From the top of Taaw Hill, you can see Alaska. Every Haida Gwaii local you meet will tell you this. Like the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, you will be directed to Taaw Hill upon arrival. And yes, you can see Alaska from the top… sometimes. The storms that steamroll off the Pacific Ocean are the reason many travelers make the pilgrimage to this mythical group of islands and see very little beyond the lush, green forest they’re cloaked in. Brandon and I have lucked out, landing at Masset Airport on a barely overcast day in early April, a season not associated with clear weather. The sun broke through as we drove the gravel road into Naikoon Provincial Park. Passing by the empty surf and endless views of North Beach, we are soon encompassed by a mystical emerald forest. The giant hemlocks and cedars tower over the road, dripping with thick moss. Soggy, boggy wetlands fill the spaces between these ancient forests. It’s a natural welcome unlike any other. When we arrive at Taaw Hill, we park the rental van and hike the short-but-steep trail through parkland. At the small summit we peer out at the horizon, looking for a hint of Alaska’s shores. We can’t see it but it doesn’t bother us. We’ve come for Haida Gwaii, not Alaska. And if there’s any place that deserves the title of “The Last Frontier,” it’s this fascinating place.
Words and Images by Mike Berard
Haida Gwaii was once called the Queen Charlotte Islands. This archipelago—composed of two large islands—Graham and Moresby Islands—escaped the last ice age. This meant many of Haida Gwaii’s indigenous species were left intact, while the mainland’s flora and fauna suffered mass extinctions. It also means the Haida people retained language and cultural idiosyncrasies that other First Nations people lost. Tracing almost 14,000 years back, the legacy of the Haida people and their land is astonishing. Arguably even more incredible is the region’s more recent history.
On June 3, 2010, the government acknowledged the name change from “the Charlottes,” as it was colloquially known among the mostly loggers and fishermen who frequented the area, to Haida Gwaii—roughly translated as “islands of the Haida people.” The name change was in recognition of an effort at reconciliation by the Canadian government. In 2002, the Haida Nation had filed a land claim to take back the entirety of the area, including all waters and offshore underwater landmasses. What has followed since then is an unprecedented relationship between national and local government. The Haida must be consulted when it comes to their land. Always. No other First Nation has that kind of power. Step down, Alaska. Haida Gwaii is the true last frontier.
Brandon grins, wide and toothy. We are sitting in the open-air maelstrom of a flat deck truck as the diesel engine churns and we race towards the beach. The placid Tlell River to the right of the road is alive with bugs. Brandon’s smile is one of great relief. It’s almost nightfall and inside the truck is a savior.
“You owe me $5, Kenny!” says Dave to his son, the owner of this beast of a truck. He turns to me to explain. “Ken thought you’d have the van stuck right up to the differential, but you guys knew when to stop.” He laughs. I feel strangely proud. Sure, like rookies, we got the truck stuck in the soft sand of an East Beach access road, but we didn’t get it that stuck, at least not according to the locals. A local’s respect is a cherished thing to a traveler, and Dave explains we are one of many to have been pulled out by Kenny’s battle-worn winch. This fact is apparent in the ease with which the van is rescued.
The people of Haida Gwaii are friendly. From the northernmost First Nations stronghold of Old Masset to the more tourism-driven southern communities, we’re met with friendly conversation and the easygoing vehicular hand waving one only sees in small towns. One of those friendly people is Mike McQuade, owner of the North Beach Surf Shop. McQuade has been surfing Haida Gwaii since 2003, and is an accomplished surfer and waterman. A nationally ranked swimmer, he’s the man to talk to about all things surf and SUP. We rent boards and ask for advice. McQuade tells us it’s small that day, but that he’s seen the swell of North Beach shift from one to eight feet in less than an hour.
Photos on the wall of his backyard surf shop are evidence of how good the surfing can be on this westernmost point of British Columbia. The trick—as with any remote surfing location—is hitting it at the right time. Spring is far from perfect surf season here, but not so distant that a clean, rideable swell is unheard of. With advice from McQuade, we easily locate a small, peeling A-frame at a local beach break, and suit up in a vacant parking lot. Unlike the beaches of Tofino and southern Vancouver Island—where both localism and a heavy tourist trade have saturated the lineup—there isn’t one other surfer in the water. Sure, it’s a Tuesday in April, but the solitude is striking. For at least a mile in each direction, all we see is empty water, populated only by peaks that turn to modest waves, carrying the energy of Alaskan winds.
I sit on the outside for a long while, waiting for a bigger set to come in, cursing my decision to leave my gloves in the van. The water is cold here. Colder than most of the Pacific Northwest breaks I’ve surfed. To my right, I catch Brandon paddling for a fast-breaking wave that turns to a foam ball as he pops up. This isn’t magazine- quality surfing, but we came a long way for it and the reward is more powerful. I smile as I watch him pump the wave into the shore. A flock of puffins catches me off guard as they converge around me, flying low and quiet. For a few minutes, I watch as more do the same, all diligently headed west—that celebrated direction that has promised adventure for so long. I rub my frigid hands together furiously and wait for the next set in.
Four days later, we’ll find ourselves on the other side of the spectrum, with sweat running down our foreheads and strong sun in our eyes. The 10-kilometer hike to the wreck of the Pesuta is an easy one, with no elevation gain and views of thick timber and plentiful seabirds. The 264-foot-long ship foundered on East Beach near the mouth of the Tlell River in 1928 while transporting a load of Haida Gwaii timber in the middle of winter. The trail leads hikers through the lush Pacific Northwest forest of Naikoon Provincial Park, eventually depositing them onto the beach. At high tide, the walk would limit walkers to the soft sand and tangled driftwood of the high-tide line. We’ve come at low tide and can enjoy a long, leisurely lunch in the shade of the wreck. With our backs against the ancient, weathered wood and iron, we enjoy the lapping waves as they slowly climb the beach towards our feet. When the first water sloshes the soles of our sandy hiking boots, we rise and begin the hike back.
The rivers of Haida Gwaii run with dark water in winter. Almost 14,000 years of biomass has turned the bottom black. Ancient volcanic rock and boggy grassland take turns making up the shorelines, with the occasional pebbled beach providing respite. We put in by the Tlell Haida House and paddle as the high tide pushes freshwater up the river, under a bridge and into a wide, welcoming tidal delta. When the toe of saltwater meets the backed-up downstream current, we steer the paddleboards to shore and find a comfortable log to sit on.
As high tide turns to slack, we sip craft pilsner beer from our dry sack and chat about what it must have been like to live here before clearcuts and tourists marred the landscape. Both have become necessary evils for the residents of Haida Gwaii. Yet both are also a way to share the archipelago’s unique riches with the world. Wood for our homes. Inspiration for how it can be done better. Haida Gwaii gives and gives. Do we take too much? There are no clear answers. Haida Gwaii was once called the Queen Charlotte Islands, but before that it was called Xaadala Gwayee, “islands at the edge of the world.” When the tide reverses, we glide out into the current, bisect a long vein of detritus that stretches around the bend, and let the river take us back to the beginning. Back to the edge of the world. To the last frontier.
The Draw: Raw nature, outdoor adventure, empty surf and Haida Nation culture.
Travel Beta: There are two ways in: fly from Vancouver (2 and 1/2 hours), or take the BC Ferries route up the Inside Passage from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert (16 hours), then across to Skidegate (9 hours).
Cultural Treasure: Ḵay Llnagaay is the Haida Heritage Centre in the town of Skidegate. It is the worldwide authoritative collection of Haida Nation art and history, and is worth visiting as soon as possible upon arrival.
Lost in Translation: The native culture is uniquely Haida. Be sure to open up to the locals. You’ll be rewarded with insights the guidebook doesn’t share.
Food and Drink: Eat the sea. From salmon to halibut to shellfish, you are in the land of plenty. Leave the burgers for another destination.
Worth the Cash: Authentic Haida artwork by local artists.
Local’s Tip: Rent a 4×4, take your time, and be prepared to camp. The best stuff lies off the beaten path.
Extra Credit: Haida Gwaii is a big place with little access. Consider floatplane and boat charters to explore less-visited areas. And be prepared to come back. One time is not enough.
Mike Berard is a prolific Canadian writer, editor and photographer. His work has appeared in publications from Powder and Skier to Bike, as well as for brands such as Red Bull, Whistler/Blackcomb and Destination BC. He is the editor of Coast Mountain Culture. Follow him and his travels on Instagram @mikeberard.
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