Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Haida Gwaii 

By Gloria Geller 

The Haida Gwaii is a group of islands forming an archipelago off the northwest coast of British Columbia – latitude N52o, longitude W131o, where the Haida people have resided at least 6000 – 8000, probably more, years.  It is the place I choose to travel to in the summer of my 70th year.  On a cool, misty, drizzly July morning we slide down the slippery ramp to get a ferry from Skidegate to Alliford Bay on Moresby Island where we meet the group we are to spend the remainder of the day with, along with our very young guide, Max.   We have an hour’s ride over logging roads, past clear cuts of old growth and newer forest to Moresby Camp where we don rainwear consisting of wellington boots, huge  yellow rain coats and rain pants worn over our clothing.  We struggle to get over the edge of the Zodiak, our means of water transportation, which is not a simple matter and most undignified, stomach first.  We sit in the very small seats, knee to knee, hugging the sides of the seats, holding on tightly.  As the boat clips along the waters of Hecate Strait, the wind smacks our faces. The goggles we are given to wear help keep the spray at bay from our eyes.

We travel a short distance between Moresby and Louise Island where we stop to explore the teaming intertidal life and admire the vast array of beings that live in these places, taste seaweed and a type of grass both good to eat and reasonably tasty.  We pass a large colony of seals enjoying themselves on the rocks and spot some deer and a fawn or two, some of the 60,000 deer living on the islands, initially introduced by European settlers for their meat.  When we stop for lunch at a sandy beach we walk into the sacred, ancient forest of Sitka spruce and massive cedar trees, the ground and trees carpeted with moss and lichen.  We come upon a 600 year old Sitka tree, stop to acknowledge the ancient one and express our thanks for allowing us to touch its trunk.  We encounter roots and remnants of old trees, now lying on the ground, nursery trees that nurture baby trees that grow on them. 

After lunch we set out onto Hecate Strait bouncing along in rain, mist and swell.  Eventually we arrive at our destination, Skedans, an old Haida village vacated early in the 20th century when the Haida people were decimated by diseases, especially smallpox, brought by Europeans.  The remaining numbers, about 590 or so people, gathered in a couple of the larger communities, leaving behind their longhouses, totem and mortuary poles, way of life. 

As we disembark from the Zodiac, the beach is almost impassable, tons of massive tubular appearing seaweed has washed up on the beach after a very windy Monday.  One of our group lands on her backside on the slippery surface and since we are adorned with such cumbersome clothing and boots, she has to be helped up.  We walk hand in hand toward the old village.  A watchperson, a significant figure in Haida lore often spotted on totem poles, stays on the island full-time from May to September to guard against souvenir hunters.  Of course, much of the treasure of these islands was vandalized by those seeking to benefit from selling them.  This could possibly include totem poles and other artifacts purchased by museums around the world.

As we walk around the remains of the old village we are accompanied by a small bird that greets us when we enter the abandoned village, follows us as we tour the ruins of the community including the foundation of one or more longhouses, some totem poles and mortuary poles, and flies along with us as we move to the next site.  I can’t help but feel that the bird is behaving as our guide, something that we would not experience among wild birds elsewhere. 

We’re told that several generations would live together in long houses.  We learn that the dead are memorialized by mortuary poles while totem poles commemorate specific events such as a potlach or of specific clans and clan members. They stand guard on this long abandoned place, a reminder of those who once populated this place. 

We spend some time walking around trying to comprehend what life might have been like in this isolated, watery world, a world stripped to its most elemental. We have experienced a tiny bit of what it may have been like to live with the sea, trees, rain, wind, observe the life on and under water, and on the land, while being observed by the eagles that look down at all there is to see as they circle high overhead.

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