Bikepacking Haida Gwaii: Magic, Mystery & Mayhem
Embark with Sarah on a solo bikepacking odyssey through Haida Gwaii, where adventure meets cultural understanding. As she traverses the terrain of the rugged archipelago, Sarah unveils the heritage of the Haida people. Her journey is a reflective voyage with deep environmental and historical layers.
With an 8 hour overnight ferry ride ahead from Prince Rupert to Skidegate, I found a spot on the passenger deck to set up my sleeping mat. Where's Skidegate you ask? Well, it is a small township on Haida Gwaii. Haida Gwaii is an archipelago located 223 kms off the West Coast of British Columbia. A wildlife-rich remote island with a vast temperate rainforest. Centuries-old totem poles stand in the remains of the Haida Nation village known as SGang Gwaay Llangaay. There are a few different ways to get there. A 17 hour ferry from Port Hardy, drive to Prince Rupert and take an 8 hour ferry to Skidegate, or fly into the Sandspit airport. Take your pick; either way it's a journey.
There's nothing quite like being woken up to the sound of a crewman's voice over a PA system. Groggy and underslept, I quickly deflated my mattress and packed up to head down to the main deck. Peering out to the darkness, my enthusiasm and excitement dissipated. Instead a regretful thought of, "what am I doing here?". 1,630 kms from home and alone, I started to feel like I had made a huge mistake. Nearing the ferry terminal office a warm and inviting voice said; "good morning, welcome to Haida Gwaii!" A man I'd soon be introduced to, Eddie the old barnacle. I was grateful for this brief moment of connection and Eddie's local knowledge of where to fuel my coffee needs.
A short distance from the Skidegate ferry terminal there is a sweet little coffee shop called JAGS. Not only do they have a killer cup of coffee, they make a smashing good breakfast and delicious savory baked goods. Heading north on the Yellow Head Hwy, with my priorities on track I pulled in to pick up some groceries at CO-OP in Skidegate. As I reached the town of Skidegate I was flooded with memories of exploring the land with my Sustainable Environmental Education and Development teacher cohort just 5 years ago. Nurturing the nostalgia, I took a detour up the Spirit Lake trail. Removing all my bags, and stashing them in nearby bushes to make for a lighter ride was both unfamiliar and yet stress relieving. Spirit lake trail leads through an old growth forest with wooden boardwalks around the lake, and a CMT (Culturally Modified Tree) conservation. As I rode parallel to the ocean, numerous eagles perched on trees and driftwood; so massive they resembled a human. Orchestrated sounds of peal calls of eagles, waves hitting the shore and whale pods humming in the distance. Although the sky was overcast, it offered this natural chrome casting color on every surface.
The Magic: You Had Me At Burnt Hotdog
Mesmerized by the orchestrated sounds along the ocean, it wasn't long before I reached the Tlell region. As the highway begins to cut slightly inland, I could see the Misty Meadows Campsite up ahead. Turning down the road and through the campsite there were rows of Rubbermaid bins full of salal berries being harvested by a group of Haida women. Curious, I inquired. One woman said they were for a local customer producing medicinals. Salal is used for a wide range of ailments including but not limited to, treatment for cuts and burns, an infusion for indigestion, colic and diarrhea, respiratory distress from colds or tuberculosis, and as a convalescent tonic. I was thrilled to learn that late August early September is the salal season; tasting one it was like a blueberry with mild allspice flavor and white flesh like a dragon fruit. Delicious! Lucky for this grizzly bear at heart, the entire campsite was littered with salal and huckleberries.
Rapidly setting up camp before the rain, my excitement got the best of me and soon it became clear that the Pesuta Shipwreck trail was indeed more suitable for hiking than biking. Oops! Hike-a-biking along, I crossed paths with a family you'd only read in a fictional book. Within seconds of our interaction, I felt as though I had known them my whole life. Meandering through a rooty section, the trees cleared to a quick sandy down pitch. Moving at a cyclocross race pace along the inlet, I could see the ship off in the distance. Standing in awe of the Pesuta Shipwreck—I felt as though time had stopped. To remind me to be still and wait, just as the crew had to do in an attempt to dock Tlell inlet. In 1928 the WWI log hauling vessel struggled in the treacherous Hecate Strait in an effort to reach the shore and broke free from its tow line, eventually crashing into the sand. The left behind ship remains a reminder of how unpredictable the ocean can be this far from the coastline and how the waters help keep it isolated. Photos taken courtesy of two men from Germany who insisted on taking a photo.
Back at camp, gathering my cooking gear to prepare dinner I heard a distant voice say "Hey, do you want a burnt hotdog?" Chuckling out loud by this question, I looked over to see the storybook-like family I passed on the trail. Without hesitation I accepted and enjoyed a burnt hotdog in their company. This would be the beginning of many more collisions with the Crawford family.
Knowing the next two days called for heavy rain, I booked an oceanside shack north of Masset for night two. As I biked up north to Massest in the pouring rain, I made the mistake of ignoring the Agate Beach cabin host's directions and instead trusted Google Maps. Trusting Google maps is not reliable on Haida Gwaii due to there being spotty cell service and at times none at all. 86 kms later and miserably wet in my Gore-tex jacket; I arrived at the Agate Beach Cabin. I quickly got myself out of the rain and lit the wood burning stove. As I rigged two ropes to hang all my wet gear I got distracted by the warmth of the fire and while pulling my Arc'teryx Cerium-Hoody from my seat bag it slipped from my hand and fell directly on top of the wood burning stove. POOF! Hundreds of tiny feathers everywhere. Pausing to acknowledge what had just happened, I kneeled to the floor and laughed hysterically. Amidst the feathers I felt a sense of liberation as I gathered all the feathers and the unrecognizable garment. As I offered it to the fire and watched the incineration; from my peripheral there was a thud on the living room window. Peeking behind the couch, there it was—a Pacific Wren. Spending the remainder of my night coaxing this little one out the door, it occurred to me that the timing of burning the jacket and releasing the bird was like pulling a thread of a sweater. Something was about to begin.
After an evening of bird wrangling and the rain passing, I was ecstatic to be heading to one of the most special places on Haida Gwaii. Passing another bikepacker, he shouted, "enjoy, it's beautiful!". Rounding the end of the gravel road to Agate Beach campsite, there they were—The Crawford family. "Hey Sarah! We saw you riding your bike here, it was so cool!" shouted the eldest son Fisher. Cruising down the campsite and getting slammed by the ferocious and relentless wind; word to the wise is to weigh your tent down with big rocks.
As I set off to explore the area I was reminded that Tow Hill comes from the supernatural being Taaw Tldáaw. One story says that Taaw was a supernatural being that traveled along the Hiellen River in hopes to settle and once they met the mouth of the river they decided to stay and transformed into the magnificent basalt cliff. Reaching Tow Hill, there is a beautiful cedar boardwalk that leads through an arching tree tunnel to volcanic rock corridors to spectacular private beach spots. Following the seaside ridge, countless pools house subaqueous sea anemone. Back towards the campsite the beach is littered with agates of all shapes and colors. It's absolutely magical. Back from my exploration, Fisher came barrelling over to tell me I was joining them for pasta and freshly caught crab; in the wind shelter. I was enthusiastically welcomed inside by the Crawford kids yelling over one another telling me about their day and how they had finally caught a squirrel. Lucky for me they had already cooked and consumed it. Never a dull moment!
Even with ear plugs, the wind and the waves were relentless throughout the night. Waking from a rubbish sleep, in the spirit of Squamish Coffee Outside, I gathered my stove and rode to the trailhead to make coffee at the Tow Hill view point. Walking out onto the platform the cliffside was cloaked with thick low lying clouds. As I slowly boiled water, the wind suddenly carried the clouds south revealing the entire shoreline and beyond.
The Mayhem: Trust Your Gut
On route to Sunset Park Campsite, I felt immensely grateful for everything I had already experienced and had a hunch things were about to get more interesting. As I passed the Port Clements welcome sign, I was reminded of driving through here in our mini school bus 5 years ago and what made this place so unique. Nearing the main part of town I could see the extensive boardwalk up ahead and the Axe and Anchor Pub. Craving a cold beer and poutine, I stopped in the pub before making my way to Sunset Park, but things never quite go to plan. Within seconds of sitting down on the sunny patio, I had a young Hyde looking character ask if he could join me. I obliged. Suspiciously listening to his half bullshit, half questionable stories about how he landed here. I unexpectedly found myself singing karaoke with 4 fishermen, 2 tug boat operators, and 1 deep sea diver. Although this island is vast, the community is very small. During the karaoke debacle I met a local business owner of Gwaii Adventure Campers. Kyle May has a fleet of 6 (and counting) camper vans of various models. All are decked out with everything you need for an adventure. Offering courtesy pick ups at the airport and the ferry terminals for your convenience. He too would reoccur along my adventure. Kyle kindly provided me with local knowledge about navigating the Old Queen Charlotte Rd (FSR), while also coaching me through driving his Westfalia.
With new found knowledge of the area, I rode towards the Golden Spruce trail and one of the many abandoned smallpox cedar canoes. Both of these sites hold a great deal of history. John Vaillant's The Golden Spruce tells a true story of myth, madness, and greed as a work of environmental non-fiction that goes into great detail about the forestry industry and how it shaped the island. Kiidk'yaas (ancient tree) was a Sitka spruce tree that grew on the banks of the Yakoun River. The man responsible, Hadwin, cut the tree down as a protest against the logging industry. While facing criminal charges for the act disappeared en route to his trial. His whereabouts remains unknown. What remains at Yakoun Riverside is a vacant space. Juxtaposed to the vacancy of the Golden Spruce are the abandoned canoes that reveal the fragility of the Haida people who survived the smallpox genocide. Over a period exceeding a century, Europeans established colonies in Haida Gwaii, significantly altering the cultural and social landscape of the indigenous Haida people, who were renowned for their art and architecture. Captured slaves were responsible for hauling the massive cedar trees deep into the forest to be carved into canoes safe from enemies. On an isolated archipelago like Haida Gwaii, they fought ruthlessly for limited resources. Feeling heavy after leaving the abandoned Haida canoe trail, I mentally prepared myself for 102 km of gravel road where I'd likely see no one and many bears.
Over a period exceeding a century, Europeans established colonies in Haida Gwaii, significantly altering the cultural and social landscape of the indigenous Haida people.
As I neared the fork to Juskalta Inlet, I noticed a truck stopped up ahead. Rolling down his window, the man inside explained that all the rivers and creeks are swarming with salmon and male black bears. Kindly suggesting places to stay and avoid, he added that if menstruating, it will attract a male bear. Ignoring his dubious advice, I continued down the isolated and repetitious road but my gut instinct told me to turn around. Both out of respect for the bears feeding frenzy and for my safety. Feeling proud for trusting myself, I had a restful sleep that night.
Backtracking south down the Yellowhead highway to the ferry terminal, I was lucky to catch the Tlell Sunday farmers market. Stuffing 4 pounds of local Tllaal Lucious Coffee, I rushed towards one of the reserves to visit the man who made my hummingbird ring 5 years ago. It hasn’t left my finger since the day it was made. My hope was to have him make me another, but upon my arrival his house appeared different. Asking his neighbor whether he still lived there, he informed me that the dear old man had passed away. Tear filled eyes and heavy heart, I had an immense amount of gratitude that I had a piece of his artwork wrapped around my finger and yet feeling curious.
When I arrived at the Skidegate ferry terminal to take the Moresby Bay ferry to Gray Bay; Eddie 'the old barnacle' showed me where to board. Distracted by excitement to explore new territory, I was oblivious to what followed. An older gentleman on an E-bike was in ear shot to hear my journey by bike and volunteered to guide me to Gray Bay. Despite my best efforts to continue alone, he tagged along. To my surprise, he confirmed you truly can't trust Google around here. He kindly led me to School Rd. just as his battery died. Following School rd to the edge of Sandspit he wished me farewell and that he'd come check in on me in the morning. As I pedaled along the shoreline to Copper Bay; the road shifted back into the forest for 25 km until Gray Bay. With a long day behind me and decompressing from a very chatty human; my patience was thin. As I rode through Copper Bay, the area felt eerie with its abandoned fishing and mining shacks. Suspicious that I had not seen a single human I wondered if I'd run into a bear. To alleviate my nerves, I played music loudly from my Bose speaker. Bumping around on the gravel obliviously singing away; around a blind corner there was a large black bear. Quickly veering in the other direction to avoid collision, I managed to glance back to see the bear was equally heedless to my presence. Officially spooked I hustled to catch the sunset. Surprised by the secludedness, I imagined the Haida having their first encounters with European explorers here. Gray Bay is devastatingly ominous and mysterious with its infinite and yet desolate horizon.
The Mystery: Privilege
Off in the distance I heard a screeching sound approaching. Enthusiastically shouting good morning and announcing he had brought me fresh salmon. Although mildly annoyed by the man on the E-bikes' unannounced visit, I felt deep gratitude for his generosity. Collecting twigs, branches and grandpa's beard to make a fire, the hot coals and smoke combined cooked the salmon to perfection. Never having smoked salmon before, I was delighted by my accomplishment. Coffee in hand, we explored the beach and the low tide zone organisms. For a change of scenery, we biked down the main FSR towards Mosquito Lake to return to the Moresby ferry and back to the main island.
Without a break; I rode straight through Daajing Giids to Hadyn Bay. After 7 nights of inconsistent sleep Kagan Bay just felt too far and what I needed was convenience. Settling into a site with firewood at bay for my personal use, I had an enlightened moment of finally understanding what Monique Grey Smith was talking about at the Take Me Outside conference in Banff. Nature and reciprocity. Monique explains that nature has a way of providing and in exchange we only take what we need. No more no less. In relation to this way of being, around Haida Gwaii fallen trees are chopped up and brought to nearby campsites. Having access to firewood certainly added to an already spectacular solo experience.
Waking to the sun, my final exploration was of the infamous Sleeping Beauty trail network. At the peak, people claim you can see as far North as Agate Beach. I headed south outside of Daajing Giids to the Sleeping Beauty Access Road. The elevation felt similar to grinding up Indian Arm FSR in Squamish. Steep AF! Stashing my bike in the bushes, I bushwhacked through the connector trail to the Slatechuck Mountain trail. Slatechuck has mysterious trees that create their own tendrils of mist. The mist rests low in the forest and holds an expectant mood that keeps the cawing of ravens at bay. The tree trunks curve out towards the void and reach their branches up to the sky for the small beams of sunlight. Summiting Slatechuck peak; aimlessly trekking through the thick fog I thought a great deal about how I journeyed all this way to explore this island alone and instead it taught me the importance of receiving from others.
Bittersweet with my last day afoot, I'd visit the Kay 'Llnagaay and a local Haida carver. Standing awkwardly outside the carvers house, his daughter was there to greet and take me to his studio. Small and quaint, I sat to discuss a ring design. Showing him the hummingbird ring, he was surprised and delighted to see his friends work. Gently asking what had happened to his friend, he unwaveringly elucidated that his death was both an act of atonement and protection of several generations to come. Shocked by this story, I got a tiny glimpse of colonial oppression. In wanting to change the subject he inquired about what had brought me here in the first place. Sharing the distance I explored, the places I had been and the people I met along the way; he laughed and said “you’re an ulguu!” He explained that the Haida word ulguu describes seeing something really cute, like a puppy; that you want to pick up and take care of. Curiously listening, he continued to say that he was surprised that I had been traveling alone. Here is where I checked my privilege as a white woman. The reality is that an Indigenous woman’s safety and security would be fictitious and unaccounted for. Although he didn’t express it, the shift in his demeanor and tone spoke volumes. All of the unsolicited care and kindness I experienced truly reminded me of the privilege I hold in this world and that I will never understand the depths of systemic racism.
At times my life feels like a movie. Often a chain of events that make me wish there were a camera crew capturing all these hard to believe moments. I've been hesitant to share this tale for I feel this story has been particularly vulnerable to put into words because I was alone. Approaching my 40's, I feel this sense of urgency that soon I won't have the same freedom I do now. Life changes constantly. Anticipating that mine will soon change, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to embark on the adventure I thought of doing for 5 years. Despite my best efforts I was never truly ever really alone. Every step of the way, I had someone wanting to feed, share, guide and take care of me in some way or form. I like to believe that people come into our lives for a reason, season and lifetime. Although my intention was a continuation of self discovery, the people, places and land; had different plans. To learn and listen. I'm listening.
Upon visiting Haida Gwaii please consider reading and pledging to keep the archipelago alive, well and thriving.