Sailing Haida Gwaii

Explore a British Columbia archipelago aboard a sleek new expedition yacht

BY JILL ROBINSON — Fall 2019

ncient carved monumental poles stand askew in an emerald kingdom ruled by cedar, moss, and spruce. Old ceiling timbers guard long-abandoned earthen pits large enough to host an entire Haida village. Rust-colored rufous hummingbirds careen around a feeder that crowns an eagle carving just as a bald eagle flies overhead. Dressed in the red vest of the Haida Watchmen, Gidin Jaad (“Eagle Woman”) walks through what’s left of the village of her ancestors and tells tales of her grandparents.

“My chinaay [grandfather] always said that nobody owns this land,” she says, recalling the words of the hereditary chief of K’uuna Llnagaay. “We’re here to take care of it.” She walks silently along the clamshell-lined paths through the remains of a village where 700 to 750 Haida people thrived before the late 19th century.

Haida Gwaii is home to the Haida, one of the most culturally rich and developed groups of people to inhabit early North America. Each home in the ancient villages scattered throughout the island region would have had a beautifully carved cedar pole depicting birds, fish, animals, insects, plants, humans, and shapeshifting fantastical creatures — all meant to inform visitors of the clan that lived inside. Now, the only house frontal pole left in K’uuna Llnagaay lies on the ground, slowly being reclaimed by the earth.

At Sea, With Beauty All Around

This remote archipelago in Canada’s north coastal region of British Columbia is best traveled by boat. To be immersed in the ancient lands that reveal infinite years of Haida history, I’m on a nine-day cruise aboard Bluewater Adventures’ new Island Solitude into the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. The 82-foot yacht was designed specifically for expedition travel, and its guests voyage in comfort while exploring these isolated islands. 

Our crew includes a skipper, mate, chef, and naturalist — all with deep knowledge of this region and people. The onboard library has enough books to fill in any gaps. Three delicious meals (and a snack) each day aren’t only healthy, but also gourmet quality, ranging from shakshuka and sausage for breakfast to maple-ginger salmon with butternut squash and sea asparagus for dinner.

The Haida name for the southern islands of the archipelago is Gwaii Haanas — islands of beauty. As we sail among the rugged landscape blanketed by coastal rain forest and low clouds, it’s clear the wild majesty of this region stands alone. The islands’ ecology developed in isolation from the rest of the province, and the landscape nurtures an extensive population of plants and animals that exist nowhere else on Earth, leading the archipelago to often be called Canada’s Galápagos.

Village-Hopping

Among the villages, our voyage takes us to K’uuna Llnagaay (Skedans), Cumshewa, T’annu Llnagaay (Tanu), Hlk’yah GawGa (Windy Bay), and SGang Gwaay (Ninstints/Anthony Island) — containing the remains of the great long houses and the best remaining examples of original totem poles in the world. Wandering through the ancient sites gives a measure of what remains, but it’s also a reminder of how much is already gone. Instead of preserving the poles and house pits, the Haida people acknowledge that they came from nature, and to nature they will eventually return.

Our journey winds among the eastern and southern shores of Moresby Island, and into coves and secluded bays via inflatable zodiacs. We wander along beaches that have seen no other human footprints this year and hike in lush, moss-carpeted cedar forests with a soundtrack of wind and birdsong, punctuated by the low, gurgling croaks of ravens. 

We kayak over a kaleidoscope of bat stars and nudibranchs in the shallows in some of the same places that we also spy ancient fish weirs left from Haida fishermen. Aboard Island Solitude, we crowd the decks to watch humpback whales feed on zooplankton and herring, Risso’s dolphins patrol along the coastline, and Steller sea lions loiter in noisy rookeries.

One windy night, we’re awakened just past midnight to see 2-day-old ancient murrelet chicks race to the sea from their island burrows to meet up with their parents. I’m thankful to be here, among the rhythm of nature and Haida legacy, willing to head out into nearly any weather condition to let the experience soak into my skin. When the tiny murrelet peeps finally disappear into the wind, I return to my cabin and curl up under the warm duvet, resting up for the next adventure.

Details: From $6,170 per person. 888-877-1770; bluewateradventures.ca

British Columbia by Luxury Train

We reported in our last issue that Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer rail-tour company was upping its luxury game by adding four more of its GoldLeaf Service cars this year, increasing its luxury fleet to 23. Plus, another three more go into service in 2020. Wondering what makes these bilevel cars so special, we hopped aboard one on a two-day scenic tour from Vancouver to Banff. Four things you’re sure to like if you go for a ride …

1. Ubercomfortable composite leather seats that recline, have adjustable footrests, and can be heated to high, medium, or low by simply adjusting a switch on each individual armrest. Nice.

2. Oversize, glass dome windows that curve and sweep up overhead, meaning unobstructed views of the spectacular mountainous scenery along the route. A dimmable function like you find on luxury yachts and business jets decreases the intensity of incoming sunlight.

3. White-cloth dining area for breakfast and lunch with tasty offerings such as B.C. Sockeye Salmon. The cozy quarters leads to lively conversations with dining companions you may just have met — and don’t be surprised if they’re not from Canada or the U.S. 

4. Friendly, attentive service throughout the day, including complimentary juices, sodas, beer, cocktails, and snacks delivered to your seat. The service creates a relaxed atmosphere that encourages camaraderie among the
72 passengers each car holds. — DON NICHOLS

Details: From $1,915. 877-460-3200; rockymountaineer.com

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