Gwaii Haanas

In News & Stuff, Postcards From..., Travel, Wilderness by David20 Comments


A week ago we wound our way out of Sandspit, one of the few small towns in the Haida Gwaii, a group of islands in northern British Columbia that used to be called the Queen Charlotte Islands, towards a waiting bush plane. We loaded our gear into the De Havilland Beaver around 6:30am, the sun already up for a while this far north, and in 30 minutes were touching down beside the Ocean Light II, a 72-foot ketch rigged sailboat. I spent a week with the crew of the Ocean Light II just over a month ago in the Khutzeymateen Inlet photographing grizzly bears in an impossibly green estuary, and got so attached to the boat and my new friends that this felt a little like coming home.

This is Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, Gwaii Haanas meaning “place of wonder.” I’ve been dreaming about coming to this part of the world since I first heard of it through the work of painter Emily Carr, and then through the well-publicized fight to save the place, but somehow never found myself here, which is odd because it’s nearly my backyard compared to the places I’ve spent the last 8 years exploring. It’s green here, lush and shaggy, the wind-swept old growth forests of spruce, hemlock, and cedar are thick with moss and lichen, and feel alive like few places I’ve been. Where the forests end, they meet the shores – rocky and strewn with driftwood. There’s a kind of sacred, wild, mess about the place. At the shores, the vibrant intertidals full of urchins, sea stars, anemones, and crabs. Seals, sea lions, otters, whales, all make this place home. To call it a place of wonder is apt but understated.

I’m happy with the work I’ve done here, some of which I’ll share over coming days, but the time’s been too short. And now I’m heading home. The Ocean Light II is motoring its way back towards Sandspit, the motion in my berth at the bow making me want to crawl back into my sleeping bag and fall asleep as I stare out the hatch at the brooding clouds we’ve had all week. I’ve napped often this last week; mornings have been early as our skipper, Tom Ellison, seems to dare me every morning to sleep in and miss the light. He’s a photographer too, and an incurable story-teller. I’d come here just to be in the same room as he. So we rise around 5am, haul our gear into the Zodiac along with our coffee and go see what’s to be seen. We fill our days with exploring, crabbing, fishing, and getting to our next harbour. In between there are visits to old Haida villages to see the few remaining poles and hear the ghosts of the past. Last night I photographed on the beach before returning to the fire and eating grilled salmon and bannock, the sun still working its way down well after 9pm. Small wonder I’m heading home with such reluctance after what seems much more than a week in this timeless and wild place.

When I get home I’ve got 3 days to wash the salt from my clothes, pack my water housing and snorkel gear, charge my batteries, and get on a China Airlines flight to Taipei and then Bali. I’m there for the What If Conference, but have three days before it starts, to find some hammock time and get underwater with my gear. Funny how the direction of my work has changed, how much it pulls me these days towards wild places. I’m still pursuing the humanitarian stuff, and even now planning new work back in northern Kenya in 2015, but the more I do that work the more I see how connected we are as a species, to the welfare of this home we’ve taken too much for granted. In the meantime, so much gratitude for the beauty before my eyes…

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  1. David, How nostalgic for me to read your post on Gwaii Haanas, which is one of the most dear to my heart places on earth.

    I went on a two week sea kayaking expedition there in summer 2002, and have vowed ever since to return someday.

    I have a ton of photos taken on that expedition, but they were, sadly, taken on a severely obsolete Sony Mavica Digital Camera. Still, I’ve managed to salvage several of the images well enough for web presentation on my website, even though they aren’t enlargement quality.

    Seeing your post really stirred my soul and strengthened my resolve to return there again. What a beautiful place and I am so happy that you finally got such a wonderful visit into this wonderland which, as you mentioned, is almost literally in your backyard!

    Best, Janine

  2. David, if you do come to New Zealand, be sure to get right off the main roads. There are some absolutely fabulous places to be discovered on the unsealed roads, so plan those in if you come here. Thanks for sharing your images and thoughts with us all – every post is a valued one.
    regards from New Zealand.

    1. It might happen! We’re talking about heading your way again in the next year or two, maybe take 3 weeks to explore the south island again…

  3. Just beautiful David. I totally love the plane in the clouds, the canoe and the sailboat, but hey, that’s just me, they’re all superb!

    The canoe and sailboat are toned, but the plane in the clouds, is that the natural light of that time and place? My guess would be, yes…..

    1. Author

      Good guess, Tom. You’re right – no toning on the plane in the clouds. Pretty much straight out of the camera.

  4. What an eloquent description of your experience in this larger-than-life landscape. The photos aren’t bad either!

  5. Now on my bucket list… Take a trip on the Ocean Light II.

    Great images David. You really get a sense of the warm mystery of the place. It seems other-worldly.

    Thanks for sharing, Adam

  6. I love it there. I took my sons there about 9-10 years ago and it was a unique and mysteriously beautiful place. I have wanted to go back several times and I think it is time to make that happen. You have captured it beautifully!

  7. David, you might have just made Haida Gwaii overtake Banff on the list of western Canada we plan to visit in the not too distant future…

    And a geeky question. Was HDR required for the “rolling stormy clouds” shot at the top? Or was a ND grad enough? Have recently experimented with them and they keep making the clouds blur, from low light. Or maybe you had enough light? ;->

    But anyway, looking forward to more posts on this trip!

  8. We’ve been to the Great Bear Rainforest last September. We spent our time in Klemtu at the Spirit Bear Lodge. The wild pacific coast of BC is such a special place! Since our visit there was not a single day I haven’t thought about that remarkable landscape. I know why you felt so much gratitude for the wonders at your “backyard”! If it wouldn’t be such a long journey I would love to return allready this year….
    I would love to see more pictures of your trip! Have you allready thought about an upcoming e-book or something from the adventures up there? 😉


  9. agree…your landscape photos elicit the sanctity of the land that the Haida speak of…

  10. David, some amazing shots there. Two that stand out to me (meaning I guess they speak to me) are the canoe and the carved trees.
    Adding Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve to my location “want to get to” list.
    Travel safe. love your updates mate.

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