Kayaking in the Gwaii Hanaas, Canada [77/78]

by Audrey McDonald & Michael Steinfeld

Taking kayaks through Gwaii Hanaas was a special journey for Mike and for me. This National Park is located on the southern section of the Queen Charlotte archipelago 150 km west of the northern coastline of British Columbia, Canada, on the 52nd parallel. Its history, geography and isolation make it a great paddling destination, that’³ if the weather behaves. On our trip in July 2009 the weather did just that. We had a wonderful time paddling independently for eight days.

The Park is jointly managed with the Haida people so that the Haida culture can continue to develop and so that the unique plants, animals and historical sites which are scattered through the islands are managed. The Haida were a very strong rich nation for over 8000 years because of the abundant food sources, moderate climate and their cultural practices which included trading as far south as Mexico in large canoes. They were almost wiped out when the Europeans passed on smallpox in the mid 1700s. After that time, remaining Haida moved to two main areas in the north of the islands in order to survive.

We brought nautical maps, a VHF radio and food with us and arranged for kayak hire and drop-off/pick-up by Moresby Explorers, a kayak outfitter at Sandspit. We decided to upgrade our paddling clothing so we had layers for warmth and protection from wind and rain in case we ended up capsized in the 10 degree summer water. In Vancouver we shopped at Mountain Equipment Coop, a large outdoor retailer in Canada. We flew direct from Vancouver to Sandspit on Moresby Island.

On day one, we arrived at Rose Harbour in the far south after a three hour high-speed trip in a Zodiac and were dropped at Raspberry Cove in brilliant sunshine. We thought we had an enormous amount of gear but it all fitted easily in to the two Chinook Seaward singles. We could have brought more! We were supplied with something not used by kayakers in Oz Рbear spray. The black bears are the biggest in the world.

The maritime charts note that there is a large tidal effect of 5 knots in Houston Stewart Channel. We were hesitant to set off across the channel to Rose Harbour before slack tide but it was no problem. We paddled to the west and as soon as we turned south in the channel the fog came in. We could see not too far in the distance. It was a 10.7 km paddle to the Gordon Islands. This little collection of islands has a beautiful lagoon in the middle which gave us access to a small pebbled beach for camping. Time to eat and rest. You need to secure your food, cooking utensils, garbage and any other fragrant-smelling containers from bears. We practised hauling up all our food over a branch using ropes in a tree 20 metres downwind of our tent. This was our nightly entertainment.

The next day in the fog, using GPS and maps to locate the island, we paddled to SGang Gwaay, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site abandoned by the Haida after the outbreak of smallpox. The ancient poles remain today and from Haida Watchman who look after the island, we learnt about how the Haida lived off the riches of the sea and traded as far south as Mexico using their large canoes carved from one large cedar tree, as well as some of their customs.

The islands comprise temperate rainforest of tall trees, thick mats of moss on ground, an intensity of low conifer growth vying for light in amazing bonsai shapes.

We continued on to the exposed west coast. On a bad weather day swells of over four metres are common. The continental shelf on the west coast extends a kilometre or so out then it plunges 300 metres, providing marine life with rich sources of food.

With a favourable forecast, wind and tide, we paddled to Flamingo Cove, a distance of about 20 kilo-metres, passing large windswept trees of red cedar and spruce, bald eagles and sea birds, the high mountains mostly obscured by mist.

We camped for two nights. The weather was beautiful and paddling was easy. Gradually, the mist cleared to reveal the mountains of the archipelago.

On our return from the West Coast back to Rose Harbour we came across two humpback whales feeding on herring in the clear green waters. Attached to rocks were the large starfish coloured orange and purple and shell animals. Bull kelp surrounds the coast but its density has decreased due to the proliferation of sea urchins. The sea otter which had kept the urchins at bay was hunted to extinction by the European fur trade.

From Rose Harbour we paddled up the east coast to Benjamin Point. We had been warned that with a large current, winds and a reef, the point must be negotiated at slack tide. We were again lucky and had no difficulty. That day we paddled about 38 kilometres.

We camped on the log-filled beach supervised by a bald eagle and her chick. We securely tied our food to a tree as we were told that there was a visiting black bear. On the next day we paddled through seal colonies on the outlying rocks and on to Burnaby Narrows, where at low tide you see many invertebrates, sea grasses and starfish.

We continued on to Wanderer Island 45 kilometres away and camped. For breakfast we were treated to a whale performance then paddled onto Mutchinson Island another 35 kilometres away. The second last day we spent idling on Hotspring Island where we sweated in pools of 38 degrees. The air temperature must have been about 10¡.

On our last day we radioed our position to Moresby Explorers and were collected and transported back to Sandspit. We paddled about 170 kilometres in the eight days and we felt privileged to be in such a beautiful area with such good weather and cooperating tides and winds.

If you are planning a trip to North America a diversion to the Queen Charlotte Islands is well worth it and not that expensive. Moresby Explorers, our kayak outfitters, provide kayaks and transport and keep a watching brief on trip. Their cost is about $A1,700 for two (July 2009).

The national parks pass was about $400 for two and the flight from Vancouver to Sandspit was about $550 for two one-way (July 2009). You can always join an organised tour.

To complete the journey we continued by ferry from the islands to Prince Rupert on the mainland, then a further 15 hour ferry ride between the British Columbia islands known as inside passage to Vancouver Island. With clear weather we saw dolphins, breeching whales, salmon runs, but no bears.

It was a trip of a lifetime.