A Copper Sky sailing adventure.

Trip Log - Gwaii Haanas - May 2000



May 27th - Day 1 - Cumshewa Inlet

Our trip to Gwaii Haanas, the 'Place of Wonder', began this morning at 7:30 a.m. Twelve guests, including naturalist Trudy Chatwin, are joining Russ, myself, Gordon, Mary Ann (Russ' wife) and Roberta, our cook, for the next week as we travel into the land of the Haida on the Queen Charlotte Islands.

We are almost 500 miles north of Vancouver, 60 miles west of Prince Rupert and 25 miles south of the Alaskan border in the heart of 150 islands full of so much marine and terrestrial life that is has been called the 'Canadian Galapagos' and the 'Galapagos of the North'.

Add in the cultural and historical importance of the 500 Haida archaeological sites and the diverse recreational opportunities available and you have Haida Gwaii, the Queen Charlotte Islands, one of the world's premier adventure destinations. In the south end of this series of islands is one of Canada's most recent national parks, a unique National park Reserve called Gwaii Haanas, which in turn is home to Nan Sdins (Ninstints), a former Haida village with more than a dozen standing totem poles.

Haida village Ninstints totem poles

In October of 1986, a divided Haida nation sat at a cross roads. Forestry on the Queen Charlottes was a booming industry, employing many of the Haida men and women in high paying stable jobs. At the same time, ancient Haida villages and sites were in the line of fire of the logging companies as were South Moresby and Lyell Islands, traditional lands that the Haida nation had laid claim to. The situation came to a head with the blockade of a logging road on Lyell Island splitting island families down the middle in many cases, some for the blockade, some against it. The tide turned that month when nine prominent Haida elders and statesmen were arrested for the blockade, drawing international attention to the Queen Charlotte struggle. In the end, the island residents and the entire Haida community came together with the government of Canada and backed a new and exciting partnership that led to the protection of Lyell and South Moresby Island area of the southern Queen Charlottes, creating the National Park Reserve, Gwaii Haanas.

It is our pleasure now to go and explore this wilderness, beginning with a day in Cumshewa Inlet, the first major inlet south of Skidegate Inlet and the village of Queen Charlotte City.

For a nature cruise/adventure tour, our new guests didn't have to wait long! The excitement began almost immediately with a mature bald eagle landing on our main mast before we'd even left the jetty in Queen Charlotte City. Twenty minutes later we were watching gray whales feeding along the shore next to the town of Skidegate,(four miles) east of Queen Charlotte City. While the grays were not as playful as the humpbacks we ran into on the voyage up from Vancouver, it was spectacular nonetheless to see them rising and blowing against the back drop of Skidegate's colorful houses. While the whales were surfacing on one side of our boat, a tine hummingbird buzzed by us on the other -- whales and hummingbirds in the same place, the epitome of the Queen Charlottes' incredible diversity of life!

The next few hours were spent traveling towards Cumshewa Inlet along the east coast of Moresby Island, While I have never claimed to be an expert birder (or anything even close!), several of our guests are, so we were treated to sighting of seabirds that someone could actually name (for more effective than my usual "Look, it's a big black bird...and it's ...flying...hmmmmmm.:): scoters, cormorants, rhinoceros auklets, pacific loons and pigeon guillemots.

I never though I would say this, but seeing the whales was not the highlight of my day and I think many of our guests would agree. That honor would have to go to our visit to the formerly abandoned Haida village of Cumshewa. Formerly abandoned is a strange way to word things, but it's as close as it gets -- the village was abandoned, but now has people returning to it. Hundreds of years ago, Cumshewa was one of the largest Haida villages on the Queen Charlottes, home to several hundred people in a series of four and six beam long houses stretched along the beach at a strategic point in Cumshewa Inlet. In the late 1800s, when much of British Columbia's native population was decimated by an outbreak of small pox brought by non-natives, the village of Cumshewa slowly began to dwindle in numbers.

The village was abandoned for good in the early 1900s when the final members of the community, including Charlie Wesley, moved on the Skidegate and other native settlements in the Queen Charlottes. This year, for the first time in almost one hundred years, Cumshewa will again have Haida inhabitants. On Thursday night, the chief of the Cumshewa Haida, Charlie Wesley, invited his family and guests from throughout the Charlottes to a pot latch in celebration of the raising of his new retirement home, a beautiful log long house on the site of the abandoned village. As is the tradition with pot latches and the open houses that follow, there is lots of food and gifts for any and all visitors, including folks off a sailboat!

I left with a new hat with a Haida crest on it and the simple work, "Cumshewa."
Exploring the former village itself was an incredible experience that is difficult to put into words (but I'll try). The site of the village is both strategic and beautiful, chosen for both, I imagine. It is a prominent point in the inlet that culminates in an 'island' of land at the end; imagine a drop of water hanging from your finger just before it falls - the drop is the 'island' the tiny thread of water holding the drop to your finger is windswept beach, and your finger is the old growth forest where the village houses were located.

On each side of the thin thread of beach connecting the island to the forest there is a small bay, so that when the Haida villagers had to launch canoes they could do it to the west of the east, depending on what direction the wind was blowing in from. For a guy lime me with a vivid imagination, it was almost too easy to picture a great pot latch ceremony of old, with traditional dugout canoes arriving on the beach and guests walking up to the long houses and lodges on the edge of the forest.

One hundred years later, the lodges and homes are no longer there, the only remnants being log beams and poles lying in the grass amongst the giant spruce. Here and there, a frontal pole (a greeting pole at the front on the lodges) or mortuary pole (poles honouring the deceased) was still standing decaying, yet with faint outlines of carving of family crests and symbols still evident.

Our visit had to end at some point, so after our initial tour through the village site and our stop to eat and mingle at the open house, I took one final wander through the village on my own. I left Cumshewa feeling overwhelmed and awed at the same time, gratified that I was able to experience something like this with Copper Sky and our guests.

I am exhausted and ready to eat now, but our day is not yet done. In an hour, a group of us is off to Limestone Island to take an active part in a unique 25 year research project...details to come!


Onward to Day 2


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