The watchmen of Haida Gwaii have protected the Canadian archipelago for millennia. Today, their descendants return to these rugged islands over the summer months to keep the artefacts of their ancient ancestors safe.
It is hard not to feel guilty while being shown around an abandoned village by the last survivors of a tribe almost exterminated by contact with people like you. But ‘Killer Whale Woman’, or Kelsie to her friends, doesn’t bear any grudges against white folk.
This smiley twenty-something from the Haida First Nations people is a student for most of the year, but in the summer she and several other Haida watchmen and women take up isolated posts, such as Skedans, T’aanuu and SGang Gwaii, on islands cast adrift in the North Pacific.
Kelsie has been posted to Skedans, an abandoned village on Louise Island. It is easy to see why the Haida people chose this place, ranging their longhouses at the back of an idyllic sheltered beach. But their houses have since been reclaimed by carpets of moss and their remaining totem poles are so badly weathered that without Kelsie’s guidance we’d never have been able to identify the multiple carvings of mythical ravens, eagles, bears and thunderbirds.
Haida Gwaii has famously diverse wildlife: the waters around these stunning islands are home to humpback whales, colonies of endangered Steller sea lions and tufted rhinoceros auklets, earning it the nickname the ‘Galápagos of the North’.
For an estimated 20,000 Haida people, with their deep respect for all the supernatural beings of the forest and seas as recorded on their poles, this was a bountiful paradise. At least it was until the early 20th century, when the white traders and settlers started to arrive.
Within a handful of decades, the villages had been all but emptied by a mix of smallpox and gunfire, and the best of their totem poles disappeared, too, only to reappear in collections at the likes of New York’s Metropolitan Museum and London’s British Museum.
We meet Walter, Mary and their four-year-old granddaughter Raven on T’aanuu, south of Louise Island, where they show us around the skeletal remains of a Haida village.
Raven’s mother was struggling with addiction, so Walter and Mary were raising her in the homelands, among bear and deer. ‘She’s more afraid of dogs and cats.’
On Windy Bay, ground zero for the confrontations in 1987, Sean, a scientist and tree expert, leads us to a Tolkienesque landscape of massive cedar and Sitka spruce – bearded with wispy lichen – and shows us how the Haida used the bark for roofing and weaving.
We then meet Ken at SGang Gwaay, one of the most remote UNESCO Heritage Sites in the world and home to 400-year-old totem poles that are slowly rotting away.
Ken is a totem-carver himself, and as he takes us along the line, he tells us how he learned his trade from his uncle ‘by washing my hands in water under his’. He explains the significance of each figure represented, and describes how, under firelight, they seem to come alive.
He tells us about his daily life on the island and how he still lives on what he can catch or collect, for ‘when the tide is low, the table is set’. This means he lives on a diet of ling cod, pink salmon, halibut and scallops –the sort of food you’d pay top dollar for at a restaurant.
Clearly, for him, the Haida lifestyle was still there to be lived. For us outsiders, it was a rare privilege to be allowed inside this unique community protecting this fairy-tale land for future generations.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.