An aerial view of Haida Gwaii's Great Bear Rainforest (photo: National Geographic Creative/Alamy)

Next Stop: Haida Gwaii

By Sheila Hansen

I’m surrounded by eagles, ravens, bears and frogs. The carved painted figures stare at me from a collection of totem poles facing out to sea. Though the grey sky has let loose a light rain, I hardly notice as I gaze back at these silent-but-storied residents of the Haida Heritage Centre.

It’s day five of my motorcoach trip to Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) in the remote northwest corner of British Columbia. Ever since National Geographic Traveler named Haida Gwaii one of the world’s top 20 trips for 2015, I’ve been eager to push off for this lush archipelago of more than 150 islands, some 100 kilometres from the mainland.

It’s also interesting to note that Haida Gwaii, though one-third the size of Vancouver Island, has been dubbed the Galapagos of the North. Indeed, the world’s largest subspecies of black bear, as well as a subspecies of Steller’s jay, make their homes here. Then there’s the powerful Haida First Nation: Its peoples’ centuries-old love and respect for this naturally bountiful land has spurred them into peacefully—and successfully—protesting clear-cut logging over the years.

But theirs is a turbulent history, as our tour group is learning this drizzly afternoon at the Haida Heritage Centre in the village of Skidegate. One of the centre’s young Haida guides, Brandon, tells us that before European contact in the late 1700s, these islands were home to an estimated 20,000 Haida. They lived off the abundant land and sea; their unique culture and trade thrived.

Fast-forward to the late 19th century, by which time foreign diseases like small pox had decimated the population. The 600 remaining community members settled in Skidegate and Old Massett. Now the Haida make up more than one-third of today’s 5,000 islanders. And thankfully their legacy lives on—Haida Gwaii was a must-see during Prince William and Kate’s royal visit last year.

Brandon takes us past the centre’s six outdoor poles, raised over six days in 2001. Representing the six southernmost villages in Haida Gwaii, their figures carry deep meaning. Human legs protruding from a bear’s mouth, for example, demonstrate the close connection between two beings. “When artist Tim Boyko was carving this pole, visitors would ask him what the grizzly bear was eating,” says Brandon. “He would say, ‘tourists.’ He got quite a chuckle out of that each time!”

Haida Gwaii British Columbia Ksan Longhouse
A colourful longhouse at ‘Ksan Historical Village (photo: Image Broker/Alamy)

Haida Gwaii is the shining star of my journey, but getting here has been half the adventure. A newbie to coach travel, I admittedly had my doubts when I signed up for this bucket-list excursion. Sure, I was super stoked to explore the communities and cultural attractions promised by the trip, but could I really spend 10 days on the road with the same group of people in a confined space?

Flying up from Vancouver to Prince George on day one, I join the tour group that had just rolled in from the prairies on a brand new bus. As we drive 575 kilometres west along Highway 16 from Prince George to Terrace, time passes quickly as our affable guide, Sandi Gebert, enlightens her 38 passengers with local trivia. When we stop for lunch in Smithers, she informs us that the movie Eight Below, a sled-dog flick starring the late Paul Walker, was shot on Hudson Bay Mountain in the near distance (later, we’ll watch the movie on the bus).

That afternoon, we tour the ’Ksan Historical Village and Museum in Hazelton. Each art-adorned building in this replica settlement represents a clan of the Gitxsan First Nation, who’ve lived for centuries along the Skeena River.

Inside the Frog House, for instance, we hear about the many aboriginal uses for cedar, from hats and masks to bentwood boxes and rope. After dinner at our hotel in Terrace, a few of us end our day with a stroll along the grass-lined Grand Trunk Pathway, which runs partially parallel to the historic rail line through town.

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As we set out the next day, I come to a realization: The stories on the bus are equally as captivating as the sights off the bus. That’s largely due to Sandi, who rotates our seats daily to ensure we chat with different neighbours throughout the trip. En route to Prince Rupert, I find myself sitting across from Anne and John of Saskatoon. On a 2004 coach tour, the couple eloped to Tennessee, where they exchanged vows in a hillside chapel. “Two thirds of the people on the bus showed up at our wedding,” says a beaming Anne, adding that the driver stood in as best man and the tour guide pulled double duty as bridesmaid and hairdresser.

Veering off the highway, we stop at the North Pacific Cannery in Port Edward. Opened in 1889, this once-bustling salmon plant hummed with First Nations, Chinese, Japanese and European workers. A National Historic Site today, its now-quiet boardwalks, cavernous loft for nets, and sparse workers’ quarters take us back to a time of hard labour, class differences and industrial growth.

Just 24 kilometres later, we check into our Prince Rupert hotel and set off to explore this port city of 12,000 residents. I make tracks to quaint Cow Bay and its boardwalk-linked restaurants and shops. After perusing coastal art at the Ice House Gallery, I join Sandi, our steady-as-you-go driver Ted and fellow passenger Eric on the expansive patio at Breakers Pub. Basking in the sun-kissed views of the lively marina, I savour a cold brew and what might be the biggest burger I’ve ever seen.

Haida Gwaii Breakers Pub
The seaside Breakers Pub (photo: Sheila Hansen)

The following day, I feel transported to another world and time—maybe due to the moody skies, our seven-hour ferry ride across restless Hecate Strait or the realization we’d just arrived at our country’s westernmost outpost. Not that we hadn’t been reminded of where we were and what day it was, with Sandi rising extra early to festoon the bus with loads of festive red and white Canada Day balloons.

As we revel in the majesty of Haida Gwaii, we can’t help but fall under its spell. Thick berry bushes and fairy tale-like green islets line the way to the village of Queen Charlotte on Graham Island, our home base for the next four nights. Bald eagles and red-tailed hawks soar overhead. Even the ’70s-era Sea Raven Motel, with its courtyard dotted with containers of red, yellow and orange nasturtiums, emanates vintage charm.

West Coast destinations like Victoria, Tofino and Alaska can satisfy any travel itch. Or head to the interior—Saskatchewan’s Lac La Ronge—for pristine wilderness and First Nations culture.  

A local guide joins us on the bus for our last two days on Haida Gwaii, as we make our way to the far northeast reaches of Graham Island. “It’s a strange place, these islands,” begins Marla Abbott. “Lots of misfits, lots of loners, some with PhDs who spend their time gardening.” She tells us about U.S. draft dodger Gerry Hawke who let bears live in his house in the 1990s, and Canadian poet and writer Susan Musgrave who owns a funky B&B in the north-island community of Masset.

Nearing the tip of Naikoon Provincial Park, our motorcoach squeezes past thick stands of spruce and cedar. We walk through mist-laden forests of mossy stumps resembling giant mushrooms on our way to Agate Beach and its namesake bright rocks. An easy 2.2-kilometre-loop hike takes us to the top of Tow Hill and its fetching views of the sandy shoreline, deep-green forests and open ocean below. “You’re now closer to Alaska than you are to the B.C. mainland,” Marla says.

After a picnic lunch of local-salmon sandwiches at the trailhead, we take a detour to the Masset Cemetery. Overgrown with moss, ferns and shrubs, the undulating graveyard is scattered with gently decaying picket fences and tilting tombstones. Our group gladly wanders about this delightfully eerie resting place.

Just to the north, contemporary totem poles and carved argillite figures compete for our attention in the community of Old Massett. Argillite is a black slate that’s only found on Haida Gwaii—and only the Haida are permitted to extract it. On the Golden Spruce Trail near the forestry town of Port Clements, we ponder why logger-turned-activist Grant Hadwin felled the famous 300-year-old tree in 1997. And at Balance Rock near Skidegate, we take turns trying to push the solidly perched whale-sized boulder, formed here thousands of years ago. Alas, this popular natural attraction’s centre of gravity remains firmly aligned with the rocky beach below.

Haida Gwaii Balance Rock Skidegate
Tipping Balance Rock is tougher than it looks (photo: John Elk III/Alamy)

A traditional Haida feast of clam fritters, octopus balls, smoked salmon and herring roe on kelp caps off our trip to this mystical, mysterious land. Though dessert is decidedly non-traditional banana cream pie, the real cherry on top is the connections we’ve made along the way.

Last night, my new friend Fred from Roblin, Manitoba, knocked on my door to share salmonberries he’d just picked in the forest behind the motel. Tonight, Anne hollers from her balcony perch below, “Hey, Sheila, are you going to join us for a night cap?” Yes, we’re like family now. And we’ll happily sip and chat until the motel’s 10 p.m. quiet time.

We’ve got a long haul back to the mainland and home, but we’ve been down that road before—literally! So, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on the culture, cuisine and curiosities we’ve seen on our journey through Haida Gwaii.

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