Wednesday, August 6, 2008

2008_July Gwaii Haanas - Queen Charlotte Is.

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Overview Map of British Columbia west coast - Queen Charlotte Islands are in the upper left corner - Vancouver is in lower right.

Queen Charlotte Islands - Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve encompasses southern half of the chain of islands.

Sitting weeks after I have returned, our trip to Gwaii Haanas– the misty islands of the Queen Charlotte Islands seems like a dream – a temporal transportation from this land to one truly different – naturally deep and saturated with wildlife, laced with rich human history, intertwined with the traditional stories of Eagle, Raven, and the other spirit beings as well as first nations encampments, western explorers, furriers, whalers, loggers, and now the lighter touch of the ecotourist.

Suffice to say modern air travel, first leg by airliner from Vancouver, BC, then the last leg by a skittish, yet nimble float plane from the small outpost town of Sandspit can get you most of the way there. But once the floats of the bush plane skim away into the wind is when the most special part of the journey and transformation begins.

We are left on a rough stone beach – left wide and exposed by the dramatic tide cycle – sometimes up to 20 feet. Once the hum of the plane recedes into and around the closest bend in the nearby island group we are left with just the lapping of the water on the stones, the cry of the nearby oyster catchers, the occasional eagle’s alert call or the sound of some startled woodland creature or jumping fish. The wind makes sounds ranging from a slight swish to a mighty roar as it filters through the towering cedar and spruce tress that make up the bulk of the surrounding canopy. We look up at the scuttling clouds spitting rain and are rewarded with the magical and powerful swish-swish-swish of a pair of beating raven’s wings as it flies just overhead. This rush of sound and wilderness texture wraps around us all within the first few moments of being deposited here by the pilot. Like the warmth of a good soup, the mighty broth of land and sea and sky and spiritual magic seeps into our bones as we are accepted and welcomed to this wonderful place.

We travel by small hand powered craft – not too dissimilar from the way humans have traveled in this part of the world for thousands of years. Our pace is well suited to take in the splendor of our surroundings – both airborne, land born, as well as on, and beneath the waves. We paddle from camp to camp – gather water each day as we need it, pitch camp on protected beaches, where our foothold in the forest barely extends 50 feet into the lush undergrowth. The coastal rainforest is lush and complex here – building a tall forest canopy on the thinnest of decomposed organic material covering the underlying volcanic rock. Many large trees remain here in the southern reaches of the Queen Charlotte Islands – traditionally know as Gwaii Haanas by the Haida people who occupied this area for so long before westerners came. Between the large trees is a riot of ferns, moss, fungus and other low light plants covering every square inch of the forest floor. There is virtually no flat land here as the hills climb almost immediately from the water at every site.

Each day, we awaken, prepare for a full day of outdoor activity as we exit our carefully pitched tents, generally breaking camp every other day with the off days being exploratory paddle days returning to the same base. Under our group dining fly, or out on the beach we consume our varied breakfasts of eggs, porridge, muffins, fruit salad and strong coffee carefully prepared for us by our skilful guides in small groups or alone considering the brightening sky and looking aloft for birds and out to sea for whales or seals. We are carefully dressed in layers of synthetic clothing and wonder materials that keep us warm throughout the day’s changing conditions.

We break camp, load the boats, haul them to the water line as a team, and push off into the cold water – gliding away – hopefully without a trace left behind. The team learns quickly what is required and we grow more coordinated day by day making the whole process flow often with few words beside the quarterback’s count just before we lift the boats.

Days are spent paddling, gliding, floating with the current, exploring tidal creatures, bird watching, beach exploring, whale watching, reading, writing, taking pictures and generally having fun. Hot meals are prepared and served by our guides and gorp holds us up between meals.

At the start, we are keeping careful track of the number of sightings of each species, but that soon is abandoned as we are seeing so many of everything that counting seems pointless. Bald eagles, oyster catchers, minke whales, harbor seals, moon jellies and more. Most plants and animals appear where we expect them – others not. For example, in our careful exploration journeys inland we discover abalone shells and other shells far from the beach, and sometimes in the branches and crooks of trees. These we are told have been deposited by ravens who have picked up the seafood by the water and carried it aloft to be consumed on a stable branch overhead.

We learn a new phrase CMT – which stands for culturally modified trees. These trees, usually cedars, have any number of deformities that reflect the sustainable harvesting of some part of the tree – either a strip of its bark for rope making or basket weaving, or a straight, clear plank separated from its truck. The cedar tree was the chock stone of Haida culture providing versatile building materials for housing, baskets, cooking and storage boxes, hats, aprons, and foremost for formidable canoes. These large, seaworthy canoes enabled the Haida to raid other tribes up and down the coast establishing their supremacy – gathering slaves and other trade goods from as far away as Brasil. With the plentiful source of high concentration protein in the surrounding sea, an efficient and long lasting building material, and slaves for help, the Haida had more leisure time than other native peoples and used it to develop and maintain a rich oral history of strong clans – to make extensive artwork, and dramatic carved poles. These poles, which form the most easily recognizable iconography for these people told storied of clans, and of an individual’s wealth through the hosting of lavish potlatches.

We also learn from the daily VHF weather radio forecasts that for this area small craft advisories are never issued for everyday deserves a small craft advisory and it would be redundant. With strong currents, many rocky shoals, rapidly changing weather, and the dramatic change in water from the open stretch and depths of the wide Pacific to the constrained waterways between this island grouping and the relatively shallow Hecate Straight separating us from the mainland by 70 miles of shallow open water. For this reason, we travel carefully, usually in the mornings before the wind comes up, sticking close to shore following the contours of the shallow bays and jumping from point to point on the bigger crossings. Although the water is chilly, I never feel cold paddling, and am very comfortable in the stable fabric and aluminum tensioned umbrella shaped-like a boat that is our Feathercraft double folding kayak for this week. There is flexibility in the hull – more so than with a more rigid plastic or fiberglass hull. The boat seems to roll more over waves along its length, and we can feel the undulating pressure of bull kelp tubes on the bottom of the boat as we glide over it near the shore. The narrow inflatable bladders along the length of the gunnels adds buoyancy and stability – especially when we are fully loaded with our gear, drinking water and whatever group gear we can stuff into the numerous cavities and between our extended legs.

As the days progress, my body acclimates to the natural rhythms of daylight and dark, activity and much needed sleep. The tide rises and falls on a predictable cycle and I am settling into a deep, undisturbed peace. Even though I surround my self with reading material, log book, harmonica, and camera when on shore – I more often then not sit leaned up against a driftwood log and stare out to the water – scanning for whales, or ravens, or jumping salmon, slowly beach combing for evidence of life, and watching the dramatic sky and it’s scuttling clouds. Hours pass in the blink of an eye and my heart rate drops to almost indiscernible. Days pass, blended into one another, and I’ve lost count. Day names are irrelevant. I have arrived.

All too soon, the silence is broken by the throb of the returning float plane. Somehow, it lands, skims to a stop and backs up to the beach where we await the disembarking passengers. They are wearing clean dry clothes and their skin has the shine of a recent shower. I can even smell the distinct different soaps and shampoos they used just hours ago and a world away from here. They will inherit our boats, our beach, our guides and will spend a week pushing another week northward in the island chain. They will learn – they will season, just as we had. We form a line and load our gear hand over hand into the hold behind the door, clamber aboard stepping on the pontoon, and then we lift off in a spray of saltwater, circling and climbing quickly. I catch a fleeting glimpse of the remaining crew on the beach before they are lost in the mist and forest canopy below, greeting each other and getting acquainted with that magical place – the Gwaii Haanas.

Exploring Sandspit on our arrival day.

Fly to put-in...

Day 1 - Burnaby Narrows to Alder Is. (yellow track)

Day 2 - Out to Scudder Point and back - too wet to photo - lots of kelp beds

Day 3 - Up Juan Perez Sound to Marco Island

Our soulful trip mate, Steve Leonoudakis sat out on a point in the drizzle, playing harmonica, and letting the spirit of Haida Gwaii come to him in the form of a simple song (performed for us along with a D minor harmonica) around a modest campfire below the high-tide line:

Haida Gwaii
Grey grey sky
Rising from the trees
Over blue-green seas
Paddle in my hand
Hold me in this land

Arc of whale
Splash of tail
Midnight blows
They come and go
Call me in my sleep
Call me to the deep

Raven’s wing
Forest sing
Eagle rise
Spirit skies
The tide rolls in
And the tide slides out

Haida Gwaii
Grey grey sky
Rising from the trees
Over blue-green seas
And the tide rolls in
And the tide slides out

And the tide rolls in
And the tide slides out
And the tide rolls in
And the tide slides out
And the tide rolls in
And the tide slides out

Day 4 - Hutton Inlet and back

A Threshold Between Worlds

There is no doubt that these islands have a powerful effect on people and the light may have a lot to do with it, perhaps because it is meted out so grudgingly. The Queen Charlotte Islands are among the rainiest places in North America…where the total hours of cloud cover amount to more than 250 days a year. When the sun does shine it is often through a prism of water particles, and for this reason, rainbows are a common occurrence here….But there is more to it than water and light.; the life force out here is extraordinarily strong in a literally, biological sense. Twenty three species of whales live in or pass through the region’s waters, and the islands themselves are home to one of the continent’s highest concentration of bald eagles. Burnaby Narrows, a slender channel in the middle of the archipelago, contains one of the highest concentrations of sea life per square meter than any place on earth.

From The Golden Spruce
By John Vaillant

Day 5 Across the sound to Hot Spring Island and then on to Murchison Is.

Day 6 - Out to the point and back

Skidigate to Prince Rupert - BC Ferries
Prince Rupert to Port Hardy, Vancouver Is. - BC Ferries

Link to great whale watching operation - Stubbs Island - plus daily photo blog of sightings from the wheelhouse...

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