It’s a magical place, everyone said. After growing up in small BC towns like Tahsis, Boston Bar, and Hazelton, I wondered how different small-town living on the island of Haida Gwaii could actually be. What was it about the islands that made everyone talk about it as if it was in a different world?
I recently visited Haida Gwaii for the very first time, determined to answer this question for myself. After a day of traveling from Prince George to the Village of Queen Charlotte, I had the most amazing dinner at Haida House at Tllaal. It was a three-course meal, starting with an arugula salad with roasted tomatoes and goat cheese, ending with a creamy vanilla bean crème brule, and focused around a beautifully packaged main. The main course was presented tied in the parchment it was cooked in, which the servers cut open at the table to reveal a giant cut of local halibut, tiger prawns, artichokes, sundried tomatoes and potatoes swimming in a bath of butter and olive oil. My mouth is watering again just thinking about it!
I spent much of the next two days sightseeing between the Village of Queen Charlotte and Masset. In between, in Skidegate, is the Haida Heritage Centre – a wonderful museum displaying Aboriginal culture including several totem poles.
In their carving house, I chatted with two of the men working on a new totem pole that will be raised in mid-August to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Gwaii Haanas agreement between the Haida Nation and the Canadian government. Although already very intricate, the carving was far from completed – it’s amazing the think the amount of work and dedication that goes into them!
Of course, I visited some of the best known Haida Gwaii attractions. I went to Balance Rock – a large boulder perched on the beach – and posed for the typical tourist photo, while avoiding stepping on the little crabs scuttling around the tide pools.
Not far from this beach is St. Mary’s Spring, where a statue guards a small spring and sign tells visitors that if you drink from its water, you will find yourself back in Haida Gwaii one day (a nice thought, but upon seeing the water advisory notice next to it, I opted out!).
I was lucky enough to be invited to a resident’s home for dinner one evening, where we dined on fresh tuna and salmon sashimi that had been caught not far from where we ate it! I’ve never had such fresh fish, and the tuna absolutely melted in my mouth. I didn’t know it as I ate it, but the scraps were to become our after-dinner entertainment. They were thrown onto the beach in front of the house (most houses are water-front here!) to attract the eagles. And once they arrived, what a show! I counted about eight bald-headed eagles at one time, some still young without the recognizable white head, but all huge. They took turns swooping at full speed toward the beach, sweeping aside the seagulls and grasping for the scraps. Standing on the deck above the beach, full and happy from my fish and wine, taking in this amazing natural scene, I started to understand that “magic.”
I asked several people I talked to on the island what it was about Haida Gwaii that was so special, and although they all agreed (emphatically) that it was, no one could quite give me a solid, tangible answer. Many of the people I met had visited 20 to 30 years ago and just never left; they said it was the “feeling” of the place that made them stay. After a mere three days there myself, I understand what they tried to tell me, but I’m not sure I can describe it. From Spirit Square, to the Tideside Bookery and beyond, there is a magic in the very air, and it’s something that you just have to discover for yourself.
Haida Gwaii, BC