Over 10 years ago I saw an advertisement for kayaking in Haida Gwaii. The photos showed sea stars and poles carved by Native Americans. I held on to that advertisement in the hopes that one day we would get there.
In 2016, the stars aligned and we had our chance. We booked the trip through a kayak tour company who told us to be in “Sandspit” on a particular date and time and a van would come pick us up.
I knew Haida Gwaii was in Canada, but when I went to book a flight and saw the 12 hour + travel times, my curiosity won over and I went to Google maps to see where exactly we were going.
I was surprised to find that Haida Gwaii is a set of islands just south of Alaska that makes up the northernmost part of British Columbia. It was previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.
A significant portion of Haida Gwaii is the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. This site is a protected environment where visitation is limited, similar to the Galapagos, but with far less visitors. It is not a place where one can just show up with kayaks and paddle around for a week, but there are a limited number of tours that provide the permits and the certified guides so that it can be enjoyed in small groups.
We arrived in Sandspit on the last of the two daily flights on the puddle jumper that came from Vancouver International Airport. Our home for the night was the Northern Shores Lodge, which is only a 15 minute walk to the closest place for dinner: Dick's Wok-In.
There is no public transport from the airport to the lodges and inns. A bus does travel past the locations to transport people from the airport to the ferry. We did ask the bus driver, but she told us it was up to her digression to whom she gave a ride, and she was using that digression not to provide transport for us. She then told us we were lucky because we saved ourselves money.
Since we had met up with another gentleman on our trip in his 70s and I was reluctant to make him walk a few miles with his duffle back of filled stuff sacks, I went back to the gift shop in the airport and called the lodge to see if they had a shuttle. The shuttle was the personal car of the woman working there, and we were very thankful she came to get us.
The location of the lodge was perfect. We could cross the road to the beach and look closely at the bald eagles nesting. A sea lion watched us from a safe distance in the bay as we took our time with binoculars and a zoom lens to see the nesting eaglets. I thought I would not see wildlife until we started our official trip, but a short walk down the road provided an hour of birdwatching and photography until it was time for dinner.
Our trip began in Sandspit at the Northern Shores Lodge when a small van arrived the next morning and the driver introduced herself as “Grace” and told us to get in. The hour long ride took us along a forested road where the trees towered over us and foxglove grew in small patches of sun. The group was small: 2 couples, 1 family, and two men traveling solo.
We arrived at a boathouse where we dressed for the long zodiac ride ahead of us and threw our luggage and a week’s worth of supplies into the boat. We then went down to the docks and waited for the zodiac to be lowered into the water. We boarded the zodiac and headed towards our first camp.
I went on this trip to see three things: bald eagles, whales, and sea stars. I had already seen a number of bald eagles nesting by our hotel from the day before, but now it was time to watch for whales.
We had not even made it an hour into the zodiac ride before we spotted a humpback whale spouting. Grace changed course and headed towards where we spotted the whale. We stopped and were able to watch him play around until he took a final dive and waved at us with his tail before disappearing.
My heart was filled with joy as we continued back on path and raced with hundreds of sooty shearwaters. They flew at the pace of the zodiac and we were able to see their faces close up and their wings beat up and down. The eventually flew past us and towards the horizon as we headed to a rookery to see the baby sea lions before docking into camp.
THE TRIP BEGINS
The tour was run by two guides who cooked, navigated, and organized us on a daily basis. We were sent to our tents to unpack and were fed before we went out for a practice run on the kayaks to visit Rose Cove. Rose Cove was just across the waterway from our camp but it gave us a chance to work our muscles and get the feel of the kayak.
It was cold and rainy, but it felt good to push through the water and the destination allowed us a small walk into the forest before we returned to our kayaks to paddle back to camp. Despite the cold and the rain, we were able to enjoy a great Thai meal with peanut sauce, rice, and vegetables. We sheltered in our tents while the rain continued for most of the night.
The next morning was when the real paddling really started. After a hearty breakfast, we broke down camp and packed our tents with wet tent flies into dry bags and strapped them to the kayaks. We shoved our dry bags with personal items into the bow. We went to the kitchen area of camp and grabbed eggs, boxes of food, utensils, and other items to store between the paddlers. It weighed down the boat between my husband and I, but it helped with a stable ride in rougher water later that day.
Because the focus of this trip for me was photography, I had purchased a Pelican case to store my good camera and lenses. A guide helped strap the case on the bow in front of me so if we came upon something I wanted to capture, I could just lean forward, open the case, grab the camera, and get some shots.
I also connected a GoPro to the tip of the bow and used a remote to take photos and videos. Although I did not capture anything spectacular like a whale with my GoPro in that configuration, which of course I fully expected to, I found that it did well for underwater shots later in the trip. It was worth having.
The goal was for the day was to cover as much distance as possible to avoid open areas the next day which had predicted high winds. As we paddled, I was able to enjoy the beautiful environment we were in.
There were many similarities to kayaking in Acadia, Maine with the forested islands and the rocky edges. We stopped for lunch in a cove where I discovered a new interest: northwestern Canada tidal pools. I was fascinated by the multi-colored anemone and the little creatures that wandered around in their tiny little worlds.
Exploring tidal pools became my hobby at camp for the rest of the week. Each night I would record what I saw in the tidal pools. The list grew daily to include purple shore crabs (in several different colors), limpets, periwinkle, sculpin, bat stars, chitons, tubeworms, and a variety of anemone.
Since we were able to cover a long distance on that first full day, we were aligned to visit Ninstants on the third day. There are a number of sites in Haida Gwaii that have poles carved by Native Americans, but we were told that Ninstants was the best site to see if you could only see one site. The poles are guarded by Watchmen.
The Watchmen are responsible with the preservation of the site as well as teaching visitors about the history and the designs. A friend who visited many years ago told me “whatever you do, don’t touch the poles”. That is still true today.
We packed up our wet tents and kitchen equipment in our kayaks and headed “the poles”. Along the way we stopped at a rocky outcrop that hosted dozens of puffins. The water was rough and their speed in the air was quick, making it difficult to capture a good shot.
As we skirted around tiny islands, a sea lion watched us from the shore. We saw him on the way out as his curiosity led him to come get a closer look at our boats. He swam around us and made it back to our boat. He looked at us for a few seconds and then was gone.
We made it to the site of the poles, but only a small number of people are allowed on the island at once so we waited on the shore until it was our turn to take the path to the house where the Watchmen live.
We were then guided along the shore to visit the archeological site. We first saw mortuary poles and then moved along to the site where homes had been. Poles marked the front of the long houses and we learned about the social life of the people who lived there. The visit ended with a path though the mossy forest back to the Watchmen’s house.
Although this is a strange thing to report on, if you have been on a week-long trip in the wilderness, you would appreciate the composting outhouse for visitors at the site. It had a beautiful view and a nice breeze coming through the high windows. It was a nice break from lighting used toilet paper on fire in the intertidal zone in the rain.
PADDLING, CAMPING, WILDLIFE
The next three days were spent jumping from one camp to the next as we headed back up north. Along the way we saw, oyster catchers, harbor seals, murrelets, and the group was entertained by a school of orca playing in the distance. Bald eagles circled over us and watched us from their perches high in the trees along the shore.
Sea lions suddenly appeared to peek at us and then disappeared just as quickly. There was a lot of talk about bears on the islands but so far none had been spotted. Twice we saw dolphins in the distance.
Each campsite was unique and had a different atmosphere than the other spots. One had sea-worn stones with polished turban snail shells reflecting the sunlight. Another had streams and cascading water where we could take a freezing “shower” and wash our hair. One had an eroding midden pile of shells that formed a three foot “cliff” on the shore.
At one of the sites we had our tent further back in the woods from the rest of the group. I got up in the middle of the night and was convinced I heard a bear. I was alone and it was dark and I had no idea if he was coming or going. Every log on the way back to the tent looked like a bear in the dark. I told my tale the next morning at breakfast.
One of the men on the trip told me to go to the next beach over and look at the sand. I did and thought he was playing a trick on me. I saw his prints walk along the side of bear prints. I was certain he made them himself as a joke, but I kept walking until I saw his shoe prints turn around but the bear prints continue. It was not a practical joke. That was my bear.
I was disappointed that we had not actually seen a bear, but I told the group I was certain we would see one as we paddled in to our final camp. We all laughed but as we came closer to shore at the final campsite we were all wondering if we were seeing a bear or the roots of a fallen tree.
We changed our conclusion several times while paddling closer. Even with binoculars we were sure it was a bear, and then we were sure it was just a tree. Then we all froze. The kayaks drifted to a stop. It was a bear. On the beach. On the beach that we planned to camp on. My heart pounded with excitement. He looked at us. We looked at him. He nibbled food along the line of seaweed. He looked at us again.
This went on for a while until he decided he was no longer hungry and that we were boring, so he headed back into the woods. We paddled to the opposite side of the beach to set up camp. I saw my bear!
The afternoon was a resting afternoon. We had pushed for several days to cover distance and we made our final camp, lining us up for Burnaby Narrows the final day. We sat around on the shore and ate popcorn and enjoyed the moment.
The water is cold in northwest Canada, but I figured I always went into the water at home when it was too cold for most people. “First in Water” each year wins an ice cream cone and I was never one to let cold water get in the way of ice cream. I went to the edge of the water and just kept walking. I left my camera on shore so my husband could get a photo of me with the gorgeous backdrop.
I came to shore to warm up and relax while others went in. I looked at the photos and realized my husband had zoomed in and taken head shots and I did not have the beautiful cove in the photo. First in Water was no problem, but retuning to the water was a lot more difficult. The things we do for that one photo in paradise.
The next morning was our final trip. We paddled around our island into Burnaby Narrows where we floated quietly and looked below at the colorful sea stars, urchin, crabs, sea cucumber, and anemone. I finally made it to the place I saw in the advertisement many years ago.
Although nothing ever matches the photo in the catalogue, the overall trip was spectacular. Eight days of paddling, seven campsites, a million colorful sea stars, dozens of tidal pools, two species of whale, and one bear made this trip one of the best weeks of our lives.
More stories & photos: Visit www.billandcori.com to read more and see many more beautiful photos about Cori and Bill's adventures in Prince Edward Island.
Cori Ryan is an outdoor enthusiast and amateur photographer who enjoys hiking and paddling in unique places around the world. Her photography has been used in a documentary for the Travel Channel and published in climbing guidebooks and publications around the world. Cori and her husband are often seen paddling around Cape Cod with their two cairn terriers riding in the front hatches.
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