• Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic

The tent door rustled in an unfamiliar way. Unfamiliar because after several days on this remote Pacific beach, I was pretty sure that the inevitable morning breeze wasn’t interested in poking its head through the unzipped mesh door — or snorting its arrival.

With barely time to suck in my breath, I prepared to scream bloody murder at what was almost certainly an intruder with a squat furry face. But before I could release that tremulous yell, a sleek auburn muzzle appeared, followed by chestnut eyes and twitching ears. Improbably, like some hand-puppet theatre, another slipped in beside it. A pair of curious deer found themselves staring at a naked and cowering man.

Satisfied this wasn’t anything edible, let alone threatening, the deer withdrew and contented themselves with nibbling grass that sprang from the sand around a massive weathered log to which the tent was anchored. They paid little heed as I donned shorts and slipped out to photograph them against a backdrop of driftwood-crossed beaches sloping below dark forest palisades. In front of us, gentle breakers foamed over a glistening mud flat while Alaskan peaks deliquesced on the northern horizon. I could have shooed away the deer to assert that this was my spot. Instead, having these animals treat me as part of their environment stirred some deep-rooted comfort and connection, and I responded by sitting on the log to prepare breakfast while my visitors finished theirs.

That sunrise encounter occurred during my first of several visits to this archipelago off the central coast of British Columbia as a biologist, outdoor adventurer and writer. It wasn’t exactly a vignette from the Haida myth of the trickster raven prying open a giant clamshell to release the first humans upon these shores, but wild deer entreating me to emerge from a nylon shell into a new dawn seemed a wholly indigenous proposition — even if the deer weren’t.

An introduced species here, deer represent one of the more benign changes to wash over these islands since European trade and settlement began in the late 1700s. Within a century, disease had ravaged the Haida, greed had decimated the sea otter and hubris was well on its way to claiming the renowned forests and fish stocks. But this is a place born of upheaval, formed by retreating glaciers, rising oceans and shifting tectonic plates. And the Haida, like the natural world of their inexorable kinship, have shown almost geologic resilience in adapting, regrouping and poising for resurgence. The latest transformations in this region — with the new name of Haida Gwaii officially consigning “Queen Charlotte Islands” to the dustbin of colonialism, the expansion of a protected area to be jointly managed by the Haida and the federal government, the rise of ecotourism and a more sustainable approach to resource industries — aim to restore a balance that has always defined the Haida’s relationship with the enduring wilderness of these islands.

Despite the opportunity provided by millennia of Haida habitation, seafaring and trade, the Sitka black-tailed deer, common on the nearby mainland, was introduced here only during the accelerated period of modern settlement and resource extraction of the early 1900s. It prospered in the predator-free, increasingly clear-cut environment, as did introduced raccoons, red squirrels, beavers, muskrats, wild cattle and Pacific treefrogs. There was little competition for any of these aliens from the few native land vertebrates adorning Haida totems: a toad, caribou, river otter, marten, short-tailed weasel, a few species of bat, mouse and shrew — and the extra-large variety of black bear I’d anticipated at the tent. It may seem a pedestrian lot, but based on genetic or physical divergence from mainland forms, several of these join the 39 endemic plants and animals that lend the archipelago its nickname of “Galapagos of the North.”

The ancestors of these animals likely walked, flapped or paddled their way here across short stretches of ocean after the height of the last Pleistocene glaciation, when the shallow Hecate Strait that now separates the islands from the mainland was an undulating tundra riven with serpentine channels and wandered by mastodons. Everyone has theories about the islands’ ice-age occupation: the Haida sing, dance and tell stories of those ancient times in which the archipelago is referred to as Xhaaidlagha Gwaayaai (“islands at the boundary of the world”), proving that they’ve borne witness here for some 10,000 to 13,000 years. Scientists back them up with empirical analyses of fossil bones and lake-bottom pollen profiles, proving that they know little more than do the Haida. The dates that all agree on, however, are those which would ultimately change life for all of Haida Gwaii’s original inhabitants.

In 1774, at the behest of the viceroy of New Spain, Mexico-based ensign Juan Perez was dispatched north in the Santiago to investigate reports of encroachments by Russian fur traders on the Pacific Northwest, claimed by Spain more than 250 years previous. Charged with the objective of reaching 60° north latitude, Perez made it as far as 54°40' north, just off the northwestern tip of Langara Island, which demarks the northwest corner of the archipelago (and is now host to several exclusive fly-in fishing lodges). Here, he was intercepted by Haida, “who paddled out in enormous canoes” and, legend has it, sprinkled the soft down of eagles — a commodity equivalent to gold dust — upon the waters in greeting. Perez reputedly traded with the Haida but never went ashore. The British who followed weren’t so shy: itinerant explorer Captain James Cook landed in 1778 and in 1787, the islands were given their first non-native appellation by surveyor Captain George Dixon, who named them after his ship, HMS Queen Charlotte.

By the time I’d pitched my tent on the beach at Tow Hill in Naikoon Provincial Park, I had learned all this in two days of hitchhiking around Haida Gwaii. Everyone I encountered — from the Haida cultural guardians in Skidegate and the mask carvers in rough-and-tumble Old Massett to the fishermen and hostel operators in the village of Queen Charlotte (formerly “Queen Charlotte City”) — offered something that helped fill in the blanks for a wide-eyed pilgrim to this archipelagic enigma.

That was during Expo 86, the summer of Vancouver and British Columbia’s great coming-out party. Like many visitors to the Left Coast, I’d been lured north by the islands’ mist-wrapped image of natural mystique: tumultuous weather, ocean riches, mossy forests, unexpected biodiversity. There was also the vibrancy of Haida history, culture and art that was reaching deep into Canadian and international consciousness during the logging blockades of the mid-1980s, stirring both interest and apologia over a litany of post-contact ravages: rape-and-pillage mining and forestry; rabid whaling, fishing and fur harvesting; the cultural insensitivities of missionary zeal; and the reduction by smallpox and tuberculosis of a once populous First Nation (estimated to be from 10,000 to 30,000) to less than 600 people by 1911.

It was a long road back, but by the 1970s and 1980s, artists and leaders like the charismatic Guujaaw, the current president of the Haida Nation, had emerged in a dazzling synergy to reclaim Haida pride, land and culture. Protecting the ancient connections between land, sea and people was a prime directive in the movement, leading to a 1985 designation by the Haida of much of Gwaii Haanas (née Moresby Island) and its adjacent marine environment as a “Haida Heritage Site” (see sidebar). Previously truculent governments appeared to finally see the light, and the feds and Haida inked an internationally lauded partnership to manage the terrestrial Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.

When the Canada National Marine Conservation Areas Act of 2002 put the wheels in motion to protect parts of 29 distinctive marine regions across the country, including Hecate Strait and the Queen Charlotte Shelf on the islands’ west coast, further agreements ensued. But it was following lines laid down by the Haida that these culminated — on the eve of another great coming-out party for British Columbia — in two watershed events: in December 2009, after some 222 years, the islands’ name was officially changed to Haida Gwaii (“islands of the people”) to finally acknowledge the precedence of its original occupants; and in January 2010, the jointly administered Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve was created, another Canadian and global first.

While the original park covers 147,000 hectares (equivalent to 15 percent of Haida Gwaii’s land mass), the contiguous marine area increases that to almost 500,000 hectares and makes it the only place on the planet protected from mountaintop to sea floor — the latter, in some places, lying 2,500 metres below the surface. With the entirety of these protected areas accessible only by boat or chartered plane, visitors are treated to an unspoiled and unparalleled glimpse into the natural and cultural processes that shaped them.

A six-to-eight-hour ferry ride from the international port of Prince Rupert, Haida Gwaii sits off the coast of British Columbia like a thin slice of pizza with a 100-kilometre crust, tapering to a point some 300 kilometres south, at the fur-seal colony of Cape St. James. The two main islands are Graham to the north and Gwaii Haanas wedged below. Unlike Graham, partly shaped by the sedimentary deposits of glacial meltwater, the reticulate terrain of Gwaii Haanas owes more to the 250-million-year-old concatenation of the plate tectonics, uplift and seismic activity that placed the islands in their present position some 20 million years ago and sponsored a massive 1949 shaker that registered 8.1 on the Richter scale (Canada’s strongest recorded earthquake). Of a total population of about 6,000, including 4,164 Haida band members as of November 2009, nearly 90 percent live on Graham in the road-linked communities of Queen Charlotte, Masset, Tlell, Port Clements and Skidegate, where the ferry docks.

Other than 120 kilometres of paved roads, the airport at Sandspit and the dock where one can catch a 20-minute ferry ride to Graham, Gwaii Haanas lacks any such urban infrastructure or aspirations, its trump card for cultural tourism. Indeed, the most notable of Haida Gwaii’s 600 archaeological sites — 126 of them villages — are all located here. SGang Gwaay Llnagaay (Ninstints), on the small island of SGang Gwaay, off Gwaii Haanas’s southern tip, was declared a UNESCOWorld Heritage Site in 1981 because of its stunning array of ancient longhouse remains and the two dozen totem poles that still stand proud in their original locations.

The Zodiac tours and sea-kayaking trips that deliver anthropological insight along the rugged reaches of Gwaii Haanas are the best way to experience its natural bounty. On the island’s storm-battered west coast, the fog-enshrouded land rises straight from the ocean, where wave-washed rocks and a backing tangle of greenery belie the snow-covered peaks above — a mariner’s version of Middle-earth. Sheltered eastern shores are constellated with islands (in total, Haida Gwaii boasts 150 to 1,800 of these, depending on the source — or the definition of what an island is), creating coves, inlets and narrows through which notoriously large tides flush a wealth of nutrients supporting one of the highest biomasses of any intertidal zone on Earth. Here, hundreds of species of organism flutter through the shallows or are exposed at low tide: ropy kelp, squat sea cucumbers, a diversity of molluscs and crustaceans and — oddly, for what we construe as sedentary animals — a riot of urchins and their starfish cousins in every colour imaginable. The surrounding sea is dense with fish, seals and 17 species of dolphin and whale, while wheeling above gunmetal waters are dozens of species of nesting and migrating birds, including storm petrels, auklets, tufted puffins, ancient murrelets, bald eagles and peregrine falcons. It’s an overwhelming display of organic industry, and one that takes time to absorb.

“Because of the depth of culture and awesomeness of the forest, let alone the ocean, you can’t grasp what Gwaii Haanas is all about in a day,” I recall a photographer friend telling me. “The feeling of infinite possibility spurs you to want to come back and explore it with a magnifying glass. Otherwise, it’s like reading the Coles Notes on a Tolstoy novel.”

Haida beliefs expound that “the boundary between Earth and ocean exists only on a map, and the cycle of life in the diverse marine ecosystems of Gwaii Haanas encircles land and sea.” These vital connections include many freshwater rivers and the salmon running up them and even the bigheaded black bears, whose massive jaws and molars evolved to crush their way through the intertidal smorgasbord, situating them as a critical component of nutrient transfer between marine and forest environments. Likewise, nature and culture here are intrinsically linked, and nowhere is this more evident than in Haida art — cedar totem poles and carvings, argillite statuary, intricately woven baskets and hats of spruce root — a commodity spoken of with equal reverence in the galleries of Vancouver and the Louvre in Paris and a semiotic of the islands’ new economy.

The public sector (i.e., health, education and Haida, provincial and federal administration) is currently the largest employer and the second largest source of income (30 percent) on Haida Gwaii. Although timber harvesting has undergone drastic reductions, forestry continues to be the single most important industry, accounting for 33 percent of income. Fishing (4 percent), construction (5 percent) and tourism (7 percent) comprise the bulk of a remaining economic picture that also includes occasional quarrying and cottage industries such as mushroom picking.

In large part because of the waning logging and fishing industries, two-thirds of the Haida now live off-island. Many want to return, and economic cause to do so is one of several hopes pinned on the recent reconciliation agreements and their focus on sustainability. With oil and gas exploration happily off the table, the Haida Nation is now a major stakeholder in the proposed NaiKun wind-power project, which could build up to 110 turbines in Hecate Strait, and is shifting ever more emphasis to cultural work and ecotourism.

I asked Guujaaw, a renowned carver himself, about the relationship between the cultural depth of Haida Gwaii and its natural/biological depth. Were these inseparable elements in the region’s tourism equation? “I think you answered that for yourself,” he replied. “Our rich culture reflects the rich lands and marine area.”

The moratorium on extracting non-renewable resources from the marine reserve will ensure that sustainable uses — flightseeing, boat tours, sea kayaking and 13 different fisheries — continue. And while government designations don’t in any way supersede Haida designations (the management agreement is between the federal, provincial and Haida governments under their own jurisdictions, and the extension of protection simply mirrors decisions previously made by the Haida), it does appear that Canada is intent on showing both partnership and leadership in righting past wrongs. “Protection will conserve biodiversity and increase biomass,” says Terrie Dionne of Parks Canada, noting that while activities such as diving could develop, the new marine reserve will support types of ecotourism that are already in place.

Heron Wier, co-president of the Gwaii Haanas Tour Operators Association, was raised on Gwaii Haanas and witnessed the somewhat ham-fisted implementation of the initial terrestrial park reserve. “This one looks a lot more friendly,” he says. “They’re doing it right — asking questions and listening to people. It likely won’t change the way we operate, but media attention and a fancy title will hopefully draw more visitors.”

A few more visitors than the scant 3,000 that call annually can only help the region’s aspirations and likely won’t diminish the Gwaii Haanas park experience, famously rated number one in North America by National Geographic Traveler for its lofty cultural integrity and authenticity. Citing the stewardship ethic of resident Haida watchmen (see Canadian Geographic, March/April 2007) and the fact that archaeological and historic artifacts are left to natural weathering and decomposition processes, as per Haida tradition, the rating describes the park as “beautiful and intact. A great model for other regions.”

Ratings and reviews, however, often overshadow the challenges of turning art, aesthetics and theoretical considerations into sustainable economic engines. “The Haida are moving in the right direction, but they’ll always struggle with the difficulty of getting to Haida Gwaii and the long down season — tourism is crammed into only a few short months,” says a writer friend who has studied First Nations tourism in northern British Columbia. “Haida artists have never been shameless promoters — they let their work speak for itself. It doesn’t always put them out there, but it’s a strength that brings an honesty and sincerity to what they do. So the whole idea of heritage sites and ecological reserves fits well with that.”

Perhaps more important, preserving so much of what is known of Haida Gwaii will ultimately serve to protect that which isn’t known, a multi-dimensional mystique so pervasive that it calls into question all history but that of the Haida.

Graham Island, for instance, is fancied by some to be the “Markland” referred to in several Norse sagas, a theory that would require Viking seafarers to have sailed across the Arctic through an open Northwest Passage during a warmer, ice-free period. One such saga talks of the “Wonder Beaches,” which believers peg as the vast sweep of sand between Masset and Rose Spit that faces Alaska along the northeast tip of Graham Island. The very place I was camped when I met the deer — or, more correctly, when they met me — and where I daily observed ravens prying at clamshells in a manner that recalled the iconic Bill Reid sculpture Raven and the First Men, which is housed at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology and follows all Canadians around on the back of our 20-dollar bill.

Maybe they were the Wonder Beaches and maybe not, but one thing is clear: they are the boundary at the edge of a rejuvenated world, and I’d felt the pull of this shifting tide of potential on Haida Gwaii that day, when all its mythic dominion seemed an eternal world of wonders.

A new ‘era of peace’

“We’ve been fighting to protect Haida Gwaii for a long time,” says Guujaaw, president of the Haida Nation. “Now we’re ready to begin peaceful and co-operative management of these lands together.”

The Haida are certainly ahead of the curve on protecting their territory. When the Government of Canada first designated Gwaii Haanas a national park reserve in 1988, it had been a protected heritage site under Haida laws and jurisdiction for three years already.

Taking action to safeguard their territory was born of necessity. Thirty-five years ago, the Haida’s forests were being decimated by voracious logging companies and their fisheries were in severe decline. Government was indifferent. The Haida decided to stop the degradation themselves, shutting down logging roads, commencing litigation and building alliances with environmental organizations as well as with neighbouring communities and First Nations.

They also took direct responsibility for protecting Haida Gwaii, starting with Gwaii Haanas, and have successfully insisted on shared management of their territory under their own laws and authority, through deals like the Gwaii Haanas Marine Agreement, which was signed in January. One month earlier, the Haida entered into the Kunst'aa guu–Kunst'aayah Reconciliation Protocol with the provincial government, again sharing decision making on their own terms. A court case commenced in 2004, seeking confirmation of their constitutional rights, was put on hold. After signing the agreement, the title of which means “the beginning,” Guujaaw stated: “We have set the ground for a more productive era of peace.”

These agreements are models not only for environmental protection but for reconciliation with government of the rights and authority of First Nations. “They allow us to put aside our differences,” says Guujaaw. Today, he says, a greater degree of responsibility for their lands and waters has been restored to the Haida Nation than it has enjoyed in decades.

The Haida are now considering the next step, sustainable and diversified economic development. They are poised to be the principal player in the forestry industry on Haida Gwaii, hoping to reduce logging by nearly two-thirds and to implement an ecosystem- based approach to ensure that remaining harvesting will be done sustainably and respectfully. Value-added manufacturing is also in the cards, as are clean energy and commercial fishing. In the meantime, the Haida are working on restoration and protection planning for the marine environment. “We believe this is the right road to reconciliation,” says Guujaaw, “but we can’t wait to see what will happen…. We know that either we determine our future or someone else will do it for us.”

— Katherine Gordon