Haida Gwaii – The Galapagos of Canada?

Some call it the “Galapagos of Canada”, while others still know it better by its former name, the Queen Charlotte Islands. Located more than 700km northwest of Vancouver, Haida Gwaii (Islands of the Haida people) is an incredibly diverse archipelago rich in history, and composed of more than 150 islands and islets, west of Prince Rupert and south of Alaska.

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It’s a magical place filled with diversity and contrasts: It’s a wild place by nature, but makes you feel very much at peace. It is isolated, but her communities and people make you feel welcome from the moment you arrive.

The place is sacred, from 12,000 years of Haida history, but can feel alien when you get off the beaten path, or when you consider its precarious position between two tectonic plates.

Haida Gwaii is as exotic as it sounds, Canadian-style. Its forests have an abundance of berries, growing under the watchful eye of giant Sitka spruce, red cedars and hemlocks. Its waters are teeming with wildlife: Whales, sea lions, seals, salmon, lingcod, halibut and the abundance of creatures that live in the inter-tidal areas.

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On shore and at sea, the skies are alive with seabirds and birds of prey. Majestic bald eagles seem to outnumber seagulls, soaring overhead by the dozen. Rocky islands are shared by sea lions and birds alike. At creek outlets, life teems below the surface as the salmon force their way upstream to spawn.

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Step a few feet in from any shore, and your field of view is consumed by infinite shades of green. Springy moss hangs from trees and carpets the forest floor like a thick layer of snow. It’s impossibly green, fresh, ancient and new all at the same time.

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The entire lower third of Haida Gwaii is home to the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.  Accessible only by boat or air, the site came into being after a standoff between the Haida and the logging industry in 1985. It created a unique cooperative between the Haida and government, creating a unique environment that is protected and features an abundance of wildlife in the water, on the land and in the sky.

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Today, the Gwaii Haanas region of Haida Gwaii is home to five Haida watchmen sites, where Haida protectors stay throughout the summer months at traditional Haida village sites, where visitors can meet the watchmen, learn the history, tour the site, and gain a greater understanding of how the Haida lived on these sacred islands for centuries.

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The community spirit of Haida Gwaii is strong – on the particular weekend I visited, the village of Skidegate was raising a new totem pole, celebrating unity. The entire community, locals and visitors alike, share in helping to raise the totem pole, then re-convening later that evening for a traditional potlatch feast. On any given weekend, there’s something taking place on Haida Gwaii, and everyone is always invited.

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The Haida have a saying: “Ginn 7waadluwaan gud7ahl Kwaagiidang”, which means, “everything depends on everything else”. In this magical place of spectacular beauty, nothing could ring more true.

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