The history of the Haida Gwaii population dates back between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago, when the last ice age created low water levels around the islands. By around 5,000 years ago, the Haida population had become quite sizable, and the economy consisted of hunting, fishing, and harvesting shellfish. The abundance of shellfish allowed the Haida to establish more permanent villages where food, tools, and other resources could be stored. This also led to the development of craftsmen who could devote more of their time to art.
In 1774, Haida Gwaii was visited by Juan Perez, and in 1778 by Captain James Cook. In 1787, the islands were surveyed by Captain George Dixon and named after one of his ships, the Queen Charlotte. In more recent times, the name Haida Gwaii has been introduced to replace the colonial name "Queen Charlotte Islands".
The islands thrived during the 18th and 19th century as a fur-trading centre; however, the introduction of smallpox and other diseases had reduced the population from 12,000 to 700 by the beginning of the twentieth century.
The population has since grown to around 5,000, and the economy is still largely resource-based. The main industries are logging, commercial fishing, mining, and tourism.
Haida Gwaii, or the Queen Charlotte Islands are located to the west of the northern BC town of Prince Rupert. Two Islands, Graham Island to the north and Moresby Island to the south, comprise the majority of the land mass. The paved highway runs from Sandspit on Moresby to Masset and Old Masset at the northern end of Graham. It's only a 90-minute drive from north to south Graham Island. Moresby Island has 35-minutes of paved road.
The Queen Charlotte Islands are accessed by a six hour ferry trip from the port city of Prince Rupert on the mainland coast of British Columbia three times a week. Reservations are highly recommended. Visitors can also connect with BC Ferries Inside Passage trip to Port Hardy on the north end of Vancouver Island, the Alaska Marine Highway to Ketchikan, Alaska and points north, Via Rail's "Skeena" train service to Prince George in the heart of Northern British Columbia and Greyhound Bus Lines.
By air, Air Canada Jazz offers regular daily flights from Vancouver International Airport to Sandspit. Pacific Coastal Airlines provides daily service from Vancouver's South Terminal to Masset. There is also float plane service between Prince Rupert and Masset and Prince Rupert and Sandspit/Queen Charlotte City.
The hamlet of Sandspit, on the northeastern tip of Moresby Island, is 13 km (8 mi) from the ferry landing at Alliford Bay and is the Gateway to Gwaii Haanas National Park. This Haida Heritage Site is accessed only by boat or chartered aircraft. Check out the imposing locally crafted cedar/copper salmon sculpture on the road to the airport and watch grey whales from Onward Point.
The first registered town site on the Islands, the charming fishing village of Queen Charlotte is located along the shores of Bearskin Bay, 5 km (3 mi) west of the ferry terminal at Skidegate Landing. Check out the bustling docks and circling eagles, source out local art and great food in the funky shops and cafes. View art works by Haida and other locals in the Visitor Centre's gallery.
The Haida community of Skidegate, on the shores of Rooney Bay, was known for years as Skidegate Mission. Located 2 km (1.5 mi) north of the ferry terminal at Skidegate Landing, Skidegate is the cultural centre of the Haida, where the visitor can examine art and cultural artifacts first-hand. Visit the Haida Heritage Centre at Kaay Llnagaay which incorporates several longhouse-style buildings that house the Haida Gwaii Museum, Carving Shed, Canoe House, Performing House, and more. View the Dogfish totem pole carved by the famed Haida carver, Bill Reid, at the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program longhouse on the waterfront.
Originally a Haida fish camp, and eventually established by ranchers and farmers from England, Tlell is now home to a colourful collection of artisans, earning the reputation of being the heart of the island's art community. Located 43 km (27 mi) north of the ferry terminal at Skidegate Landing. Visit the many galleries and artist's studios, access the southeast eand of Naikoon Provincial Park, a rich preserve of rainforest, sand dunes and beaches.
At the estuary of the Yakoun River, on Masset Inlet, the logging and fishing village of Port Clements serves as a base for exploration of the island's rainforest, lakes and rivers via plentiful logging roads. Explore the area's histroy at the Port Clements Museum.
Masset is 40 km (25 mi) north of Port Clements. Just 3 km (2 mi) northeast is the Haida village of Old Massett. These fishing villages are the gateway to Naikoon Provincial Park. View sculptures, carving, jewelry, pottery, textiles and more at galleries and studios. Visit Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary, a critical migratory stopover for more than 150 species of birds. Learn about the Island's maritime history at the Dixon Entrance Maritime Museum, in a restored heritage building which served as the communities' first hospital (c. 1914).
Fishing is the most popular sport in the Queen Charlottes, where it is exceptional year-round. Anglers are drawn by the world-class salmon fishing, as the island archipelago is the first land mass on the migratory path of the Pacific chinook, coho, and chum salmon as they journey from the Arctic feeding grounds to their spawning grounds in the Pacific Northwest. Fishing guides abound, and luxurious fishing lodges, floating lodges and sportfishing motherships provide the ultimate fishing experience in this last frontier.
On the southeastern side of Haida Gwaii, there are tiny islands, secluded coves, and plenty of sheltered coastline, all waiting to be explored by kayak. Gwaii Haanas Park is the most popular kayaking area, with destinations like Hotspring Island, Burnaby Narrows, Windy Bay, Anthony Island, Tanu, St. James Island, and Rose Harbour.
There are four trails running through Naikoon Provincial Park, and hiking time ranges from a few hours to a few days. Many of the Forest Service recreational sites on Graham Island are located along beaches, with long stretches of open sand before your wandering feet. If level, sandy beaches aren't your cup of tea, try the Sleeping Beauty Trail, which leads up to the top of Mount Genevieve near Queen Charlotte City. It's not a long trail, but it is steep. Over on Moresby Island, The Gray Bay-Cumshewa Head Trail leads along the shoreline of Cumshewa Head, on the eastern points on Moresby.
The Queen Charlottes are rich in wildlife in the sky and sea, and on the ground. Many of the animals are native, but some - blacktail deer, elk, beavers, raccoons, and even wild cows in Naikoon Provincial Park - are introduced. Among the native species, expect to see black bears, river otters and birds such as bald eagles, Steller jays, peregrine falcons, and many ocean creatures, from grey and killer whales to jellyfish and starfish. One of the best places to see the latter is in Burnaby Narrows on the east side of Moresby Island, accessible only by boat from Moresby camp. Visitors in this area can never be sure what manner of creature will show up - a gang of Dall's porpoises, numbering up to 300 strong, may escort you as you sail or paddle along in the southern section of Gwaii Haanas.
Because the islands are situated along the Pacific flyway, dozens of species of migrating birds stop here in spring and fall, providing fabulous opportunities for birdwatching. A good place to go is the Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary near Masset, at the head of the Delkatla inlet. Sandhill cranes stop here in spring and fall on their migratory routes, and tundra swans stay for the winter. Dozens of other birds can be found here at different times of the year. Other common nesting spots for migrating birds are the Rose Spit and Tow Hill ecological reserves in Naikoon Provincial Park, and Yakoun River Estuary near Port Clements is also a good place for birding.
No visit to the Queen Charlotte Islands will be complete without whale watching. Resident and transient killer whales can be seen, and gray whales pass by the islands during spring as they migrate from their calving and wintering grounds in the lagoons of Baja California to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. Humpback whales can also be seen on the surface, engaging in spy-hopping, flipper-flapping, tail-slapping, and breaching.
Totem poles are wonderful examples of aboriginal art. The ancient practice of totem carving has been handed down through generations as a way of preserving the history of local native heritage as well as honouring tribal rituals and sacred spirits of people. There are many ways to experience the rich culture and native heritage of British Columbia's most fascinating people. For your own exploration of some of the best totem poles and aboriginal art in British Columbia, embark upon one of the many circle tours.
In July, attend Skidegate Days, a family-oriented celebration including Haida canoe races, volleyball and a salmon barbecue and dance.
In August, attend the Edge of the World Music Festival in the Tlell Fall Fair Grounds. The Fair hosts local and off-island music talent, judging of crafts, gardening, animal husbandry, displays, pony rides and of course - enjoying food!
Background Photo Credit: Destination British Columbia