National Parks Are Us: Gwaii Haanas


Photography Louise Christie

Ottawa-based songwriter Ian Tamblyn put it best in his composition Woodsmoke and Oranges: "There's something about this country that's a part of me and you."

All it takes is one visit to a place like Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Area to confirm that - viscerally. Just start paddling and see for yourself. Each stroke sends shivers your way at the thought that this domain belongs to everyone. Look around. Look deep. Vast natural riches spread above and below the archipelagic tide lines of 200 islands strewn across the southern third of Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte Islands.

Biologist Duane Sept spent a decade studying this remarkable ecosystem. On the phone from his home on the Sunshine Coast, Sept revealed that preserving this marine habitat in 1987 was a great service. "There's more protein per square centimetre here than anywhere else. Burnaby Narrows in particular is rated as having the highest density of living matter on earth."

To float at low tide through Burnaby Narrows - properly called Dolomite Narrows - is to drift through a marine dream world. Stacked like condos in Bayshores, colourful colonies of red turbans, whitecap limpets, blue topsnails, and giant plumrose anemone spread below the surface and climb the sides of the winding, kilometre-long shallow channel that separates Moresby and Burnaby Islands. Palm-sized red rock crabs scuttle through patches of seaweed that sprout like leaf lettuce. Nurtured by a constant flow of oxygen and nutrients, green, red and brown algae lend even more hues to the intertidal palette. Sept refers to them as "herbs" that feed both invertebrates and carnivores alike.

Such lush wilderness scenes set national parks apart from the normal space-time continuum. Removed from all signs of human habitation, it feels as if you've suddenly arrived on another plane. A tingling begins in your toes and climbs to the nape of your neck, signaling an elevated state of mind. Higher ground, indeed. As Sept observed, "There are a few other such narrows along the West Coast but nothing to compare with what you'll find at Burnaby," which is why you'd be well advised to pack along a copy of Sept's full-colour The Beachcomber's Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest to help make sense of the wealth of biomass on display.

As you raise your eyes from the glassy aquascape, Yatza Mountain rises to the west, one of a rolling series of peaks in the San Charistoval range that culminate with 1,148-metre Mount Moresby whose snow-capped crown stands as a reminder that even in the midst of summer, it's wise to keep both a toque and a pair of warm gloves handy.

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