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Richard Wiese travels to the Mystical Land of the Haida Watchman
Posted on February 20, 2013

Skang Gwaii

From the time he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his father at age 11, new Eddie Bauer Adventure Travel guide Richard Wiese has been drawn to the power of exploration. In the years since, Wiese has traveled the globe in pursuit of science, cultural discovery, and the transformative power of personal interaction as a guidebook author, a journalist for publications such as The Huffington Post, and as the Emmy-nominated host of the Born to Explore television series on ABC. His travelogue has included missions that range from bioprospecting for extremophiles in the crater of Mt. Kilimanjaro, where he discovered 29 new species of life, to working with Chilean horse whisperers, experiencing Aboriginal ancestral rituals in Australia’s Northern Territory, and tracking polar bears while examining climate change with the Inuit. In his first post for the LYA blog, Wiese explains what draws him to travel through the lens of a recent journey to the ancient totems and rituals of the Pacific Northwest First Nations. This is his report from the Northwest coast. -LYA editor

rainbow over Quenn Charlottes ( Haida Gwaii)

Words and Images by Richard Wiese

Growing up with my father, who was a Pan Am pilot, we always had a world atlas or globe lying around. He was more than just a pilot, he was a pioneer: the first person to solo the Pacific Ocean in an airplane. Talk about a lot to live up to! He taught me to look at the world as an exciting place, giving me a passenger seat on his adventures across the globe, and transporting me into his stories.

My father instilled in me a sense of adventure, and the idea that I was a cultural ambassador. I was inspired to write my book, Born to Explore, during a trip I took to Antarctica with a group of 70 high school students in December 2002. The trip was intended to expose them to Antarctica’s wondrous ecosystem in a time of notable global warming.

Aboard a burly icebreaker, we traveled along Drake Passage, which separates North America from Antarctica, when our ship came upon a pod of approximately 50 whales. The whale biologist onboard nearly tripped overboard running to the rails, as he had never seen so many whales together at the same time. It was an extraordinary spectacle of nature that none of us would likely ever again witness.

Much to my surprise, there were about a dozen students who did not look up from their Gameboys to catch what probably was a once in a lifetime sight. Their lack of interest in the world beyond electronics saddened and frustrated me.

My hope is that Born to Explore inspires curiosity in both the nature enthusiast and the nature-impaired, and provides information on the necessary tools to discover and love the outdoors. To that end, I translated my book into a television show with the same name, which I created, host, and executive produce.

Over the course of filming my show, the question I find myself asking over and over is: In today’s interconnected world, is it possible to truly be alone with nature? In my opinion, Canada and Alaska may be the real “Last Frontiers” of pure wilderness. In other parts of the world, even if you’re among the great African animal migrations, or high in the Swiss Alps, you still come across the occasional traveler.

In an attempt to embrace the great wild, I recently visited Gwaii Haanas to film the famous giant carved poles of the Pacific Northwest. Literally called the “Islands of Beauty,” they are also known to naturalists as the Galapagos Islands of North America because of their abundant sea life.

When I landed in my float plane, I was greeted by someone who appeared to be Willie Nelson. A shock of wild hair. A guitar in the back of his Zodiac. This “Willie Nelson” was actually German-born Gotz Hanisch, who left his home 30 years ago in search of true wilderness. Despite his guitar, he didn’t actually know any Willie Nelson songs. I asked.

He was, however, a remarkable philosopher. Technically, Gotz lives well below the poverty line. But he considered himself very rich in the abundance that nature provides him in Gwaii Haanas. Just to put it in perspective, Gotz lived in a nice waterfront house with a studio where he records music inspired by his remote Pacific island setting.

He ferried me to an even more remote part of the island, the UNESCO World Heritage site known as Skang Gwaii. Truly incredible, it is the resting place of very old, magnificently carved mortuary poles. It is also the home of the Haida Gwaii Watchmen, an ancient and noble group. In a tradition dating back before the Egyptians by thousands of years, the Watchmen have been guardians and protectors of the land and its heritage. It is a position of honor, as these poles are sacred and are believed to house the remains of ancestors and ancient spirits.

Fitting in with my escape from the modern world, the Haida carvings are very mystical, with a Lord of the Rings feel. They are certainly a sharp contrast from Gotz’s homeland, which just goes to show that the land of your birth is not necessarily the land of your heart.

During my visit, I was honored and trusted by a Haida Watchman to stand alone amongst these giants and reflect on the many generations of his people who had stood in the same spot. It was a chance to witness a living culture and to immerse myself in the spirituality of their land.

The typical noise of civilization is gone. It’s a warm sunny day, and all I can hear is the chattering of nature without any other distractions. Very powerful stuff. Usually when you try to “drop out and unplug,” there always seems to be interference from the outside world. I gloried in the cathedral of nature. Walking back to the beach, I see “Willie” waiting on a rock with his guitar. I know it wasn’t posed but it almost looked like an album cover for “Willie Nelson Goes North.”

Maybe the universe sensed my thoughts were drifting back toward civilization as it decided to send me a message in a bottle. It floated up to the shore in the form of a volleyball with “Japan Volleyball Association” stamped on it, accompanied by Japanese soda bottles. It was clearly debris from that terrible tsunami that tragically hit Japan in March of 2011.

As I turned the volleyball in my hand on this isolated beachhead, several distinct cultures were brought together in an instant. Debris from Japan, a philosopher from Germany, an American adventurer, and a Haida Watchman.

I reflected on the Haida people’s creed that “all things are connected.” At this moment, I could see the wisdom of their words. In a world where we consider connectivity based on Wi-Fi hubs or hot spots, sometimes all it takes is sitting on a beach in a remote Pacific Island and finding a message in a bottle.

 

 

 

 

Author: - Wednesday, February 20th, 2013
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  1. Rob

    Thank you for such a personal reflection of your visit. For those of us left to visiting these special places through your your writings and photography I can only imagine the sense of tranquility you must have felt. Looking forward to your next adventure!

  2. a watchman

    I’m wondering why you would publish a picture of yourself walking outside of those shells that mark where visitors cannot cross? The Watchman who let you be by yourself in the village site gave you a rare privilege that you obviously did not respect.

    There are also many other innacuracies about Haida culture and the Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program in your short piece. Actually none of it is accurate to the point of being stereotypical and disrespectful. So disappointed in this representation of us.

  3. Richard Wiese

    Dear Watchman,

    Sorry you did not like our representation of the Haida culture.
    I can assure that we were under strict supervision by not only by a Haida Watchman but also by another official. We followed their instructions to the letter of the law and legal boundaries. Our hosts have seen our film and were extremely touched and happy in the positive and accurate light the Haida people were portrayed.
    I invite to watch another Born to Explore as we sincerely try to have other cultures around the world tell their stories in their words.

  4. Andrew Ames

    Hello Watchman,

    We’re indeed surprised that you were disappointed by our program. As Richard mentioned above, we took great care to honor all traditions of the Haida culture. We approached this production with great respect for the Haida people. We also worked very closely with the Haida authorities before and during production to ensure that we observed all rules and regulations and did so in the most positive manner.

    In addition, please know that the Haida Watchman was with us for the entire time we were on Haida Gwaii. We never left his sight. He never told us that we had crossed into any area that was out of bounds. If he had, we never would have set foot there. In fact, any place that you saw Richard walking was an area around which the Watchman had taken us before the cameras were rolling, and in which we received his permission to film. Not once did we step into any area that we were told we should not tread.

    As Richard said, we received nothing but high praise from Haida authorities for presenting the culture in a respectful and positive manner. I’m very sorry that you feel otherwise.

    Sincerely,
    Andrew Ames

    Senior Producer, Born to Explore

  5. Teresa Newberry

    I truly enjoyed your story here on this wintery Saturday morning. I may never get to go to Gwaii Haanas but your words and images showed me a place I had never heard of. Perhaps it needs to go on my bucket list.

  6. Leif Bredesen

    I really enjoyed your piece, Richard. I am saddened though to hear of the emotional bankruptcy of some of our youth. Trish and I have been on 4 whale watching expeditions so far. We have been to Alaska, Ucluelet, Tofino and Briar Island in Nova Scotia. I have also sailed along the Gulf islands in Washington and BC, and never tire of watching these majestic mammals. It is a pity that some people can’t see the real beauty of our nature.
    Haida Gwaii is now on my list to explore. It looks so tranquil. The ancient history there must be palpable. The carvings are marvelous and must tell a story or two. Hopefully we will be allowed to visit sometime!

  7. Alex G

    This is really cool- definitely going to look into their culture. If anything, reading Mr. Wiese’s account wants me to read more articles by him. I’ll be thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail next year and hope it turns out to be half as cool as the Pacific Northwest!

    Cheers and keep writing!

    Alex

  8. Alex G

    And Leif, I’m 22 and love being outside- don’t lose hope in all of us!

  9. Christine Loch

    Loved reading this article. I live in Alberta and have long wanted to visit the Gwaii Haanas as I find the culture, art, history and natural beauty of this area absolutely fascinating. Definitely on my list of things-to-do. I’m confused about one part of the article though…it states the Drake Passage separates North America and Antarctica. I’ll have to consult an atlas, but I’m wondering how that is possible considering the vast distance between the 2 continents????

  10. Nancy Reid

    So exciting to read about your adventures that I can only dream about! Thanks for your insight. Hope to get to see one day with my own two eyes!

  11. Richard Wiese

    Thanks for all the wonderful comments and questions.
    Quick mention on a typo regarding the location of the Drake Passage. It is between South America and Antarctica.
    Good to hear we have some young adventurers among us :)
    Currently filming in India and I look forward to hearing from you guys again .

  12. Deborah Guettler

    What a magical time you must have had! I’ve been pondering my next adventure – one that must include the beauty of nature, culture, and a little solitude. Looks like you found it. Thanks for sharing it with us. Looking forward to reading about many more of your adventures.

  13. Richard Wiese

    Thanks Deborah,
    There is a world with many wonderful things near and far.
    Good luck with your own journeys
    With kind regards
    Richard

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