Haida Gwaii Adventures
The Ferry With The Funny Name
It’s funny what random and bizarre thoughts percolate through a person’s mind while waiting for a ferry. In my case, it was the name of the ship that my wife and I plus two friends were about to board. The vessel that would take us from the port of Prince Rupert on the Northwest coast of BC across 100km of open ocean to the storied isles of Haida Gwaii was called the, “Northern Adventure”. That struck me as a rather odd. Don’t get me wrong. I like a good adventure as much as the next person but in a suitable craft such as a canoe, kayak or even a white water raft. On a ferry, I prefer calm, peaceful, unadventurous voyages yet as I waited for the loading process to begin, I couldn’t but help wonder if the name was simply a marketing ploy or an omen of things to come. The answer arrived sooner then expected.
The “Adventure” Begins
The Northern Adventure was indeed adventurous, in more ways than one, beginning with the loading process. Most car ferries load from one end and unload through the other. Not the Northern Adventure. Vehicles entered and exited through an opening at the rear of the ship. For small cars, this wasn’t a problem. They drove on, turned around on the car deck and parked facing the stern. Larger rigs such as trucks, campers, motorhomes or vehicles pulling travel trailers weren’t so lucky. They had to back on – down a long, steep ramp. Talk about a white knuckle “adventure”. For the less adventurous or those lacking “backing” skills, crewmen from the ferry were available to take over. Regardless, it made me glad that I hadn’t brought my travel trailer along for this part of our trip.
Speaking of our trip, ours began several days earlier when my wife and I plus another couple left the lower mainland and headed north to the port city of Prince Rupert and then on to to Haida Gwaii. Each couple was travelling by truck and travel trailer. Originally, we had planned to take both rigs over on the ferry but scrapped that idea when we discovered how expensive it would be – approximately $1,600 per rig! As we were only going for 5 days, we decided to leave one truck and both trailers on the mainland and stay in a rental accommodation. Even then, with all of us travelling together in one vehicle, the round-trip cost was still more than $400.
Once the ferry was loaded and on its way, another “adventure” awaited us – Hecate Straight. This stretch of water which separated the BC mainland from Haida Gwaii was considered one of the most dangerous on the planet. Known for huge waves and violet storms, it can make for a very “adventurous” crossing when the seas were running high. Thankfully, conditions were fairly calm during our passage and the ferry itself, although small by BC Ferries standards, was relatively comfortable. It boasted a good size snack bar, gift shop, available sleeping cabins plus lots of places to sit, eat, work or just relax. Good thing too because the crossing usually took around 8 hours.
Queen Charlotte City
It was early evening by the time we docked at the Skitegate ferry terminal on Graham Island, the largest and most northerly of the 400+ islands which make up the Haida Gwaii archipelago. With the sun setting in the west, we headed for our lodgings in the village of Queen Charlotte City, about 10 km to the southwest. Our base for the next 5 days was a funky little hotel called “Gracie’s Place” in downtown Queen Charlotte City, or as “downtown” as a village of about 900 people gets. Nearby were a few shops, a couple of restaurants, a good size grocery store, bank, government liquor store, laundromat, RCMP station, hospital and the Queen Charlotte visitor centre which provided us with a wealth of information on things to see and do during our stay. Their gift shop was also very nice.
Expedition to Skedans
Across the way from our hotel was a small harbour, which served as the starting-point for several chartered companies offering tours to the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Sites on south Moresby Island. One of those charter companies, “Haida Style Expeditions”, was entirely native run and offered tours to several heritage sites. We chose their expedition to the abandoned Haida village of Skedans (K’uuna in the Haida language) about two hours south by boat or in our case, a very fast zodiac which often seemed to leap from wave top to wave top. For the less adventurous, a heated and enclosed craft is also available. Along the way, we were treated to amazing views of specular landscapes, ocean vistas and abundant sea life.
At one time, Skedans was just one of several thousand semi-permanent settlements dotting the shores of these islands. This particular village contained a number of long houses, each holding about 80 residents. Sadly, small pox and other diseases decimated the native population, forcing the abandonment of this and most of the other native settlements. Nevertheless, our guides did an amazing job bringing Haida history and culture to life. Their knowledge of local wildlife and geography was impressive as well. As a result, our time there seemed to fly by and all too soon, we were back at the harbour.
Skitegate/Haida Heritage Center
North of Queen Charlotte City and a few kilometers on the other side of the ferry terminal was the native village of Skitegate, home of the Haida Heritage Center, an award-winning museum and cultural center jointly run by the Haida Nation and the Federal Government. The center housed some amazing examples of Haida art, carvings and artifacts. During our visit, we were lucky enough to see several native carvers in action, creating a totem pole for the new hospital in Queen Charlotte City.
North Island Delights
At the northern end of the island were the villages of Masset and Old Masset. Old Masset was a native community and home to a large number of carvers and artists. It was also home to “Sherri’s Gas Bar and Grill” (https://www.facebook.com/Sherris-Gas-bar-Grill-118920531514867/ ) a local restaurant serving up a variety of delicious sea food dishes including an amazing seafood chowder – just the thing for a cool and drizzly day.
About a mile to the south, lay the village of Masset, the largest community on the island with a population of about 2300. It was also the home of Haida Gwaii Discovery Tours, a tour company operated by Masset’s mayor, Andrew Merilees. Andrew was not only well versed in the cultural and natural history of the area but he was also an amazing guide and gifted story teller. To really get a sense of this region and what it has to offer, a tour with Andrew is a must.
Thanks to his tour, we discovered a wonderful campground on the northeast tip of the island, not far from Masset called, Agate Beach Provincial Park. This park had no services but did offer shoreline sites overlooking a beautiful, white sand beach. While the water may have been a little on the cool side, the view was incredible and the ocean life; crabs, mussels, oysters and clams, abundant. It also a popular surfing spot. Had I brought my trailer across, there’s no doubt in my mind where I would have wanted to park it.
Andrew also introduced us to a kooky, little café about half way between Agate Beach and Masset called, “Moon Over Naikoon” (http://www.gohaidagwaii.ca/directory/detail/moon-over-naikoon-bakery-bus). Built in a converted school bus, this eatery was famous for among other things, it’s cinnamon rolls and justly so. They were delicious.
All too soon, our time on Haida Gwaii was over and we were back on the Northern Adventure, returning to Prince Rupert and mainland BC. With 8 hours to kill on the return voyage, it was hard not to reflect on our island experiences and form a few impressions.
Thoughts and Reflections: The Good Stuff
Despite all the previous concerns, Haida Gwaii does have its good points. First and foremost, it is a unique destination filled with breath-taking scenery, unique vistas, beautiful beaches and abundant sea life.
The laid back, unhurried life style enjoyed by locals is a welcome alternative for city folks looking to “get away from it all”. And, as its off the beaten track, contending with throngs of tourists is not a problem. For RV’ers especially, that could be a real plus. For example, on the day we visited Agate Beach Provincial Park, at least a quarter of the sites were empty. A similar park on the mainland would have been booked solid, months in advance.
Thoughts and Reflections: The Other Stuff
For RV’ers especially, Haida Gwaii is a good news, not so good news destination. First of all, there’s the distance. Haida Gwaii is a long way from anywhere. Just getting to the ferry terminal at Prince Rupert was a long, multi-day journey from Vancouver. Add in the crossing time plus the fact that there are only three crossings a week during the summer and that makes for a very long excursion indeed.
And then there’s the cost. Haida Gwaii is an expensive destination to get to, especially in an RV. As I mentioned earlier, the cost to take our truck and trailer across on the ferry was going to be about $1600.00. The price was based on the overall length of our rig which was close to 50 feet. Over height vehicles like motorhomes may also face additional charges.
Once there, the cost of most items, from food (especially restaurant meals) to fuel was significantly higher. No surprise there as all those items have to come across on the same, expensive ferry. Ironically, the one exception was booze, or at least that was the case with the BC Government Liquor Store. According to the manager of the Queen Charlotte City branch, prices in all BC Government Liquor Stores were the same, no matter where the store was located. So, a case of Molson’s Canadian costs the same in Queen Charlotte City as it does in downtown Vancouver.
Once there, camping options are somewhat limited. As far as I could determine, there was only one RV park on Graham Island (Hidden Valley RV Resort – https://www.hidden-island-resort.com/) that offered any services. The provincial and regional parks offered none which may suit some folks but, not everyone wants to vacation off the grid.
Besides limited camping options, there were no RV dealers or service centers on the island. If something broke on the RV, there’s a good chance it will stay broken until a return to the mainland.
Tourist activities aren’t abundant either. The tours to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Sites are definitely worth checking out, as are the fishing charters and kayak excursions. Most of the provincial parks, especially at the north end of the island offer hiking trails of varying length and difficulty. The Haida Cultural Center and a few other smaller museums are worth checking out but, beyond that, there’s not a lot to see, experience or visit.
Vehicle travel on the island is somewhat limited as well. The only paved highway on the island – Highway 16 – runs between Queen Charlotte City and Masset. Beyond that, most other routes are dirt or gravel and many are active logging roads where visitors, even those with 4-wheel drive are not encouraged to venture.
And finally there’s the weather. This area is referred to as a coastal rainforest for good reason. It rains a lot! During our visit in early August, it rained almost every day for at least part of the day. Sometimes the precipitation was little more than a drizzle while other times, it came down in buckets. The sun did make an occasional appearance but it was usually brief and infrequent.
So, with all things considered, was Haida Gwaii worth the expense and effort to visit? For me the answer was, “Yes”! There’s no denying the unique appeal and captivating atmosphere of this land at “the edge of the world”. The beaches were beautiful and uncrowded. The scenery was stunning and dramatic. The wildlife, especially on or in the ocean was spectacular and abundant. And, the natives (both Caucasian and Aboriginal) were welcoming and friendly. While it’s not a location that would appeal to everyone, for those who like their adventures on routes less travelled, it’s a perfect destination.
Haida Gwaii Resource List:
- BC Ferries Information
- “Go Haida Gwaii” Tourist Information
- “Go Haida Gwaii” on Instagram
- Gracie’s Place Hotel
- Haida Gwaii Discovery Tours
- Haida Gwaii: National Geographic
- Haida Gwaii Travel and Tourism Guide
- Haida Gwaii Tourism on Facebook
- Haida Heritage Center
- Haida Style Expeditions
- Hidden Valley RV Resort
- Kagan Bay Provincial Campground
- Lonely Planet Guide to Haida Gwaii
- Moon Over Naikoon Bakery
- Naikoon/Agate Beach Provincial Park
- Sherri’s Gas Bar and Grill
- Super Natural British Columbia Tourist Information for Haida Gwaii
- TADSWII’ KAATS’II HLA – Haida Gwaii Trip Planner
- Ten Things To See and Do On Haida Gwaii: CBC News
- The Village of Port Clements Campground Information
- The Village of Masset Visitor Information
- The Village of Queen Charlotte City