Subject: Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii BC (long)
Feb 18, 2005, Day 1

This will be our first trip to the latitudinal centre on the west coast of BC.

Bruce and I took a plane trip from Vancouver, BC to Sandspit Airport today. We lucked out as the weather was clear and the ride smooth. The plane was half full and the stewardess invited us to spread out so we each got our own window seat. Sadly, we forgot our digital camera in our checked baggage. The most amazing thing about this trip was flying the entire length of Vancouver Island and were able to watch as familiar cities on the east coast slid past underneath us. From the air, we could also see the crashing waves off the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island as well as the large swells that created them. The population is very much clustered on the lowlands on the leeward side of the Island. Snow peaked mountains and even glaciers spread out beneath us. The tall cragged peaks looked like the rockies in the winter time!

We flew for a time over the open ocean before landing on the very north tip of a sand spit that gave Sandspit its name. From there, we took an airport shuttle to the ferry and then on to our motel. In a bit of a panic the day before, we had read on a ferry brochure that we should make reservations for the ferry, but for the life of us, could not get a number for the airport, ferry or shuttle for more information (without internet access). We had to trust our luck that in the dead of winter there would be little demand. We were wrong, but still lucky as they had 3 extra seats, 2 of which we took.

The landscape was very dramatic, very similar to Vancouver Island, with mountains raising from the water and erosion-carved rocks and geological formations. Of course, this should have been no surprise as according to one geological theory, Vancouver Island, Queen Charlottes and part of the panhandle of Alaska originated from the same piece of land at the equator 200 million years ago or so. After a 20 minute drive to the ferry along the northern coast and a 20 minute ferry ride through a few smaller islands, we arrive in Skidegate and our shuttle driver pointed out an active eagle nest in a large deciduous tree over the road. We noticed other bald eagles perched on carved totem poles, on the beach and flying overhead. It seems the eagles have such a high density here that the great blue herons do not nest in colonies (as in most other regions) in order to reduce the impact eagles have on taking their chicks.

The motel itself (Hecate Inn) was very clean and nice, with a full kitchen and even provided gas barbeques for cooking crabs, fish and steak to keep the rooms smelling fresh. As I have feather/down allergies, we requested the down comforters and pillow be replaced. We found out when we got there that they didn't have two matching sets so went out and bought new ones just for us!

We discovered a grocery store 2 blocks from the motel and walked to it before they closed at 6pm. Prices were much better than we had been warned. Some items such as milk, cheese and ceral was 1.5 to 2 times that we paid at home, while others, such as vegetables and bread were the same or cheaper. Selection seemed abit on the skimpy side, but we discovered later, delivery was on mondays and we had arrived friday night. The produce department seemed to have a narrow selection, but that bulked up on monday as well. Lots of canned goods though.

The town of Queen Charlotte City (population 350) where we stayed was essentially a series of houses spread along a beach road. The houses varied in quality with a tiny old home right next to a newly built larger home. Many homes and businesses had metals roofs, I suppose due to the high amount of rain and wind they receive. It's a pretty exposed place to live year round. A pretty exciting first day!

Day 2 I was picked up in the morning and headed into Skidegate to teach a workshop for the day while Bruce hung out. He was not feeling well and so layed low, watching cable, reading and sleeping most of the day.

I had a classroom full of Elders and Watchmen who protect the 5 Haida Gwaii Heritage Sites and educate the public about their heritage each summer. These staff are of local First Nations (Haida) decent, many having relatives who formerly lived at the now historic village sites.

My task for the two days was to enhance their skills on communicating their knowledge about the sites using cultural interpretive methods. They seemd to enjoy and get much from what ideas I shared, and also gave me a better understanding of the challenges they faced when working with international visitors coming to learn about the history of their culture. Wow! Communication can be challenging when people are from differing cultures and when people judge other cultures based on their own framework. This is a good lesson to be open-minded when travelling! For example, part of the tradition of the world-famous poles is to leave them stand until they fall, and disappear back into the forest where where they came. This is seen to honor the people they were orignally carved for. Quite commonly, they will have visitors who are really upset about this practice and don't understand why they shouldn't be preserved for the future.

At lunch, I took a leisurely walk down the cobble beach and saw more eagles, as well as a selection of other birds such as black brant geese, and flocks of shorebirds, herons, Harlequin ducks, bufflehead and common and Pacific loons in winter plumage. The shorebirds and waterbirds are already on their trip north for the breeding season.

Bruce had supper waiting when I arrived (what a sweetie!) and we took a walk later to explore the other end of town. What we discovered was that the air was quite smoky. This is due to the reliance on woodstoves for heat. The ocean winds often topple power lines and power interuptions are quite common. The smoke hung clung to the valleys of the town at night. In the daytime, the winds carried the smoke away.

Day 3 I headed out for another day of teaching. This was very rewarding as I end with a sharing session and everyone can share something new they learned and what they found to be challenging. It's always enlightening to hear other's perspectives on a common experience. Just goes to show that we each interpret what happens to us based on our own life experience. Today it was cooler so I stayed indoors at lunch and did some paperwork.

Day 4 The woman who coordinated the training had offered to take out out to do some sightseeing for the day. She was new to the region, but was able to share some basics with us, and provided us with several local guide books and maps that answered most of the questions she couldn't. We discovered that gasoline was about 10 cents per litre more than at home, not bad considering the distance and transportation costs that must be covered to get it here.

Our first stop was at the local First Nations Haida Gwaii museum. There were large new (totem) poles erected on the site which were created in a manner similar to the 150 year old ones found at some of the more remote sites. The foundation had been laid for several new museums being built in the style of the longhouses that the Native people lived in. The existing museum was closed except for the giftshop (due to storage and moving issues) so we poked around abit in there, talking to the curator. There were many native carvings, cedar baskets etc on sale, some great books on the topic and we got to see several legendary argilite (black stone) carvings. We did eventually get to see part of the museum as we were asking questions that defied simple explanation and it was easier to show us one of the artifacts on display.

Our second stop was at a beach that looked back towards the airport where we had arrived. At this stop, there was a unique rock that looked like it had been carefully balanced unpside down. Turns out it was a glacial erratic, which means it was deposited here after the last ice age and had been sitting there for the last 10,000 years or so. Story goes that at the turn of the 19th century some local decided he wanted to tip it over to prove he could. He tried everything including pulling with a team of horses. When he brought out the dynamite, the other local stopped him. It was interesting to note that we found a deer skull on the beach, which apparently, was a common finding. Some local hunters discard the carcasses after removing the meat and they are cleaned up quickly by the eagles and other smaller scavengers. It is a pain for dog owners who have to be constantly on guard that their dog doesn't choke or get into some bad meat. We also found several road kill in ditches along the way-noticed because of the eagles that flew up from them when vehicles passed.

We then drove up to a popular provincial park call Naikoon Provincial Park. It is unique in its combination of thick growth of spruce trees with smaller hemlock seedlings below, a river estuary that was the color of tea (due to the spaghnum that it absorbs water from) and a long sandy beach with dunes. From what we could see, the forest was actually growing on old dunes, although we could find no interpretive signs or information to confirm our theory. The trail was about 2 km each way to the cut off, although we could have walked out to the point, another 2 km or so. We were able to return via the lower trail that followed the river. Here we saw many tracks of raccoon and black-tail deer, both introduced pests on the islands. Apparently, many of the animals we take for granted in southern BC were not able to cross the distance to the islands. Some of the introduced species are: beaver, muskrat and red squirrel, in addition to the raccoon and deer. Grizzly bear and cougar are also not found on these islands. We also took a brief walk through a bog and took a walk on a typical Haida Gwaii cobble and sandy beach.

Along our route to Naikoon were several carvings made in red cedar, native trees commonly used for carving. There was a life sized black bear on its haunches among several others. We stopped at a spring that just a few years ago, someone had ringed the pool with flat rocks and placed a carving of a woman. Someone else had draped a string of huge pinkish scallop shells around her head and neck. Very beautiful attire. These scallops are found only on one beach at the north end of the island. We did not take a drink in fear of water-borne bacteria but read that had we drunk from here, we would be drawn back to the islands again and again. We also stopped "in town" to see some of the carving studios and rock and gem shops and coffee/muffin shops. When described "in town" I certainly did not picture the buildings being separated by several hundreds yards and each being set well back on long driveways. It was very rural country, yet right along the waterfront. Nothing that I have experienced before! One of the carvers is a beachcomber during his recreation time and had collected fishing floats from all over the world. He came out when we showed interest to tell us their stories. At the rock and gem shop (where we could have spent hours), there was an outdoor display of mostly local fossils and stones, each with a brief history on an information sheet. Several dated back to at least 60 million years ago. We discovered that many shops are closed mondays.

Our guide brought us back in time for her to attend a yoga class in town before supper. But sadly, we missed the Parks Canada Visitor Information Center as it was closed at 5pm, and the art display that was currently in place in it. Later that night we took a walk to the local library and were going to use the internet access to purge junkmail so we wouldn't start bouncing before we got home. No such luck as residents had pre-booked the time slots and the library wasn't open the next day. We spent the time poking among the racks and found several local books that provided more insight into the town's First Nations and European history-and also found some interesting references for my own city tours. Sometimes you have to get away to get a new perspective-and information-on somewhere you live!

Day 5 Today's job was focussed packing up and getting home. Neither one of us was feeling well so we took it at a leisurely pace. We asked the shuttle for pick-up and we were off. On the return trip we were abit more enlightened and had a better sense of place and time. Our shuttle driver was less talkative this time, so we gained less from him. I always like the trip home as it is usually retracing steps, at least part way and more familiar. And I tend to be relaxed as I know what to expect. (Can you tell I am a homebody and like the familiar?)

We hoped to have time to pop out to get a photo of a 33 foot yellow and red cedar salmon that was at the airport, but its location and the time we had didn't allow for it. Instead, I took some pics of the model on display in the airport. You know its a small town when one of the participants in your workshop was also working as an airport security staff. She called me by name and smiled, although I think she went through my stuff more throughly than everyone else. Or so it seemed! Ha Ha.

Waiting for loading in the airport waiting room, we had a beach-side view as 8 bald eagle leisurely flew past, although a bit of a stir was caused when one of them had food in its talons. They tussled mid-air, reminding us of their courtship behavior. Even though the mainland was only 60 miles away, the water behind the eagles looked like open ocean to the east, with white caps spotting the surface. Shortly after take-off we could see the coastal areas of the mainland and low mountains. This time we remembered our camera! On the way home, we flew over the mainland (about 30 miles east of our northward path). We got pictures of some of the communities we recognized, some of the snow-peaked mountains we had seen on the way in, and shots of Vancouver as it unfolded before us. In all, almost 300 pictures for a day trip! A record for us.

Although we did not see any of the world-famous Haida totems that are protected at the World Heritage Sites, (which were too remote for the time we had), we certainly got an appreciation for the culture of the peoples pf past and present. I suspect, that although we did not drink for the spring, we will be drawn back to this place again to see what else it has to offer.

Mom and Dad were there to pick us up, as as Dad wasn't feeling well, and I thought Mom didn't want to drive, I offered. I got us "lost" on the way, (they had changed some of the access roads since I had last driven the area) but we ended up missing out on most of the rush hour traffic. Not a bad end to a nice trip!