Lydia Webb tells us all about the most amazing islands in Canada you’ve never heard of.
When my friend and I visited Canada, we started off like everyone else: with a guidebook and highlighter, reading about all the exciting things to do. We settled on the west of Canada, making it our mission to get as far west as possible. The endpoint was the islands on the coast, called Haida Gwaii. They’re notoriously hard to get to, but uniquely beautiful – so we took on the challenge.
There is supposed to be a tourist train that rumbles through the Rocky Mountains for a visually spectacular journey. However, we had just cashed in our student loans to get to Canada – and we thought the views would be just as awe-inspiring (and half the price) from a bus window. How wrong were we! The multiple bus journeys, not to mention ferries, took three long nights. When we finally arrived we were exhausted and dirty, yet bowled over by the natural beauty of the place.
We were taking a guided island tour on our second day when we bumped into a couple of English guys we had met in the Rocky Mountains. “Your last couple of days were probably very similar to ours then,” said one of them, “did you take the train from Jasper as well?” With the memory of our journey to the islands fresh in our minds, we recalled the traumatic events involving a crazed attack on a fellow passenger, a fugitive on the run from the law, and the backwater town where we nearly died of heatstroke. Looking at the landscape in front of us though, all was forgotten.
The guided tour told us not only about the islands, but also about their first inhabitants – a subject not widely discussed in other parts of Canada. The native people of Haida Gwaii had been the victims of cultural exploitation and oppression. The sea otter pelt trade initially brought considerable wealth to the Haida nation, but they were hunted to extinction. Christian missionaries then arrived, bringing diseases such as smallpox which wiped out 90% of the population. As trade dried up, people began to pillage souvenirs; including totem poles, Haida art and artefacts. Together, this reduced the Haida people to a tiny community and robbed them of their inheritance.
At the Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate, we discovered the islands’ unique wildlife. Unlike mainland Canada, the archipelago missed the last ice age, so a number of species have survived till this day. We were lucky to see one of them, the Giant Haida Black bear, in the flesh. Because of the presence of such dangerous bears in the area, the guide suggested that we should make a lot of noise when hiking to warn them of our presence. All was well until we ran out of things to say and settled on a shaky rendition of ‘The Bare Necessities’ to keep the beasts at bay.
For the final part of the week, we journeyed to North Beach on the northern most tip of the islands and spent two amazing days completely off-grid in a wooden cabin. With that, we got on the plane for an hour’s flight to Vancouver. But the flight just felt too easy – the traumatic three day bus ride to Haida Gwaii made us appreciate the place so much more.
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Images: Lydia Webb