Michigan City Sioux Falls Billings EBR-1
Although it wasn't the closest airport to downtown Victoria, I chose to land at Nanaimo for this part of our trip. Victoria's airport is several miles out of town, and it didn't seem like Nanaimo would require much more driving time. Besides that, it was in the direction we were planning to head next; and it's near Chemainus, which we wanted to visit anyway.
The airport is also home to the Nanaimo Flying Club, a group of the friendliest pilots you'll ever meet. They let us tie down for three days gratis, and sold us fuel at the best price we saw in Canada. After conversion to U.S. dollars and gallons, it was even cheaper than a couple of places in the States.
We could have stayed another week or a month on Vancouver Island, but the time has come to move along. Our next stop will be the most distant point on this trip; also the farthest north or west Barbara and I have ever been: Haida Gwaii. We have over 500 miles to cover today, and the forecast is for instrument weather at our destination. So we struck off for Nanaimo, where our plane was waiting for us. At the airport, we saw an airplane that seemed to be masquerading as a car.
It's a BD-4, an example of the first "kit plane" in the world.
It was designed by Jim Bede, who also designed the aeronautical ancestors of
the Grumman Tiger we're using for this trip. Bede introduced the BD-4 in
1968 and sold thousands of plans. Several hundred were actually built.
This one caught my eye because of its registration, C-FORD. The U.S. is
almost the only country in the world that uses numbers for airplane
registration; everybody else uses letters exclusively. So here we are at the
Nanaimo airport, looking at
an airplane with the word FORD on its side.
We got the plane loaded and ready, and took off for our fuel stop. At the beginning of the trip, the weather was good VFR. We passed the military airport at Comox, then flew by Campbell River, where we were asked to move a couple of miles off the route to accommodate some high-altitude skydivers. No problem. Here's the Coast Range off our right side as we head up the Strait of Georgia toward Port Hardy, near the north end of Vancouver Island. There, we'll turn right a bit to follow the coastline, with no land at all on the left side.
As we flew by Kelsey Bay, we started to pick up an undercast layer. It cleared out by the time we reached Cormorant Island (Alert Bay), where Mungo Martin is buried and where we couldn't see the world's tallest totem pole from the air. →
OK, we didn't try very hard.
We also saw fish farms between Alert Bay and Port Hardy. We saw fish farms last year in Nova Scotia, where we were exposed to the intense local fractiousness over their existence. They're no less controversial in British Columbia, but it looks like they're here to stay.
Despite a grim forecast, we landed on Campbell Island (Bella Bella) in beautiful weather. Almost at the same time, this old Avro landed for the same reason, to refuel. They were carrying a crew from Whitehorse to Victoria.
This sad-looking Twin Cessna is barely off the edge of the ramp. As the story goes, it was being used to transport cocaine from Alaska to the Lower 48, when it had some mechanical problems. The pilot landed in Bella Bella and caught the next scheduled flight out. A mechanic soon arrived to repair the plane, but he abandoned the job when he learned what the plane had been used for. It's been sitting here since October 2000.
Half an hour after we took off on our second leg of the day, the forecast
instrument weather rose to greet us.
As we passed the Estevan Group (islands),
the GPS informed me that the nearest airport
was Bella Bella, the one we had just left – 73 nautical miles behind us.
The next closest was Sandspit, over 80 nautical miles away on the other side
of Hecate Strait.
That's a bit of culture shock
for a U.S. pilot who's used to finding airports a lot closer together.
A brief descent through those clouds and an easy instrument approach put us on
the ground at Masset. Haida Gwaii at last. If we had still had the good
weather from Bella Bella, we would have been able to see Alaska before landing
– the south shore of Prince of Wales Island is only 40 miles from here.
Instead, we just secured the plane in light rain and got ready to see one of
few places in Canada
that escaped the last Ice Age.
Haida Gwaii has two airports; neither one sells gasoline for airplanes. To say the least, this complicates flight planning, especially in a place with a lot of IFR weather. Prince Rupert is only half an hour away, but they don't have avgas either! A few years ago, they discovered a leak in their 100LL tank, and decided not to fix it. Ketchikan is also fairly close, and they do sell avgas, but that would mean two trips through the Customs gauntlet. So we carried some in cans for this one leg, and poured it into the wings when we landed at Masset. That way we were able to leave with the tanks nearly full.
Between about eighty and eleven thousand years ago, most of Canada was under two miles of ice. The only places spared were Anticosti Island and the Avalon Peninsula in the East, and the West Coast islands now called Haida Gwaii. Because of this isolation, the islands have enough unique life forms that they've been called "Galápagos of the North." There are species here that are unknown anywhere else on Earth, and many familiar mainland species don't occur here at all, or didn't until they were introduced by man. For example, in the animal kingdom alone,
|Unique species||Introduced species|
|Dawson's caribou||Sitka (blacktail) deer|
|Queen Charlotte goshawk||raccoon|
|northern saw-whet owl||squirrel|
|Queen Charlotte ermine||rats|
|black bear (ursus americanus carlottae)||beaver|
|cougar, wolf, snake|
In 1774, the Viceroy of Mexico ordered Juan Perez to sail his corvette Santiago from Monterey, California, up the Pacific coastline to the 60th parallel, where Russians were known to be active. Perez was to claim the intermediate land for Spain. Miserable weather kept him well offshore until he spotted Langara at the northwest corner of Haida Gwaii. He named his discovery Cape Santa Margarita, but couldn't land there because of the weather. As he lay offshore, Indians from the island rowed out to trade with him in their great canoes, impressing him with both their excellent seamanship and the quality of the sea-otter pelts they had to trade.
Thirteen years later, George Dixon was in the area, and did enough exploring to realize these were islands, not mainland. He named them for his vessel, Queen Charlotte, which in turn was named for the wife of England's King George III. Remembering Perez's visit, the Haida were quick to establish trade with Dixon, taking iron adzes and knives in exchange for their pelts. The strait between these islands and Alaska is still called Dixon Entrance after this early explorer, but the islands themselves have been officially named Haida Gwaii since 2010. We'll learn why, in due course.
Haida Gwaii comprises about 150 islands. Graham and Moresby Islands are by far the largest, with virtually all of the population now living on Graham Island. Graham Island has almost all of the paved road, connecting the northern port at Masset and the biggest population center at Queen Charlotte City. We were able to visit several spots during our too-brief stop here. A couple of the names on the map are places we couldn't get to, but are useful for reference.
Some call these the Misty Isles. It's not hard to see why. These pictures can only hint at the breathtaking beauty of this place. We're on the south shore of Graham Island here, looking over Skidegate Inlet at Maude and Moresby Islands.
George Dawson was an eminent Canadian geologist, explorer, author, and
anthropologist. Despite being stunted by a childhood disease (he grew no
larger than a ten-year-old), he covered more territory than any other surveyor
for the Geological Survey of Canada. He discovered much of British Columbia's
coal, and drew the maps that spawned the Klondike Gold Rush. Dawson City,
Y.T., is one of many places named for him. Noticing linguistic similarities
on the two continents, he was among the first to speculate that North
America's first people might have come from Asia.
In the 1870s, Dawson went to the Queen Charlotte Islands to survey them as a potential coal-producing region. While there, he was the first white man to enter the Haida village of Cumshewa (Hlkinul), not far from today's Moresby Camp on the north side of Cumshewa Inlet. He photographed this village and several others, producing historical records that would prove invaluable when the people were gone from these homes.
The islands burgeoned in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as pioneers came to exploit their rich natural resources – coal, gold, copper, and timber – not to mention fish. Many came and lived in tents until they could build something more permanent. Some lived in hotels. We stayed in the oldest hotel on Graham Island, which is quite recognizable from this 1910 photo despite over 100 years of renovations and additions.
When the English settled along the Strait of Georgia, Indians from the B.C. coast followed. Camps were established around Vancouver and Victoria for trading, and many of the natives worked in the community as well.
In 1862, the Gold Rush was booming. On 12 March, SS Brother Jonathan steamed into Victoria from San Francisco. There were 150 passengers, who went ashore for a night of hard partying. Brother Jonathan left the next afternoon with 400 aboard, bound for the ore-rich Salmon River (Idaho).
Shortly afterward, an Indian woman in Victoria came down with smallpox. The disease spread rapidly; within a month, Victoria was in the grip of a full-scale epidemic. Medical authorities disagreed over quarantine and vaccination, both of which would have been effective. Many white people were vaccinated, but almost no Indians. The legislature in Victoria hastily decided their best answer would be to forcibly evacuate the Indian camps, which they did with the help of Navy gunboats.
The Indians had little choice but to return to their villages, or try to. Almost none of them made it. As each evacuee got sick, his mates put him ashore to die. Bones littered the coast from the Puget Sound to Alaska. In 1862, British Columbia had a population about 50,000. By the end of 1863, more than 32,000 were dead, most of them First Nations people. Almost every Haida family lost somebody. Some families were completely wiped out, and their villages were crippled without enough people to sustain them.
Brother Jonathan was caught in a midsummer gale off northern California in 1865, carrying 244 people and several crates of gold coins. She foundered and sank, leaving only 19 survivors.
The Haida in these islands began moving to new quarters. The old villages had been fiercely competitive for centuries, making this transition especially difficult. There were thirteen Indian villages in Haida Gwaii in 1862. Twenty years later, there were only seven. The last 30 survivors finally left SGang Gwaii (Ninstints) in 1884. By the early 20th century, all the Haida in these islands had resettled around Skidegate or Masset.
The Canadian government was trying hard to assimilate its First Nations about this time, too. Children were separated from their families and sent to government boarding schools. At these schools, they were taught in English, and were made to speak that language exclusively. Within one generation, the Haida language was almost extinguished. Today there are only a few dozen fluent Haida speakers in the world, all of them elderly.
The Council of the Haida Nation is trying to revive the language and the original names of things, so many places are known by two or three names. Torrens island is named for R.W. Torrens, a gold prospector. The Haida in town call it Jewel Island, except for those who are working diligently to keep their native tongue alive; they call it Sgaay.yas.
The names of the villages on the first map above are those given by English speakers. When the traders came, they called the villages by the name of their chiefs. Skidegate, where we got an introduction to native heritage, was called HlGaagilda or Kay (sea lion town) by the people who built it. The English name is derived from their chief's name, SGiidagids.
The Haida language is difficult, but important. To a people who have been removed from the villages where their ancestors lived for centuries, it is the last bit of glue that binds them to their ethnic identity. At the Haida Heritage Center, we learned about the Skidegate Haida Immersion Project, a program to keep the language alive among the younger generations. This is especially difficult, because the language had never been written. All Haida history has been passed down by painstakingly memorized rote storytelling. Different methods of writing the language have been tried. The current orthography uses the Latin alphabet with some modifications for the sounds that don't exist in English. There are several of those sounds, and they're not easy to learn. But with patience, the oldest generation has had some success at revitalizing Haida among younger speakers.
The Haida story begins with a great flood. When the flood abated, the rock Xaagyah rose above the water near SGang Gwaii (Ninstints), with Sea Foam Woman (SGulúu Jaad) sitting on it. She became the grandmother of all Ravens, one of the two Haida clans. If any creature approached, SGulúu Jaad drove it away with lightning from her eyes. She allowed only two beings to come close. One was a mouse, which was originally a much larger beast. As the mouse came closer and closer, he grew smaller and smaller, which is why mice are so small today. The other one allowed near was Jiilaa Kuns, who became the grandmother of all Eagles, the other Haida clan.
The Raven and Eagle form the logo of the Haida governing body, the Council of the Haida Nation.
Because of the encounter between SGulúu Jaad and Jiilaa Kuns, every Haida is born as a Raven or as an Eagle, defined by the mother's clan. Marriage within a clan is considered incestuous, so an Eagle man must always marry a Raven woman, and vice versa. Therefore, a Chief's son could never succeed him, because the son would be from the other clan. The Chief passed his title to his sister's son, who was of the same clan. The successor was expected to marry the old Chief's daughter, solidifying family property. In European culture, this would be seen as a marriage between first cousins, but the Haida viewed family relations differently from Europeans.
I need some old monochrome photos to illustrate some points in this section. To find out who took them and when, hover on the thumbnail for a second or two.
Working mainly from George Dawson's 1878 photographs, John Smyly carved this exquisite model of Skidegate Village for the Canadian Museum of Civilization. They gave it to the Haida Heritage Center in 2009. The intricate detail in this diorama is visible in this enlarged view. Several aspects of Haida construction are evident, notably the different varieties of totem pole – the artifact most people come here to see. Different types of poles were raised for many reasons, as we learned here.
House Frontal Pole
House frontal poles display the crests of those who own the house. They show the status of the homeowner and acknowledge family advances through marriage. Carved by hollowing out the back of a log, house frontal poles are placed up against a longhouse. They act like beacons to visitors from other villages and signal which houses belong to people of their lineage – houses where they can enter and be provided for. There is an opening at the bottom of the pole, which was used as a door to the house.
Memorial (Potlatch) Pole
Memorial poles were raised in memory of a dead person, usually one year after their death. These poles are carved in the round with one or two crest figures at the base and another at the top. The middle section of the pole is left blank or carved with potlatch rings to show the number of potlatches hosted by the deceased during his lifetime.
Mortuary posts were the graves of people of high status. Usually fifteen to twenty feet high, the posts were made with the wide bottom flare of the log at the top, allowing more space for a hollowed out chamber. A bentwood box holding human remains would be placed in the chamber and a panel, carved or painted with appropriate crests, would front the post. While the pole was under construction, the boxed remains were sometimes placed on top of a single carved crest figure, or held in the mortuary house behind the main house.
Shame poles are somewhat rare. They were erected to ridicule some person of high standing, usually for not living up to obligations. Often the subject of derision was carved upside down, as we can see in the center of this example.
The Haida Heritage Center commissioned six monumental or story poles in 2000, to be placed at this cultural museum. The poles represent six ancestral villages, and are located north to south in the same order as the villages themselves. They were raised, one pole each day, in early June 2001. Of course, we saw them all, but I only have pictures of three of them.
Hlkinul (Cumshewa) pole
The village name is an anglicized version of their Chief, Gomshewah. George Dixon met a man on the west coast of Haida Gwaii and gave him a hat. Later, he met the same man at Cumshewa village, and remembered him well. This was the last village abandoned by the Haida in the wake of the smallpox epidemics. Some inhabitants remained here until 1905, when Methodist missionaries convinced them to relocate to Skidegate. Some of them returned from time to time as late as 1926.
The pole was carved by Guujaaw (Gary Edenshaw), who consulted with the late Chief Cumshewa, Charles Wesley, for guidance about its design. Guujaaw was instrumental in the protests that led to the Gwaii Haanas Agreement. He has been President of the Council of the Haida Nation since 2000.
SGang Gwaay (Ninstints or Nan Sdins) pole
Ninstints is the best preserved village; also the most remote, at the extreme southwest of Haida Gwaii on Anthony Island. Almost nobody in the village survived the smallpox epidemics, and there are no surviving descendants of those who once lived here. So carver Laada (Tim Boyko) decided to copy one of the poles that once stood in the village. It's the tallest pole in the old photo. The original pole was removed to Prince Rupert in 1939. When it was later moved to the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, carver Freda Diesing made a copy that now stands in Prince Rupert. So this is the third of these poles.
T'aanuu (Tanu) pole
The Tanu pole was carved by Giitsxaa (Ron Wilson), the current Chief Cumshewa. (The Cumshewa pole is in the background of this photo.) Giitsxaa consulted Tanu Chief Nathan Young to learn what figures tell the story of Tanu, and how to arrange them on the pole. The other five poles are conventional house frontal poles, hollow at the back. This pole is solid and free-standing. Members of both Haida clans from Tanu live in modern Skidegate; the Raven and the Eagle are also both represented on this pole. There is a much larger version of this picture here. The grass in the large picture hides the base figure of the Tanu pole, the killer whale. The human face in the whale's forehead represents the blowhole.
Returning to the Cumshewa pole in the background, we see two human figures guarding the killer whale at its top. These are watchmen, symbolizing the Haida watchmen who were posted at strategic positions around the village to warn of approaching enemies. Normally, three human figures were used. The central killer whale was only used on poles in Cumshewa.
Four sites within the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, and Skedans village just outside of it, are attended by Haida Gwaii Watchmen from May to October. In addition to reminding visitors to respect the history of the sites, the watchmen share their knowledge of land and sea, their stories, songs, and dances, and sometimes even some of their food. Although the Watchmen are funded by Parks Canada, they operate under their own autonomous management.
The other three story poles outdoors at the cultural center represent HlGaagilda (Skidegate), Ts'aahl (Chaatl), and K'uuna (Skedans). The Skidegate pole was carved by Gaah Yah (Norman Price), who chose to leave it unpainted in reference to an older time on Haida Gwaii, before paint was used.
While we were on Haida Gwaii, the Gwaii Haanas Legacy Pole was dedicated. This monumental pole was carved to honor the 20th anniversary of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement, where Canada and the Haida Nation agreed to disagree about who really owns these islands. The next morning, the Legacy Pole was towed to Windy Bay (Hlk'yah GaawGa) on Lyell Island, where the major battles between the Haida Nation and the logging interests were first fought. On 15 August 2013, this became the first monumental pole raised in Gwaii Haanas in 130 years.
At the Cultural Center, we learned how to make a canoe. Our teacher (white shirt) had the unlikely name of Cohen Isberg. Each canoe starts out as one carefully selected tree, which is shaped with small adzes. The sides are curved in, not like we see in these pictures. When the canoe is ready to be finished, the builders made huge fires to heat rocks. They filled the canoe with water and tossed the rocks in when they were hot enough to make the water steam. Big mats covered the canoe to keep the steam in. When the master decided that the steam had done its work, he directed eight men to pull outward on the gunwales, and the shape was transformed into what we see here. The weight of the rocks keeps the bottom of the canoe flat. The thwarts are a modern addition. They were not used for the canoes that Perez and Dixon saw in the 18th century.
This canoe is a working vessel, but we were a bit too late in the day to catch a ride in it. It's Loo-plex, a fiberglass copy of Bill Reid's cedar canoe Loo Taas. Loo Taas is on display inside the canoe shed here. Haida canoes have been built as big as 75 feet long, to hold 40 crew and passengers. After European contact, they started using sails on some of them.
Local Haida say that the knowledge was transferred both ways, but that it took the Europeans longer to catch on. It had to wait for the 20th century for the Mauritania and Lusitania to be built with the same proportion as a Haida canoe, 10:1.
One morning, we hopped the ferry over to Alliford Bay on Moresby Island, to catch a day-long boat tour around Louise Island. Among other attractions, this island is the site of two Haida villages and an abandoned lumber camp. Louise Island is named for Queen Victoria's fourth daughter, who is also remembered in the Rocky Mountains at Lake Louise. The same woman – Princess Louise Caroline Alberta – also gave her name to one of Canada's provinces.
Before we could begin our tour, we had to drive about 45 minutes on a logging road to the launch site at Moresby Camp. The lumber industry is big here; abundant rain and a temperate climate make these trees grow fast, tall, and straight. But the practice of clear-cutting is deeply offensive to the people who were here centuries before the lumberjacks arrived. In 1985, this feud came to a head at Windy Bay on Lyell Island, when a group of activists (Haida and white environmentalists alike) blockaded logging roads to protest what they felt was violence against Mother Earth.
This protest ultimately led to the Gwaii Haanas Agreement in 1993, which set aside the southern two-thirds of Moresby Island and nearby islands as the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. This territory is jointly administered by the Canadian government and the Council of the Haida Nation. The entire reserve is also protected as a United Nations World Heritage Site. One thing led to another, and legislation introduced in 2010 officially changed the name of the Queen Charlotte Islands to Haida Gwaii.
100-150 years ago, logs were sorted in the water, where they were easier to manipulate. Better equipment now allows log sort operations on land, which is much safer for the people who sort them.
We've already noted that blacktail deer are an invasive ("introduced") species, and that there are no predators here to curb their population. With no prevention, the deer would eat all the seedlings planted by the lumbermen and the forest couldn't regenerate. So each individual seedling is protected by a white plastic cylinder that admits light and water, until it grows big enough to be safe from hungry deer. It makes the hillside look kind of odd for a few years, but there's no other way.
Once we had been thoroughly homogenized by our ride on the logging road, we arrived at Moresby Camp and got dressed for the occasion. Everyone got a fine suit of rubber clothes – coat, pants, and gum boots; also, some flotation the guide assured us was purely decorative. (But we were required to wear that decoration.)
Then, our guide George led us on a short walk from the gear shed to the dock. Some of our fellow tourists thought this might be an early sorting operation, to find out who wouldn't get through the day. We all made it, including one lady in her nineties.
Finally, we were introduced to our conveyance for the day's activity, a fine rubber boat. A 12-man Zodiac, to be exact. This boat really gets up and goes. We were doing 25 knots before we knew it, headed for a day around and on Louise Island.
We paused near Aero Camp, which was a World War II depot for a logging operation that supplied lumber to build airplanes. One of these planes was the Mosquito. While we were still on the logging road on Moresby Island, we paused by Mosquito Lake – named for the airplane, not for the insect. Aero Camp remained in operation until 1965.
Then we had a close look at some of the creatures that live in this land of 25-foot tides. Both colors of starfish are the same species; for all we know, they just eat different things. They're about one foot across.
George, our guide, was very personable and very knowledgeable. He was equally at home telling us about starfish and eagles, or explaining how to use a steam donkey. Cantankerous as it could be, this machine was still better-tempered than a real donkey, and it was a lot stronger. It was used to haul freshly cut and dressed trees out to where they could be sorted and shipped. After an area had been cleared, the loggers tied a stout line to a tree that was still standing, and used the steam donkey to haul itself through the woods to its next station.
Our first stop was a lumber camp. This camp operated during World War II. Here, George is educating us about the skid road. No real roads were needed; the loggers faced a tree and just dragged stuff across it. Primitive, but better than dragging everything over the rough forest floor.
Our little forest walk was like hiking through a hobbit world.
When Canada went to war, some enlistees were given the choice to volunteer for work in the lumber camps as an alternative to the European Theater. Those who jumped on this opportunity had no idea what they were in for. The work was back-breaking, and perhaps more dangerous than the infantry. One careless step might be your last, and there were no easy days.
When the men got word that the War was over, most of them simply walked out. Immediately. Without looking back. They put down their tools, left their food and drink behind, and got out of the woods as quickly as they possibly could.
We spent a lot of time looking up in the woods of Louise Island.
There's a truly tall version of this scene here.
In her second book about Haida Gwaii, Kathleen Dalzell remarks on the spirit of the places we will be visiting on this tour. The passage is about SGang Gwaay (Ninstints), the most remote and best preserved of the old Haida town sites. But it captures the sense that visitors feel in all of these places.
… A visitor is conscious of an atmosphere of past – so pronounced it becomes reality.
The awareness is created for the most part by the few remaining totem poles silently keeping watch along the shoreline of the small cove. Grey, weathered, some tilted, others fallen – all have immense dignity. A visitor's hand put out to stroke a curve or to finger an intricate design, does so with respect – for one is compellingly aware that Ninstints is not a dead village. It is alive with memories of other years and another culture.
That rotten post; this depression; a house stood here; a great lodge filled with people; laughing children. There was the fire-pit, possessions of every sort would be strewn about – food, woven mats, chests and tools – each would have borne some form of decoration. Birth, death and the rituals of all aspects of life took place here. Walls of great hewn timbers would have surrounded this space and huge beams provided support. Now buried in the moss and spruce needles of the encroaching forest.
Like all the big winter villages of the Haida, Ninstints has a picturesque setting. A sloping shingle beach ringed with driftwood, lush wild grass snugged carpetlike around the base of old totems, and the vigorous second-growth spruce, so green and perfectly formed. It is a tranquil place in sunshine. In wind and rain the ghosts come too disconcertingly close and melancholy is hard to shake off.
This is Emily Carr's Tanoo. We didn't get to see Tanu; that's on another island, and we would have needed a second day on our tour to include it. But we did have an encounter with Tanu's ghosts.
Tanu, an Eagle town, survived the smallpox epidemics better than its neighbors, but this was tenuous. Dawson found a flourishing village of 500 people in 1878, but fewer than 150 were here when Newton Chittenden visited six years later. By 1887, only forty remained, most of them sick or dying.
The elders asked Methodist Reverend Thomas Crosby for counsel. He advised them to leave, to start anew a few miles west of Skedans on Louise Island's north shore. The white traders called Tanu Kloo, which is how the English ear hears the Haida word tlúu (canoe), a common word in everyday conversation here. The new settlement on Louise Island was called New Kloo because it was used by the same people who lived in Kloo. Relocation didn't save the Tanu Eagles. By the turn of the 20th century they had all left their new digs to re-settle in Skidegate.
Traditionally, Haida do not bury their dead. The dead stay above ground, so their spirits may return where they came from. If you were important enough, your family would prepare a fine coffin and place it on top of a mortuary pole, usually a year after your death. These poles would remain in place for another generation or two, being allowed to return to Earth when the wood deteriorated enough. While the mortuary pole was being prepared, the deceased waited in the mortuary house. Each family had one of these small outbuildings, always placed a discreet distance behind the dwelling used by the living.
Recall that New Kloo was founded on the advice of a Christian clergyman. Aside from the spiritual advantages the missionaries promised, they had the very desirable practice of giving every person his own memorial. It took a while, but for some this eventually overcame the objection to placing their dead in the ground. When smallpox ravaged the Haida here, the missionaries hastened their salesmanship, converting many of the residents of New Kloo and Skedans, which are both represented in this cemetery.
One of the more prominent converts was the Chief of K'uuna, Giidansda. In keeping with the English custom, his village was known by his name, which sounds like Skedans. After a lifetime of steady habits, he had a bit of trouble conforming with all of the new ways, but he was given a Christian burial. This is his tombstone. His epitaph reads,
Died Jan. 1899
Aged 60 years
He tried to be a
George Dawson also visited the Raven village Skedans, our day's main destination. His 1878 photo shows three examples each of house frontal and mortuary poles. Because of the door openings and the poles' hollow backs, house frontal poles returned to Earth more rapidly than the other poles.
Skedans was built on a small peninsula on the northeast part of Louise Island. George steered us around to the ancient U-shaped bay on the south side of it. Remember John Work from the Snake River Basin? He came here in the late 1830s, seeking gold for the Hudson Bay Company. His records show a community of almost 500 at Skedans. When Dawson arrived forty years later, he found a community that had been greatly reduced by smallpox. Only the Haida watchman (a woman) was waiting for us. Skedans still has a fine harbor. If you look at this expanded view, you'll see our Zodiac several yards offshore. George dropped us off and moved the boat out there to anchor. Then he paddled back in a kayak. When we left, he reversed this process.
"When the tide is out, the table is set." Many tribes claim this saying, including the Haida. We had lunch on the beach at Skedans harbor, but it came out of a cooler that George produced from our Zodiac.
There's a misplaced inuksuk on this beach. We're over 800 miles from the Arctic Circle.
While we were enjoying our midday meal, we caught a glimpse of this potlatch pole. These poles are a memorial to someone of great importance. There is supposed to be one ring for each potlatch that man hosted during his lifetime. Since a potlatch was an extremely expensive undertaking, this pole's thirteen potlatch rings are surely an exaggeration.
Tourists in the heritage villages must be accompanied by a Haida Watchman or a trusted guide like George. As he led us through the village, George referred each remaining pole to its description in John and Carolyn Smyly's Those Born at Koona, the definitive scholarly guide to all structures in Skedans.
All poles still standing (or leaning) in Skedans are mortuary poles, which were solid. The coffins have all fallen, completing their occupants' journey in this world. The second photo shows a pole that is now rootstock for a new tree.
Like the dwellings in New Kloo, these foundations are all that remain of Skedans houses. We know that well-respected families lived in these two because they had basements. When a Haida built his house, it was critically important to have the structure complete within a single day. This was necessary to please the spirits, and it just wouldn't do to start a house in the morning if you couldn't at least sleep in it that night. House raising went faster, the more help a builder could get, so it stands to reason that the most important citizens could attract the largest construction crews.
All parts of the house below ground level were snug because they were safe from drafts, so the best houses had substantial structure below the surface. The hole for this had to be dug before the frame and sheathing could go up, which is how we know these two houses were built by large parties. Otherwise, the one-day deadline could not have been met. Sometimes, a man of more modest means might put up a house and excavate later, but these ruins are known to have held community leaders because of their location in the village.
George Dawson was present at a house-raising in Tanu in 1878. He described it in a report to Ottawa:
There were a considerable number of strangers here at the time of our visit in July, 1878, engaged in the erection of a carved post and house for the chief. The nights are given to dancing, while sleep and gambling divided the portions of the day which were not employed in the business at hand. Cedar planks of great size, hewn out long ago in anticipation, had been towed to the spot, and were now being dragged up the beach by the united efforts of the throng, dressed for the most part in gaily coloured blankets. They harnessed themselves in clusters to the ropes, as the Egyptians are represented to have done in their pictures, shouting and ye-hooing in strange tones to encourage themselves in the work.
But the writing was on the wall. That same year, Dawson also visited Skedans, finding a town already in steep decline. Before ten years had passed, only twelve souls remained there. Within five more years they had all relocated to Maude Island, and eventually joined their neighbors in Skidegate.
Clamshells line the paths to remind visitors where it's OK to walk, so as not
to hasten the decay of these monuments. Obviously, the decision to do no
active preservation work was taken deliberately. In another hundred years,
we can expect that K'uuna will have completely returned to the soil.
This is the only house frontal pole remaining in Skedans. It once guarded the "House on the Beach," an Eagle house that had already been abandoned by the time Dawson was here in 1878 – maybe because it was poorly sited to withstand strong storms. As seen in the 1901 photograph, the roof and wall boards had already been removed, probably to be recycled. When John Smyly studied here in the 1950s, the pole had already fallen, its top broken away and its bottom rotting. Now the top of the pole is barely recognizable, pointing out toward the beach. We see two central figures here, a cormorant and a sculpin (bullhead) above it. These figures occupy the central one-third of the pole in the 1901 photo.
The watchman's cabin has a small pole of its own. It doesn't seem to fit
into any of the categories described above, so I'll assume it's just
ornamental. The beak identifies the pole as Eagle.
Last year, we visited Nova Scotia's Balancing Rock. When we found out Haida Gwaii had a Balance Rock of its own, we decided we had to see it. It would have been better if we knew to visit at low tide, but we got the general idea.
Balance Rock is near Tlell, which is impossible for English speakers to pronounce. Most call it Təlell, making two syllables out of a one-syllable word. The Haida name is tlall, "where big waters meet." This is where the Tlell River flows into Hecate Strait. If Haida pronunciation rules are used, then it's closer to Tθell, θ being the Greek letter theta, pronounced like th in English, or þ if you know Old English or Icelandic. Pronounce both the T and the Θ, all at once. That's still not quite right, but it's getting closer.
In the middle of this lush old-growth forest, it's hard to imagine a single tree standing out. Kiid k'yaas, the Golden Spruce, stands out. There is a Haida legend about this tree, which was sacred to them.
When the ancient people had mistreated each other, the Creator was angered and buried their entire village in snow. An old man and a boy hid under a cedar plank. When they heard a bird call, these two lone survivors of the village ran up the Yakoun River, and the old man told the boy not to look back. The boy looked anyway. Because he disobeyed, he was turned into a tree. It was said that the tree would then be admired until the last generation. (Photo by Mike Beauregard)
When the 1984 picture was taken, the Golden Spruce was over 300 years old. By then, botanists had figured out that its color was the result of a genetic mutation that left the tree without pigments that protect it against direct sunlight. The dominant fog and rain of Haida Gwaii not only protected the tree, they allowed it to flourish.
Grant Hadwin grew up in a comfortable home in Vancouver. He came north to work as a logger and engineer, and became disenchanted with the industry's practices. For reasons known only to himself, he decided to destroy Kiid k'yaas to protest clear-cutting. If there is any sense to that line of thinking, nobody in British Columbia can find it.
In January 1997, Hadwin, who was expert at felling trees, swam across the river and cut deeply into the Golden Spruce. The tree stood another two days before it fell over. Hadwin broadcast a manifesto, claiming responsibility. He was arrested and released on bond.
Claiming he feared for his life if he travelled by public conveyance, Hadwin set out from Prince Rupert to cross Hecate Strait by kayak for his trial in Masset. He was never seen again. The following summer, his kayak and some supplies were found, but there are many who believe Hadwin faked his death and is living undercover in Alaska.
In addition to the Golden Spruce, Port Clements was known for a rare albino raven, but that too has died. I'm told it's still available for viewing, stuffed in a museum. The museum was closed when we passed through town.
This falcon graced the porch of an unlikely restaurant where we had our second great surprise for the evening meal on this trip. We had been advised that the guy who ran one of Masset's RV parks put out a pretty good plate "when he feels like it." There is no way we could be prepared for what we would find there.
We walked in to find the place was completely booked. We talked the waitress into letting us try to eat at the tiny bar, when a couple of guys decided to vacate their table for us (they were done eating). We're in!
For our last dinner by the Pacific Ocean, we had Pacific salmon that were probably still swimming a couple of hours earlier. There is none better. As you can see, there are lures for sale on the back wall. You can buy your tackle in the morning and eat your catch in the evening. It doesn't get any better than that.
Haida Gwaii is the farthest north or west that Barbara and I have ever been. It took us a long time to get here, and it's not likely that we'll ever get back. We were in no hurry to leave, but it was time to start moving reluctantly homeward. First, we decided to spend a little time on North Beach, where we were able to see Alaska before we had to leave this ancient paradise.
The road continues through ancient forest until it crosses the Hiellen River (Hl'yaalang Gándl), ending at a campground where we had the choice of parking, or continuing to drive on the beach. We parked.
If we had kept going, we could have driven seven miles of beach very much like we had found at Copalis about a week ago. The sand was firm enough to land an airplane on, and it was certainly firm enough for four-wheeled vehicles. We saw a couple of trucks racing along, throwing 20-foot rooster tails behind them.
The crabs reminded us of Copalis, too, but the rocks were uniquely Haida Gwaii. There are plenty of agates here, and if you look extremely carefully, you can find argillite. This semi-precious jewel is restricted. Only Haida people are allowed to collect it, and its carvings are treasured.
Our Pacific tour has been the realization of a longtime dream, but it's time to turn for home if we ever want to get back there. We've learned things that are not taught in any schools, met dozens of amazing people, and touched places that don't even exist for most of the people in our world back home. If we ever get back to Haida Gwaii, it must be for weeks, or months, or years. The few days we were allowed on this trip were not nearly enough.
If you'd like to learn more about these magic islands, there's a decent
on to Prince George