The Magic of the Haida Gwaii

Vancouver, BC | Posted: May 5th, 2016

The Magic of the Haida Gwaii

August 20, 2014

An Interview with a SEEtheWILD Traveler

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WHALE WATCHING FROM THE MAPLE LEAF. PHOTO BY KEVIN J. SMITH/MAPLE LEAF ADVENTURES

Along Canada’s West Coast there lies a unique archipelago called the Haida Gwaii. This collection of 150 forested islands are a natural and cultural paradise that is explored by few people. The Haida Gwaii are home to more than 40 endemic species and sub-species and the waters are filled with wildlife from whales to birds and otters. The First Nations cultures here have inhabited these islands for possibly more than 10,000 years, living off the bounty of the land and waters.

Our partner Maple Leaf Adventures is one of the few tour companies to take people to these islands on board their classic schooner. They were one of the founders of the Gwaii Haanas Tour Operators Association and helped to develop a Code of Conduct to make sure that people respect the fragile environment and rich cultures. Laura Waldo and her husband found this special trip through SEEtheWILD and answered a few questions about their experiences.

#1: Haida Gwaii is known as the Galapagos of Canada – what interesting animals did you encounter? And what was your most memorable wildlife experience?

This adventure was an amazing wildlife experience! Personally I cannot get enough of whales and eagles and we weren’t disappointed! We had a wonderful naturalist on board who enjoyed sharing his knowledge of the variety of species we encountered: eagles and humpback whales, bears, puffins, albatross, otters and a mind blowing variety of avian species. We traveled with other passengers who had a great love for birds and it was enlightening to be around them and to “catch” their enthusiasm when puffins would perform “fly-bys” and to learn how cool it was to see an albatross flying within sight of land!

#2: For those who aren’t familiar with these islands, would you recommend people visit and if so, why?

Haida Gwaii is a magical place. In this day and age of large cruise ships packed with people and “all you can eat and drink” vacations, this type of “cruise” was wonderful! We loved, besides the scenery and wildlife, how intimate we felt with the islands and the ocean. The “Maple Leaf” was a wonderful way to get into areas and moor that most people would never have the opportunity to do.

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HAIDA TOTEM POLES. PHOTO BY KEVIN J. SMITH/MAPLE LEAF ADVENTURES

Every day we would ride a zodiac from the boat to land and explore…and what a place to explore! Where we live, our forests are beautiful but sparse compared to the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest; the sheer volume of life growing on top of life was awe inspiring… nurse logs supporting a whole other generation of trees, fern, and moss. The absolute size of the Sitka spruce was as amazing as the Giant Sequoia in California… you could really feel the “aliveness” of the forest…what a gift!

#3: This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the Gwaii Haanas agreement which led to the protection of the area. Can you share some of what you learned about this First Nations culture?

We knew nothing really of the First Nation Culture before our trip. We had visited Native American reservations in the United States and we were so saddened by the abject poverty, despair, and repression of the people that lived there. Our experience of the First Nation culture on Haida Gwaii, however, was a such an uplifting experience! To visit with people who are so very proud of who they are, where they came from and are so furiously protective of the land was a joy to see.

Having the experience of watching gifted carvers working on a memorial pole, and visiting the Watchmen (and women and baby Raven!) who live on the islands was such a unique experience, too. We had the opportunity to visit the building where the Haida had staged a logging protest (which was successful in halting the operations) and you could almost feel the energy, hear the conversations, and smell the ceremonial fires they had while living there. I had approached this trip as primarily a wildlife experience, but I was so gladdened to have the experience to be immersed, even in such a short period of time, into the Haida culture!

#4. Tell us about the Maple Leaf. What is it like spending a week at sea in a classic schooner?

The Maple Leaf is a wonderful schooner with an incredible history. The absolute love that Kevin, the captain, has for her is obvious and he is a fitting steward for her care! The crew were wonderfully supportive…from the excellent, beautiful gourmet dishes served every meal to the a wonderful deckhand, Skye, whom I convinced to jump into the 42 degree ocean with a go-cam! The one thing that did not occur to me was the fact that we would really not be physically moving our bodies while on the Maple Leaf. My hobby is ultrarunning; so going from running 50-60 miles a week to 0 miles was a little bit of a shock to my body! I will tell you, we started doing some short jogs on any beach we came to!

#5. Maple Leaf Adventures is known as a leader in responsible tourism. Can you tell us how they work sustainability and wildlife education into their small ship cruises?

The Maple Leaf crew does an incredible job of minimizing any negative impact on the planet. As any one that has eaten at a restaurant can see, the sheer amount of food waste that is generated is sobering. What was so refreshing on the Maple Leaf was to observe how wonderfully the food was cooked and prepared, how portions were given that were satisfying but not overdone, and how there really was no waste.

Left over fresh caught seafood was put back into the crab traps for bait; and speaking of the traps, Kevin and the crew of Maple Leaf made it a point to teach about sustainability; when emptying a crap trap, each crab was carefully measured and any ones that were not of legal size, were gently released.

I think one of the highlights of this trip was having a naturalist on board, like Colin Bates, who had a passion and love for sharing his knowledge of the natural world. When viewing whales, he brought up books on deck for reference and discussion; when a rare bird would make an appearance, he would immediately direct us where to scan and then discuss some of the pretty cool facts of that species.

Finding a skeleton of a salmon laying in the forest initiated a discussion on genetics; due to bears fishing and bringing the salmon inland to eat and the carcass decomposing and feeding the soil, 25% of the sitka spruce along the rivers have salmon DNA- how cool is that! In fact, after showing us examples of the myriad of mosses, ferns and plants of an area and demonstrating their evolution, he had us all lay down in the moss and just “hang out”….called  “mossing”…pretty incredible!  I think I am going to try that at home.

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