Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands



On a tiny island south of Alaska’s panhandle and ninety miles off the shore of British Columbia, a battery of weathered and decaying totem poles stare out to sea. These poles once declared the status of the powerful Haida Nation. Grizzly bears, eagles and killer whales, once magnificent specimens of the Haida’s talents are rotting and falling. It seems they are disintegrating back into the earth to join the people who carved them in such vivid detail.

An abandoned, windswept village in one of Canada’s newest national parks is even more special. Ninstints, as the long deserted village is called, has the most totem poles on the Pacific coast that still stand on their original site. It has been declared a World Heritage Site. It is an important legacy to the history and culture of not only Canada, but mankind as well.

Here, the decaying totem poles of the Haida people regain their dignity. These totems are not props or souvenirs that are peddled to tourists. They are a tangible link to the past – a time when there were no borders or boundaries, except those between the different tribes of Native people.

Other Indian ruins can be found in Gwaii Haanas, another park. Translated, Gwaii Haanas means “Island of Wonders” and the totems are indeed a wonder – magnificent specimens of bygone days.

The government of Canada is seeking to preserve these islands. The area is abundant with sea, animal and plant life. The area, recently declared a national park consists of 363,000 acres. The Canadian Government plans to extend protection to the waters surrounding the area, making it the largest contiguous marine conservation area in the world. The government is also regulating the number of visitors to the park. Only 175 people are allowed to enter daily. Approximately 3,500 visit every year.

The park is made up of 138 islands. Boaters and Kayakers flock to its crystal clear waters. Since there are no roads, people that don’t come by sea must come by air. Hundreds of visitors come to the islands drawn by the totems. Others come, seeking a wilderness experience.

The Queen Charlotte Islands are beautiful specimens of nature, but at times gale force winds sweep across them without warning. Mist and fog often settle over the islands like a soft veil, giving them a forbidden, mystical appearance. Then, the rains come, lifting the veil of fog so the sunlight can fall over the thick, lush rain forest. Evergreen trees within this Pacific rain forest stretch into the sky. Some are as tall as 150 feet. The moss that covers their gnarled roots is so thick that when you walk upon it, it’s like walking on lush, green carpet.

Wildlife abounds in the air, on the ground and in the sea. Bald eagles, puffins and peregrine falcons inhabit the air. Deer, introduced to the islands by man are plentiful, as they have no natural enemies.
A unique breed of black bear inhabits the island. It is one of several biological oddities that have contributed to the islands being called the Canadian Galapagos. This bear is larger than bears that inhabit the mainland and has stronger jaws that enable it to crack and eat various specimens of shellfish.

Researchers have found thirty-nine species of plant and animal life that are unique to the Queen Charlotte Islands. This area did not feel the full impact of the last ice age and these unique species evolved when the islands remained isolated from the mainland.

The Haida’s main staple was Halibut, an ugly fish with an off center face. Roasted over an open fire, it is mouth watering good. The Haida prized the fish and often carved it on their totem poles.

Kayaking is popular and as you venture out on an expedition, it isn’t unusual to see a seal surface to check out the most recent visitor. Bald eagles soar overhead as you skim over the water. Below is a virtual aquarium of sea creatures. Purple starfish sparkle against the green seaweed. Anemones and sea cucumbers cling to the rocks near shore while jellyfish glide through the crystal waters.

A snow-white raven nests near the village of Port Clements. It has been the center of much discussion. The Haida see the albino bird as a sign – an omen. They feel it may be the Raven of mystic legend, returning to play tricks on the humans who live on the island.

The Haida are extremely protective of the Queen Charlotte Islands. It took many years of anti-logging protests to convince the government to declare it a national park. In order to visit the Haida historical sites, you must either hire a licensed guide or attend a mandatory orientation session, which covers Haida history, safety precautions and camping techniques. The inconvenience is well worth the experience. What you will find is a wilderness area with no development or facilities and the lonely twenty-three totem poles that remain at Ninstints.

The world has progressed as these totems stand, like sentinels, over the village that was wiped out in 1863 by an epidemic. Their creators have almost vanished. The Haida culture has almost been destroyed.

In 1969, a totem pole was raised in the village of Massett. Since then, other Haida traditions have been revived. It seems that both the Haida and the totems have been revived. It seems that both the Haida and the totems have risen again.

Upon departing, if you look closely at the totems, it seems that smiles creep across their weather-scarred cedar faces. Once again, they will stand in silence. Sentinels of a bygone era.


This article was first published at Suite101.com in 2004

24 comments:

Marcel said...

And, a great description of the Queen Charlottes. I have been lucky enough to boat around the Queen Charlottes a few times and have very much enjoyed all my time there. Well except one anchorage that is notorious for horse flies. It’s a beautiful anchorage but the flies sure like it too, making it tough to go outside ones boat.

Having seem many Alaska Natives be blinded by the money and clearcut their lands I have long admired that the Haida of the Quean Charlottes recognized the value of the living trees. Just across Dixon Entrance which is the boarder between British Columbia and Alaska there is an island called Long Island. It must have been a magical place at one time, and it too was Haida country. Unfortunately, another Alaska Native Corporation, Tlingit’s from the other end of the Alaska Panhandle selected this land as part of their land selection and cut nearly every tree on it. Some of the spruces on this island were 800 to 1000 years old. I have slides of stumps that are over 4 meters across. Yes, over 12 feet! They were monster trees that all got cut and shipped to Japan as roundlogs. I watched this island get mowed to the ground to profit a very few people while just a few miles south in Canada the Indigenous People fought to save the trees. I very much respect the BC Haida for not being blinded by what I call shortsighted greed.

Marcel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mary said...

Marcel,

Boating around the Queen Charlotte Islands must have been a wonderful experience. The flies sure wouldn't be though. I'm sure they are nasty pesks.

Yes, many native peoples are blinded by greed, but thank goodness the Haida of the Queen Charlottes have not been. They do indeed recognize the value of the living trees.

I would love to see one of the slides of the 12 foot slabs of spruce. They would be magnificient. However, the spruce would have been even more so if they had been left standing.

The Queen Charlotte Islands are known as the Canadian Galapagos and nothing could be more fitting than that name. They are beautiful.

Thanks so much for visiting and leaving this informational and interesting comment, Marcel. I certainly enjoyed your visit.

Blessings,
Mary

Marcel said...

Mary,

Sorry for the double post. I'm not sure how I did that.

I don't have a slide scanner. If I did I'd scan the slides for you. Maybe I can dig them out, and the old projector and take a photo of the slide.

Denise said...

This was very interesting, thanks for sharing. I like this blog sweetie.

Jackie said...

I have not been to the Queen Charlottes since I was a little girl. You make me yearn to see it all once again.

Our eldest boy became fascinated by the Haida when he was working on a school project for Grade 6.

He loved their art forms and traveled to the west coast to see what he could see when he was older. The dear boy came back with a large Haida sun tattooed on his back. The first of what has turned out many.

Michele said...

What an amazing post, Mary! I learned so much ;-)

Very beautifully written!

Smiles,
Michele

Mary said...

Marcel,

It's easy to double post and I've done it several times. Not a problem at all.

You don't have to go to all that trouble, though I do appreciate your kind thoughts.

I always enjoy visiting with you.

Blessings,
Mary

Denise said...

What a way with words you have... Makes me want to go... You are very talented with descriptions.. Makes a person feel, see and experience those things just by the reading........

I am so impressed......

Mary said...

Denise,

I'm glad that you enjoy learning about the things that I treasure. The ancient spruce and the totems - in fact the entire Queen Charlotte area is definitely a treasure for the entire world to enjoy.

Blessings,
Mary

Mary said...

Jackie,

I do hope you get to go back to the Queen Charlotte Islands. They are so beautiful and I'm sure you would enjoy a return trip.

Blessings,
Mary

Mary said...

Michele,

Thank you for your kind comments. I'm glad you enjoyed this post.

Blessings,
Mary

Tina Coruth said...

Mary,

This is a fascinating article! It's good to know that the Canadian government is preserving this wonderful place. It would be a shame to lose it's pristine beauty and history. I enjoyed reading this - makes me want to visit!

Hugs,
Tina

Marcel said...

Mary,

Since I can’t easily show you my slides here is a link that you might find interesting: http://www.seacc.org/ghosttrees/DEFAULT.HTM

Interestingly one of the slides in this slide show of a logger standing next to a large fallen tree is one of the slides that I have a copy of. The slide was given to me by a friend that I have lost contact with and I assume he also gave SEACC a copy too.

This too is an interesting article: http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/200111/good.asp

I hope you find this interesting to read. To me it helps show how important it is to preserve places like the Quean Charlottes.


Again, thanks for your wonderful article on the Quean Charlottes. I read it again today and found it delightful once more.

Mountain Mama said...

What a beautiful place to visit. The totems are really great. I live in an area where the Natives of old had their springtime campground. We find artifacts in our gardens. SO we have a dual purpose to our digging. What fun!

Mary said...

Tina,

Thank you for your kind comments on my post. The Queen Charlottes are a virtual wilderness paradise and I'm so glad they are being preserved.

Enjoyed your visit, as always.
Blessings,
Mary

Mary said...

Marcel,

Thanks so much for the information. I will certainly go and explore these sites.

I appreciate your comments and your friendship.

Blessings,
Mary

Mary said...

Mountain Mama,

When I was young, my brother and I used to follow behind Grandpa when he plowed the fields. We used to find pieces of pottery and arrowheads when the soil turned over. We then found out that there had been an Indian village at the very back of Grandpa's property. We used to go there and explore and once we even found an old pipe with a broken stem. It was fun, though we were not allowed to dig there.

I've enjoyed your visit, as always.
Blessings,
Mary

Nan said...

Thank you for sharing this with us. I'm glad they are preserving it.
Nan

Michelle said...

Mary,

Thanks for visiting my blog! What a great history lesson..my husband would love to live where you do. Come back and visit again :) Michelle

Jo and JD said...

Some mornings as I am surfing through my favorite blogs I come across a comment that calls to me to check out the home blog of the writer. I truly do feel blessed to have found your postings. enjoyed every minute that I spent here and will be posting a link back to you.

Mary said...

Nan,

Yes, this beautiful pristine wilderness needs to be preserved. It is Canada's only rainforest and a beautiful area to visit.

Michelle,

I live in Ontario and the Queen Charlottes are off the coast of British Columbia. Your husband would love to visit. It is a very unique place.

Jo and Jd,

Thank you for your kind comments and also for the link back. Now I'm going to visit you.

Blessings to all and thank you so much for your kind words and support.
Mary

Nan said...

Merry Christmas.
Hugs,
Nan

Collecting said...

Mary, I know this is a late post to this but wanted you to know I visited and have enjoyed the beauty of God. Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful story.
Be safe in Jesus!
Hugs to you...
Judy