There was a sort of inevitability to me travelling to Haida Gwaii. It was the first significant detour of the trip so far and I actually ended up spending more time here than any other place since leaving Anchorage in June.
My arrival in Haida Gwaii was charged by an unwavering anticipation for a few weeks prior. Brandon and Cara, who I met as Alaska’s towering Wrangell Range stood proudly beside us in the midday sun, planted the first seed.
“You wanna go surfing? You should go to Haida Gwaii, man.”
“Haida Gwaii. It’s an incredible place, and there’s waves up on the northern coast.”
Janet, a lady I crossed paths with in Tok, Alaska had more advice:
“You’ve got to go to the bakery in the back of the bus. The lady’s been in business for sixteen years and she makes the best bread on the island.”
My decision was cemented in Whitehorse, as I chatted to the girl who worked in the bike shop:
“Hands down, Haida Gwaii is the best place I’ve ever been.”
It seemed my fate was sealed.
As I jumped on and off the Alaska Marine Highway’s public ferry system, weaving in and out of Southeast Alaska’s island chain, I slowly learn more about the original inhabitants of Haida Gwaii. The Haida people (Haida Gwaii literally translates to islands of the Haida people) are believed to have inhabited the archipelago as far back as 13,000 years. They displayed a collective resistance to European encroachment through remarkable resilience and were able to ensure their culture and traditions survived the onslaught of colonial oppression. Haida Gwaii became part of the maritime fur trade, which brought sea otters to the verge of extinction — their population is still in the process of rebuilding. The Haida people, Americans and the British were all involved in the trade and exchange of pelts during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
As the sea otter were being exploited to unsustainable levels, the line of sight of European endeavour eventually panned towards the land and the old growth forests that flourished on the islands of Haida Gwaii. The cool temperate rainforests were littered with giant red and yellow cedars, towering hemlocks and enormous Sitka spruce. It may not have been the most biodiverse region on the planet, but what it lacked in diversity it surely made up for in biomass.
Today Graham Island is a shadow of its former self. While much of the southern half of Haida Gwaii has not been subject to decimation by clearfell, Graham Island was quickly decimated by improved logging technologies and the ravenous demand for timber. As I rode north from Queen Charlotte City, it was hard to find forest that was any older than a hundred years or so, at my best guess.
I believe clearfell lots are something everyone should see. In the modern Western world, we are extremely good at hiding the consequences of our lifestyles from public view. For all we consume, a great number of us may never see the harsh side effects our mother earth is dealt. The sheer volume of wasted timber — of thousands of years of untold wisdom stored in those huge tree trunks — is a sight to behold. Time is money, and it seems as though scrap timber , however old or valuable, isn’t worth our time.
Grant Hadwin took the greed of the logging industry to heart, and eventually it drove him to commit an irreversible act. A forester himself, Hadwin gained a wealth of experience in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. As with anyone who spends substantial amounts of time in a certain environment, he also developed a strong affection to the cool temperate rainforests of Haida Gwaii. Hadwin’s pleas for the industry to change its ways and take more responsibility for the long term health of the forest fell on deaf ears. He felt he needed to make a bold statement, but the despair that led him to commit a particular act had far-reaching consequences.
Kiidk’yaas was the subject of a generations old story that had been passed down orally by the Haida people. It centred on a boy who disrespected nature, and by doing so subjected his entire village to the might of a powerful storm. The boy and his grandfather were the only survivors, and when the boy disobeyed his grandfather, sneaking a look back at the village as they fled, he was suddenly transformed into a giant Sitka spruce that glowed in contrast to the dark green hues of surrounding trees, its tips all coloured golden.
In 1997, a seemingly deluded Hadwin made a series of cuts in the golden spruce that sealed its fate. Two days later the tree fell. In my efforts to understand the effects of this act, I tried to imagine the reaction of Catholics if the Vatican was burnt to the ground. Or of Muslims if Mecca was bombed. Hadwin’s act had destroyed an incredibly sacred tree, and I’m pretty sure there’s many on Haida Gwaii who will never forgive the man. Hadwin disappeared after leaving Prince Rupert on a kayak in the middle of winter, with the intention of crossing the treacherous Hecate Strait to appear in a local court he had been summoned to. Some suspected foul play, while others reason that anyone wishing to cross that body of water in winter has undesirable odds placed on their survival. The remnants of Hadwin’s kayak and some of his belongings were found a few months later on Mary Island , a few hundred kilometres north. His body was never found.
I finished reading The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant not long before three metre swells started to pound into the port side of our ferry. The vessel rocked and rolled and the smell of stomach acid and bile hung in the air. I took the time to look around and was unsurprised to see plenty of ghost-white faces. The Hecate Strait can turn a little bit of southerly wind into serious windswell in a short time, owing to shallow depths of what was once an alpine boulder field — the scree was covered as sea levels rose after the last ice age.
I stepped off the boat in Skidegate and did my best to adjust my sea legs back to solid ground. As I cycled into Charlotte the road was lined with thimbleberries and salmon berries, so it took me over an hour to ride under ten kilometres.
My compulsion to move north was undeniable — the lure of waves meant that I found myself riding further than expected in order to quell the uncertainty. As it turned out, it was flat. The anticipation subsided and although I swam in saltwater for the first time since leaving Australian shores, I found myself wondering what to do next. I didn’t have to wait long.
After chatting to a fellow cycle tourist, I had a brainwave. Unsure of how long I wanted to be on Haida Gwaii, I figured I could save a few pennies by trying my luck scoring a stowaway spot on a fishing vessel heading south to Vancouver Island.
I wandered down to the marina in Masset where I met Stan and Tom. After chewing the cud for the better part of an hour the boys steered me in the direction of my best chance at a ride, sending me on my way with some canned salmon for lunch. Eventually I discovered that I’d have to wait until the end of the week, when the bigger boats returned after the culmination of the fishing season in the waters surrounding Haida Gwaii.
As fate would have it I met the captain of the Pearl Sea. After a few quick questions and a bit of logistics, Tom got down to business:
“Basically, we just like sitting around and drinking lots of coffee and watching the world go by. Are you happy to do that?”
I felt the question wasn’t worth responding to. The expression on my face probably sufficed.
My past week has been filled with picking berries — wild blueberries, huckleberries, currants, raspberries and more thimble berries. I was lucky enough to score a free cabin in return for a few hours work a day, and I’ve been treated to mouth-watering home cooked food sourced almost entirely from the property.
Kaz and Harmonie have been overly generous and have allowed me the opportunity to see parts of the island I would have never found on my own. Georgia and Tedesi were generous enough to cook me some killer meals and shared stories of Canada, tree planting and Tedesi’s impressive Australian accent. I listened intently as Katherine described her exploits jumping freight trains for six or seven years. I danced all night at a party in the bush and toasted marshmellows in the campfire with the crew: Sequoia, Charles, Yousef, Lula and Bilal. I watched old Valdy play at the Tlell Fall Fair (the earliest fall fair in Canada!), even singing a song about bicycles. I’ve played witness to the undeniable beauty of a very special place. And now it’s time to move again.
I had a good feeling about Haida Gwaii that came from the place I trust the most — my gut. And it didn’t disappoint. I expect this journey to be filled with places that, no matter how much time is spent there, will always feel like the departure is premature. Haida Gwaii is one of those places.
St Mary's spring isn't an obvious place to stop. A small pool no bigger than a kitchen sink is lined with rocks on the side of the road opposite a rocky beach. I'd missed it on my ride North ten days earlier. I'd since learned the local legend: if you drink from St Mary's spring, you will return to Haida Gwaii. I was due to leave and still hadn't sipped the glorious water that would alter my fate.
The boat couldn't leave, weather held us in port. I knew what had to be done. I cupped some water in my hands, as it slowly dripped through the gaps between my fingers. I closed my eyes, slowly letting the water trickle down my throat. I'll be back some day,