Cruise aboard Venture to Haida Gwaii - Part Two

Second installment of Blog re 2011 trip to Haida Gwaii.

In Port McNeill, Chris, Louisa and myself were joined by crew member Tommy Camppannelli who had taken a ferry, taxi and two planes to arrive here from California’s Catalina Island. We topped up our fuel before heading for the Queen Charlotte Strait – open to the vast Pacific Ocean with no significant land between here and Japan. Initially the water was glassy calm with plenty of floating logs to watch out for - especially along the tide lines. Once clear of the islands north of Vancouver Island the sea became rougher – on the nose as usual – but not too bad given the reputation of this strait. We met one boater who had waited as long as one month for favorable conditions to make the crossing. Most boats heading to northern BC and Alaska only have about 30 miles of open water to negotiate before being able to duck into the protection of the islands close to the mainland coast but we elected to head straight for Queen Charlotte town on Haida Gwaii – a distance of 260 miles.

We traveled overnight standing watches of two hours on and four hours off. At this time of year, at these latitudes, the night was quite short but nothing of course compared to where we were this time last year in Northern Iceland just south of the Arctic Circle. The seas were quite confused and lumpy but began to calm as soon as we came under the lee of the islands. By the time I came on watch at 0600 it was full daylight with the islands grey and misty off to port with the higher peaks still wearing snowy bonnets.

Initially the sky was overcast with light showers but by 0900 the sun came out and the silvery light, blue sky and broken cloud rendered the island chain almost magical, am impression further enhanced knowing that the area we were passing was virtually uninhabited.

We originally planned to go some distance north of the airport at Sandspit before turning south to follow the buoyed channel but decided to cut across the bank that lies to seaward of the entrance. Over the land there were showers with strange, curtain-like tendrils of cloud hanging above the Haida settlement of Stidegate.

We entered the bay and pulled up at Queen Charlotte Village after 29 hrs and 13 minutes underway giving an average speed of just under 9 kts. We tried calling on the phone and radio with no response; the small marina was crammed with mostly commercial boats so we anchored out in the bay. We launched the tender and waited out a heavy rain shower before going ashore. We walked a short distance to the visitors centre, which was open until 9 pm, and collected info re visiting the Gwaii Haanas national park. It was a beautiful sunny evening and we enjoyed a good meal at one of the small restaurants.

A visit to Gwaii Haanas requires prior attendance at an orientation course held at the museum. We had read in the literature that the no appointment was needed and the museum opened at 10 AM.. The following morning, Friday, we took the tender to the ferry terminal at Stidegate and then walked 1 km to the museum, arriving just after 10. Here we found out that orientation was in fact at 0900 every day Monday to Friday. George Sass would be joining us on Sunday which meant that we had to wait until Monday morning. We took the opportunity to look around the museum and eavesdropped on a talk being given by a Haida member of the staff to a group of small children about the modern totem poles erected outside the museum. We also took a look at three canoes each carved from a solid cedar. We paid all the various fees which amounted to C$117.70 per person for the time we planned to spend on in the Gwaii Haanas national park and came away with more literature and a DVD.

Haida Gwaii – previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands – consists of a couple of main islands plus about 150 lesser ones - depending upon which source of information you consult. Almost all the population of 3,800 live on Graham Island - the northerly of the two main islands. The principal town of Queen Charlotte is located here as is the nearby settlement of Skidegate. One road leads north to a handful of small towns including Old Masset. 45% of the population are of Haida descent of whom 70% live in either Skidegate or Old Masset.

The original Haida population numbered about 10,000 at the height of their power. Their way of life and influence over the region earned them the description as the Vikings of the Pacific Northwest. The comparison is well founded. Their seafaring ability in open canoes, fashioned from the trunk of a single cedar, enabled them to raid villages on the mainland bringing home booty and slaves to support their well developed culture. This came to an abrupt and tragic end in the 1800’s when about 90% of the population were wiped out by small pox and other diseases brought to the islands through contact with white traders hungry for sea otter pelts for trade with China.

The following day we hired a taxi to drive us up to the northern tip of Graham Island. We had a chatty Haida taxi driver who told us much about life on the island including the odd fact that the Haida people on Haida Gwaii are wards of the Queen of England! He told us that fresh salmon caught locally cannot be served in local restaurants because all food sold to the public has to be certified by a government official of whom there are none qualified to do this resident on the islands. He said that no one grows even vegetables for sale locally. Everything has to be imported from the mainland by ferry which makes it very expensive. When I asked about the source of electrical power he told us that a proposed project to put an offshore wind farm in the ocean north of the islands had been put on hold due to held numerous objections including the possible effect that electrical current flowing within the underwater cables might have on sea creatures. Currently electrical power on the island is provided by generators using diesel fuel brought over from the mainland.

The road passed through terrain which was very flat and covered with small trees. In Old Masset we bought a couple of mugs from Sarah’s Arts and Jewellery. Hats woven locally from strips of cedar bark were pricey at $600 but they do represent many hours of labour.

We stopped on the return journey at Balance Rock which is a large boulder perched improbably on the shore surprisingly unmoved by the large waves which regularly assault this coast. The Pacific and North American tectonic plates interact just off the west coast of the islands so low lying areas are vulnerable to tsunamis as indicated by signs posted at frequent intervals.

The following day George Sass joined us from Maryland. His flight from Vancouver landed at Sandspit airport on the northern tip of Moresby Island – the southerly of the two main islands. The shuttle brought him by ferry across to the marina in Queen Charlotte town where he was met by Chris and Tommy in the tender. We all went into town to the Ocean View Restaurant and enjoyed roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. It seems they follow the British tradition of serving roast dinners on Sundays.

On Monday we took a cab to the museum for our joint orientation. This mainly consisted of explaining the rules which are much the same as those adopted in such places as the Galapagos and Antarctica. They can be summarized as “take only pictures and leave only footprints – and be careful where you leave those” Gwaii Hanaas is virtually the only place where the environment is protected from the peaks of the mountains to offshore waters. We had to fill out forms listing our personal details in case of an emergency and were given our permit numbers. Orientation for each participant is good for three years.

The literature handed out during the orientation makes the situation very clear:

“Facilities in and around Gwaii Haanas are minimal. There are no roads, stores, or fueling facilities. Access is limited to boats and floatplanes. Gwaii Haanas does not maintain hiking trails in the area. There are a few mooring buoys, two water hoses and limited navigational aids.

Make daily travel plans flexible to accommodate delays caused by poor weather conditions. Bring enough fuel and food to sustain you for a few extra days. Carry clothing and equipment for a variety of weather conditions. This area has significant tidal variation, strong currents, rapidly changing weather, and strong winds that develop with little or no warning.”

There are no communications other than line-of-sight VHF radio at the watchman sites.

Before returning to Venture we visited the Co-op supermarket where we took on extra provisions. Food stocks diminish alarmingly fast when feeding five people three meals per day. The contents on the shelves of supermarkets in this part of the world tend to ebb and flow, like the tides, according to the schedule of the ferry bringing in supplies. Fortunately our visit followed the recent arrival of the ferry from Prince Rupert so there was plenty of choice of produce and fresh bread.

Finally, clear of all our obligations, we weighed anchor around midday and after an uneventful trip of 40 miles in good weather arrived in Cumshewa Inlet where we anchored and launched the small tender.

The following morning, George volunteered to cook bacon and eggs for breakfast so it wasn’t until ten o’clock before we made our way to the first official site at Skedans Bay, 10 miles away. Each of the official sites has a resident “watchman” who is responsible for protecting the site and also acting as a guide. A maximum of 12 people are allowed ashore at one time and the watchman should be called on the VHF at least one hour ahead of the desired landing time.

When we arrived on the beach, a small Parks Service landing craft and other boats were bringing in supplies. We were greeted by the watchman who had only arrived on site the previous day. Skedans had once been a prosperous village but all that remained were the decaying remnants of toppled totem poles which, by local custom, are left to be reabsorbed back into the natural environment.

Most of us know how quickly the works of man are quickly overrun by a tropical jungle but few realize the speed with which temperate forests, fueled by the long growing hours of summer, can do the same. Tall trees now dominated the site; young trees sprouted from decaying stumps and mature trees had engulfed old beams and fallen poles.

After our visit we moved on and anchored that night in Pacofi Bay. The following morning were underway at 0853. We kept our eyes peeled for bears and, in narrow Dana Passage, our vigilance was rewarded when we spotted a black bear foraging along the shore. Our next stop was at Tanu where we anchored just off the beach. Tommy ferried Louisa and myself ashore in the recently acquired small tender. On previous trips we had been frustrated by our inability to make beach landings in the big tender and we had added a smaller, flat-bottomed boat which could be stowed beneath the davit outboard of the existing tender. Without it, getting ashore would have been next to impossible because none of the sites had any form of dock or jetty.

We were greeted by Frank the watchman. He was living on this site for one month with his wife, 11 year old daughter and small dog called Cedar. They had also only arrived the previous day and we were his first visitors of the season. Frank was of Haida ancestry and very informative . He guided us along a trail marked by white clam shells. All that remained of this once-prosperous village were the decaying remains of fallen totem poles and we learned the difference between house poles, mortuary poles, memorial poles and poles with rings marking the number of potlatches had person had held in his lifetime. House sites of the elite could be identified by sunken pits and fallen beams. Everything was covered in a rich green blanket of velvety moss – soft and springy to the touch.

Frank took us to his house to meet his wife and daughter who were weaving headbands made from the inner bark of the cedar. The house was simple and neat. They had bottled water for drinking and water for other uses came from a nearby stream. Solar panels and batteries, backed up by a small Honda generator, supplied limited electricity. Supplies were delivered by a Park Service boat every 2 weeks.

We next moved the nine miles to Windy Bay where we picked up a mooring. The watchman, Al, had turned 76 in March but didn’t look his age. He too had only arrived at this site the previous day. He was accompanied by his wife and grandson aged 17 who had just had just graduated high school in Charlotte village and was about to go off to the mainland near Vancouver with a view to becoming a RCMP officer.

We signed the visitors book and Al took us on a hike through woods rich with large cedar trees. Again moss covered everything. This track was quite rough with a number of diversions caused by the previous winter’s blowdowns. We came to stream where the crossing options meant either balancing precariously on dodgy logs or paddling through the water. Tommy, Al and myself had boots so we took the paddle option while the others walked went back the way we had come and took a longer route around. While we waited for them we saw a river otter and a small herd of deer. To re-cross the river where it joined the sea we were ferried across in small aluminum skiff using a system of ropes and pulleys.

The anchorage here was quite exposed here so we moved to Sedgwick Bay for the night and the following day went to Section Cove on Burnaby Island. The weather had turned grey and rainy with low clouds draping the forested slopes. During a break in the showers George, Tommy and myself went ashore for an afternoon of beachcombing and taking photos. The mossy forest comes right to the edge of the beach with its bounty of shells, seaweed and miscellaneous bric-a-brac. Like the vast majority of Gwaii Haanas this was not a Watchman site and many happy hours can be spent just poking around examining flotsam and jetsam and the minutiae of nature. Patches of weak sunlight alternated with intermittent showers.

The following morning, Friday July 1, we moved to Hotspring Island where, on Saturday, we had a rendezvous with a float plane from Queen Charlotte village to take George back to Sandspit airport. It rained all day so photography was pretty well out of the question and there was little incentive to go ashore and visit the hot springs.

Communications in Gwaii Haanas are almost non-existent, being restricted to VHF line of sight with the few and widely spaced Watchman sites. We had a satellite phone on board but, not anticipating a need for it, had not bothered to activate the service. This was a mistake and anyone visiting this area would be advised to carry a working sat phone. With the weather looking so chancy we were concerned that the float plane might not be able to fly and there was no way to make contact. But Saturday dawned marginally better and, although still cloudy and showery, there were patches of blue sky. The VHF crackled to life at 1115 and the pilot called to say he had us in sight. Shortly thereafter the plane dropped out of the sky and settled its floats on the water. Floatplanes are the ubiquitous taxis of the Pacific Northwest, providing both scheduled and, as in this case, custom links between people and places on the water. Chris and Tommy launched the big tender and ferried George across to the plane where he stepped onto one of the floats and was soon on his way.

We still had a couple of important sites on our list to visit plus it would have been nice to spend more time just wandering between the islands but Venture had to be back in Sidney in a couple of weeks for a charter. Chris had been closely monitoring the weather and gale force winds from the South East were forecast so it was with great reluctance that we decided to leave Queen Charlottes today as there was a weather window open right now with no guarantee that it would last. When it did break, waves of 4 meters (13’) were expected for the Queen Charlotte Strait and, true to form, they would once again have been right on the nose. We raised the anchor and got underway at 1350. We traveled overnight to Port Hardy arriving there at 1111 without incident. It was quite rough for the first part of the crossing but calmed down for the latter part of the trip. The distance from our anchorage at Hotspring Island was 189 miles with an average speed of 8.85 knots. We were able to connect to e-mail and internet for the first time in more than a week.

Because we had left Haida Gwaii early we had time to spare in BC and over the next 8 days we made our leisurely way back to Sidney through Desolation Sound. Along our way we visited a number of quiet anchorages and small towns in this beautiful area.

In summing up, our trip to Haida Gwaii had been very interesting but we had not allowed sufficient time to really do it justice. The combination of four days delay in Queen Charlotte village at the start of our visit and concerns about the weather at the end ate up one full week. We missed out on Rose Harbour and also the World Heritage site of Sgang Gwaii (Anthony Island) to visit the village of Ninstints. The latter is on the even more remote and exposed West Coast. As it says in the orientation, travel plans need to be sufficiently flexible to allow for the vagaries of the weather and anyone visiting this area needs to keep firmly in mind that facilities for fuel, provisioning and communications are non existent.

We arrived back in Sidney on July 12th 27 days after we left. During that time we had covered 1,630 nm giving us an average of 60.38 miles per day.