal GawGa. And let’s hope it doesn’t mean “Gray Bay.”


Hudson, Andrew. “DiiNal GawGa A long slow sandy curve.” Go Haida Gwaii Magazine. Summer 2019.

Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (S.H.I.P.)

5 Responses

  1. Thanks for more stories about Haida Gwaii, appreciated! That’s too bad the invasive plants have crept in, even though they are lovely.
    The Dictionary of Alaskan Haida by Jordan Lachler was not too helpful for the translation of Diinal GawGa.
    Some partial similar spellings are “diin” (cave) and “gawdga” (thumping noise). Also “gawjaaw” is a drum. So, did you see any caves or hear thumping noises?

  2. No points for me, I have yet to see the islands off the west coast of BC, home of the Haida’s, or visit same.
    Tell me about your Clam shelter, is that a mosquito shelter, looks like a new addition for Rove In?
    Not very keen on the climate of Haida Gwaii, like the beach, gray is not my favorite color in nature, although like the coast that is all part of the big picture.
    Stephen Reid is almost a double take for me, had a close friend by that name so had to do some research to make sure it was not the same guy, the picture of him and some characteristics are strikingly similar, but alas not him.
    The solitude of your campsite and lack of fellow campers entices me further, my kind of campsite without a doubt, perfect.
    Interesting how logging trucks can actually protect sites like this by limiting access, an understanding of their ways and a 2 way radio with the proper channels can open up access to a lot of BC forests.
    Thanks for opening up Haida Gwaii, a place worthy of a future visit.

    Merry Christmas to everyone,🎄

    1. Our clamshell is multifunctional. At Gray bay it was a shower tent. At rainy camp spots it’s a dining room. And yes, it has served as a mosquito-free living space from time to time as well. Its ingenious origami-fold thrills us every time we use it.

      Good point on how the logging business has opened up access to wilderness camping.

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