By Tara Davis, 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. Photographs by Lauren Sinnott and Julia DeWitt.
At dawn, paddling the east coast of Moresby island, Haida Gwaii. The sun rises in the west as the night’s silhouette slips beneath the shape of Helmet island, one of 150 that make up the most remote archipelago on the west coast of Canada. Located 50 sea miles east of British Columbia and 40 miles south of Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island, Haida Gwaii stands on the outer edge of the continental shelf surrounded by ocean to the south and west. This shallow straight is known as the Hecate, Siigaay in Skidegate Haida language, and it is a notorious stretch of the Pacific. It gathers polar storms and generates swells that rock fisherman, sailors, and kayakers alike.
From the view of an eagle, known as Guud, our expedition team of three kayakers must look like colorful logs bobbing in the ebb. We are paddling in quiet anticipation of the storm as stillness settles over the landscape. As we float, my mind begins to wonder how this quiet inlet would have transformed when fleets of canoes, each carved from one old-growth cedar trunk, carried Haida up and down the coast to trade with or loot villages. With no satellite imaging, radio, or GPS, did the paddlers commit every island’s contour to memory? Or could they interpret each swirling current as mystics derive stories from the grooves in one’s palm?
Haida place names reveal an intimate knowledge of both the physical environment and the spiritual world. As told in Haida tradition, before there were even people to occupy villages, the islands were under water. Supernaturals claimed the first rock to rise from the ocean depths. Later, Haida people emerged from the sea. “It was told,” writes Guujaw, the current president of the Haida Nation, “when the waters left the Hecate Straight, our people hunted and lived in the treeless landscape. Our relatives saw the first tree and recount floods and tidal waves in their time and before.”  Scientists now agree after much debate that the Hecate Straight passageway was indeed untouched in the last Ice Age, which explains why six of the ten land mammals on Haida Gwaii are distinct subspecies found no where else in the world. They also conclude there were local glaciers, as personified in the metaphysical Ice Woman Kaalga Jaad, who hovered in front of the glacier near Xaana Kaahlii (Skidegate Inlet).
Each clan sculpted a unique dialect in osmosis with the natural features of their territory. As foreign disease forced people from the Southern Islands to settle in Skidegate and people from the Northern Islands to settle in Masset, the surviving speakers of various dialects adapted the language in order to communicate with one another. All the while, maps charted Haida territory with English names. Most islands and inlets were named after foreign geologists, surveyors, captains, and even queens who lived and died thousands of miles away from the islands. Their identities have haunted young Haida people, many of whom cannot understand, let alone speak their indigenous language.
It has been five generations since Haida place names were spoken in longhouses, yet a recent resurgence of place naming is occurring. In June 2010, the name “Queen Charlotte Islands” was returned to the Crown in a bentwood cedar box, a ceremony in Old Masset Village to match the passing of Bill 18, the Haida Gwaii Reconciliation Act. A group of elders, family, and friends, coordinated by Skidegate Haida Language Program (SHIP), recently voyaged throughout Gwaii Haanas Heritage Site and Reserve Area to rename significant Haida sites. Together, the group mapped out over 400 places from collective memory, storytelling, and imagination.
It is this thought that restores me to my paddle. Just ahead of my kayak is a phenomenon called Kuuya kaagang ad siigaay gud gii ts’ahlsgiidan, meaning when the sky and sea are one. It is my first glimpse of Siigay, the Hecate, and I cannot tell where it ends and the clouds begin. A wind blows a cold spray on my face. The thin, white seam of the horizon begins to reveal itself through a misting fog, pulsing like an electric current charged by a rippling, grey sea. As the inlet narrows, the islands we have contoured round out to make two dark fists, knuckling the gapping mouth of the Hecate.
I feel the current of the deep, blue sea under the hull of my boat. It draws me towards the changing light. The fog is lifting at an impressive speed, sweeping clouds that spin out and up, to greet a new morning. A soft pink settles on rolling silver swells as we begin to paddle parallel to the horizon, along one meandering and jarring cliff face. We may not be so lucky to reach a welcoming shore and may have no choice but to paddle faster and stronger, out of some primal, biological tick.
Beaches randomly scatter this coast, wedged between wide cliff walls that soar to the sky as tall as a stand of old-growth Sitka spruce and plunge hundreds of meters to meet crashing waves. The winds can pick up in the blink of an eye and weather changes more quickly than the blade of a paddle turns a boat. I feel weightless, as though I hold a similar fate to driftwood. Yet the power of the scene holds a beauty I have never witnessed before. All at once it is as though I am gliding on the interface between sea and sky and they are one. Kuuya kaagang ad siigaay gud gii ts’ahlsgiidan.