On the second day of our Haida Gwaii excursion, our long morning Zodiac stage started just outside the park (the green zone on this map), headed through interior channels and then out into the Hecate Strait around the bottom right of Moresby Island, where we saw the seals and whales pictured previously here, then turning west along the bottom of Moresby through the Houston Stewart Channel and ending up at the place you can see marked “Ninstints” near the bottom center of the map. It has several other names but to the locals it’s SG̱ang Gwaay Llanagaay; they drop the third word so it sounds like Sgangway. The place is among the most amazing I’ve visited.
Cartographers call this “Anthony Island”; here’s a zoomed-in map. This is not on the scary but somewhat sheltered mainland-facing coast, it’s the last land on the Western fringe before you’re on the broad open Pacific, next stop Japan. Marilyn beached the Zodiac in the little islet-sheltered bay wedged into the north corner facing northwest; here’s a picture looking back out that bay.
We started with lunch; it’d been a long ride. What a picnic spot! Then we strolled across the island to the Watchmen’s cottage, the place marked on the map linked above as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
That walk was totally out of Tolkien; words cannot begin to describe the savage beauty of those big weathered trees and the mossy forest floor between them, the quality of light and of air.
The Watchmen were not on their best form; one of them had had to be helicoptered out the night before, probably gallstones. But still, welcoming. The watch house faces east, away from the Pacific, and is on a bay nearly 100% sheltered by an islet whose trees have been miniaturized by the winds and exposure, natural bonsai.
Then we visited the old village site; the path down there is another walk through fantasy.
Many of the totem poles are still standing, deeply weathered of course. I’m betting they’ll be upright maybe another decade, maybe less; so if you want to see them, get on it.
“Ninstints” · Back in the day, gringos like my ancestors tended to name each village they visited after its chief. And therein lies a tale. I’m going to give it to you as I got it from Marilyn and then from James, of James and James, guides for another touring party we met at another site; Haidas both of them. It seems roughly congruent with what Wikipedia and its sources say:
Koyah was the chief at SG̱ang Gwaay; he was a famous war leader and trader. He was trading with an English ship captain when one of his followers stole items from the ship. The captain was enraged, seized Koyah, abused him, and eventually released him from the ship with his hair cut off. After that, he had no status in the village — the women rejected him — and they brought in Ninstints to be the chief.
But Koyah was enraged at his loss of status and wanted to win it back. He went back to war, raiding here and there, over and over again, and finally, an old man, managed to sink one American and one British ship. After that, his status was considered restored.
I’m not going to expand on Haida culture, except that it featured trading, war, slavery, and especially Potlatches, a thing that it’s worth reading about. One wonders how much of a fight they might have offered against the British had not smallpox wiped 90% of them out, emptying the villages; nobody but the Watchmen are there now.
Below, the remains of one of the big houses at the village site.
After, we left the village site and scrambled around the north part of the island to a point where there was a view west, out toward the open Pacific.
We had to climb up on a big rock outcropping for the view, and it was another dose of magic, maritime in flavor this time. In a crack, under water, were shells smashed on the rocks by gulls preparing their dinner.
Of course Marilyn knew the name of the snail species, but I’ve forgotten it. I’ll never forget standing on that rock, the never-logged forest behind, the Pacific in front; a very pure place.
Our time on the island was too short; my thanks once again to the Haida Nation in general for co-management of the park, and to the watchmen at SG̱ang Gwaay for having us.
Rose Harbour · After, the boat ride back to our night’s lodging was a short double-back to Rose Harbour. [Side-note: That’s just the second Wikipedia entry that I’ve created.]
It’s the only enclave of privately-owned land in the vast park, originally set up as a whaling station around 1910, then vacated in the Forties. Now, it’s the one place in Gwaii Haanas where visitors can sleep in a bed under a roof, eat food that someone else cooked, and have a hot shower, its water heated by a wood fire.
As we passed earlier in the day, we went by a little old aluminium skiff going the other way; Marilyn said “That’s the girls, heading out after supper.” Later at the communal table we ate those ling cod with vegetables out of the Rose Harbour gardens. It was spicy and fresh and totally excellent, as were the pancakes the next morning. Here’s the guest-house.
The rooms were tiny but comfy, the stairs up to them like ladders; I’m sure that’s how it is in Elven residences. There was no electricity. There were immense whale-bones on the beach. The wood-heated shower was delightful. The outdoor loos were not the best.
Rose Harbour’s most visible inhabitant (and our host), Tassilo Götz Hanisch, a voluble white-maned patriarch, is a musician. He and the other residents of Rose Harbour have a strained relationship with Parks Canada, who’d like them gone and the park, from their point of view, made whole. Götz says millions have been offered. He informed me at considerable length about the malignant but inept turpitude of his adversaries.
I didn’t get to hear their side. I guess, at one level, I can see the argument. But I have to say that I think it’s a good thing that Gwaii Haanas has a place that offers a bed and a meal to travelers neither athletic and accomplished enough to kayak, nor rich enough to have a cruising yacht. And the hospitality (excepting the loos) is damn fine.
Here’s a sunset from Rose Harbour.