Paddling in a Ghost World (Cont.)

The British Columbia way: a centuries-old spruce on Moresby Island     Photo: Bobby Fisher

Access & Resources: Haida Gwaii

Gord Pincock and his company, Butterfly Tours (604-740-7018; www.butterflytours.bc.ca), offer eight and 12-day, all-inclusive guided trips for US$1,170 to $1,690 per person. Moresby Explorers Limited rents kayaks and provides transportation to and from points throughout the park. A one-week single kayak rental with transportation to the park starts at $223 (800-806-7633; www.moresbyexplorers.com). Paddlers traveling independently in Gwaii Haanas are required to make advance reservations ($10 per person) by contacting Tourism British Columbia, 800-435-5622; www.hellobc.com. Once visitors arrive at the park they must pay a user fee ($38 covers six to 14 nights). Call 250-559-8818 for details.

ROSE HARBOUR IS AN odd place. The first thing that catches your eye in the sheltered cove is a pair of rusting boilers once used for rendering blubber from sperm, gray, and humpback whales. Closer inspection reveals a rocky beach littered with bone fragments and shards of metal from exploding harpoons. Beyond this wreckage are the furnaces. Until the 1940s, Rose Harbour had been a slaughter ground for whales. Today its calm waters feel like a sanctuary.

Only a handful of white people live in the village now, those who went back to the land in the seventies and stayed. In 1978, a small consortium of them bought 166 acres on Kunghit Island and homesteaded. The Rose Harbour Whaling Company, as the group is called, predates the creation of Gwaii Haanas and owns the only private land within park boundaries. Only six people remain.
The land and sea provide most of what Rose Harbourites need, but money for the outboard, the radio phone, and the children's clothes has to come from somewhere. As the watery path to Haida Gwaii is taken by more tourists, Rose Harbour has turned increasingly to a service economy: If you need a shower, a room, a kayak, or a meal, Rose Harbour has it all.

Because of the manic-depressive weather, kayakers paddle these waters the way a mouse negotiates a kitchen patrolled by cats, darting furtively from one hiding place to another. It requires considerable patience—something that three days under a wind-battered, rain-beaten tarp will test. Witnessing a bald eagle execute a flawless barrel roll is a wonderful reward for being still, but not enough to keep restlessness from driving me into the freezing water—suitless and maskless—to dive for sea urchins.

On the fourth day the wind dies down enough to allow us across Houston Stewart Channel, the southern gateway to SGang Gwaay. We paddle five miles around the south end of Moresby Island through dense fog. We might as well be paddling through clouds. There is no other sound but the rhythmic dipping of paddles and the muffled roar of the surf breaking up on Adams Rocks a mile away. These moss-covered rocks are all that lie between us and SGang Gwaay. At the end of Louscoone Inlet, a craggy, tree-lined cove, we spot five of the largest and rarest birds in Haida Gwaii: sandhill cranes. Even Pincock has never seen so many in one place. It's deemed a good omen and we camp there.

The skies clear during the night, and the following morning, squinting in the unfamiliar sunshine, we pack the kayaks for the one-and-a-half-mile paddle to SGang Gwaay. Today the sea is glassy and the waters around Adams Rocks seethe quietly as puffins hurtle back and forth like bumblebees on speed.

Circumnavigating SGang Gwaay, we feel the Pacific swell beneath us, but it's only four to six feet today. We tie off to knobs of bull kelp and fish for greenling, rock cod, and maybe a salmon.

Today, the Haida sites are guarded during the summer by an organization called the Haida Watchmen, whose job it is to make sure they are treated in a respectful manner. It's considered an honor, particularly for the watchmen who guard Ninstints. The village was evacuated in the late 1800s after smallpox wiped out all but 30 people. Nearly half the remaining poles here are fire-scarred because, according to local legend, once the village had been reduced to a mass grave, members of an enemy coastal tribe braved Hecate Strait, the shallow, storm-prone channel that separates the islands from the mainland, and set fire to the village in an act of posthumous revenge. In the 1950s, anthropologists carted off many of the finest surviving poles; you can find them today in museums around the world.

On this sunny August afternoon we look at what collectors and time have left behind. Bleached like bones, the fixed and staring faces of eagles, ravens, killer whales, frogs, bears, and beavers—heraldic crests of the previous inhabitants—gaze back at us from a forest of 40-foot poles. Their deftly carved features are exaggerated and intimidating: Tongues loll, nostrils flare, teeth are bared, but these expressions seem more the effects of rigor mortis than of the ferocity of life; this is a place of ghosts.

Back at our camp on Louscoone Inlet, a culture away, two doctors—an uncle and nephew from the States—discuss the relative merits of kayaking and motoring. Marty, the uncle, waxes eloquent on the joys of paddling, while his nephew, Jay, extols the virtues of the BassMaster motor. The uncle counters with the cardiovascular benefits of paddling for yourself. "Frankly," says the nephew, "I'd just as soon go to the gym for two hours and then jump on my Jet Ski." You can almost see the lightbulb go off: "That's it! I'll bring a Jet Ski up here. Then I could see everything."

Pincock is listening to all this—it is impossible not to because we are sitting in the midst of a profound, Edenic silence. He crouches down to stir a pot on the fire. "It wouldn't be worth the trouble," he says, chuckling mirthlessly. "You'd be dodging too many bullets."

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