Paddling in a Ghost World

The tumultuous, rolling waters off british columbia's haida gwaii lead to eerie totems of the past

Haida Gwaii's Rose Harbor: summertime population: 6     Photo: Bobby Fisher

DESPITE THE NORTH PACIFIC storms circling off the coast like jets in a holding pattern, our guide, Gord Pincock, is doing his best to see us through our eight-day kayak expedition in British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands, also known as Haida Gwaii. For the past three days, six of us paddlers from the United States and Japan, plus Pincock and his assistant, Suzane Couture, have been pinned down on a sheltered beach waiting for a weather window to open and let us continue to SGang Gwaay, an island at the southwestern tip of the 180-island archipelago. SGang Gwaay was named for the sighing sound made when 40-foot storm surf rolls across a reef, but this is a wonder that Pincock, who has been paddling in Haida Gwaii for half his life, doesn't want us to experience—this and something called "clapitus."

Clapitus, he tells us, occurs when a large wave bounces off a cliff face and collides with the wave behind it, turning the sea into an aqueous trash compactor. It is hell on small craft: A 20-foot wave rebounding off a wall will head back to sea as a ten-footer, but when it butts heads with the next 20-footer the two will merge into a mountain of confused hydropower. The feeling aroused in the paddler as this bastard child of fluid dynamics first buries him and then sends him free-falling into the trough is, at best, one of exhilarated consternation, and at worst one of cotton-mouthed terror. The problem with clapitus is that it doesn't stop. It runs its violent routine over and over again, until you flee far enough offshore or battle through it into a safe harbor.
Pincock, a solid, agile, ruddy-faced 38-year-old British Columbia native, first encountered clapitus on a scale he had previously experienced only in a recurring nightmare. "The swell was 30 feet," he explained as we gathered around the campfire at a deserted Haida village site on Kunghit Island about five miles north of SGang Gwaay. "The mountains, the color of the sky—everything—was exactly as it had been in my dream. I was thinking to myself, 'This time, you've really done it.'" Exhausted, seasick, and terrified, Pincock suddenly found himself surrounded by porpoises. Buoyed by the encounter, he surfed and submarined his way into the cove he'd been looking for. "Once I made landfall," he said, "I didn't leave my campsite again for five days."

Lying 50 miles off the B.C. coast and 40 miles south of the Alaska border, Haida Gwaii resembles a disembodied wing flying west into the Pacific Ocean. We're paddling the southern end of this chain, through Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. Nearly 5,000 people live on Haida Gwaii, and just less than half of them are directly descended from the islands' original inhabitants, the Haida people, a tribe of seafaring warriors whose ferocity, mobility, and naval daring have drawn comparisons to the Vikings.

The Haida's reputation isn't well known south of the border, but their canoes, longhouses, and cedar totem poles represent a high point in North American art. It is because of these poles—the Angkor Wat of the Pacific Northwest—that we wait so patiently for a shot at SGang Gwaay. Cedar is exceptionally durable, but in Haida Gwaii—essentially a moated rainforest clinging to the shoulders of the snowcapped Queen Charlotte Mountains—a typical pole stands only about 150 years before it falls over and is consumed by moss. SGang Gwaay's village of SGang Gwaay 'Ilnagaay (aka Ninstints) contains the most famous and most intact of these poles—more than two dozen still stand—and the island has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Haida have survived against all odds, despite having their numbers reduced in the late 1800s from more than 10,000 to fewer than 600 in one generation of warfare and a biological holocaust of smallpox and influenza that came with the fur traders. As the Haida's numbers have rebounded to about 2,000, so has their art of pole carving. Six poles were raised in the village of Skidegate on Graham Island in 2000, and dozens more have been carved since the Haida began the monumental task of cultural reclamation initiated by native artists in the fifties and sixties.

In 1985, after a long battle that pitted logging interests and the B.C. government against a coalition of Haida and other concerned preservation and environmental groups, Gwaii Haanas was made into a 138-island national park preserve. As such, it has been saved from the clear-cut logging that has razed forests in much of northern Haida Gwaii. In the park, the forest primeval still grows unchecked. There are cedars roomy enough to live in and spruce trees with more than a thousand growth rings. The deer and black bears, not to mention the killer whales, seals, and sea lions, have little fear of humans. There are no trails and no signs. In Gwaii Haanas, it is clear that nature rules and you are only a visitor. It's an easy place to disappear.

If anything goes wrong out here, there is no cell-phone coverage, and many areas are blind to radio reception altogether. To get to Rose Harbour, the site of an abandoned whaling station on Kunghit Island at the southern end of the park, where Pincock keeps his kayaks, we flew from Vancouver to Sandspit, in the northern part of the Queen Charlottes, then traveled in a van 20 miles over logging roads, followed by more than 100 miles in a Zodiac. A friend who made the trip on a rough day said, "It was like sitting in front of a fire hose for four hours." At that point, the journey has only just begun.

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