For over 13,000 years, members of the Haida nation have resided in the lush 10,000 km2 archipelago off of BC’s northern Pacific coast, practicing their cultural traditions and living off the bounty of the land and sea. Today, the collection of 150 islands called Haida Gwaii continues to offer the Haida people prosperity and sustenance, with tourism being one of the region’s main economic drivers.
Not too long ago, I was lucky enough to helicopter in to Haida Gwaii for a 3-day stay at the Haida-owned Ocean House, one of the floating resorts in the island network. And even though I was there for just 3 days, the experience was utterly transformative.
Here are the top 4 reasons why I recommend putting Haida Gwaii on your bucket list.
1. History lessons from the source
Throughout our stay at Ocean House, located on Haida Gwaii’s southern Moresby Island, guests had the opportunity to participate in a number of excursions led by young Haida guides. The first of these trips had our group heading out on open water in a small fishing boat for an hour-long (and very choppy) ride to a small sandy beach. I felt a little queasy stepping off of the boat and onto the sand, but the feeling subsided as we followed a path into an ancient forest.
Walking along the bouncy, moss-covered trail marked by sprinklings of clam shells, I noticed goose bumps running up my arm. Our guide led us to a small clearing, where rays of sunlight came shining down through an opening in the trees. We continued our stroll, looking around in wonderment at the centuries-old red and yellow cedars and the surrounding natural beauty, until we reached an area our guide told us was the Haida village of Kaysun.
After sharing some details about the area’s history, which has been passed down orally for generations, our guide, a 19-year-old Haida woman named Jayleen, broke out into a beautiful Haida song. It was so soulful and magical that a few of us couldn’t help but shed a tear of appreciation.
2. Incredible ocean adventures
Some of my fondest Haida Gwaii memories are set on the water. One morning, I woke up before any of the other guests, slid one of the resort’s kayaks into the harbour, and set out for a paddle.
Pushing through the water’s glassy surface, breathing in some of the freshest air my lungs have ever encountered, and taking in the grandeur of the Moresby Island mountains was truly meditative. I savoured the peace and solitude that being so far from home offered. In fact, for 3 days our group of 12 didn’t encounter any other humans, which was a novel –and quite welcome– experience for me.
Being in a kayak allowed me to get up close to the rocky edge of the harbour island. With the tide low, I noticed a collection of red starfish, some fuchsia sea urchins and hundreds of mussels clinging to the side of the island. I could see deer and racoons munching on their breakfast at the water’s edge, and I looked up in awe as bald eagles soared above.
Another incredible boating experience was when Ocean House’s guides took our group out on a traditional wooden Haida canoe, one painted with vibrant motifs. It was certainly not as stable as the resort kayak that I had taken out earlier in the day, but there was something so powerful about our tour group paddling in unison while the guides chanted a Haida paddling song, their voices echoing into Haida Gwaii’s mystical distance on a sunny July afternoon.
3. Totem poles galore
On Day 2 of the trip, our group once again headed out onto open water for a 2-hour boat trip. The swells were massive (a couple of us lost our lunch over the side of the boat!) on our way to a beach from which we hiked to the family village of Ts’aahl.
Here, our guide led us to a centuries-old totem pole that was still standing in the original location where it had been erected. She explained how these home frontal poles (which tell the story of a village, clan or family) were crafted so many years ago, and how they differed from mortuary poles, which, as the name suggests, were used to commemorate the dead.
Those wishing to see a collection of different totem poles in one location can head to the 3 Haida village sites in the town of Old Massett, located on the north coast of Graham Island, one of Haida Gwaii’s main islands.
4. Feasting from land and sea
For thousands of years, the Haida people have dined on nature’s offerings. Today, many of the floating lodges and restaurants in the area serve cuisine using locally sourced seafood, produce, meat and game.
At Ocean House, head chef Brodie Swanson brings upscale flair to traditional aboriginal dishes. Our 3-night, all-inclusive stay included sit-down meals served in the oceanside dining room, as well as to-go lunches for guests to take out on excursions. At happy hour, charcuterie boards composed of locally sourced smoked salmon and cheeses were served for enjoyment along with our drinks.
Some of the most memorable dishes of the trip included local braised venison served with sautéed wild mushroom and razor clam fritters, and Haida dashi served with locally sourced kelp noodle. Chinook and coho salmon, ling cod, clams and Dungeness crab, featured prominently in many of the dishes, to my (and most everyone else’s) delight. With such beautifully prepared dishes, the food itself would be worth going back for.
If you’re ready to experience the trip of a lifetime, you can learn more about incredible Haida Gwaii here.
Want to learn more about Indigenous tourism options in Canada? Read our destination guide here. Let us know in the comments below which destinations are on your travel list.