Kayaking Haida Gwaii, B.C.

Photo by Lee Juillerat

Visiting Haida Gwaii might be compared to visiting a living zoo or aquarium. During sea kayak trips in Haida Gwaii, a chain of more than 150 islands off the coast of British Columbia, it’s not unusual to see black bears, humpback whales, orcas, puffins, bald eagles, Steller sea lions and a menagerie of birds, including oyster catchers, rhinoceros and Cassin’s auklets, marbled murrelets, cormorants and sapsuckers.

Similarly, during low tides, tidal areas reveal marine forests of starfish, bull kelp, varieties of lichen, sea urchins, butter clams, sea cucumbers, turban snails, crabs and a kaleidoscope of anemones.

Haida Gwaii is part of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. The archipelago covers a land mass of nearly 4,000 square miles and is best experienced by multi-day kayak tours. Because of weather variables, commercial trips are generally offered only in July and August.

It’s not a luxury outing. Weather conditions are fickle, ranging from sunny and hot to mildly damp to soaking wet. Groups are limited to 12, usually 10 guests and two guides. During my eight-day guided trip, we paddled in two-person kayaks, passing alongside and visiting several islands, some for lunch stops, some for overnight camps. We were expected to help, whether by unloading kayaks or setting up (and breaking down) camp, while the guides focused on preparing hearty, healthy, tasty meals. Paddling burns up the calories.

Camping is part of the experience. Only yards from the water’s edge are temperate rainforests, lush and spongy soft with moss, lichen and, more dramatically, old-growth Sitka spruce, western red cedar and western hemlock, some 300 feet high.

The experience includes many unknowns. Weather, tides and abilities of the kayakers mean no itinerary is rigid. As Grant Thompson, the Bend, Oregon-based director of Tofino Expeditions, explained, “Our trips are structured as a journey, as an expedition.”

Among the near certainties of each trip are visits to an old village, today a UNESCO World Heritage site, on Anthony Island’s west side. Haida Watchmen, members of the region’s historic tribe, serve as caretakers, allowing only 12 visitors at a time for tours that feature myths and tales about 12 aging mortuary totems, teetering poles erected to honor deceased tribal chiefs.

Haida Gwaii is an archipelago of history, mystery and beauty. No two visits are alike, and that’s part of the allure.

For information about Haida Gwaii kayak trips, visit the Tofino Expeditions website at tofino.com. To learn more about travel to Haida Gwaii, visit gohaidagwaii.ca.