An oceanfront campsite in a provincial park on a July long weekend; perfect right? Not with the winds at Agate Beach Campground in Naikoon Park on Haida Gwaii. Magellan and I headed inland in the park, to Hiellen Longhouse Village, a dream the Old Massett Village Council realized in 2015.
We were lucky. Because the ferry to Prince Rupert had a mechanical problem, guests who had prebooked all the tent pads were delayed so there was space for us. We chose camp #6 for a few nights. Only one other spot was in use and only one of the cabins was booked by parents hosting a birthday party for their eight-year-old daughter and two of her friends.
Hiellen, a spectacular location on the bank of the river with the same name, is the former site of one of the largest Haida villages. It’s protected from the westerlies by Tow Hill (the remnant of a volcanic cone), near an ecological reserve and stunning beaches. Plus it’s home to a magnificent new totem, a contemporary interpretation of one that stood at Hiellen from the early 1800s until 1945.
The 18.9-metre totem was created through a Haida mentorship program in which young men and women, eight apprentices and three journeymen, worked under the direction of master carvers Jim Hart and Christian White. “It was an unforgettable, joyous, and emotional day for everyone to watch the first totem raised in this area in almost 200 years,” Christian White told the press and 1,300 guests gathered for the raising ceremony on June 21, 2017. For us, it was a joy to wake up to this towering work of art and try to interpret its story from the description in a back issue of Haida Nation magazine.
Hiellen was occupied until 1860 when escalating warfare between the Haida and Nisga’a caused residents to abandon the village for Old Massett. From 1923 to 1931 the site housed a cannery for processing razor clams. When that closed, it became a campground for decades. In 2012, the Old Masset Village Council, who co-manage the provincial park, secured $1.2 million in funding to build Hiellen Longhouse Village.
Apprentice programs were set up to train young carpenters, cabinet makers and millers to help build the seven longhouse-style cabins, traditional-style Haida longhouse (large enough for weddings, reunions, retreats and training), central bathroom (hot showers for us!), powerhouse and camping pads.
They used local cedar, hemlock and spruce processed at the community-owned mill. The modest cabins include a queen bed and single-bunk (with sleeping bags and pillows for rent), a wood-burning fireplace, three-piece bathroom and barbeque. There are no TVs, phones or cell service, although you easily get a connection on the Tow Hill boardwalk. All profits to go to the Old Massett Village Council to create employment opportunities in tourism on Haida Gwaii.
When we were there, the cabins rented for $165 a night. “They started out when they were new at $75 a night but with the cleaning and all the other costs, it wasn’t working out,” Samantha, a young woman working there, told us. After two operating seasons, Hiellen Longhouse Village was about 80 percent booked and almost breaking even. Haida Gwaii families, about half of whom are indigenous, made up more than two-thirds of the business. However, the Hiellen site now indicates they have turned off their water, and they’re not accepting bookings. “We are closed until further notice for maintenance and upgrades. We want our guests to be completely comfortable while staying at Hiellen Village Longhouses,” was their response to my query.
Covid-19 and its multiple variants have been tough on Haiida Gwaii tourism. Last year, another mechanical problem on BC Ferries reduced its frequency to only three trips to Haida Gwaii a week. The same thing happened earlier this year. The Haida Nation is asking visitors to be fully vaccinated before arriving, sign a pledge, watch an orientation video and donate to the Haida Gwaii Stewardship Fund. For such an extraordinary experience, it’s worth it.
“Old Massett Village Council: Transforming a Haida Village Site.” Coast Funds. August 2, 2017.
Richard, Graham. “Raising a GyaaGang.” Council of the Haida Nation.