Finding the spirit of Gwaii Haanas

Robin Esrock, author of The Great Canadian Bucket List, explains how Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, one of only four Canadian locations to make it into his book, The Great Global Bucket List, got under his skin

  • Mar 08, 2021
  • 356 words
  • 2 minutes
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As someone who has done his fair share of globetrotting, I know certain destinations transcend the expectations of even the weariest traveller. The Galapagos Islands, Angkor Wat and Antarctica come to mind. Combined, these are remarkable places with unique wildlife, fascinating history, rich culture and spellbinding beauty.

It’s rare, however, to find all these characteristics in one location. And yet such a place exists just 130 kilometres off the coast of British Columbia — Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.

When I first visited the park, I was aware of the Haida miracle. I knew how this proud First Nation had reclaimed its land, language, art and culture from the brink of annihilation. The deep respect the Haida have as custodians for their land reverberates beyond the small communities of Skidegate and Old Massett, to each of the archipelago’s 138 islands and beyond. The wind that blows through old-growth forests of cedar, hemlock and spruce, and across quiet bays, whispers myths from a time that once was and, against the tides of history, continues to be.

As it has been for centuries, the wildlife on and around the islands is key to the Haida way of life. While sailing, kayaking and hiking in the park, I’ve seen pods of orcas, sea lions basking and barking on warm rocks, and thousands of salmon leaping upstream toward salivating black bears. On the island of SGang Gwaay, I have stood beneath the cracked mortuary poles guarding what remains of abandoned cedar longhouses and listened as a tour guide, one of a group known as the Haida Gwaii Watchmen, explained the supernatural forces that his people ascribe to nature. There is a charged atmosphere surrounding this UNESCO world heritage site, as there seems to be almost everywhere in Gwaii Haanas. Positive ions follow you on forest trails, along beaches and as you float on the cold Pacific.

This is a place that carves itself into your memory, where, like ancient totems, details may splinter but the trunk stands tall. There’s nowhere on Earth quite like it.

Map of Haida Gwaii, showing Gwaii Haanas National Park. Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo
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This story was originally published in the March 2016 issue of Canadian Geographic.


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