By Julia DeWitt, reporting from a National Geographic Young Explorers-funded expedition to sea kayak and explore the unique cultural heritage of British Columbia's Haida Gwaii archipelago.
Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, is an archipelago of roughly 150 islands that lies 75 miles west of the remote coastal town of Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Nicknamed the “Galapagos of the North” for their remarkable ecological diversity, Haida Gwaii translates to mean “Islands of the People.” The Haida are the people that these islands belong to, and it is their rich history of conservation and cultural preservation paired with the landscape itself that has inspired us to first paddle its rough and pristine coastal waters. Our water expedition will be followed by time in the backcountry, with a stint in Skidegate learning more about the rich history of conservation activism and the concomitant cultural preservation movement that has developed there.
These islands are the first to greet the heaving water and walloping winds of the open and frigid northern Pacific Ocean, making for both highly variable weather and dicey seas. Thick fog that besets the islands year round rolls in and out unpredictably and prevailing westerly winds funnel and whip around the islands making it impossible for the lone kayaker, protected by only her small craft, to predict where the next gust might come from. The water is not for novices.
The Adventure Squad—as we call our team consisting of Tara Davis, Julia DeWitt, Lauren Sinnott, and Fiona Smith—began its expedition with 16 days in sea kayaks traveling self-supported down the east coast of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, the national park that lies at the southern end of Haida Gwaii and the gem of the aboriginal visionaries who fought hard to protect it from the logging industry that has decimated so much of the North American northwest. Starting at Moresby Camp, our kayakers will wend their way down the coast, hopping between the protective embraces of islands that outline the main island of South Moresby in an attempt to avoid the currents that threatens to hall them out into the nearly unnavigable Hecate Straight.
When they got off of the water on August 7th, the kayakers and I linked up again to embark on the second half of our expedition. Haida leaders such as Guujaaw and Miles Richardson have often referenced the inextricable link between the islands and the cultural vibrancy of the Haida people when making their case for both environmental conservation and self-determination. With this link in mind, we will stay on Haida Gwaii in order to interview these and other leaders, activists, and organizers in the hopes of learning more about the rich history of beauty, embattlement, and triumph that brings what is truly spectacular about this place into sharper focus.
With our skills and experience on our side, and a touch of naivete that we believe has just enough weight to hold us down, the Squad has set out. Tara, Fiona, and Lauren have just finished their sixteen days on the water. They have gotten the hang of the push and glide of their boats, have camped with Gladys, and learned about the tradition of indigenous protectors that she is part of, and maybe even seen a whale or two. Even if returning to unemployment and mounting students loans gets the better of us, for now this first adventure has just begun.