Gwaii Haanas

My first major kayak trip in 2009 was a tour through the Gwaii Haanas park, in the Haida Gwaii archipelago in northwest British Columbia. Up until a couple years ago these were called the Queen Charlotte islands, and were renamed after a long campaign by the area’s native people, the Haida. The name change was a very active topic while I was there, it’s great that it was able to go through. Gwaii Haanas itself was also established after a long campaign by the Haida, and in response to intense logging of much of the rest of the islands.

Haida Gwaii has two major islands, Graham to the north and Moresby to the south, with a narrow channel separating them and hundreds of smaller islands, mostly on the eastern side of Moresby island. Gwaii Haanas protects much of Moresby island, and my plan was to paddle along Moresby’s protected east coast and among the many smaller islands there.

I’d wanted to visit Haida Gwaii for a while, after doing dive trips to the south in Port Hardy and looking at maps with wonder at what these islands were like. So decided to stop here on my way north to Alaska. It was good to break the trip up anyways; the drive to Prince Rupert, where ferries for the islands leave, was nearly 2000 miles from central California. This is a pretty great drive in and of itself, and I’ll need to spend more time in this area someday. The first major highlight was shortly after entering Canada, as the road follows the Fraser River up from Vancouver, through a huge, dramatic canyon and a sudden change from forest to desert.

After this there’s several hundred more miles of lakes, forest and desert before the road passes through BC’s coastal mountains and follows the Skeena River through to Prince Rupert. This was a beautiful section to drive, with the road and railroad both running right along next to the river and surrounded by mountains.

After a long ferry to the islands, I found myself with 150 pounds of gear, no car and no plans for getting 20 miles over logging roads to my put-in at Moresby Camp, a small campground and launch in the north of Moresby island and as far south as you can drive. Fortunately, the folks at Moresby Explorers were very helpful and I chartered a van and got to the put-in the next day.

The plan from here was to head south, staying in close to Moresby’s coast and heading to SGang Gwaay, a small island and village at the south end of Moresby, then head back north while staying along the outskirts of the archipelago. This was an ambitious trip, and I needed to maintain an aggressive pace in order to complete it. I ended up kayaking about 260 miles in 10 days. This was my first extended kayak trip, with only two previous multiday trips on Vancouver island in a sit-on-top kayak, no real issues though.

View Gwaii Haanas Trip in a larger map

The first segment of the trip went uneventfully. Gwaii Haanas is pristine, the weather was good and the first few days of the trip were long, relaxed paddles along the densely forested coastline. Lot of bird life, with many eagles, gulls and guillemots.

As I got closer to the southern end of Moresby the waters started opening up more to the pacific swell, and things got livelier. SGang Gwaay is fully exposed to the pacific, and I made my way through the channel separating Moresby from Kunghit island, past the small town of Rose Harbour and out to the Pacific proper. This was my favorite kayaking of the trip; paddling in protected waters is great and all, but I just love the vitality of the swell and the life it brings.

After spending the night on Moresby as close as I could get to SGang Gwaay, I crossed to it the following morning. SGang Gwaay is an incredible place. There are two halves. First, the island itself is beautiful, with a wild feel, nice channels and small islands for exploring in the north. I fully circled the island, which was not a great idea in the building swell (there was a small storm coming in) and waves reflecting off the cliffs on the island’s west side.

The second half to SGang Gwaay is the village itself. On the east side of the island is a small, protected bay which is the site of a Haida village that was abandoned in the 1800s after being ravaged by smallpox. The site has been left intact, beyond what the forest is doing to reclaim it. There were many longhouses in the village; these have collapsed, though their foundations and some beams remain. There are also several groups of totem poles, still in their original positions. The memory of these has really stuck with me, seeing these poles made me feel something of the shadow of the village as it was 200 years ago. Many are in very good condition, with sun bleached wood fairly resistant to rot. There are several Haida caretakers living on the island, who take a few steps to slow the poles’ decomposition. Access to the village is done as a guided tour. I was the only one there that morning, and the guy who showed me around was extraordinarily knowledgeable about the place and its history.

After leaving SGang Gwaay the storm was arriving in earnest and I got some good wind wave surfing making my way back up and past Rose Harbour, then things mellowed again except for some annoying winds as I got behind Moresby.

Going back north I had more time than on the way south, took more of a meandering route and saw more of the park’s highlights. The first of these was at Burnaby Narrows, in the channel separating Moresby from the good sized Burnaby island. This channel is indeed very narrow, but tidal currents are weak as no large area of water drains through the channel. Rather, at low tide much of the channel gets extremely shallow, and there is a lot of life growing in the water here and easy to gander at. Anemones, crabs, moon snails in the sand and so forth. A grouping of anemones right under the water’s surface, and an eagle that was hanging out near the channel entrance:

The next major stop north of here was at Hotsprings Island, a small island a couple days paddle from Burnaby with, as you might guess, some very nice hot springs. There are also Haida caretakers managing the springs (as well as at several other places in the park, though here and SGang Gwaay were the only ones I visited). Bigger and more developed than the springs at Hot Springs cove near Tofino, but still rustic. A more protected location too, it was really nice to soak in the springs, run down to the beach and hop in the ocean, then head back to the springs. Traded that off a few times. There was a zodiac with eight or so people that came in at the same time for the springs, so things were a little crowded, but it was good to socialize for the first time in a week.

From here I made my way up the outside of the archipelago, which generally offered better kayaking than the route I took going down. More birds, more intertidal life (starfish below) and some very nice small islands a few miles further out which had good rock gardening and seal populations to avoid spooking. Some paranoia hung over this segment of the trip, with winds always threatening in the forecast and hurrying me up the coast.

The winds eventually arrived. My original plan was to follow the coast all the way up to the town of Sandspit, then cross to Graham Island and the ferry. That didn’t work out. Doing this required making my way northwest up 15 miles of coast with few lees, and as I got to the start of this area I hit strong headwinds and steep chop, and turned around and finished the trip at Moresby camp instead. Which was fine, except I again had no plans to get myself and my gear back to the ferry.

Not many people in this area, no phones or development outside the small campground, and the next day I ended up walking the 20 odd miles back in sandals (nice, actually), arranging a shuttle to get my gear the following day, ferrying back to Prince Rupert that night (well, delayed to the next morning due to the storm). Satellite phones can be handy sometimes, I took one on the Vancouver trip in 2011 and will use them in the future too. Interesting way to end the trip.

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