By Julia DeWitt, reporting from a National Geographic Young Explorers-funded expedition to sea kayak and explore the unique cultural heritage of British Columbia's Haida Gwaii archipelago.
Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, is an
archipelago of roughly 150 islands that lies 75 miles west of the remote
coastal town of Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Nicknamed the “Galapagos
of the North” for their remarkable ecological diversity, Haida Gwaii
translates to mean “Islands of the People.” The Haida are the people
that these islands belong to, and it is their rich history of conservation
and cultural preservation paired with the landscape itself that has
inspired us to first paddle its rough and pristine coastal waters. Our water expedition will be followed by time in the backcountry, with a stint in Skidegate learning more
about the rich history of conservation activism and the concomitant
cultural preservation movement that has developed there.
These islands are the first to greet the heaving water and walloping winds
of the open and frigid northern Pacific Ocean, making for both highly
variable weather and dicey seas. Thick fog that besets the islands year
round rolls in and out unpredictably and prevailing westerly winds funnel
and whip around the islands making it impossible for the lone kayaker,
protected by only her small craft, to predict where the next gust might
come from. The water is
not for novices.
The Adventure Squad—as we call our team consisting of Tara Davis, Julia DeWitt, Lauren
Sinnott, and Fiona Smith—began its expedition with 16 days in sea kayaks traveling
self-supported down the east coast of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve
and Haida Heritage Site, the national park that lies at the southern end
of Haida Gwaii and the gem of the aboriginal visionaries who fought hard
to protect it from the logging industry that has decimated so much of the
North American northwest. Starting at Moresby Camp, our kayakers will
wend their way down the coast, hopping between the protective embraces of
islands that outline the main island of South Moresby in an attempt to
avoid the currents that threatens to hall them out into the nearly
unnavigable Hecate Straight.
When they got off of the water on August 7th, the kayakers and I linked up again to
embark on the second half of our expedition. Haida leaders such as
Guujaaw and Miles Richardson have often referenced the inextricable link
between the islands and the cultural vibrancy of the Haida people when
making their case for both environmental conservation and
self-determination. With this link in mind, we will stay on Haida Gwaii
in order to interview these and other leaders, activists, and organizers
in the hopes of learning more about the rich history of beauty,
embattlement, and triumph that brings what is truly spectacular about this
place into sharper focus.
With our skills and experience on our side, and a touch of naivete that we
believe has just enough weight to hold us down, the Squad has set out.
Tara, Fiona, and Lauren have just finished their sixteen days on the
water. They have gotten the hang of the push and glide of their boats,
have camped with Gladys, and learned about the tradition of indigenous
protectors that she is part of, and maybe even seen a whale or two. Even
if returning to unemployment and mounting students loans gets the better
of us, for now this first adventure has just begun.