Travel Story 

Sailing the sacred Charlottes

An archaeological adventure into Haida Gwaii, a ‘place of wonder’

Shafts of morning sunshine strike the weather-beaten wood evoking 10,000 years of culture. These are the ancient totem poles of the Haida people. Seasoned by nature, they stand in stoic solitude in defiance of the passing years. Magnificent all by themselves, they also serve as a vivid reminder of the fragile balance between man and nature.

Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands) is among the richest biological and cultural reserves on the planet. The islands lie 240 kilometres north of Vancouver Island and 45 kilometres south of the Alaskan Panhandle. The secluded archipelago of 130 islands is home to ageless rainforests, white sand beaches and a seemingly endless variety of wildlife seldom seen anywhere else in the world. Within this mosaic is the cultural legacy of the Haida, one of the most culturally developed and complex native groups to inhabit early North America.

The Haida name for the remote southern islands is "Gwaii Haanas" which translates to "place of wonder." It is easy to see why, at least from the deck of the historic schooner Maple Leaf.

"Sheet in the jib!" calls Captain Kevin Smith, the proud owner of the sailing ship first launched from Vancouver in 1904. The boat heels gently to the wind and cuts through the ocean. Maple Leaf has skimmed the waters of Gwaii Haanas for almost two decades, allowing guests to experience the rich life of this the "Canadian Galapagos."

There's a good wind now. We should have a good sail to the old Haida village of Cumshewa on the northeast coast of Moresby Island. It's an important stop; the totems there are an excellent place to start as we begin to learn of the Haida people and their interrelationship with the land and animals.

We are sailing at a brisk 8 knots. The small group of guests can sense we are in for something special on this nine-day adventure. The first evening onboard the ship was spent in Sandspit, located on the northern tip of Moresby Island. That night, the ship’s full-time chef treated us to wild chinook salmon while the group discussed the trip's itinerary, at least up to a certain point.

"The hallmark of a Maple Leaf trip is spontaneity," says Sherry Kirkvold, the ship’s dedicated naturalist. "A close encounter with humpback whales or other wildlife inevitably alters the plans."

Haida Gwaii is one of the world's most unspoiled masterpieces because of its isolation, Kirkvold tells us. So we felt fortunate to witness this remote wilderness in the most fitting and unobtrusive manner possible – in a small yacht offering fine views and access, but leaving only footprints behind.

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