Sunlight shines through the trees, highlighting the riot of green growing from the top of a centuries-old mortuary pole, the carved images of a raven and a grizzly bear easier to see in the bleached wood once the watchman points them out.
This is S’Gang Gwaay, a village site of the Haida First Nations people, part of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve at the southern tip of Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These are the last remaining totem poles in a settlement that thrived for centuries before being decimated by smallpox in the 1800s. There will be no conservation effort. The Haida believe these burial poles are a representation of the life cycle; once they fall, they will be reclaimed by the forest.
It is impossible to stand on this hallowed ground and not feel something – there is a sense of awe but also of urgency – in the knowledge that this special human place will soon be gone but that it will also begin again as something new.
I rode on the bow of a wooden boat guided by Maple Leaf Adventures to get here. I sat in front of the wheelhouse under the watchful eye of Capt. Alex Ruurs. My fellow passengers stood around me, pointing out bald eagles, oystercatchers and cormorants sailing past our heads. “Humpback whale breach off the starboard side,” someone yelled, handing me binoculars. We coasted over crystal waters full of spiny sea urchins, stroking the backs of starfish. We watched a black bear feeding at low tide, heard the crunch of crab shells between his massive jaws. We touched the tentacles of a baby octopus and watched the arms of anemones wave in the current before finally arriving on this beach to hike through the woods and stand in front of the totems of S’Gang Gwaay.
Known as the Canadian Galápagos because of its wealth of endemic wildlife, Haida Gwaii is an archipelago off the northern coast of British Columbia known as the Queen Charlotte Islands until 2010. Largely covered in temperate rain forest, more than 150 islands form the shape of a bird’s wing – the largest, Graham and Moresby Islands, in the north, and the smaller collection of Gwaii Haanas to the south. To the east there is Hecate Strait and the mainland; to the west, the straight drop of the continental shelf and the open waters of the Pacific.
This is a place of possibility – where, if you listen, you might just hear the earth breathe.
For an Orange County resident, it’s a land of what ifs: What if there were no drought? What if the redwoods weren’t so desperate for a drink? What if we were free from the fear of wildfire? What if instead of the crackle of dry grass underfoot there was an emerald carpet
of moss, just begging to be touched. For
a native Canadian like me, who has made her home in Southern California for most of her adult life, it’s some strange alchemy that lets me be in both places at the same time, like living inside my own deepest desires.
Selected for Canada’s Signature Experiences Collection by the Canadian Tourism Commission, Maple Leaf Adventures has provided conservation-focused big adventures aboard small ships since 1986.
“We had a modest sailboat growing up,” explains Kevin Smith, who is Maple Leaf’s president. “I worked as a salmon researcher and with the Coast Guard to pay my way through school. I found that I needed to be out in boats, and I’ve been able to turn my passion for the ocean into my business.”
Smith has created “eco-adventure cruising,” using the principles of preservation, education and hands-on experience to offer a unique experience for travelers who crave more than a superficial, just-passing-through kind of trip.
This is not your average cruise ship. It’s a 88-foot converted tugboat, known as the Swell. Built in 1912, it hauled other ships for close to a hundred years. After $4 million-plus in renovations, it’s a passenger vessel of incomparable beauty, its interiors paneled in polished wood, its silver portholes gleaming. Morning kayak trips mean searching the shore for bears but also taking photos of our boat, the snow-topped peaks and a forest of trees reflected in the water around it. It is impossible not to feel lucky. Swell accommodates up to 12 guests in six cabins with high-thread-count sheets and limited-edition prints. Every room has its own bathroom, every shower runs hot, and you can drink the water straight from the tap, thanks to a state-of-the-art desalination system.
A crew of five includes the captain, the first mate, a deck hand, the chef and a naturalist. Not only are they experts in their own fields, but each has a connection to the environment and an adventurous spirit that infuses each
day with expectation. On this trip, anything could happen.
Between expeditions ashore, from Tanu to Rose Inlet and back to Windy Bay, guests fish off the side of the boat and the crew drops baited traps in the hopes of further enhancing our three-course, locally sourced meals. Who wouldn’t want to add an appetizer of Dungeness crab to the pan-seared salmon with black beluga lentils and farro from Alberta?
“We forage as much as we can,” says first mate Kristina Long, “but it’s seasonal. We find salmonberries, strawberries and blueberries, mint, and morel mushrooms in the fall. We only take as much as we need, though. With the crab traps, if we get 20, we only really need six for everyone to try it.”
Our only catch was a single sea urchin. Naturalist Bristol Foster split the spiny sphere, produced a spoon and digging it into the creature’s wet depths asked, “Who wants to try some uni?”
On Haida Gwaii, really anything can happen.
Named one of the 50 Tours of a Lifetime by National Geographic Traveler, Haida Gwaii is “best experienced without expectations or itineraries” because Mother Nature makes her own plans. Excursions begin with a land tour of the inhabited islands, an overnight at Alaska View Lodge in Masset, and an afternoon at Skidegate’s Haida Heritage Centre. While the Swell has a loose idea of where it’s headed, once it’s boarded in Cumshewa Inlet, our crew meets in the wheelhouse every morning to make adjustments to the day’s plans, contingent on the weather, whale sightings or potential foraging expeditions. One thing is constant, however: Every evening the captain steers into a quiet inlet along the route where the water is like glass, so you can enjoy your cr¯me brûlée without having to stop your utensils from rolling off the table.
After dinner, while guests lounge on the aft deck under a yellow cedar carving by Tim Motchman, sipping their last glass of a B.C. wine, the engine is turned off. Any overnight power needs are supplied by a silent bank of batteries.
It makes sense that the Swell is available for full-ship charters, because of how easily strangers become fast friends here. The Haida people’s history is an oral one, passed from generation to generation. Honoring this tradition, we meet in the galley on our first night to talk about where we’ve come from and how it is that we’ve arrived on the Swell. One of the other passengers realizes that the sailboat her late sister once owned has since found a home with the first mate’s mother. “It makes me feel good to know that a piece of her lives on,” she says. “It’s like I was meant to meet you.”
This is a powerful place, where the ties between things feel especially strong. It’s a common theme in Haida mythology, where humans are found hiding in the eye of a killer whale, beneath the skin of a bear or their limbs protruding from a clam shell. And after talking to one of the watchmen on Tanu, it’s obvious they don’t put much stock in linear time either. Children are believed to be the reincarnation of their elders. They are given the same names, and the actions of their namesake are attributed to all – past, present, future and supernatural. Stories are relayed in the collective “we” and take place in the ever-present now.
I am comforted by this way of looking at the world, the importance of community. My mother died when I was very young, yet I can feel her presence here like she is hiding within my skin. Making my way into the forest on a path that stretches out in front of me like a spine, it is her feet I see, one in front of the other, her hands reaching for my camera. And when we finally spot a pod of orcas – even after being told it probably wouldn’t happen – the captain stops the engine and lowers the hydrophone into the water so we can listen in.
I hear these killer whales talking and I recognize their cries immediately: It is the sound of my heart I hear, calling out to my mother.
Haida Gwaii. These things happen here.
4-10 nights, $1,890 to $11,251
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