Haida Gwaii: Takes You Back To The Beginning Of Time

“Yes, I know it,” my Vancouver cab driver said when I asked him about Haida Gwaii, the torch-shaped archipelago flung some 70 miles off the coast of British Columbia, across the choppy Hecate Strait. “It’s our there.” The 175-mile-long chain has benefited from its extreme isolation, with some of the largest and oldest spruce trees on the planet; 20 kinds of whale, dolphin, and porpoise; and animal subspecies that exist nowhere else—like the Haida Gwaii black bear, which has developed especially large teeth and jaws due to a steady diet of crabs and salmon. Only a dozen visitors at a time are allowed to set foot on some of the islands. (Though Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge did manage to swing a visit to the area last September.)

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Aside from the Imax-like wildlife encounters— Sitka black-tailed deer flit across your path, and sputtering gray Minke whales surface off your boat’s bow—much of the archipelago’s almost mystical energy owes to the fact that it’s the ancestral home of the Haida First Nation, which comprises roughly half the islands’ population of 5,000. Haida culture thrives in the towns of Old Massett and Skidegate on Graham Island, where street signs are in English and Xaat Kil; the Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate stages dance performances in a longhouse-style theater. On Anthony Island in Gwaii Haanas, I wandered through an ancient, mossy forest and peered up at 19th-century carved cedar mortuary poles housing remains of bygone chiefs. It all conjured a neck-tingling echo of an old Haida proverb I’d scribbled down: “When you walk this earth, you must walk carefully. Underneath your feet is the knife’s edge, and you could fall off this world.”

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