Some people call Haida Gwaii the “Edge of the World” because you can’t go any further west in Canada. Up until a few years ago, the group of islands was still known as the “Queen Charlotte Islands,” but it has been renamed to Haida Gwaii because it is the “Land of the Haida,” – the original natives who still live here.
Haida Gwaii attracts some interesting characters – not only loggers and fishermen, but also artists, dropouts, foreigners and connoisseurs. Most of the Haida natives live in Massett and Skidegate, two small villages on the Graham Island. Overall it’s a pretty interesting mix of people, and with only 5,000 inhabitants on the islands, nearly everyone knows everybody else.
Half of the people here are Haida. They live on the islands and in the western coastal areas. They found it a lot easier to survive than the other Indian tribes, the so called “First Nations” who live further inland.
Winters on Haida Gwaii are not very cold. And there is so much food in the area that the Haida have never really gotten hungry and, because of that, they’ve had time to do other things rather than only struggle for survival. For example, the art of the Haida is part of their culture and is well known beyond the islands.
Although they are very different, the people here all seem to have something in common – they are all extremely helpful and friendly. The clocks tick more slowly here than elsewhere, so the people simply have more time than others.
They are also very trusting; no one on the island locks their doors, and everyone seems to always be welcome. Everybody helps everybody else as much as possible, and a chat is always welcome.
I just love that.
The goods in the shops on Haida Gwaii are extremely expensive. The food in the supermarket is so expensive that many people get their food from the sea, the forest and their own gardens. They also trade things with each other frequently, for example, a fresh salmon for fresh vegetables. Or a helping hand for a hunted deer.
But one thing I also learned during my stay was the fact that not only the fox and hare bid each other a good night, but everyone else wishes their neighbors a good night’s sleep as well.
Within a short time I knew all the gossip about the people in Sandspit, a village with a population of 200 at the “end of the world.” Nobody really cared whether the stories were interesting to me or not; they just told them to me anyway.
I had wanted to come to a place like Haida Gwaii for a very long time – a place where I would be able to truly rest, and it was long overdue. I couldn’t have possibly found a better place to rest up. My weariness weighed me down like a heavy lead weight, and it had forced me to the point of being continuously exhausted. I had reached the end of my rope.
After I had stayed much longer with Carol than was planned to get over my crisis, after 10 days I finally decided to take a closer look at the islands. I couldn’t thank Carol enough that she had taken me in for such a long time and cared for me so royally.
I still didn’t have much strength, but cycling on the islands here was not particularly tiring, so, with practically no motivation, I pedaled the first few kilometers and forced myself out into the new world.
I still would have enjoyed staying longer at Carol’s house, but I began to feel guilty and didn’t want to impose on her more than was absolutely necessary. Although, I had the feeling that I was not the only one with a lonely soul and that Carol was actually glad to have some company as well.
Shortly thereafter, Monty invited me to eat with him and served me the best salmon of my life. He had gotten it as a gift from one of his Haida friends and prepared it without salt and spices and smeared it with brown sugar water. It was incredibly delicious.
Haida Gwaii spoiled me every day from then on. Scenically, the islands are a dream. Because of the extreme tide difference around the islands of up to 10 meters, the world looks completely different every six hours. Either the water whipped close to the coast, or you could walk far out to sea and enjoy looking into the tide pools to your heart’s content. It’s truly fascinating what I discovered here.
Gray Bay was my home for two nights and I had the beach all to myself. Actually, I always had every beach all to myself, but Gray Bay was definitely my favorite.
Making a fire was not quite so simple, because it had been raining for nearly a week and the wood was soaking wet. But eventually I was able to get a fire started and cooked my standard food, rice and lentils, over a small campfire.
A raccoon came to visit, but unfortunately, he was somewhat odd-looking because his tail was missing and he also had a sick-looking eye. I was surprised that he wasn’t afraid of me at all, so I watched him calmly as he turned over the stones on the beach, searching for crabs and clams and found something again and again. While holding the shells tightly with his cute little paws, he would greedily lap out what he had found inside.
It was gorgeous out here. So quiet and relaxing. The trees around me were a kind of enchanted forest, a bit like you might imagine finding in a fairytale world. Ancient and wet and full of moss. Fresh and lonely. It was even a little bit creepy, especially when I hiked on one of the trails through the thick forest.
There are bears here – black bears – and so I talked aloud to myself repeatedly or sang a song to the bears to let them know that I was in the area. I would even turn on my MP3 speakers every once in a while to draw attention to myself, because rule number one is: never surprise a bear.
On Moresby Island, one of the two main islands of Haida Gwaii, I saw in total three black bears. The first one was extremely close as I drove past him on the road. He startled violently and ran up the bank, when I realized that there was a bear just a few feet away from me when I heard him panicking. Of course, I immediately stopped and we both looked briefly, but very intensely, into each other’s eyes. What a crazy encounter.
I found the second bear in the forest when I was riding on a gravel road. I saw him from a distance, but since my music was playing, he noticed me very early and then trotted on his way; he wasn’t interested in me at all.
I saw the third bear from the asphalt road, which is a total of 11 kilometers long on Moresby Island. Somehow, he didn’t want to disappear into the woods and I had quite a bit of time to watch him and think about what I would do when he would come closer. But, eventually, he also disappeared.
The next sensational encounter was with a gray whale. I didn’t expect anything, but when I stopped at a beach and looked out to sea, I suddenly saw a water fountain and the back of a whale. There was absolutely nobody around except me. Less than 50 meters away from me, a giant whale was making its rounds and I had this spectacle all to myself. It came up out of the water and then dived again and again. And after about an hour, it finally disappeared. Those were moments that I will definitely never forget.
It’s always magical to see what nature has to offer and Moresby Island was really good to me.
I discovered jumping fish, an awesome number of bald eagles, sea lions, deer, kingfisher, starfish, crabs, anemones and all kinds of creatures in the tidal pools that I had never seen before.
One woman told me that a humpback whale was stranded not far from Sandspit. Unfortunately, she gave me the name of the wrong beach, so I went there without finding anything, but shortly afterward, I met a biologist, who had taken a few samples from the whale a few days ago to find out why it had died.
He washed a few of his baleen plates in the water and I had the chance to touch them. They felt something like extremely thick fingernails and the “hair” was much more bristly than horsehairs.
He told me where I could find the whale, but I had to wait until low tide the next morning, because the water level of the river I had to cross was too high and the entrances to the bays were blocked at high tide.
Carol had fetched me again and invited me to join her once more, so armed with her rubber boots I trudged excitedly to discover one of the largest mammals in the world. Seeing a whale right on the beach and having the chance to see it in its true size made my exploratory spirit turn somersaults.
The Haida I met here found the idea of looking for the whale rather odd, but they figured it must be here somewhere. I took off running at minus 0.1 low tide, which was an information I found in the tide table.
I ran to the first bay, the second bay, and then the third, but I couldn’t find the whale. Eventually, I became worried, because I saw the tide coming in and couldn’t possibly estimate how fast I might get into trouble here. In the meantime, I climbed around on rocks and it was easy for me to figure out that, within a short time, the way back would be blocked, because there were tide pools in the rock I was walking around on.
4 ½ hours later, the tide would be at its highest level. I still gave myself half an hour and then headed reluctantly back toward safe ground.
The Haida greeted me with the words: “We were worried about you. The tide is very high right now. You couldn’t have stayed out there much longer.” “Yes, I know, but where’s the whale?” “You didn’t see it in the next bay?” “She asked in astonishment.” “No, exactly where is it?” I asked again, because I was thinking about returning again tonight.
A woman, who looked a bit annoyed, said that it surely must have been dragged back out to sea again by the two extremely high tides during the last two days, because it was so big that it couldn’t be overlooked. Besides that, it would stink a lot by now and you could hardly stand the stench if you got too close to it.
It was probably the only chance in my lifetime to discover a beached whale, but unfortunately I had missed it. Out of sheer disappointment, I almost had tears in my eyes.
As consolation prize, Carol cooked me a fresh halibut that she had received as a gift that day. Wrapped in paper foil and covered with herbs, I enjoyed this delicious fish to the fullest. And since there are so many fish on Haida Gwaii, she even gave her dogs a big piece of it.
On the ferry, I went to Graham Island, where there are 120 kilometers of asphalt and a few logging roads.
In Tlell I met a lot of interesting people. Dave & Kathryn, who earned their money fishing, allowed me stay overnight in their trailer. I met Veronika, from Germany, who has been here for a few years; Judy, who used to be a teacher, allowed me to camp on her lawn; I also met Marco, Julia and Jule, three Germans, who worked here as “woofers” (willing workers on organic farms).
At Suzan’s, who I’d never met, a bear had sneaked into the house. He chose to eat her ice cream, which he was able to scrounge from the freezer.
I think the bear had probably not survived because in the end, the islanders had no choice but to shoot him; otherwise he would have come back again and again.
The more time I spent with the nice people on the island, allowing myself to relax on the beach and absorb the nature around me, the clearer my thoughts became and the more my strength came back, but most importantly, my desire to experience more began to return.
Port Clemens has a different impact on people. There were many loggers, who met there almost every evening in the only pub in the village and passed the mug around. It was a jolly group, with whom I didn’t really have much in common. The pub’s terrace was a wonderfully beautiful place to watch and enjoy the sunset, which appeared especially colorful here.
I was a little disappointed in Massett because I had expected much more from that town, which is in the far north. In reality, it was a meaningless collection of houses at the end of the island.
Not far from Massett is North Beach, which everyone was especially raving about. I was too lazy to ride the bike the eternally long white beach all the way to the end; white beaches are just not my thing. Although, I must admit spending that night next to the ocean was absolutely great again. Listening to the waves rocking you to sleep is something worth experiencing.
Back near Skidegate, I saw 75 bald eagles in one place. What they had found or were looking for there, I wasn’t sure, because I didn’t see the birds eating anything on the rocks.
I participated in a small beach excursion, where life in the tide pools was explained to us. It was simply brilliant to learn about all the things that creep around in that environment, things that I would never have seen on my own.
I spent four long weeks on Haida Gwaii and I hadn’t regretted a single day of it. The islands have something very special to offer and will definitely be my highlight in Canada. I can say that even though I was far from reaching the end of my discovery of Canada, but I was already completely certain about it.
The people here are just different. The peace and serenity that radiated to me on the islands was exactly what I needed. I still haven’t recovered fully, and I must admit that I have my doubts about how my journey will continue. In any case, things are finally looking more positive now.
Thank you so very much Haida Gwaii – I’ll not forget you so quickly.
By the way I am already 3 years on the road by now. I know – it’s a bit crazy.