Haida Gwaii a land of mist and salmon

Story and Photography by Nick Didlick
West Coast Fishing Club, Henslung Cove, Langara Island, British Columbia

On my first morning I am awakened early by a group of ravens calling to each other in a language I strain to understand. Gazing out the window into the predawn mist drifting through the trees I find it easy to imagine how, on a summer day in 1774, the first Europeans stepped ashore on the most northwestern spot on the islands. Captain Juan Perez, who had arrived on an epic voyage aboard his ship, Santiago, named the site Cape Santa Margarita. It was the first place in these parts to be given a European name but the Spanish claim he hoped to stake didn’t hold and the area would soon fall under the political sway of England, eventually evolving into what is now British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province.

The spot just over the hill from near where Langara Lighthouse stands today was where Europeans made first contact with the native population of Haida, beginning a relationship which is still evolving.

According to the Haida legend of Raven and the First Men, life on the islands started long, long before that, on Rose Spit some 60 kilometers to the East. In the legend, Raven found himself alone one day on the beach. Suddenly, he saw an extraordinary clamshell at his feet and protruding from it was a number of small human beings. The Raven coaxed them to leave the shell to join him in his wonderful world. Some were hesitant at first, but eventually, overcome by curiosity, they emerged from the partly open giant clamshell to become the first Haida.

Haida simply means the People. They had an estimated population of 7,000 at their peak, and were then, as now, divided into two clans. The Raven and Eagle clans were spread out over every part of the islands in twenty groups of villages from Kiusta in the north to the World UNESCO site of Ninstints on the extreme southern tip of the island archipelago.

The official geographic name for this collection of 1,800 islands and islets is the Queen Charlotte Islands, which was given in 1787, when George Dixon, a British fur trader, named the islands after the wife of George III, who was then the King of England. But the earliest known name for the islands is Xaaydlaa Gwaayaay, meaning, “Islands coming out of concealment.” The more common Haida name for the Queen Charlotte Islands is Haida Gwaii, meaning, “Islands of the People.”

Whether you call them The Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii or simply the Charlottes, the islands are renowned for great salmon fishing. But they are also rich in history, culture, scenery, wildlife and art.

Today with a year round population of 5,000 people sprinkled over seven village sites, connected by 107 kilometers of paved road, it’s still a very remote place. Getting here requires a two-hour flight from Vancouver International Airport or an eight-hour ferry ride 93 nautical miles across Hecate Strait from Prince Rupert, on B.C.’s mainland coast.
Tourism peaks from mid May until mid September, with visitors mostly drawn by a chance at some of the best salmon fishing in the world. But for those willing to look a little bit farther than the tip of their fishing rod, there is a lot to explore in these misty, fascinating islands.

My trip was instigated by my 15-year old daughter, Kelsey, who, while we were discussing what we should do for a summer adventure, declared: Dad, I would like to catch a really big salmon! After a little discussion we decided that the Queen Charlotte Islands would be the best place to go.

We had experienced European vacations and remote wilderness adventures together before and I wanted her first trip to the Charlottes to be about more than catching a big salmon. Our plan was to fish first, but also to see as much of the wildlife and scenery as we could and to experience the Haida culture as well in a short stay.

Choosing a lodge is always key to having a successful trip. We started by Googling “Queen Charlotte Islands Fishing” and “Haida Gwaii Fishing” and we were presented with many options. Finding an operator when you are traveling with a teenaged daughter is not an easy task, as most of the fishing outfits are male oriented and cater to large groups of fishermen who are out to kill as many salmon as they legally can. Hoping to avoid the kind of example that would set for Kelsey, I finally settled on the West Coast Fishing Club, which a friend had recommended as a lodge with an environmental and social conscience.

It turned out to be better than I could have ever imagined. The owners of the West Coast Fishing Club, Rick Grange and Brian Legge, came to the islands in the 1980’s when they started bringing business clients on fishing trips. They decided eventually the future for them was having closer ties to the fish and people that inhabit these islands. So the West Coast Fishing Club was born. It soon established itself as a local business, because of hiring and purchasing practices that saw them getting their employees and their goods from the island whenever possible. This is different than many operators, who fly, ship and import everything they can from the mainland, stay for the sport fishing season, then barge everything back out for storage. In contrast the West Coast Fishing Club sought to be a part of the cultural landscape and that reflected just what we wanted from our trip.

The Clubhouse where we stayed is a 4 star + hotel in the middle of a wilderness setting perched high above Henslung Cove, on Langara Island, off the north coast of the main island. It gets the 5 Star rating for its location. When I contacted the West Coast Fishing Club and asked about a trip that would be about more than just fishing, they gladly took care of all the arrangements for our non-salmon activities.

The adventure started from the moment we stepped onto the gold-trimmed red carpet leading to the lodge check-in at Vancouver International Airport’s South Terminal. Signs announced that The World’s Best Salmon Fishing, lay ahead. We were handed our boarding passes for the charter flight to Masset and helicopter flight to The Clubhouse. This was going to be a magic carpet ride for sure.

It was like a who’s who of company logo wear in the coffee shop waiting for our departure. Friendly wagers started to fly among our fellow fishers who were filled with anticipation of the fishing to come. The fishermen came from Canada, the United States and Europe. I listen to the chatter of a group of company executives.
He got all excited last night turning the TV on and off like a nervous little kid on the night before Xmas, one guy said about his friend. It was all good natured banter.

While the crowd was mostly older men, there were a few women coming along on the two-hour flight to Massett. An older married couple looked out the window of our Dash 8 as we flew over the Inside Passage. Below we could see a cruise ship returning from Alaska. Sitting nearby, sleeping with their heads together was a younger couple, perhaps dreaming about the holiday that lay ahead.

After a quick stop in Masset, a small town on the north end of the islands, we left the Dash 8 to board an A-Star helicopter for the flight to The Clubhouse. It was Kelsey’s first helicopter ride and I could tell just by looking at her face, as she peered out the window at the mountain peaks poking through an ocean of white clouds, that she loved every second of it.

The staff through the entire process couldn’t have been more helpful, from the moment we checked in until we stepped off the helicopter to be greeted by a smiling Terry Cowan, General Manager of The Clubhouse.
The week on the Charlottes was going to go by all too quickly I remember thinking to myself as I listened to a briefing Terry gave to all of arriving guests. Remember you are home here! he said as he outlined the facilities and gave a no-nonsense weather and fishing report. It was the fishing report, which came last, that got everyone excited and racing to get out on the water. He had to raise his voice to end his briefing as guests scurried to get ready for an afternoon’s fishing.

Remember, have fun! he shouted after them, although that didn’t seem like it would be a problem.

This was a day of firsts for Kelsey as we rode a White Humvee down to the dock and got out on the open waters of Dixon Entrance in a 17-foot Boston Whaler. Soon we were headed to the fishing area. A helicopter, a Humvee, a boat skipping across the open ocean – and we hadn’t even started fishing yet. This was truly a trip of a lifetime for us together I thought. Then I heard Kelsey yell above the roar of the engine: “Dad I want to drive!” I didn’t want to tell her but I was having too much fun to let her take over.
Maybe later! I shouted back.

Within the first hour of fishing we hooked and lost several salmon. Remembering when to strike is the trick to this I recalled. But it wasn’t too long before Kelsey hooked and landed her first Coho (Silver) Salmon, which she proudly held up and kissed.

A short time later we decided to head off to look at the wind twisted trees, rugged rock outcrops and eagles soaring above us. Over the radio came a call: Black and whites coming this way! Kelsey and I looked at each other wondering what that could mean. There are many weird radio calls and terms used by fishing guides who seem to speak in code at times. Sometimes it’s as hard to understand them as it is to figure out what the ravens are saying to each other.
Moments later we saw water spouts in the distance and realized that “black and whites” were a pod of killer whales. This pod, a large group of 30 or 40, swam close enough for us almost to touch them as we calmly drifted among them, our motor off. Comprised of whales of all sizes, including some babies closely guarded by females, the passing pod was a magnificent sight. One large whale swam under our boat and looked up at us for a second, with a large inquisitive eye peering up through the green water, before moving on to join the others.

That night we sat down to dinner at our assigned table, with sweeping views of Henslung Cove laid out below. Our dinner companions, Pamela and Michael Roth, from Pennsylvania, were a wonderful couple on their first trip to the Queen Charlottes. Over a dinner prepared by the Executive Chef of The Clubhouse, Stevan Venafro, that could rival those of any restaurant in a major city, we talked about the day’s events, the fishing and especially the killer whales.
They had a great day on the water fly fishing for salmon and Michael and I swapped stories while Pamela told Kelsey of the sea lion colony they saw off Langara Rocks.

As we settled in for the first night in our room I asked Kelsey what was the best part of her day, thinking it would be catching her large salmon. She recounted all the things we had done, saying she loved all of it, but boating with the Killer Whales was tops. Then she added: “Tomorrow I want to hug a sea lion”.

From our base at The Clubhouse over the next few days, we visited the sea lions at Langara Rocks, watched bald eagles snatch fish from the surface of the water, took a helicopter to the nearby Langara Point Lighthouse, visited the Haida watchmen at the old village site of Kiusta, beach combed and just enjoyed hanging out at The Clubhouse.
The light keepers at Langara Point, Gorden and Judith Schweers, took us on a fascinating tour ending up inside the Lighthouse’s original 1913 First Order Fresnel Lens, where we are amazed to find out the light is powered by a 500 watt light bulb which can be seen over 20 miles away.

A short distance south from the lighthouse, across from the southern tip of Langara Island and Parry Passage on Graham Island, is the old Haida village site of Kiusta. An Eagle village once stood proudly here with 12-14 longhouses, explained Ed Davis and Blake Williams, the Haida Watchmen in residence and our tour guides for the afternoon.
Davis, of the Haida Eagle Clan and Williams, of the Haida Raven Clan told us that Kiusta means “where the trail comes out,” in reference to a short trail from Lepas Bay to the village. Here for hundreds of years the villagers of Kiusta would survive on Nature’s bounty of clams, abalone, fish, strawberries and more. Kiusta was home to over 300 people until it was abandoned in the mid 1850’s after it was ravaged by a smallpox epidemic. Davis and Williams host hundreds of visitors each year. Most come to see the unique old triple mortuary totem pole which they joke is the most famous of all Haida Totems, as it was once on the cover of the British Columbia telephone book.

Part of our trip to the islands included a visit with Comimiko von-Boetticher and Andrew Merilees who run North West Recreation Services. They planned a tour for us that included a visit to Old Masset, where we were amazed to see how the Haida are reviving their culture through artwork. The Haida have some of the most distinctive art of any native peoples and its proudly displayed throughout the village. For those that have never seen Haida carvings, they are simple in design yet stunning in effect, a mix of artistic impression blended with keen craftsmen’s eye for wood grain that is carefully carved to tell a story. The carving’s, sometimes painted with red and black stain, are sought after by tourists and collectors worldwide. Haida jewelry is beautiful too, as we saw during a visit to Sara Davidson’s Haida Arts, on Eagle Road in Old Masset.

Our last day was spent exploring points south, including Port Clements. A rare golden spruce tree was discovered near this community on the banks of the Yakoun River in 1924 when a timber surveyor stumbled onto it in the forest. It was in an almost perfect hiding spot where it had grown undetected for over 300 years. Called Kiidk’yaas by the Haida, it became part of their oral history and was deeply respected by them. This freak of nature became a tourist attraction and tour buses would stop and passengers would take the 10 minute walk through forest of giant trees to gaze at the Golden Spruce from a viewing area across the tea colored Yakoun River, until it was cut down a few years ago in a crazy act of vandalism. In January, 1997, a man named Grant Hadwin swam across the freezing waters of the Yakoun River and took a chain saw to the Golden Spruce. The tree didn’t topple over that night but its fate was sealed as it fell during the next windstorm.

After a short drive south on the Yellowhead Highway we stopped for lunch in Tlell at the Dress for Less Coffee Shop. Here you can get a hot lunch, a great cup of coffee and browse through the shop of hand made fashions, where you really can dress for less.

Tlell (pronounced tell-el) was originally a Haida fishing camp but in the early years of 1900 English farmers and ranchers settled in the area. The Richardson Ranch, the oldest operating ranch on the Queen Charlottes is run by the direct descendants of one of the original pioneers, Eric Richardson. The ranch also doubles as an animal hospital for the islands. Tlell today is considered to be the Artisan center of the Queen Charlottes.

It hosts B.C.’s first fall fair of the year on the August 1st long weekend. It also hosts The Edge of the World Music Festival featuring local and international performers. While Kelsey picked out a new bracelet I chose a music CD by a Queen Charlotte musician, Tassilo, who lives on the very remote southern tip of Queen Charlottes, in Rose Harbor, where he runs eco-tours and composes soaring guitar ballads.

The last stop on our tour was Saint Mary’s Springs, about an hour’s drive south of Masset. The road-side spring is marked by a carved wooden Madonna, surrounded by offerings of flowers, shells and tobacco. Island legend says that if you drink from the spring, you will return to the Queen Charlotte Islands in the future.

As I was standing at the spring thinking back on our seven day adventure, and Kelsey’s first large salmon, a van pulled up and a retired couple from Alberta jumped out, with two friends. They immediately cupped their hands and drank some of the cool crystal water running from the tiny spring, before posing for a picture. They have driven over 1500 kilometers to get to the Charlottes and before driving on they told us they drank from the spring 15 years earlier- and had dreamed about returning ever since.

“See it works,” they declared before driving on.

Dad, I want to come back again soon too, said Kelsey as we walked back to our car. She took a sip of the spring just to make sure.

A short video slideshow of this trip can be seen by clicking here
The West Coast Fishing Club – http://www.westcoastfishingclub.com/
North West Recreation Services – http://www.northwestrecreation.com/
Queen Charlotte Islands Salmon Unlimited Society – Email Lisa Winbourne