Travel

Kim Gray shares her journey chasing wonder in Haida Gwaii

The RCGS Fellow and Travel Ambassador discusses her experience in “Canada’s Galapagos” with Maple Leaf Adventures

  • Published Jul 24, 2023
  • Updated Mar 08, 2024
  • 891 words
  • 4 minutes
Writer and RCGS Fellow Kim Gray in her happy place - tucked into a kayak on the salty, silvery waters of Canada’s Pacific Ocean, this time in Haida Gwaii with Canadian Geographic Adventures. (Photo: David Gray)
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As a writer, I’ve been covering Canada’s travel landscape for more than a dozen years. And while most of my adventures have been meaningful in one way or another, a handful of trips have been game changers.

One of these more notable travel experiences involves a luxury tugboat cruise along Canada’s wildlife-rich northwest coast with Maple Leaf Adventures. It’s been years since, and I’m still raving about this tugboat tour to remember at cocktail parties.

A talented musician, 20-year-old Kiera Moody shares songs with guests after a dinner at Keenawaii’s Kitchen, an intimate Haida dining experience with Chef Roberta Olson at her oceanfront home. (Photo: David Gray)
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Given my earlier encounter with this unique travel company, I instantly perked up when an opportunity surfaced to volunteer with Maple Leaf Adventures as a Royal Canadian Geographical Society Travel Ambassador. Only this time around, the ocean voyage — part of a newly launched Canadian Geographic Adventures initiative — would be by catamaran and centred around Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the central B.C. coast.

The enterprise operates three expedition vessels. There’s Swell (the sweetest refurbished tugboat you’re ever going to lay eyes on), a sailing ship named Maple Leaf (which embodies the spirit of freedom at sea if you ask me) and a catamaran called Cascadia (elegant and spacious).

Before I know it, my husband, also an RCGS Travel Ambassador, and I are en route to what has famously and for good reason, been called Canada’s Galapagos.

We fly from Calgary to Vancouver and then north along the Pacific coast to Masset, where we’re off to a rollicking start with Ocean Edge Expeditions, a company that partners with Maple Leaf Adventures on the ground in Haida Gwaii. Our excursion with this locally owned tour operator launches, appropriately, with a delicious halibut fish and chips lunch at The 626 Fish and Chipper, a walking tour up scenic Tow Hill and then a drive south to Skidegate, where we check into JAGS, a charming hotel with a popular restaurant. That night, we attend a seafood-inspired dinner at nearby Keenawaii’s Kitchen, an intimate Haida dining experience that Chef Roberta Olson holds in her oceanfront home.

Our meal is followed by a powerful song and drum performance on the beach at sunset, made that much more extraordinary by the dozen bald eagles that join in, swirling and crying out in the sky above us.

The following morning, we pack our bags and drive to The Haida Heritage Centre at Ḵay Llnagaay, which we tour with James Williams — a quick-witted, knowledgable guide with a delightful sense of humour.

Early afternoon, enriched by our visit to the award-winning centre, which is also teed up to “protect and foster Haida culture,” we gather on the nearby water’s edge, where we’re retrieved by a tender and escorted to Cascadia, our floating catamaran home for the next week.

Dramatic and soulful, historic (and contemporary) Haida wood carving always tells a story. (Photo: Kim Gray)
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The Haida Heritage Centre - teed up “to protect and foster” Haida culture - is a rich resource on the region’s history and people, a must-see for anyone visiting the remote archipelago. (Photo: Kim Gray)
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Where to begin? If there’s a region in Canada that literally hums with life, we’ve found it. Every day aboard Cascadia, which is run by a wonderful crew of people (the kind of folks you want to hang out with), offers something sensory exploding.

We cruise past lively (and smelly) sea lion rookeries, alongside leaping white-sided pacific dolphins (exhilarating) and near colourful seabird colonies (yes, we see tufted AND horned puffins!)

Lucky for us, our expedition leader, Michael Jackson, is a former science teacher. Our outings with him feel like field trips from school days, and guests, my husband and I included, find ourselves brightening like wide-eyed kids again.

“A trip like this on B.C.’s wild coast is just spectacularly beautiful,” Jackson tells me. “It never gets old. It’s eye-opening for people no matter where they’re from.”

In Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, we meet passionate Haida Watchmen — hired to protect ecologically and historically significant sites — who share stories about the riches of local life and the struggles and successes of their people.

This noisy Steller sea lion rookery is something to behold, with new-born pups littering the rocks and a strong smell of fish that wafts over to our vessel (and almost knocks us out!) (Photo: David Gray)
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Wherever we go, we’re joined by crew member and cultural lead Gaajiiaawa (Linda Tollas) of the Skedans Raven clan, who generously shares insights about her culture, Haida history and one of her favourite topics, the cedar tree.

Whenever other locals see Gaajiiaawa, it’s clear she’s a beloved and respected member of the Haida Gwaii community. No surprise, given the value of her work, she was recently nominated for the RCGS Louie Kamookak medal.

It was an honour for my husband and I to present her, post-dinner one evening and as RCGS ambassadors, with the medal which was sent to us from Ottawa before our initial departure.

I may be back in Calgary now, but I’m feasting on recent memories of ancient forests filled with birdsong and blankets of glowing, emerald-green moss, the air so fresh and breathable you can’t put words to it.

And I’m recalling the playful seals we encountered during kayak adventures along the way, with one pup – unforgettably – latching onto and then swinging from our expedition leader’s paddle before gleefully diving back into the sea with a giant salty splash.

Travel with us

Haida Gwaii with Canadian Geographic

Haida Gwaii is a must-see destination for those who love wildlife, far-flung places and/or northwest coast First Nations culture. This cruise explores it all – from rich intertidal life to lush rainforests, hot springs to Haida village sites, including UN World Heritage Site SGang Gwaay.

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