My Quest for the Spirit of Haida Gwaii


In the early 1970s Magellan and I bought a print of Emily Carr’s “Haida Totems.” Its presence followed us through a succession of homes, creating an immanent longing to visit what was then called the Queen Charlotte Islands, now known as Haida Gwaii. Or Islands Emerging From (Supernatural) Concealment or The Islands on the Boundary between Worlds as the first inhabitants called it, where we spent twenty days this summer searching for the mystical spirit of place that Emily Carr captured. You know the feeling—a sense of wonder and gratitude so intense it lights an eternal touchstone onto your very soul?

I wondered if I’d find it looking at Bill Reid’s legendary totems at Skidegate Museum. Or if would come when we saw a bear cub breakfasting at Ikeda Bay. Or at Tow Hill bog where we discovered pools festooned with sunshine-yellow water lilies. Or when a Haida family from Prince George gifted us with crab at Agate Beach. As you’ll see, the spirit of Haida Gwaii revealed itself, unexpectedly, when I stopped searching.

Day 1

As the MV Northern Explorer ferry from Prince Rupert was docking in the fog-hung air at Skidegate, seven hours of emails downloaded. Neil, one of the best men at our wedding, died at 11:45 today. Appropriately, Misty Meadows was our campground.

Day 2

In his book Hideway, a little green cottage on the Tll.aal (Tlell) River to which he and his wife Alice returned for twenty-five years, James Houston hooks you to this rural area of Graham Island. “One of the most hauntingly beautiful places I’ve ever seen” is his description of the Pesuta, a barge shipwrecked in 1928 and beached near Cape Ball ever since.

Day 3

“I can’t speak for Jimmy but I wouldn’t walk through his yard,” said a young Haida as we looked longingly at the back of a totem weathered silvery grey fronting a cedar home, garage and carving studio in Old Masset. Jimmy, we discovered, is none other than Chief James Hart, a legendary award-winning Master Carver. “There’s a path back there that’ll take you to the beach for a good view,” the young man directed us. You know when you’re in the presence of great art. Old Masset has a hold on it. And on me.

Day 4

“I think he’s alive and living in the wilderness in Alaska,” said Dale, the volunteer at the Port Clements Museum when I asked him if he thought Grant Hadwin was dead. John Vaillant’s book, The Golden Spruce, subsequently made into a film of the same title, tells the gripping mystery of a sitka spruce tree and a man from West Vancouver—both flawed but legendary. Would I find the spirit of Haida Gwaii by following the trail to the tree’s place of birth and death?

Day 5

Meandering through a dense temperate forest, the Cape Fife Trail reminded us of hiking the Kumano Kodo in Japan. Cape Fife has more diversity of species but I longed to know about its hidden shrines and the Haida equivalent of Bashō’s haikus—what Haida translator Robert Bringhurst calls noetic prosody, poems made with idea patterns and imagery where sound is secondary.

Day 6

Driving North Beach is rightfully considered a highlight of a visit to Haida Gwaii. Rove-Inn loved the freedom of cruising on sand for fifteen kilometres with Hecate Strait on one side and Dixon Entrance on the other. We walked the last three kilometres to Rose Spit. My quest continues…

Day 7

“You’re not status are you?” Samantha asked when we went to pay for our campsite (with showers!) only metres away from the magnificent sixty-two foot red cedar monumental pole raised in June 2017 in honour of the ancestors of this ancient village, Hl’yaalan ‘Lngee (Hiellen Longhouse).

Day 8

Despite the logging roads and warnings to motorists, it was easy getting to our remote campsite at Conehead on Rennell Sound, only a few kilometres walk from the spectacular crescent-shaped Bonanza Beach, so warm you can skinny dip in the creek. (Yes, we did.) Leaving Conehead was another story you’ll hear one day.

Day 9

After taking the short ferry over to K’il Llnagaay (Sandspit) on Moresby Island, we hiked the Louise Dover Trail, where Haida oral history indicates the Kuuniisii people lived 20,000 years ago. Before you hike this trail, look for a future post here (or info somewhere) and know there are ropes, quasi ladders and poorly marked loops.

Day 10

Spiritual connections rarely occur on Gap Days when you’re doing laundry, having lunch (the halibut fish and chips at the Sandspit Inn transcended all others), buying dinner (the Super Valu was a super surprise; we bought a bottle of Tinhorn Creek 2012 Oldfields wine and pork butt steak, both for a reasonable price, and consumed them in Flavien’s communal kitchen at his Bayview B&B) and checking out the Visitors’ Centre (quality in every item). Lon Sharpe’s copper salmon sculpture came closest today.

Day 11

Today we met our shipmates and boarded the Ocean Light II, the seventy-one-foot-long vessel that’s home for the next week.  Captain Tom (the descendant of mariners, so accomplished for one so young). First Mate Jennifer (“Is there anything you can’t do?” I asked her). Cook Luise (culinary brilliance plus she dishes out Latin for plants, fish and sealife). Our fellow guests were Stewart, the oldest on board at eighty-four, and his wife Denise. Veda-with-the-broken arm and her mate, cello-playing George. George’s cousin Judy, a linguist from San Diego and her husband Jean-Paul, a Frenchman with a singular passion: “When is fishing, Tom?”

Gwaii Haanas is a triumvirate: a National Park Reserve of 138 islands, a National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and a Haida Heritage Site with a watchmen program at each ancient village during tourist season. Our first stop was Skedans where Camille, a sixteen-year-old watchman, guided us among the ruins. Emily Carr visited and painted this village, writing in her book Klee Wyck that “Some of the old mortuary poles were broken and you saw skulls peeping out through the cracks.”

Day 12

You’ve seen the video of jellyfish Magellan took, much of it while kayaking this morning in Anna Inlet, the day’s highlight if you don’t count  Shearwaters flying above humpback whales, Jean-Paul’s success at fishing (at least five lingcod and a yellow-eye or two) and Tom’s lost halibut for which Judy suggested she and Denise and Veda and I counsel him with music by starting a band. “We can call ourselves ‘The Mermaids,’” I suggested. “No, I think ‘The MerCrones’ is better,” Judy quipped.

We have no internet, no cellphones, no radio, no TV. And today my watch stopped.

Day 13

Because it’s the only place on Haida Gwaii where ancient mortuary poles are still standing, SGang Gwaay (what used to be called Ninstints) is where I expected to be overcome with the magic of these islands. You can see why from this photo and, at a later date, an entire blog about them.

“Tom, will you read us a bedtime story from The Raven Steals the Light?” Judy asked. I can still hear Tom’s voice:

The Raven, who of course existed at that time, because he had always existed and always would, was somewhat less than satisfied with this state of affairs, since it led to an awful lot of blundering around and bumping into things. It slowed him down a good deal in his pursuit of food and other fleshly pleasures, and in his constant effort to interfere and to change things.

Day 14

We’ve stopped asking Tom, “What are we going to do today?” A big day for me because I caught a magnum fish—an 18.4 pound lingcod! And a big yellow-eyed rockfish. Okay to be fair, I brought them up to the boat but Tom lifted them into the zodiac, pried their hooks, bonked them with a “good-night-Irene” knock on the head and, later that night, returned their bones to the sea. BTW, have I told you about Luise’s chocolate cheesecake?

Day 15

Leather stars. Bat stars. Ochre stars. Lewis Moon snails. Moon snail collars. Sea cucumbers. Sea urchins. Tidal pools at Burnaby Narrows won out as the best experience for me today over taking the waters at Hot Springs Cove.

These “kids” running the boat are so amazing. Polymaths. Today Jennifer, with only Jean-Paul’s assistance in the zodiac, hauled up the traps, heavy with multiple Dungeness crab, quite a feat as each trap, when empty, weighs thirty-five pounds. Still searching for that elusive feeling…

Day 16

It came to me at the breakfast table. “But wait a bit,’ the Oysters cried,/Before we have our chat;/For some of us are out of breath,/And all of us are fat,” I spouted. Veda and I have been trying to remember the words to “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” She got a verse a few days ago but since then we’ve been stuck, like the giant rock scallop we saw today attached to a rock wall in Bicshof Bay. It was keeping company with strawberry anenomes, northern abalone, turbin snails, Turkish towels, kelp crabs, chitons, goose barnacles…

”Imagine if Jean-Paul was keeping a diary of this trip,” George said after dinner. “Here’s what I think it would say.” His reading was frequently interrupted by “Non, George, Non” and much laughter from the rest of us.

Day 17

“What kind of skin is your drum made from?” Judy asked watchmen Tyler at Windy Bay as we gathered around the table at The Blinking Eye Longhouse to hear Tyler play a song he’d written.

“A Frenchman’s,” Tyler replied, pausing while Judy translated his answer to Jean-Paul.

His cohort, watchman Mary, equalled his comedic talent—and their storytelling was unsurpassed, making this my favourite Haida village experience. None of us wanted to leave.

After lunch, I went out to the aft deck to escape the wind and write in my dairy. All of a sudden, a wave of emotion overtook me. Jennifer, as she quietly left, may have noticed me lifting my sunglasses to wipe away the tears. The spirit of Haida Gwaii is right here. A steady current of positive energy flowing among us on this small boat, facilitated by the generosity of the trio of Tom, Jennifer and Luise making us feel welcome, safe and special as we explore Gwaii Haanas. Creating a feeling of openness to the world, joy in its natural wonder, gratitude for life in the moment.

Day 18

Our last day on the boat. Yesterday when we asked Tyler how to say goodbye in Haida, he said “There’s really no phrase for that. We just say ‘see you again soon.’” We selected Gray Bay, site #10, a half-hour’s drive from Sandspit: a contender for the best camp spot we’ve ever had.

Day 19

Before our reunion dinner with the three other couples from Ocean Light II, Magellan and I returned to the Tlell River, hiking Anvil Trail to see a forest of new, secondary and old growth.

Day 20

As we nudged Rove-Inn onto the MV Northern Explorer ferry back to Prince Rupert, our circle of time exploring Haida Gwaii—the ancient and the new, in sea and on land, the myth and the reality, the living and the dead—is complete. Though not over.  As Emily Carr wrote, there’s something bigger here: “the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wildness.” For remembering and exploring, from afar and from within.


The Bayview Garden B&B affords a great opportunity to meet other travellers and Flavien, the owner, is accommodating and informative. 

Bringhurst, Robert. The Raven Steals The Light. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1996. Delightful, especially read aloud. Bringhurst studied linguistics under Noam Chomsky in the 1960s and has professionally translated Greek and Arabic. His interest in the Haida sculptor Bill Reid, who crafted the illustrations fo ratios book, led to his translating of Haida texts.

Herr’s a bit of info on the Cape Fife Trail.

Carr, Emily. Klee Wyck. Toronto: Oxford University Press. 1941. Not just a painter, Emily Carr actually felt her words did a better job  than her art at expressing her feelings.

Davies, Simon, Editor. “This is Haida Gwaii.” BC: Council of the Haida Nation. Summer 2018, Winter 2017/2018. Excellent and free source of good info.

Here’s some info on the Golden Spruce Trail.

“Haida Gwaii.” BC: Haida Gwaii Observer, 2018. A free brochure worth looking for, as well as the weekly newspaper, which is also free.

Hiellen Longhouse Village has cabins and campsites for rent.

Horwood, Dennis. Haida Gwaii. Toronto; Heritage House Publishing Company, Inc., 2016. An excellent all-round guide.

Houston, James. Hideaway. Canada: Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1999. A love story to the Tlell cabin he and Alice bought, salmon fishing on the Tell River, Haida Gwaii and those who visited them from near and afar.

MacDonald, George. Haida Monumental Art. Vancouver, UBC Press, 1983. The authoritative guide.

MacDonald, George. Ninstints: Haida World Heritage Site. Vancouver, UBC Press, 1983. Ditto.

Mercer, Rick. Rick Mercer Visits the Edge of the World on Hand Gwaii Parts I & II, in which watchman Mary plays a part.

The Moon over Naikoon Bakery had me swooning over their butter tarts and cinnamon buns.

Musgrave, Susan. A Taste of Haida Gwaii. Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 2015. Luise served us the sea asparagus we picked and explained how to make it taste good, raw or cooked. Susan has recipes for sea asparagus and all sorts of wild food you can forage for at the edge the world. I want to try her wild rose ice cream.

And you’ll definitely hear more from us about Ocean Light II, the way for jubilados (or anyone) to see Gwaii Haanas.

We highly recommend a visit to the Port Clements Museum. Ask the volunteer to show you the fifteen-minute clip on logging in the past.

Stewart, Hilary. Cedar, Tree of Life to the Northwest Coast Indians. Seattle: Douglas & McIntyre; Seattle : University of Washington Press, 1984. Very informative with excellent illustrations.

Stewart, Hilary. Looking at Totem Poles. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1993. An in-depth “how-to” book.

Vaillant, John. The Golden Spruce. Toronto, Vintage Canada, 2005. A national bestseller and award-winning book the NY Times called “absolutely spellbinding.” It is.

10 Responses

  1. Pictures and words beautifully recapture the magic and the adventures of The Ocean Light II and Haida Gwaii. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Wow! Beautifully written and amazing pics. Thanks for sharing. On my bucket list for sure.

    1. You four would love it and could make it easier by driving the Yellowhead to Prince Rupert and taking your motorhome across Hecate Strait to Skidegate, where, oddly enough, #16 Highway continues.

  3. A trip worthy of any bucket list.

    Not easy to get to but seldom are natures treasures easily attained.

    A sojourn to tranquility, in spades.

    My sincere Thanks for sharing.

    1. Yes, as Susan Musgrave writes, Haida Gwaii is equidistant from Machu Picchu, Timbuktu and the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. Three ferries from Vancouver was our route so just getting there took us four days.

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