September 29, 2016   Joe Cline

1-dolphins-streakAdventure into Haida Gwaii, a “place of wonder”

From the June 2003 issue of 48° North by Linda Prochilo

It is said that boats are like wine and women; they only get better with age. With the style of a bygone era and the spirit of a new age woman, Maple Leaf, a 92-foot (28-metre) schooner is no exception. As she closes in on her hundredth year at sea she continues to gracefully ply the waters of the northwest coast, exploring the myriad of islands up into Alaska.

Author at the helm of the 92-foot schooner “Maple Leaf.”

I met up with the Maple Leaf in Sandspit, located on the northerly tip of Moresby Island in the Queen Charlotte Island Archipelago (Haida Gwaii). Located on British Columbia’s extreme west coast, the islands lay 150 miles (240 kilometres) north of Vancouver Island and 28 miles (45 kilometres) south of the Alaskan Panhandle. As I embarked on this lady of the sea there was a voice in my head apprehensively asking one question: “What the hell had I gotten myself into now?”

You see no one would ever mistake me for a hardy wilderness type. My idea of getting outdoors is walking to my car, so the thought of nine days on a sailboat with 11 strangers gave me a case of serious anxiety. What I couldn’t know then was that those 11 strangers and that one historical vessel would steal a place in my heart.

Haida Gwaii is among the richest biological and cultural reserves on the planet. The secluded archipelago of 130 islands is home to ageless rainforests, sandy beaches and a seemingly endless variety of wildlife seldom seen anywhere else in the world. Within this mosaic is the legacy of the Haida, considered one of the most culturally developed and complex native groups to inhabit early North America.

Orcas leading the way to the Queen Charlottes Islands. Photo by Brian Falconer.

The first order of business on our voyage was ship’s orientation, followed by the trip itinerary – well, it really wasn’t an itinerary at all. “The hallmark of a Maple Leaf trip is spontaneity; a close encounter with humpback whales or other wildlife inevitably alters the plans,” says Kevin Smith, the schooner’s passionate owner.

Pulling on our rubber boots became a daily ritual, after which we would clamber into the ship’s two zodiacs and tootle off for shore. Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site offers much to explore, from historical and culturally significant unoccupied villages to moss covered forests that seem to have come straight out of a fairytale. The ship’s captain Erin Nyhan reminds us: “Please remember to walk with eyes in the bottom of your feet.” She is adamant about doing everything that we can to preserve what is left in this special place. So the guests wander through the forlorn village cautiously, trying not to trample on history.

Setting sail the next day the wind fills the sails and the sun shines like amber on deck. Someone yells, “Whales at six o’clock!” Adjusting our course we catch up with a pod of feeding humpback whales. With their tail fins slapping the water, the majestic creatures stir up dinner, providing us with an awe-inspiring show. Within minutes a dozen or more white-sided dolphins come zooming by the boat, sporting in its wake, even treating us to a performance of synchronized jumps. We start to feel a sense of privilege.

Moments later, out of the blue I hear “YAHOO!” Curious, I turn to find out more. I discover fellow traveller John (age 71) standing in a victory position with arms up in the air and beaming from ear to ear with an “I am glad to be alive” grin. I couldn’t help but smile and nod in agreement. It hadn’t taken long for guests and crew alike to find an easy camaraderie. We were no longer strangers.

Recognized as a “World Heritage Site” by the United Nations, Skangwaii is home to the exceptional remains of 19 still-standing totem poles and several long houses.

Recognized as a “World Heritage Site” by the United Nations, Skangwaii is home to the exceptional remains of 19 still-standing totem poles and several long houses.

Rounding the southern tip of Moresby Island. Our destination is the renowned village of Skangwaii (Ninstints), located on the southwest coast of Moresby Island, some 200 kilometres from Sandspit. Recognized as a “World Heritage Site” by the United Nations, Skangwaii is home to the exceptional remains of 19 still-standing totem poles and several long houses. The majority of the weathered totems at this site are mortuary poles or tombs protecting the remains of Haida chiefs and important family members.

Meandering northward back up the east coast of Moresby Island, the Maple Leaf arrives at Hot Springs Island, known for its geothermal pools right on the beach and its stunning views. With bathing suits in hand we are off to savour a relaxing and restorative soak in the 77 degree Fahrenheit pool. It’s a good thing that the view of the San Cristoval Mountains is so beautiful – some one forgot his trunks on the ship! The Haida are lenient about wearing bathing apparel but they are very strict about guests washing themselves before their soak.

Later, the intrepid group of adventurers find ourselves waiting patiently in the blackness of night, intently listening to the sounds of the forest. All that can be heard from this distance is the continuous hoots of a lone Saw-whet owl staking its territory. Eventually the hoots of our lone owl are joined by the noise of flapping wings brushing against tree branches in the darkness. A feeling of excitement grows among the small group as we wait for the Ancient Murrelet chicks to emerge from their forest burrows to make their way down to the water, where their parents await them. We are here on Limestone Island along with the research team from the Laskeet Bay Conservation Society, to help them band the tiny and impossibly cute chicks.

Voyage turns strangers to shipmates and friends.

Voyage turns strangers to shipmates and friends.

As this voyage on the Maple Leaf comes to an end I take the opportunity to have a quiet moment to reflect back on the last nine days. The anxiety I felt at the start of this adventure was long gone, and I was starting to feel a little sad that it would soon come to an end. My biggest fear was living in close quarters with this group of strangers and as it turns out that was the best part of the trip. We shared giggles and stories, and we created memories with each other to last a lifetime. And regardless of the gap in age between them and me, they taught me a thing or two about life, living and growing older.

On my last day aboard this grand old lady I pack up my big rubber boots, my memories and say good-bye to each of the crew and guests. As I step off the deck my fellow adventurer, John, looks at me with a fatherly eye and imparts the following words of wisdom: “Go out and bite life in the ass,” he says.

My friend, together that is exactly what we have done. The memories of this ethereal “place of wonder” will forever help keep that spirit alive.