As many a writer has intoned, Haida Gwaii is a magical, mystical place. Certainly the impression has to do with it being fog-shrouded and rain-inundated most of the year, as well as the cathedral forests and verdant carpet of mosses that erupt in response. Beyond this ethereal atmosphere, there's the high productivity of the seas, amply represented both by intertidal wealth and the magnificent leviathans circling the archipelago like so many mythical guardians. Finally, the allure of these islands owes no small debt to their powerful and culturally radiant indigenous Haida people, who have occupied these shores for more than 12,000 years. Their life here over the millennia — including in situ experience of retreating Pleistocene ice sheets and rising sea levels — has spun story and legend into a vibrant, unparalleled oral tradition and body of art: Haida cedar totem poles and boxes, argillite statuary, and intricately woven spruce-root baskets and hats are spoken of with equal reverence in Vancouver galleries and the Louvre in Paris, an international semiotic for the intersection of nature and culture. Beyond aesthetic qualities, however, Haida images and narratives compel us for deeper reasons: they are vestiges of exploration, discovery, and adaptation — the dialogue of a people confronting the unknowns of a new wilderness that stood, quite literally, at the boundary of their world.
Such is the milieu and expectation that any wide-eyed visitor to Haida Gwaii drops into. And they are not, by-and-large, disappointed. Storms come and go, tides surge and retreat, the ocean roars, the sun blinks to coax plants skyward, animal life is abundant, and these rhythms are everywhere backstopped by associated Haida iconography. Whether you camp on beautiful and empty Grey Bay south of Sandspit, stay in a funky B&B in the villages of Queen Charlotte, Tlell or Masset, or wander the preternatural, agate-addled beaches surrounding Tow Hill, you are in awe of nature's shifting potential, a mythic dominion of what seems an eternal world of wonders.
Unfortunately, in the most easily accessible places on Haida Gwaii you also can't help but notice what isn't there: the original forest. Along the short stretch of paved highway on northern Graham Island, clearcuts stretch to the horizon, barely concealed behind cynically thin palisades; on the backroads to beaches and parks you confront the monotony of second-growth — towering but sterile, devoid of understory save for the deep moss concealing massive stumps and slash. The more time you spend here the more you want to know what it was once like, and the more you find out about that, the more disappointed and angry you become: a place this special, you conclude, should never have suffered such plunder. It's a feeling inculcated almost immediately on the short hike through a remnant patch of primal forest to the site of the Golden Spruce.
In January, 1997, Grant Hadwin — a timber scout whose marbles were considerably loosened by cathartic comprehension of the environmental criminality of his vocation and a growing animas toward his rapacious employers — packed a large chainsaw into a green garbage bag, inflated the bag, then swam it across the frigid Yakoun River outside Port Clements. On the far side, Hadwin proceeded to expertly destabilize a 300-year-old Sitka spruce whose needles, through a genetic mutation, shimmered golden instead of the usual green. The 50-metre-tall arbour was a scientific marvel, a tourist attraction, sacred to the Haida, and even beloved by the "owners" of the grove of like-aged Sitka in which it stood, MacMillan Bloedel (which was also secretly trying to clone it). When, as planned, the tree toppled in a windstorm two days later, islanders were devastated. Hadwin was unrepentant, claiming no disrespect to the Haida in having felled MacBlo's "pet-tree" to protest the company's destructive forestry practices. Today, on the bank of the tea-coloured river amidst the Golden Spruce's towering confreres and their five-metre-wide trunks, staring across to its one-time location, it's hard not to feel some sympathy for the act of a madman.
That's because with old-growth rainforest still actively being logged in B.C., it seems madness to cull the less than one per cent remaining — especially when the miserly set-asides known as "parks" are too small to preserve any meaningful biodiversity, and little more than tree museums. In his masterful unwinding of Hadwin's tale, The Golden Spruce, author John Vaillant evokes in horrifying detail the headlong exploitation and destruction that forever eliminated most of B.C.'s old-growth temperate rainforest: "I can't bear to go back," says a one-time timber cruiser; "We basically gutted the place... you wonder if it's all worth it," notes another former logger; and, from a Haida artist: "When you fly over (northern Haida Gwaii) and see all that's been taken... you can't speak for a few days."
Which is why, happily, the Haida stepped in to take control of what remained in southern Haida Gwaii. Their protracted Lyell Island and South Moresby blockades of the 1980s (detailed in the book Paradise Won by Elizabeth May — yes, that Elizabeth May) that forced logging companies to their knees had two fantastic outcomes: first, world-renowned Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site found its way into existence, a vast area of the southern archipelago protected from the peaks of its mountains to the bottom of the sea jointly administered by Parks Canada and the Haida, and a must-visit to vanquish that feeling of loss and truly experience Haida Gwaii; second, the Haida blockade showed Canadians from coast-to-coast that if you truly believe in what you're fighting to protect, you can win any battle — and a war it truly is — against mule-headed resource-extraction industries and governments. And for that effort, we should all be eternally grateful and inspired.
If it needs a positive legacy, the misguided hole in the forest on the west side of the Yakoun River suggests heeding the urge to fight for what's right before you're driven mad by it.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.
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