Off the wild coast of northern British Columbia just south of Alaska is an archipelago of more than 200 mist-enshrouded islands called Haida Gwaii (aka Queen Charlotte Islands). Stepping off the airplane, I felt like I had dropped off the edge of the earth and landed in a mystical place of legends, spirits and supernatural creatures.
I had come to explore the haunting beauty of the islands and to attend the opening of the Haida Heritage Centre, a facility that was 20 years in the making. I quickly discovered that Haida Gwaii, which is dominated by the vibrant and colorful culture of the Haida First Nation, has much to offer.
I started with a Zodiac tour that wove around Louise Island, sometimes in mist, sometimes in rain and - for a few fleeting moments - even in sunshine. Clouds hung low over the surrounding mountains. Birds - gulls and ancient murrelets - bobbed in the water. Coho salmon broke the surface, sometimes jumping completely out of the water. The archipelago teems with grey, orca and humpback whales, salmon, seals, sea lions, porpoises and marine birds.
Because of their isolation, these isles developed unique flora and fauna and Haida Gwaii is often called the "Galapagos of the North." It is also renowned for its fishing and kayaking. I was not surprised to learn that National Geographic Traveler magazine voted Gwaii Haanas, at the southern end of the islands, the best national park in North America.
Our guide beached the Zodiac in a small cove, where we followed a path through thick ferns into a primal, dark rainforest with green moss hanging from branches like funeral wreaths. We reached a Sitka spruce 14 feet in diameter and more than 400 years old, and gazed in awe at this venerable giant. I thought I glimpsed trolls and orcs in the forest around us, and understood why the Haida believe in supernatural creatures.
Back in the Zodiac, we bounced along and entered a small bay where the village of Skedans once stood. Even from a distance the decaying skeletal totems were visible, grim reminders of a once-vibrant community of about 470 people, 27 houses and 56 totems.
The Haida history on these islands can be traced back 10,000 years. They flourished, living from the bounties of the sea and the rain forest. The first contact with the white man came in 1774, and by 1911 a population of about 14,000 had been reduced to 600. And piled upon the enormous death toll was a multitude of other degradations such as residential schools, enforced religion and banning of potlatches (traditional feasts featuring lavish gift-giving). Dozens of villages became ghost towns. Today, Skedans and four other sites are protected under the Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program.
One pillar of ecotourism is the environment. Skedans reminded me that the other pillar - often overlooked in North America - is indigenous people's culture and language, treasure houses of knowledge that need to be protected.
I walked slowly amongst the fallen and leaning poles, now weathered to a dull grey and showing only traces of the once-elaborate carvings. I felt a chill. This was a spiritual place with a sad legacy.
Today, the Haida Nation forms about half of the islands' 5,000 population. I visited Old Masset, one of two native villages (the other is Skidegate). We passed an Anglican church whose spire incongruously shared the sky with a nearby totem pole. The front of a carving shed was littered with debris and a crude hand-lettered sign asked for an admission fee. Once inside, however, I was astounded by the brilliance of the art in progress. An apprentice proudly showed me an intricate raven rattle that had taken him a year to carve.
Bill Reid, a Haida whose northwest coast native art is famous internationally, has inspired local artisans who are at the cutting edge of North American art. At Sarah's Art Shop, I admired masks, silver and argillite jewelry, cedar hats and wood carvings featuring the bold ovoid designs of bears, ravens, thunderbirds and other wondrous creatures.
Next morning I rose early to attend the grand opening of the Haida Heritage Centre. The ceremonies (in August 2008) were an emotional outpouring of pride. Every Haida from the youngest to the oldest was bedecked in button blankets, cedar hats, face paint, ceremonial masks, wolf skins and other traditional regalia. Speeches were made, dances and song filled the center, canoes were launched and a feast was consumed. I was overwhelmed by the exuberance of the Haida.
This remarkable facility consists of five joined long houses and six traditional totem poles and echoes traditional seaside villages like Skedans. The buildings include a museum, performance hall, a carving shed and a restaurant. But the center is far more than a showcase for Haida heritage. It has become a focal point for the community and is a symbol of the resurgence of a proud people.
As the airplane departed, I looked down at the misty bays and inlets. I caught a glimpse of the totems at Skedans and was pleased that the Haida were making a comeback. I quietly vowed to return to this mystical and enchanting land.
Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's Parliament Past & Present. He is the environment columnist for the Vancouver sun.