Historically, Haida Gwaii was called Xhaaidlagha Gwaayaai by the natives which translates into “Islands at the Boundary of the World”.
When my flight arrived in Haida Gwaii, it was a bit of a distance to the town I was going to, so I hitched a ride. The driver who drove me used to work on Deadman’s Island in Stanley Park for many years. For those who don’t know it’s a small island close to downtown Vancouver where those with smallpox were quarantined over a hundred years ago. He was telling me eerie stories and histories even before the smallpox time about the place during our drive.
Our chat transitioned from that grim topic. He said an interesting statement as our ride commenced. “You didn’t choose Haida Gwaii, Haida Gwaii chose you. This is a very spiritual place and you didn’t arrive by accident.”
Once I arrived at the town of Queen Charlotte I did alittle hike on a nearby island to pass the time. I was waiting for someone to get off work because we were going to have a dinner afterwords. The first thing I noticed when I arrived here in Haida Gwaii was the eagles. They were everywhere.
I had dinner that night with a local resident who was a librarian. She shared stories about the challenges and generation gap people can get as they get to their older years, especially if they are retired. Her name is Michelle and she is a couchsurfing host who gets to meet a lot of young travelers from all over and share stories and memories.
I spent 4 days in this town, went to the local coffee shop, did day hikes, visited the local museum, and helped a friend make cinnamon buns! I did a day trip to the south of Haida Gwaii were a group of us went to an island called Skedans (Haida Gwaii is an archipelago, a collection of hundreds of small islands). This historic Haida village had over 40 totem poles during its day. The Haida primarily had villages close to the water as they were typically traveling by canoes. The relied heavily on the ocean for their food source, and were trading with local tribes regularly. Below is a historic photo of the village.
It now is nearly deserted of totem poles. Museums and collectors raided them when they had the chance, aswell some have naturally decayed. There’s a big wave of repatriation happening on Haida Gwaii today. Artifacts, old burial boxes, totem poles, clothing, are among some of the many things the Haida people are working to get what was created on their land returned to their land. The creations were made for ceremony and family, rather than museums and private collectors.
You can see in this photo above that there are no trees growing in the settlement. The Haida would remove all of them to make the totem poles very visible. When you go today you see trees now cover the land.
This is that location up close today.
This is the view facing the water from the beach of Skedans.
Haida Gwaii had (and still has) a huge lumber industry, probably one of the main centre focuses of all its resources. During European contact, Sea Otter pellets were really prized. Gold mines on the island were also sought after creating a gold rush, and canneries for fish were booming later as the island was settled. There is a lot of abandoned equipment on the island. Old machinery they used to move trees to the mill. They even used to have a railroad. All abandoned and falling apart.
The tour guide taught us that during WW2 some planes began to be made out of the Spruce Tree from Haida Gwaii. The tour guide highlighted one word – regression. From wood to metal in aviation felt like advancement. To make planes from wood felt like a step back in time, and many doubted the idea before it ever began. Yet it was lighter and faster than many expected, and was a big success. This idea of regression really struck me. Herbal medicine compared to modern medicine feels like a regression. Leaving a progressive city to move to a small town feels like a regression. Going from a well payed job to less paying job that fulfills you in other ways can also be argued like a regression. It’s these perceptions that keep us stuck in our ways. Afraid to experiment and let the results speak for themselves. Many people argued how moving to the island was a step forward, rather than a step back. No commuting, cheaper rents, more nature time, and they were now big fishes in small ponds of their niches. From the outside it looks like a step back, but some people have really moved forward in their lives by moving there.
The Haida people have many superstitions. It fascinates me these stories as they are very personal to the group where it is true. And I find our modern day to be superstitious as well. If there is one ticket left to an event we are thinking of going to then ‘it’s a sign’. At 11:11 we feel lucky. Shooting stars and make a wish, on your birthday too when you blow out the cake. We say the universe is helping us, supporting us, ‘guiding’ us. In Haida culture, when you are carving a canoe, if someone dies during the carving it is considered an omen to abandon the carving and not use that tree. There would be half carved out trees remaining scattered through the land back in the day. These canoes would be transporting 50 of your strongest and most capable men long distances, any reason to doubt its capabilities had to be addressed. I learned as well that when Haida people use the Cedar tree to weave hats for example, they would only strip a very thin amount, and never on the side of the tree where people would see. Apparently it would be shameful to do so.
The Haida host many Potlach’s. It was a sign of wealth to host them, and was a huge festival of food and giving, sometimes lasting multiple days. Raising a pole, a death, a birth, celebrating a chief or an important moment were all reasons to throw a Potlach. You were judged in these events by how much one could give away. The chiefs of the villages would host these Potlach’s and when a chief died, a pole would be erected for him that would display how many potlaches he hosted. Each ring on a totem pole like the one below show how many Potlaches that chief had.
Following my time in the southern part of the island I migrated to the middle of the island, a whopping maybe 45 minutes away. I hitch hiked to a music festival which was playing there. It was great to see some phenomenal music in contrast to such a deserted, under developed island in Mid-Northern Canada. The festival had tons of amazing bands and rappers. It was an incredible experience.
The festival closed with a Haida drum circle. They sang a song for the woman, then one for the men, then one for the babies, and then one for the children. They had a song about discovering the gift you had inside you. I really loved that message. My current focus these days are questions like that. How is my time here helping the ‘whole’? Should I be working, going to school, seeing my sister, grandma, mom, etc? Asking myself if I am really doing what is of true value for the world. The host ended the ceremony by saying everyone is here at the festival for a reason. That was a calming (slightly dramatic) statement to me after feeling what I was feeling. I suppose I’m exploring, maybe that’s the reason. It can feel hard to gauge the value of these trips in the long term. Sure I felt happy, maybe that’s the only metric that should count. It was a nice indulgence that ended on Sunday as I made my way to a hostel for two nights. The next morning I journeyed to the northern part of the island.
The Haida wish to have trees to carve 1000 years from now. They are planning today for the old growths for their lineage next millennia. One issue they are having is that deer keep eating the shrubs of the new trees that grow. Deer is an invasive species (aka an introduced species that now lives without any predator) and it is eating all their medicinal plants. The seeds for these trees are underground, waiting to grow, but the beginning of the plant gets immediately eaten. Fenced off areas are trying to protect the plants and trees from deer’s. The seeds are literally dormant, waiting under the ground, for their day to become a tree.
I hitched up to the North next.
Standing on the Northern beaches that morning, seeing Alaska in the distance, and the nothingness but giant amounts of ocean and sky, was profound. It felt so sacred in the moment, and it was so impulsive. It was a spontaneous “I’ll go to Haida Gwaii” which brought me here. It was a “Sure, let’s visit the Northern part” attitude. All this easy going direction led to a really glorious conclusion. I sat down abit and reflected on it all.
When middle of nowhere
stats to feel familiar
Foreign and love
Medicinal and inedible
Heaven like, it has an area code
clouds and rainbows
Whys this rare?
There no gate keeper
The doors are wide open
Yet there’s no one in line for it
the best things in life
are out there
under our radar
In this life
this economy and circumstance
can do it.
Beauty is hope.
Hope is sacred.
It too is volatile.
Heaven is held by a thread.
It’s that delicate
the mountains and oceans are strong, they will last.
The observer is actually the one hanging by the thread. Me. Us.
Not this place.
Moments like this are the flowers boldest days, its richest time.
I am the garden, full of life, and am the seasons, full of come and go. Travel is seasons.
The burst of experience, the rest after the finish. Moving freely, wildly, lightly tip toeing here.
Like a dancer, floating as I walk. The clothes to keep me grounded. Immersed in space, alive again.
Nature is a tarot card. Today you are free, my today last forever. Even still, id gift it to tomorrow. Voluntarily change and accept to pull my flag and sell the cloth and wood to feed us. It feels just as human. Thanks glory, let’s go back to reality. To the city. I’ll bring you. Hold you. Cherish and honour you. I respect you belong here. That’s true. Ill bid my Namaste to you. I am the camera validating this is real. Yet no picture can capture this. But I’m your selfie; I’m your creative expression.
After sitting and writing, my next goal was a small mountain top on the far corner of the island. It was a bit less busy on this road, and the first truck that drives by me is carrying the group who I did my first tour with in the south. What an interconnected moment! They picked me up and we explored the north together with a guide. Life has so many hidden doors, but doors don’t come to you, you have to be moving to find them. I never imagined waking up that morning, reconnecting to the group from days ago, now driving on the beach with a guide on this distant island. It all felt so meant to be. The invisible force weaving everything together. It felt like a reward for trying, for risking, for putting myself out there. There’s a quote I love that encompasses this. It goes something like “Start moving so I may start blessing”.
I felt really lucky the way it all worked. I separated from the group after our hike up the small mountain/hill and began making my way to the older village in Northern Haida Gwaii called Masset. They say during pre-contact with Europeans the Haida had around 50,000 people. Post contact when disease like smallpox spread, the numbers dropped to as low as 600. These few hundred people conjugated into two places on the island, one in the north and the other in the south. One of these was Masset.
Haida being an oral tradition of storytelling and history suddenly lost a lot of its wisdom and records. There were no elders to turn to especially as they were dying that fast. As well, Potlaches became banned, and public schools became introduced. Haida is a very visual culture. The word art does not exist in their language. Everything was art, it was inseparable. Nothing existed without it. When these laws and rules were forced upon them, a lot of the visual references they relied on were gone. Aswell the upheaval of their culture from those taking their cultural artifacts, as mentioned before, made their roots appear less and less noticeable. I see how the Haida animals and drawings on water bottles, mugs, and hats for example puts the symbols back into the world, and out of hiding.
Masset had some totem poles which were great to see, and a very nice ocean town with tons of smiling faces.
I hitch hiked almost entirely on this trip. There were gaps during some rides, and one point of the hitch hiking took a long time to get picked up. Only once, but it did happen, funny enough at a location which had a thumb for hitchhiking.
There were a lot of commonalities shared by the locals. Everyone has a reason for visiting the island. A friend invited them, a story they heard about it from someone, or short work stint. Usually they were already settled somewhere else when they visited, but the island summoned a feeling in them they couldn’t resist, and they moved there shortly after. Come for one reason, and stay for another.
Ofcourse I was not picked up by those who visited this island once and never again, so there stories are silent.
Trips can be very individualistic and one of a kind. I couldn’t repeat that journey in any way. The destinations yes. But the people along the way are always new. Each ride contained stories. I met a judge, tour guides, people from Germany, Vancouver, tons of locals, and got to really hear so much about people’s lives. It felt so honest and connecting. It was those pieces that were harder to predict. I planned to see sights, but the side bonuses were these awesome connections.
So why did this place choose me, as the first person I met on the island said. Who knows? I was thinking that when I was about to fly back to Vancouver. I had a lot of awareness that some things don’t make sense in the short term, but in the long term. We judge things so quickly and impulsively that we don’t give them enough time to come full circle. On my last day I did a hike called Spirit Lake. Just the intention of calling a lake that says so much. The story had to do with a supernatural being that lived there.
In the Haida language Haawa means thank you.
Haawa Haida Gwaii for the stories and memories! ❤