The Spirit of Haida Gwaii – A Canadian Wonder

Ocean House luxury floating lodge is an ideal base for exploring ancient Haida Villages and more

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My heartbeats seem synchronized to the drumming of Cohen Isberg. A Haida storyteller, he’s singing and drumming amid the impossibly green, moss-drenched forest surrounding Kaysuun, an ancient village on Haida Gwaii. I’m mesmerised by the spirit of Haida Gwaii.

This archipelago off British Columbia’s northwest coast is renowned for its beauty, where on a sunny day like this, rainforested mountains rim the azure Pacific Ocean.

flights to haida gwaii
The flight to SGang Gwaay offers impressive views of the western coastline of Haida Gwaii. Tip: negotiate with passengers as to who sits on left/right/front of Beaver plane so everyone gets a chance to see and take good photos.

As I sit, it seems a spell has been cast.

Everyone is quiet save for the drummer and his song.

Skillfully, irrevocably, Isberg weaves us into the tapestry of living memory which keeps Kaysuun of long ago alive.

Children would have scampered about right here, playing but also perhaps gathering food in the shallows lapping the beach.

I imagine how the chief’s potlatches (celebratory feasts) must have made these forests ring with ceremonial dancing, songs, drumbeats, and the buzzy chatter of news-sharing, trading and gossip.

haida gwaii tours
Clockwise from top left: 1- Haida cultural ambassador, historian Captain Gold explained the Haida Watchmen program he helped start after his trip to SGang Gwaay. He introduced me to authentic Haida foods such as raw sea urchin. 2- Cohen Isberg drumming and singing at Kaysuun 3-Ocean House’s outside operations manager Sascha “Luu Tydals” Jones points out the cut marks made by stone tools, on cedar. This is a Culturally Modified Tree (CMT). 4- Peel Inlet: future site of the Ocean House Lodge, awaits exploration. It’s a calm, protected inlet, perfect for kayaking, bird and wildlife watching and photography.

For more things to do in British Columbia see:

Haida Gwaii

Haida Longhouse Tales

Architecturally imposing cedar longhouses faced with towering poles dramatically lined this shoreline, where house poles declared a clan’s animal symbols (totems) and stories which would be interpreted by visitors.

Abandoned in the 1880s, Kaysuun springs to life under Isberg’s storytelling.

At our feet, he explains, lies Dogfish House, once home to village Chief Cha’atl.

Today all that remains are the sunken remains of a foundation and gigantic cedar beams stretched like a skeleton over the forest floor.

All are returning to the earth, shrouded in moss.

Ocean House Luxury Lodge 

aboriginal totems
Left: One afternoon, Sascha “Luu Tydals” Jones took us searching for prawn pots. We hauled some up (well, he did!) and we enjoyed the freshest of fresh sushimi – raw ocean foods gathered with our own hands. Right: Gladys “Jiixa” Vandall’s woven hats, rose and frog. She led weaving workshops in the lodge’s lounge.

With poles long gone, Isberg knows it’s crucial to continue the traditions, sing the storytelling songs, and thus reveal and keep alive the traditions of his ancestral lands.

After all, this is what Haida Gwaii means: “Islands of the Haida People.”

Despite the decimation of their population from some 30,000 to 40,000 to 500 to 1,000 persons by the late 1800s after European contact, the Haida have not merely survived, they are thriving.

This is where Ocean House comes in. It’s the brand-new luxury floating lodge owned by HaiCo, aka Haida Enterprise Corporation, which operates several Haida-run businesses.

During the three-, four-, and seven-day trips, Haida chiefs and cultural ambassadors stay at the lodge, telling stories, drumming, guiding trips, and offering workshops on such Haida traditions as carving, or cedar-bark weaving.

Here at Kaysuun for instance, historian Captain Gold accompanies Isberg on our excursion, along with Ocean House’s indispensable outside operations manager, Sascha “Luu Tydals” Jones, an equally informative Haida guide.

Culturally Modified Trees

Jones guides us to view some Culturally Modified Trees or CMTs.

These are still-living cedar trees which were live-harvested to make longhouse planks and other items.

Kneeling before an immense tree where a clear “plank-cut” remains visible, Jones points to the precise cut, “We can tell this was harvested with stone, not post-contact iron tools because there’s no burn mark. We only took what we needed so trees could keep on living.”

Hiking, boating, and in fact, just being here on Haida Gwaii offers reflective meditation, because the land breathes spirits like this old-timer of a tree.

What stories could it tell?

Returning to our boat to en route to our lodge, I reflect on how different these forests would have been, with a scattered but vibrant population of some 30,000+ people.

Kaysuun was a winter village, thanks to the protection of the forest, but during spring, the villagers “broke camp” and left.

Clever architectural design meant houses were modular: villagers disassembled the longhouses, putting planks on canoes to make large “rafts”, then paddled to their summer village site.

Here, fish and other foods would be collected, dried and stored for winter. Before the weather turned, the routine was repeated.

South Moresby Island

north beach haida gwaii
Top: Helicopter approach to Skidegate, where we were visiting the Haida Heritage Centre and Museum reveals beautiful bays and islands of Haida Gwaii. Bottom: The floating lodge staff are excellent: they assisted us to extricate ourselves from the Beaver aircraft. Pilot Peter Grundmann expertly flies the Beaver plane while explaining the geology of Haida Gwaii. He also searched for humpback whales which we spotted both going to and returning from Sgang Gwaay.

Although Kaysuun is intriguing, I can’t wait to see SGang Gwaay, the ancient Haida village off South Moresby Island famous for its several still-upright totem, mortuary and memorial poles.

Just getting there is fantastical: a brilliantly sunny day gives our group a splendid view of the west coast of Moresby Island from the Beaver float plane.

Eyes riveted to the window, I see jaw-dropping views of the craggy coastline beaten by immense ocean swells and we also discover humpback whales in deeper water.

Arriving at Rose Harbour, we disembark onto a Zodiak, then scoot to SGang Gwaay, which is tended by three Haida Watchmen who offer guided tours to small groups of people.

If a tour takes a bit longer for any reason, the next guests have to wait their turn.

For us, this means bobbing about in the Zodiak, where pilot Goetz Hanisch encourages us to look for seals and birds in the rocky islets.

We are lucky to spot two tufted puffins but I long for my binoculars to see them better.

Sgang Gwaay Village

haida gwaii tours
SGang Gwaay from behind the longhouses remains, where totem poles still guard the village. It’s here that Captain Gold would have docked his canoe, on the beach, stern first in respect of the village and its people. Just like he recalled, visitors can feel the presence of former, long-gone villagers. Shamans were laid to rest in the island opposite: our Haida Watchman Teresa Russ explained their energy still guards the site.
bc ferries haida gwaii
From top left: 1- Spectacular SGang Gwaay (also known as Ninstints) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of Parks Canada’s Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. Totem, mortuary and memorial poles still stand watching the Ocean, in front of depressions which mark the former foundations of longhouses. 2+3- At SGang Gwaay, Haida Watchman Teresa Russ interpreted the village, explained the significance of the poles, the houses and evoked a deep sense of spirituality to this ancient Haida village. Note the clamshells which define the path. It’s not permitted to cross these shells and touch or approach the poles. 4- The SGang Gwaay trail to the village wends through a magical forest landscape. 5- Anticipation runs high as we hike the trail into the ancient village of SGang Gwaay, led by our Haida Watchman Teresa “Xuuya Kaayuu Gus” Russ (The Raven that is always singing). As we walked, the salty scent of the ocean enticed us forwards. 6- Enchanted surroundings of SGang Gwaay, where surely spirits dwell. Here you can catch the spirit of Haida Gwaii as you wander the quiet of the waiting forest. Its views over the Pacific Ocean are stunning, and the little cove this village overlooks would have offered excellent protection from rough seas in winter. It’s an ideal location for a winter village.

At SGang Gwaay, Haida Watchman Teresa Russ greets us and I am immediately impressed by her quiet grace and thoughtful wisdom.

She explains her Haida name to me, “My grandmother gave it to me when I was little: Xuuya Kaayuu Gus.

It means ‘The Raven that is always singing’. I received it because when my mother took me to her for naming, I was a little girl, singing all the time.”

To me, Russ seems like a forest spirit completely at one with SGang Gwaay.

Not only does she interpret each pole’s story but she also answers questions with sensitivity.

When asked about how the Haida feel about some totem poles having been removed by museum curators, she says, “As much as we want them back, we appreciate they are loved and appreciated throughout the world.”

SGang Gwaay is impressive.

Totem poles stand, facing the cove and I imagine how impressive the approach must have been when the village was thriving.

The Spirit of Haida Gwaii 

In fact, back at the lodge, Haida cultural ambassador and historian Captain Gold spins the story of his first visit where he paddled some 250 km in stormy seas before landing on the rocky beach.

“In my mind, I saw all these children pouring out of the village, running about me, splashing in the water and kelp. The rest of the village opened up to me: I could see it alive. I saw this lady packing a bent box. So many people laughing and welcoming me… I landed on the beach stern first: it’s what we did to show we come in peace because if you landed bow first on the beach, you could be dangerous.”

With storytelling like this, with sites such as SGang Gwaay and Kaysuun to visit, with weaving workshops with Gladys “Jiixa” Vandall and with such activities as kayaking, fishing, birdwatching and other activities to enjoy, who can resist the spirit of Haida Gwaii?

Haida Gwaii Accommodation

Ocean House is a new place to stay in Haida Gwaii. 

However, during my trip, I visit Peel Inlet, where Ocean House will be permanently docked. With a protected bay to explore by kayak and the possibility of wildlife sightings, it promises to be a fabulous destination for these explorations I’ve done, plus eco-adventures such as wildlife watching, kayaking, photography and more.

And rest assured, Haida-decorated, comfortable rooms, dining hall, upstairs lounge and fabulously fresh foods await you.

HaiCo also owns Westcoast Resorts Englefield Bay Lodge, which is a must-visit if you’re itching for world-class ocean fishing for chinook salmon.

Compare prices of hotels in Haida Gwaii here

How to get to Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii is accessible by ferry or by aeroplane.

Flights to Haida Gwaii include floatplanes from Prince Rupert to Masset and Sandspit. Vancouver to Haida Gwaii flights arrives daily at Skidegate.

It’s a scenic 11/2-hour flight. Charter flights cater for Haida Gwaii tours from Vancouver and Grande Prairie (Alberta) during the summer months.

BC Ferries Haida Gwaii

BC Ferries is a six-hour trip between Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert.

The benefit of the ferry is you can take your vehicle onboard.

There’s also a Haida Gwaii ferry that travels between Graham Island and Moresby Island several times a day.

These are the two main islands in the region that have permanent inhabitants.

For more see BC Ferries schedule Haida Gwaii.

For more about Canada read:

Go Haida Gwaii

For more information on visiting Haida Gwaii see Haida Heritage Centre and Museum and Haida Gwaii Tourism.

The Spirit of Haida Gwaii

The Spirit of Haida Gwaii

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Katharine Fletcher
Katharine Fletcher is a Quebec-based freelance author and writer who is happiest in the wild, back of beyond or exploring cultural destinations. She co-authored Quebec Off the Beaten Path (5th edition, Globe Pequot Press). and is happiest in the wild on a multi-day horseback expedition, riding in the backcountry and camping.