How did I forget? Yes I love paddling and am so stoked to learn about the ocean and the Haida culture and history, but as soon as we went walking through this ancient forest I remembered…I just love the trees. They are the real reason I came here. I lay against their massive trunks or overtop of their expansive root systems and I feel it: the thousand years of coming and going, of witnessing songs and storms, of growing ever-patiently towards the sky. With trees I find my centre.
This morning we pack up at a chill pace, savouring eggs, beans and ham for breakfast. I fill a waterbottle at my secret bathing spring, then paddle happily across glassy water reflecting the clouds above. We’ve nailed the configuration of people in singles and doubles, so our pace is consistent and efficient – we never pause to wait for people to catch up; we never have to rush. Settled into a harmonized rhythm.
A bear and two bald eagles herald our arrival on our campsite beach, their successful fishing a prophecy that we too might have fresh fish for dinner.
The famous pole and longhouse comes into view as we paddle the inlet towards Windy Bay.
Hlk’yah GawGa (Windy Bay) served as a home base during the Lyell Island standoff in 1985. Catastrophic logging of the ancient giants on the north (Graham) Island led to a massive campaign of letter writing, lawsuits, government action and petitions from the Haida Nation. As pressure on the government rose, logging companies set up floodlights and ran operations 24 hours a day, harvesting as much as possible in anticipation of barring legislation.
Decades of being ignored while their homeland continued to be decimated by loggers led to a standoff on a logging road at Sedgwick Bay. Over 60 Elders stood vigil on the road, allowing loggers to leave but creating a physical blockade for the trucks and machinery needed to log the area. The Elders spoke to each other only in Haida, allowing them to strategize in full view of their opponents since their language was not understood outside their communities.
Visiting the site, we have the option to sleep in the longhouse constructed for those Elders: a place named “Standing Around and Blinking House”. On the front lines, the Elders faced off against RCMP in a high stakes staring contest; whoever blinked first would lose. The Elders would take shifts on the front lines, then retire to the longhouse to stand around and blink, resting their tired eyes and nourishing their strength to continue the fight for their homelands. 30 years later, the longhouse still smells deliciously of cedar.
Needing a solid amount of alone time, I opt out of sleeping in the longhouse and choose to tent amidst the giants beside a creek. By myself with trees, the happiest place I can be. It’s quiet, except for the call of ravens, the flitting of tiny brown burrowing birds, the wind in the treetops, and the electric hum of mosquitoes. The group laughs at me because I meditate love for mosquitoes and refuse to kill them, but (perhaps randomly, or perhaps because of my love vibes towards them) they rarely sting me.
We settle into our campsites and have lunch of guacamole, tons of crisp veggies, cheese and bread. We eat like kings on this trip! (Kayaks serve as mobile refrigerators because the veg sits on the cold ocean in the base of the kayak, and weight is no issue because everything floats, so we bring all the extravagance we can fit in our hatches).
Speaking to the Watchmen in the area, many of whom had family at the protests, memories were mixed. “It was our only industry; most of our jobs came from logging. So it was a hard decision to give up that income and stop the logging. But we knew the trees were irreplaceable, and keeping them was important. So we supported what they did.”
The standoff led to the protection of the area with the creation of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage site, the first protected area in Canada which is co-managed by a First Nation and the Government of Canada. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the creation of Gwaii Haanas, in August 2013 the Legacy Pole, the first monumental pole raised in Gwaii Haanas 130 years, was raised. Each section tells a story, which is well documented in these beautiful videos.
After sharing the story of the pole, our Haida Watchman guide Shawn leads us through the mystic forest. Shawn is an anthropologist and collections manager at the Haida Gwaii Museum. “Most archaeologists dig ancient cultures so far removed from their own history; for me, going on digs is finding my own family’s history, discovering the roots of my own past.”
We come upon Culturally Modified Trees, which grew around cuts made by Haida hundreds of years ago to create house siding, clothing or tools.
Shawn generously shares with us for hours, telling us about masks, dances, burial, birth, repatriation and creation stories. I swim in the sea of his knowledge, floating on stories and facts as we walk beneath ancient trees.
“My brothers and I counted a stump we found near here – we had to use sewing needles to count them, the rings were so close together. The average of all our counting was over 1700 rings. This tree here, it’s at least 1000 years old.”
Shawn pulls us across a creek at the end of the hike, singlehandedly rowing us using a clothesline suspended over the water. When we are all across, it takes all 6 of us pulling to get him across…he is a strong dude.
After dinner (of fresh fish Shawn caught with his wife and 3 year old daughter), I walk out into the woods with Anne and Tobias.
But they move too quickly. I need to pause constantly as I am struck with awe at the giants, the network of moss above and below, the tapestry of hemlock all around. I tell them to go ahead, I’ll walk back alone. I pause to listen.
It’s so silent, I think.
But the longer I stand still, the louder it gets.
The creek comes visible in my minds eye, then a far off bird. A single mosquito. A hint of wind. None of the creaking trees I’m used to at home. These giants stand firm and quiet. Each has witnessed so much, and each likely grew out of the nutrients of an even older cedar, which sprang from an even older…
I think of all the pre-contact Haida songs, not really lost but imprinted in the inner bark of these trees, the vibration of voices and drums in their heartwood.
These trees hid warriors from invaders, saw canoes and longhouses forged from their forest, witnessed ceremonies, smallpox, wars, desolation, desertion, reoccupation. I make it 3 feet along the path and am struck still, once again, to be surrounded on all sides by these giants. I feel so small, so overcome by them, intimidated for the first time by a forest. But I don’t feel afraid. I stare unfocused at a single patch of green, try to take in all the millions of individual leaves and needles in front of me, and the whole scene dances before my eyes. Struck silly with love.