By Carol Patterson
December 1, 2017
Adiamond-bright flash of sun reflected off the black dorsal fin of an orca as we approached Gandll K’in Gwaay.yaay, Hotspring Island, a small, remote isle along the northern coast of British Columbia. “There’s SGaana!” Captain Judson Brown, a member of the Haida tribe, shouted. Brown’s tattooed arm grasped the steering wheel as he carefully guided the boat away from the animal. The distinctive greyish-white saddle patch popped above the surface. Then a second and a third whale emerged in a coordinated dance, prowling the rocky shore in search of sea lions.
Brown is the kind of captain you want in these wildlife-rich and potentially treacherous waters off Canada’s west coast, just south of the Alaska panhandle. Earlier in the day when the 30-foot cabin cruiser dove to the bottom of a swell in rough seas, water crashed over the windshield like snow in a blizzard and obscured our view. Adding power, Brown guided the boat back up the swell and then glanced at his watch, which also measured elevation change. “That was almost two meters,” he uttered in the casual manner of an airline pilot attempting to calm anxious passengers in the midst of turbulence.
The ocean held its unfathomable power and mystery, but I had come to see what was happening on land. As one of fewer than 3,000 annual visitors to the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site (often referred to simply as Gwaii Haanas), I had a unique opportunity not only to see the islands’ beautiful scenery but also to learn about an ambitious effort to turn the clock back culturally and ecologically in this archipelago about 81 miles off mainland British Columbia.
Earlier in the morning I had met up with Brown, who is a park resource management officer, and other Gwaii Haanas staff at the Village of Queen Charlotte’s busy marina. Located on the southern end of Graham Island, the village is one of the starting-points for chartered tours into the Gwaii Haanas, a protected area comprising 138 of the more than 150 islands that make up the Haida Gwaii archipelago.
These islands escaped much of the glaciation of the last ice age. That, and the archipelago’s subsequent isolation from the mainland, has produced what some call the “Galapagos of the North,” a unique biological zone with an incredible variety of species. Together the Haida Gwaii islands host a large number of endemic subspecies, including the Haida Gwaii black bear, Queen Charlotte goshawk, northern saw-whet owl, and Queen Charlotte ermine, as well as unique forms of the Stellar’s jay and hairy woodpecker.
Gwaii Haanas: “a place of wonder.” There couldn’t be a more apt name for this land of wild beauty with its majestic mountains, endless stretches of beaches, and temperate rainforests that are believed to be 14,000 years old. Sadly, in spite of the protected designation, this remote homeland of the Indigenous Haida people has been beset with overwhelming change.
Nearly 50 percent of the habitat on Haida Gwaii has been altered, primarily as a result of clear-cut logging. In places where logging has been extensive, the eco-region’s high rainfall patterns have resulted in serious erosion and landslide problems. Additionally, as is the case on many islands throughout the world, invasive species like deer and rats threaten the islands’ rich cultural and ecological tapestry.
In 2009, the Haida Nation and Canadian government kicked off a series of large-scale restoration projects to protect the island ecosystem and Haida way of life. I arrived at Gwaii Haanas during the final days of one these unique, collaborative efforts that combined Western science and traditional knowledge, a project called Llgaay gwii sdiihlda: Restoring Balance.
The Haida people have occupied this 138-island archipelago for at least 12,500 years, living off the islands’ abundant wildlife and the sea life from the surrounding ocean waters. At the time of European contact in the late eighteenth century there were more than 30,000 Haida living on the islands, balancing their needs with the ecological integrity of land. Their relatively easy access to sustenance enabled them to develop a rich cultural and artistic life: The Haida were widely known for their art and architecture, especially the dugout canoes and totem poles they carved from giant red cedars.
But the settlers brought along killing diseases and a lack of regard for Indigenous knowledge and land rights. A smallpox epidemic in the mid-1800s, and other diseases like tuberculosis, killed 90 percent of the Haida population. By 1911, only 589 native residents remained on the islands. These survivors gathered in the northern communities of Old Massett and Skidegate on Graham Island (the largest island in the archipelago), leaving the vast majority of the Haida Gwaii islands devoid of their former inhabitants.
As European settlers moved into remote areas of British Columbia throughout the late nineteenth century, the Haida managed to fend off occupation, but eventually the natural resources their islands offered – especially the dense stands of old growth spruce, cedar, and hemlock trees – led to large-scale exploitation of the land. Logging exploded in the 1940s due to the demand for supplies to support World War II. In his book All That We Say is Ours, Canadian conservationist Ian Gill writes that by the mid-70s, when logging was at its peak, pristine old growth forests on the islands were being cut down at the rate of 7,500 to 10,000 acres a year. The logging companies would start at the water’s edge and just move in, chopping down everything in their path.
After decades of destructive logging, in the winter of 1985-86, the Haida joined forces with environmentalists in a widely publicized struggle to save the islands. That winter Haida elders blocked logging trucks near the village of Hlk’yah Gaw Ga on HlGaa Gwaay (Lyell Island). “My mom asked my sister and I if she could go on the line,” recalls Brown, who was 13 at the time. “I said ‘Sure’ but my sister who was 11 was upset. She worried about what would happen if my mom was arrested.”
Over 70 people – including Brown’s mother, Diane Brown – were arrested during that first protest, but the Haida did manage to hold back the loggers. Meanwhile, the Council of the Haida Nation designated the narrow southern stretch of the Haida Gwaii archipelago (also known as South Moresby) a “Haida Heritage Site.” These protests laid the groundwork for the creation of the national park and for legal challenges to corporate logging. The alliances formed at Haida Gwaii between First Nations and environmentalists during the 1980s were instrumental in changing the way environmental activism is conducted in Canada today.
In 1988 the Haida and the Canadian government signed the Memorandum of Agreement on South Moresby, starting the process of Canada’s designation of the archipelago’s southern islands as a national park preserve. It was followed five years later with the Gwaii Haanas Agreement wherein the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada agreed to disagree on who owned the land but agreed to co-manage its protection. In 2010, an enveloping marine area of 13,000 square miles was created around the islands: the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.
Today an Archipelago Management Board of six people – three from the Haida council and three from the Government of Canada – co-manages Gwaii Haanas. This kind of collaboration would have been unthinkable four decades ago.
Brown carefully maneuvered the boat ashore. The tide was low, exposing a rocky shoreline wrapped in gold and green seaweed. Grey clouds hung low on the mountains and verdant green cedars towered over a small collection of weathered cabins. As we approached the island, I noticed that there was no dock. Brown helped us disembark from our craft into a small boat tethered to land by a cable. (The setup unsettlingly resembled a larger version of the clothesline my mother used to run laundry across our yard.)
Over the rumble of the boat’s engine, Brown quickly offloaded me and two Gwaii Haanas staff before heading off to deliver the provisions to a floating camp used by sharpshooters searching for invasive deer. Once on shore, I picked my way across the barnacle-crusted boulders to the cabin of David Dixon and Donna Carter, the two Haida “watchmen” who would be escorting me during my time on the island. Dixon lives in Vancouver but has spent the last 14 summers as a watchman. Carter is a more recent recruit – she became a watchman three years ago after watching her grandparents perform the role for a dozen years.
Historically, watchmen were sentries who watched over Haida villages, providing advance warning of approaching enemies. In the early 1980s the practice was revived when volunteers took their own boats into six sacred sites in Gwaii Haanas to prevent vandalism. Under the area’s current co-management agreement, the program has become more formalized. Watchmen today are paid employees of the Skidegate Band Council with a mandate to safeguard Gwaii Haanas and interpret the natural and cultural significance of specific sites for visitors. “People from all over the world come here,” explained Dixon, “We’re ambassadors.”
From the cabin we proceeded to the island’s namesake hot springs. In 2012, an earthquake stopped the flow of water to the springs. New pools have been built into the hillside a few meters from the ocean, in an area where no cultural resources such as middens or long houses have been identified.
The Haida believe this hot water has healing properties, and I believe them; my stress level dropped as the smell of sulfur tickled my nose. A bird chirped nearby and my mind attached itself to the wind’s gentle whispering over the shrubs. I stepped onto the pool’s sandy bottom and sank into the steaming liquid, my eyes drawn to the primeval forest surrounding me. The oldest trees here had surely been alive during the arrival of Europeans. And yet, I knew, the primeval appearance of the forest was deceptive.
These forests have seen a lot of change. The decades of heavy logging in many of these islands have turned them into ideal habitats for the Sitka black-tailed deer, introduced here in the late 1800s by Europeans wanting a terrestrial food source. Tasty as they may be, deer have been causing serious habitat impacts by overgrazing on tree saplings, wildflowers, and other forest shrubs. Where the deer are numerous they have wiped out the understory, leaving open views through the forest and degraded habitat for nesting birds.
“We call them moss deserts,” said Miranda Post, spokesperson for Gwaii Haanas and one of my boat companions, referring to the open, moss-carpeted woods devoid of other understory plants.
The deer also have a taste for a number of plants used by the Haida for traditional medicine. But it’s their insatiable appetite for t’suu (western red cedar), in particular, that threatens one of the tribe’s most important natural resources. Known as “the tree of life,” its bark has been used for millennia for clothing. The larger trees are also prized material for the construction of traditional dugout canoes and totem poles.
Similarly, nearly three centuries of invasion by rats – believed to have first hitched rides over on fur traders’ ships in the late 1700s – have severely impacted populations of ground-nesting seabirds like Cassin’s auklets, fork-tailed storm petrels, rhinoceros auklets, and ancient murrelets. Many of these seabirds have abandoned the more heavily rat-infested islands.
Many islands in the archipelago are so overrun with these foreigners that invasive species have been deemed the number one threat to the ecological and cultural integrity of Haida Gwaii and have, therefore, been the focus of large-scale restoration projects in the Gwaii Haanas reserve.
In 2009, Parks Canada and the Haida Nation launched SGin Xaana Sdiihltl’lxa: Night Birds Returning, a project that aims to restore nesting seabird populations within the reserve. The moniker “night bird” refers to ancient murrelets’ habit of moving in and out of their underground nests only at night. “Night birds were an important part of Haida diets,” Brown had mentioned earlier, while steering our boat along the sheltered waters of Darwin Sound and pointing at the lushly forested islands off the port side. “My dad remembers being in the islands and lighting a fire and hitting the birds with baseball bats (birds are attracted to the light). They would have potato sacks of birds.” In those days there were so many birds that harvesting some for food didn’t hurt bird populations.
Invasive species have been deemed the number one threat to the ecological and cultural integrity of these islands.
The Night Birds Returning project focused on removing rats from four of the sixteen Gwaii Haanas islands with known rat infestations. The islands – Bischof, Arichika, Murchison, and Faraday – were selected for their small size as well as their distance from other islands in the archipelago, since rats are good swimmers. They were also chosen because the Haida had long known these islands as important ancient murrelet sites, says Chris Gill, program director of Coastal Conversation, the group that supported Gwaii Haanas staff in planning and implementing the project.
“The Haida have passed down knowledge from generation to generation on where important seabird colonies were. Parks Canada’s knowledge only goes back a few years; Haida knowledge goes back 12,500 years,” Gill says. “Knowledge from Indigenous communities is becoming more and more important in management of species but it’s taken decades for Western scientists to recognize the importance of that knowledge.”
The time- and labor-intensive eradication strategy – which was implemented in two phases between 2011 and 2013 – involved using custom-made rodenticides that would kill as few non-target species as possible, manually placing the rodenticide in special locations on two islands and broadcasting poisoned bait by helicopter on the other two, and sending in crews to remove every single poisoned rat. Arichika is the only island to remain rat-free for more than two years. Though some rodents have been detected on the other three islands, on the whole, the project has been deemed successful.
Brown explained that rat eradication efforts on the islands of Arichika, Murchison, and Faraday have led to a marked increase in bird populations. “There’s been a six percent increase in seabird calls in the colony,” he explained. Park staff have also seen more nests and chick rearing by oystercatchers, a bellwether species for coastal ecosystem health. They are monitoring the ecological recovery of these four islands.
In 2011, while Night Birds Returning was underway, another project – Yahguudang Dlljuu: A Respectful Act – was launched to help restore streambeds that are spawning grounds for salmon, an important food source for the Haida. The streambeds were another casualty of intensive logging.
Through the project, schoolchildren from the Haida Gwaii islands have been helping restore salmon habitat on Lyell Island, where Haida elders protested in 1985. Over the course of one year, the children helped restore 1.2 miles of stream in three logging-damaged creeks, and helped release fry into creeks. This ongoing project aims not only to restore fish habitat, but also to teach future stewards of the islands about protecting the land and sea in Gwaii Haanas.
This summer, the focus turned to Llgaay gwii sdiihlda: Restoring Balance, an effort to eradicate introduced Sitka deer from six ecologically and culturally significant islands in the reserve.
Gwaii Haanas staff estimate there are 37,000 deer on the reserve’s islands. Removing them from Gwaii Haanas islands with special ecological and cultural significance is imperative – but it is also difficult work. Over three months this summer, a team of visiting experts and specially trained locals targeted deer from helicopters, boats, and bait stations where they are shot by marksmen. “Eradicating [an invasive] species isn’t hunting,” Dr. Robyn Irvine, ecologist and project manager for Restoring Balance, told me. “You have to get every last animal. Those animals not killed at the feeding stations must be pursued on foot with the help of tracking dogs or from helicopters.”
The first phase of the $3.3-million project resulted in the culling of 432 deer on Ramsay Island and the five smaller islands that lead to it like stepping stones, and another 138 on the edges of Lyell and Moresby islands. “The conservation gains are already happening,” Irvine informed the Haida Gwaii Observer in September. “What was amazing to see was that culturally significant plants like crabapple – there were these beautiful old crabapple groves on Ramsay – they were suckering and putting up shoots that for the first time weren’t getting eaten.” Other local plants like Devil’s club and huckleberries, too, were growing freely for the first time in decades, she said.
Gwaii Haanas staff had considered poisoning the deer – as they did the rats – but tribal elders and traditional-knowledge keepers urged against it. “When we ran it by them, they said it wasn’t in keeping with our values to waste that much meat,” recalled Ernie Gladstone, park superintendent. “So we made the decision to shoot the deer even though it costs more and takes longer.” The deer meat was used for school lunch programs and Meals on Wheels.
Ecological restoration aside, there are several other challenges to the Haida’s efforts to restore their ancestral lands and culture. A key one is keeping the Haida culture alive even within the existing Haida community, which currently comprises only about 3,500 people, spread across the Haida Gwaii islands and southeastern Alaska.
Since the only way to travel to and between these far-flung islands is by floatplane or on a boat big enough to handle rough water, cultural exchanges are hard to come by. In an effort to combat that, the Archipelago Management Board is ensuring every Haida Gwaii student has the chance to visit Gwaii Haanas before they graduate from high school. “Our goal is that every youth who graduates has a personal connection with Gwaii Haanas,” Gladstone said. That connection, the Haida elders hope, will help nurture the deep respect for nature that so defines the Haida culture.
Another important initiative is the race to save the Haida language, which – like languages across the world that have developed in concert with their local environment – is also a repository of traditional ecological knowledge. As of now, fewer than 20 native speakers of the language remain.
Speakers of native languages usually know, for example, the names of specific plants found in the area where the language or dialect is spoken. Often this kind of highly specific local knowledge, which is passed down orally from one generation to the next, is unknown to non-Native scientists. If the Haida language dies, chances are, we will also lose with it a whole wealth of ecological knowledge about these islands.
In order to keep that from happening, the Haida are trying to make active use of their language. In many areas around Skidegate, for instance, signs are written in Haida as well as English. In 2007 a private tour company provided a boat to bring elders into Gwaii Haanas to record traditional place names before the knowledge was lost.
Meanwhile, Haida elders have created an audio archive of common words and phrases for the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (ship), which is used by teachers and Haida interested in learning the language. Such efforts seem to be bearing fruit. “There are more people trying to speak [what little of] the language they know, says ship program manager Kevin Borserio. “We’ve got people trying to speak it in public, at the grocery store, when they meet someone.”
Turning back the clock in Gwaii Haanas has required a combination of Western science and Indigenous knowledge, but that isn’t always an easy merger, says Jennifer Galloway, a research scientist for the Geological Survey of Canada, who uses traditional knowledge in her climate change research in Canada’s north. “They are two completely different knowledge systems,” she told me. “Traditional knowledge can provide information that you can’t get from science, either because we don’t have the methods or it’s a completely different way of looking at the world.”
The key difference between the two worldviews is that one sees humans as dominant over nature while the other believes in an interdependent coexistence with one’s environment. While Western scientists get their education through universities, traditional knowledge is accumulated over a lifetime. “Scientists are trying to remain objective. They say they are free from values,” explains Nancy Turner, a widely respected ethno-botanist and a champion of Indigenous knowledge. Traditional knowledge systems, on the other hand, tend to be infused with values. One of those key values is “kincentricity,” the idea that all things are interrelated, she said. “The need to treat other beings with care and respect is based upon that [idea].”
An example of how park management changes when Indigenous people are given authority can be seen in the treatment of the numerous longhouses, house pits, and collapsed poles that remain in the village of SGang Gwaay Llnagaay on SGang Gwaay island. The village is a unesco World Heritage Site. But rather than preserving these nearly 140-year-old structures with the latest technology, as is often done at historic sites, the Haida have chosen to let them age naturally, caring for the structures in a traditional manner and accepting their inevitable disintegration and return to the earth.
Academics present one view, but how do the Haida characterize their own culture? “It’s hard to explain,” says Gladstone, who is also co-chair of the Archipelago Management Board. “It’s more of a way of life, a way of being connected with yourself and with the area.”
The Haida believe the islands were given to them by the Creator as a blessing, and that it is their responsibility to care for the natural world around them. This belief, Gladstone explains, informs their restoration work at Gwaii Haanas. “[The Canadian government] has protected the area as a national park reserve and a marine conservation area reserve to do what we can to maintain an intact ecosystem,” he says. “The Haida Nation has protected the area to preserve a way of life and have a place people can continue to go and enjoy and live off the land just as they have for thousands of years.”
Gladstone is keenly aware that the Haida Nation and Canadian government’s relationship hangs on a delicate balance, a balance symbolized by the names canada and haida nation printed in identical font on the jackets of Gwaii Haanas park staff. “There are a number of key principles around building relationships, developing respect, earning trust, and having a mutual understanding that [are] the foundation of the Gwaii Haanas relationship,” he says. But the agreement’s greatest strength may also be its greatest weakness, he adds. “[It] is very dependent on that mutual respect and trust and understanding. If we lose that, then the relationship – and the agreement – is at risk.”
For now though, both parties seem to be doing a fine job of keeping the balance. This seemed all-the-more clear to me towards the end of my visit, as our boat sped back towards the harbor at Queen Charlotte village. The cabin cruiser had been emptied of provisions and was jammed with staff members who had finished their shifts on the Restoring Balance project. People bumped shoulders in the tiny cabin, sharing stories of their time on the islands, laughing at small frustrations, and generally basking in a sense of camaraderie. Ecologist Robyn Irvine, who was sitting beside me, spoke about what, for her, would be the culmination of her team’s role in this ambitious task of restoring Gwaii Haanas to its former glory: “I’d like to have to use a machete to walk around Ramsey Island.”
Carol Patterson is a travel and nature writer inspiring people to see the best of North America’s wildlife.