Gwaii Haanas (September 4-10, 2016)

Haida Gwaii is comprised of two major islands. The northern island is Graham Island and houses a majority of Haida inhabitants. The southern island is Moresby Island where the only major settlement is Sandspit. The vast majority of Moresby is a national park and world heritage site called Gwaii Haanas.

HG Map.jpgMap of Haida Gwaii

Our vessel of choice was Piraeus, a 30′ wooden sail boat. The total floor space was about the same as the Zehnderprise, but there was 10 people on board. Ann and Tom were the two other passengers. Ann was a retired archeology professor and Tom was a retired teacher who had also dabbled in archeology. Daphne was the on-board chef and she was a miracle worker! She was able to make five star meals appear with access only to the limited cookware on the ship. Keeping everyone in line was captain Bill. Bill had been sailing for 15 years and he was a wealth of knowledge and could hold his own with almost any subject you could think to approach him with. The boat slept a maximum of 8 people. Dad and I tried to sleep on the deck the first night but it wasn’t very flat and our method of using the sail as a rain cover didn’t work out that well. From then on we had 2 people sleep on shore in the tent. If the weather permitted we took our meals out on the deck. If it did not, we all crowded around a small folding table in the belly of Piraeus.

Piraeus our home for the seven days of sailing

The weather dictated that most of our time was spent on the boat. We had to spend one day hiding from the gale force winds in a cove. A few times we got to take the glass bottom Kayaks around whichever bay we were anchored in for the night. The really interesting parts where when we got to go ashore. The forests are something out of a fairy tale. The trees would dwarf any of the trees near Invermere. Their branches have a strange habit of turning into trees themselves creating huge tridents where each prong is so broad that your arms only go about a quarter of the way around. A thick layer of moss covers the abundant deadfall softening all the edges and making it hard to tell where it’s safe to walk. On one particular outing, Jacob and I decided to explore. After about 30 minutes of walking and chatting, we realized that the ocean, which we had been using as a reference point, had become hidden behind a large number of mossy trees. We had a general sense of direction, but the more we thought about it the more lost we became. A nearby hill provided a vantage point to reset our mental compasses before we made our way back towards the beach.

In the forest near SGang Gwaay

A large part of people’s attraction to Gwaii Haanas lies in the historic sites of the Haida people. We were able to visit two abandoned Haida village sites: SGang Gwaay and Tanu. In each of these villages, watchmen are stationed every summer where they live and give information to any tourists who show up.

Our guide in SGang Gwaay provided us with a wealth of interesting information on the Haida culture. Due to the abundance of food on Haida Gwaii, the Haida culture was able to develop into a complex matrilineal society that was split into two clans: the eagle clan and the raven clan. The clans followed the mother’s lineage, and dictated what dances, stories, and history they were allowed to have. Totem poles provided the only form of written communication with most communication being word of mouth. There were four different kinds of poles, though mostly they were used to identify houses. Some chiefs and important people got special mortuary poles erected after their death. The Haida people had a complex power system that involved throwing potlatches (huge parties) to show their wealth. Interestingly, they also had the ability to make copper shields, before the Europeans, which were used as a kind of currency instead of for protection. They were, however, a very aggressive people, and often pillaged the mainland for slaves. Once the Europeans arrived, the Haida were quick to take advantage of the trading opportunities. The Europeans brought revolutionary technology and high quality clothing. They also brought small pox and other deadly diseases. The outbreaks killed 95% of the Haida population so fast that they couldn’t give all the bodies a proper burial and had to resort to mass graves. Most of the villages were wiped out, and those that survived moved to the more central locations of Skidigate and Masset.

Totem poles in front of SGang Gwaay  

Tanu was our last stop on the trip. The Tanupguide had gone home by the time we reached the village. Bill gave us a tour of the village which was pretty similar to SGang Gwaay. Also at the village was the grave of Bill Reid, the famous Haida artist. Bill told us that the family asked that no pictures be taken of the head stone due to some tourists posting some pictures to Facebook. After some thought, I decided that for myself, I wouldn’t have any issue with people posting pictures of me or my loved ones headstones on social media. I was interested in what other people in our group thought so I posed the question. The group then had an interesting discussion on the topic that ended with us split pretty well down the middle. The discussion provided us with some food for thought as we headed back north toward the end of the trip.

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