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Story by Karoline Cullen, Photography by Cullen Photos
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

Above the shoreline of a sheltered cove stands a row of totems. They lean, crumbling with age but with still discernible details. Carved more than 100 years ago, their faces stare out to sea and their symbolism reaches across the ages in a mystical way.

After decades of talking about visiting Haida Gwaii, Gary and I finally stand amongst the poles at one of the most sacred sites in these islands, SGaang Gwaay Llnagaay. We have but a short week for exploring some of the natural and cultural treasures on this remote archipelago off the northern coast of British Columbia.

The morning of our SGang Gwaay expedition dawns clear and calm. Perfect for the hour and a half float plane ride south, over lushly forested islands surrounded by brilliant blue waters, to Rose Harbour. After donning survival suits, we have a half hour bouncy zodiac ride to SGang Gwaay or Anthony Island. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to one of the best examples of a traditional coastal First Nations village site.

We meet Ken, one of the Haida Watchmen who act as guardians at the ancient sites during the summer. He relates the legends of the animal, human and mythic figures while we wander amongst the mortuary and memorial poles of the village. Taller memorial poles commemorate an ancestor. Mortuary poles were carved to honour a chief or dignitary upon their passing and held bent wood boxes with their remains. It is said their spirit stays with the pole until it falls. Many moss covered mounds hint at poles reclaimed by the forest. I stand on the beach imagining how attractive the village must have looked so long ago. The row of mortuary poles fronted a line of cedar houses, each with a frontal pole; all backed by the verdant forest.

We learn more about the ancient ways of life at the Haida Heritage Centre at Kay Llnagaay in Skidegate. Each of the monumental poles set along the beach represents one of six ancestral southern villages. Figures inspired by the natural and spirit worlds are carved on the cedar logs and the tops soar almost to the clouds. In the carving shed lie some partly finished poles and huge, traditional Haida canoes. The rich smell of cedar pervades the air.

More poles are found throughout the town of Old Massett, on the northern end of Haida Gwaii. Most are memorial poles; many are worn and weathered. We now can identify some common figures such as eagle, raven, bear, and the mythic thunderbird. Eagles galore perch in trees and on poles, stoically silent while ravens harass them with swooping dives and raucous calls.

Not far from Port Clements, we walk through the quiet, moss-draped forest and view the felled Golden Spruce tree. The tree was revered by islanders and is the stuff of legends for the Haida. It was much mourned when it was cut down as a protest against logging. There is not much to see of the dead tree but the living ones along the winding path are humongous and filter the sunlight. It feels like we are walking in fairy tale woods.

Our cultural experiences continue at a traditional Haida dinner at Keenawaii's Kitchen. We sit family style at a long table by windows overlooking the water. Appetizers include Sguu (dried seaweed), dried K'aaw (herring eggs on kelp), and Gilgii (dried salmon) artistically served on a scallop shell. Almost everything Roberta serves is either caught, foraged or grown on Haida Gwaii. The tangy wild cranberry sauce is made from the berries she painstakingly picked one by one. Young helpers from the village serve up crab, salad, salmon, venison, vegetables and dessert. The evening concludes with some haunting traditional Haida songs, accompanied solely by a drum.

Fancy feasting calls for walking and the expansive beaches like the ones we see from the viewpoints on Tow Hill beckon. While walking near the Tlell River on East Beach, one of the longest beaches in North America, we meet a local who says he often has this strand all to himself. From where we stand, we cannot see anyone else but spy the far distant tip of Rose Spit. We could walk there along the beach but from here it would take at least four days. As a parting gift, he hands me a handful of agates he collected on his walk. For these, and all our experiences this week, I say "Haaw'a, Haida Gwaii!



The Haida have lived on Haida Gwaii since the end of the last Ice Age and their heritage dates back at least 12000 years.

Haida Gwaii is a two hour flight from Vancouver. There are airports in Sandspit and Massett.
BC Ferries sails from Prince Rupert to Queen Charlotte City and the trip take six to eight hours.
Car rentals and accommodations are limited so book in advance.

On the Web:

PHOTOS: As attributed below.

1. Mortuary poles at SGang Gwaay Karoline Cullen photo
2. Haida Heritage Centre Karoline Cullen photo
3. Old Masset pole Karoline Cullen photo
4. Haida singer Karoline Cullen photo
5. On the climb to the top of Tow Hill Karoline Cullen photo
6. Author on East Beach Gary Cullen photo

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