Our zodiak adventure ended with whale sightings on Hecate Strait. After returning to Sandspit, I did readings in the local elementary school, hosted by Haida Gwaii Literacy. I find it so impressive that people in this remote, northern location have opted to sponsor Syrian refugees. Haida Gwaii is one of the most peaceful locations in earth. I can’t begin to imagine how the Syrians feel to be here. I met a lovely young couple, both of them working hard on learning English and holding jobs. In Queen Charlotte City I met a gracious family with young children, one of whom lost her leg in a bombing. It is heartwarming to see how the community has adopted “their” family. Friends drive the children to ballgames, the parents to English lessons, they bake cakes and help with shopping. The Syrian family may have left behind relatives, but they gained many new aunts and uncles in Haida Gwaii.
I did readings and presentations in lovely schools and libraries all along the coast from Charlotte in the south to Masset in the north. I walked into one school to find that the power was out in the entire village. “Yeah, that happens often,” the principal said with a shrug, “probably an eagle that flew into a power line.”
In another village I asked directions to a house. “Turn right after about three pole lengths,” was the answer.
Charlotte has a great Visitors Centre with information and maps. The Haida Gwaii tourist guide has a lot of useful information. Too bad shops and restaurants are not really geared at visitors: the information centre, the coffee shop and most other places are closed on Sunday. The whales, however, don’t go by at the calendar. They circled and spouted along the shore every day.
One of the most impressive places to visit is Skidegate’s Museum and Intepretive Centre. This massive wooden longhouse, has a museum that houses ancient totems and other carvings, paintings, photos, costumes, woven hats and tools. The place gives you a great glimpse into Haida history and culture. I highly recommend visiting here before exploring the island: http://haidagwaiimuseum.ca
Skidegate has a First Nation’s village with beautiful longhouses and totem poles along the water front. A long house is a traditional house – often a community centre – that has massive ceiling beams and square posts on each corner. The Unity Pole of Skidegate was just recently erected. Driving north, the tiny village of Tlell has several art studios and a great bookstore. We spotted sandhill cranes in a field nearby and walked on pebbly beaches, including Balance Rock where we looked for crabs while eagles watched us.
Port Clements is a logging and fishing village with a great library. We hiked the Golden Spruce trail. If you ever go here, be sure to first read the book The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant.
Finally we reached the northern town of Masset. It is small but full of colourful characters and history. I was surprised to find market tables full of produce and bakings in the middle of town. Traditional Mennonites live on homesteads nearby and bring their garden produce, cakes and breads into town to sell. The library in Masset is a gorgeous old log cabin. I enjoyed doing a presentation surrounded by honey coloured logs lines with books. Be sure to pop into the Secret Garden behind the RCMP office, where you can sit on a sold wooden bench among flowers and blossoms.
From Masset it is only about 2 KM to the First Nations town of Old Massett. Again, longhouses and totem poles indicate that you are now in a traditional village. I stayed in the spacious Haida Lodge, which looks like a small bungalow from the street but turned out to be much larger with spacious rooms. The very kind lady who made our breakfast, told us that her husband is a carver. How lucky we were to be invited into the carving shed. Here we watched in awe as two men carved a 60’ cedar. They each had a tiny chisel and carefully worked along the pencil lines, making figures appear. 10’ of the pole will go into the ground, and many tonnes of rock will be used to keep it firmly in place. We were told that it will take 400 people to raise the massive pole. Besides several poles, there were also longboats in the shed. Their traditional paintings in red and black make for an awesome sight. We felt very privileged to see this ancient art in progress.
From Masset we drove to the end of the road. First we passed an icon: an old, painted hippy school bus in the bush, famous for the cinnamon buns that are baked and served here. Next, we strolled along agate beach, of course picking up several agates.
Then came Tow Hill – an important spot in Haida culture. We climbed the hill to admire the view of the open West Coast sand beaches and learned more Haida legends. The view here is of Rose Spit, where the first Haida people originated. I found it fascinating to learn that a clan can own a story or a song. Stories and songs can be given to another clan, and then the original clan that gave it away can no longer sing the song or tell the story.
We walked on North Beach and saw the outline of Alaska’s most southern islands across the water. Haida Gwaii is a fascinating place. I was lucky to have almost no rain. It can be cold and windy. But it’s people and their culture make this a heart warming place, of gracious hosts and intriguing tales.
On my last night, I was honoured to be poet laureate during a fundraiser evening for Haida Gwaii Literacy. The dinner included herring roe and rice with seaweed, as well as three different kinds of salmon. What a thrill to share the stage in the gorgeous longhouse with a traditional Haida storyteller who spoke in Haida, and with award winning musicians. As I left the islands to come home, I got hugs in the airport from newly made friends. Haida Gwaii is a very special place and, some day, I hope to have the opportunity to return to this magical land.
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