Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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The raven the kayak and the Queen Charlottes

Explore the waters of Gwaii Haanas National Park and you'll learn that sometimes the highlands of a paddling trip happen on land

There's an odd transitional moment at the beginning of a fly-in expedition, when the imagery and noise you bring from the city meet the serene majesty of the wilderness. On this trip it happens on the beach as our plane, a single-engine Otter, lifts off from the water and disappears behind a high point of the island. We're eight people, an hour's flight from Sandspit, standing with a pile of gear on grade A medium white stones between a Windex-blue sea and a bank of massive museum-quality driftwood. A family of eagles squeak like clothesline pulleys in the trees and harbour seals, like loitering squeegee kids, take turns peering at us from their kelp bed 10 metres offshore.

Fortunately it doesn't take long for the misplaced metaphors to fade and soon Emily Carr's deep green forest begins to absorb our baggage of silly city notions. We take pictures, awestruck, until our guides remind us that we have kayaks to assemble.

Our kayaks are collapsible two-person Kleppers, a German design that holds a lot of gear and is stable enough to cross the Atlantic (so we are told). We assemble them on the beach, pack in our stuff, have lunch and launch into the sea. It only takes a minute to learn how to kayak, hold your paddle nipple high, dip it about this deep, stroke about this fast. It's only a couple hours to our first camp, but I think I can feel the natural rhythms of sea and paddle in my muscles already.

Jane Whitney and Steve Smith run Whitney & Smith Expeditions out of their home in Canmore, Alberta. They guide trips to Nunavut, Ellesmere Island, Greenland and Patagonia, but they reserve May and early June for Gwaii Haanas where they've both worked as naturalists. The nesting season for 370,000 pairs of seabirds, the beginning of good weather and an explosion of life in what many consider the Galapagos Islands of Canada make Haida Gwaii irresistible to nature lovers.

At our first camp, like most others, red-breasted sapsuckers check us out. Down the beach, a raven lands beside an eagle perched on a piece of driftwood and they sit together discussing who knows what, probably food. Dave Quinn, our other guide and Jane prepare gourmet meals for us every night -- not a repeat in two weeks. We eat so well that we're hardly motivated to fish or gather the local cuisine, but of course we do. Over the length of the trip we sample the ling cod and snapper, crabs and prawns (caught at 45 metres deep in a trap baited with a can of tuna), sea cucumbers, butter clams, nettle salads and sea asparagus. Fish heads, as it happens, are a raven favourite, while the eagle dove for the guts. Into the forest

The next morning, sitka deer are grazing around our tents. It turns out they're responsible for the gorgeous moss-covered clearings along the edges of the rainforest where we pitch our tents every night. Before they were introduced to the islands in the 1880s, red cedar, salal and nettles formed a virtual wall along most shorelines that you'd have to hack through with a machete. Being May, and being lucky, a woman in our group watches a fawn being born on her walk through the woods. She also finds a deer skull with horns and packs it all the way home.

Two steps into the rainforest, you really are in another world. The days we were windbound or made camp early, I could not stop walking in these astonishingly beautiful places. Giant sitka spruce and cedars, some over 1000 years old, shroud a soft green tangle of their fallen ancestors. All are covered in mosses, ferns and lichens -- at least 1000 shades of green. Mountain streams carve their way under and through these massive gardens and spill out across the beaches where we camp.

We paddle to Tanu, one of many Haida villages abandoned 100 years ago after smallpox and other European diseases had reduced their population from over 20,000 to less than 500. Today, the Haida are concentrated in the villages of Masset and Skidegate on Graham Island, the northern half of Haida Gwaii. The southern part of the island chain, now the Gwaii Haanas National Park, is sacred to thes Haida. It contains many of the ancestral villages, where half-finished canoes and incomplete carvings bear witness to the sudden devastation and speed with which the people left. The area is now protected from forestry and the village sites are cared for by the Haida Gwaii Watchmen. We were early visitors to the villages, but where the Watchmen were already in residence for the season, they welcomed us warmly. Nathalie at Windy Bay and Girl at Ninstints were enthusiastic guides and full of stories. A Haida education

 

We also pick up crabs for our supper, throwing the smaller ones back. But the big guy that bit me, we eat -- "always feed on the claw hat bites you," I say. There are stars, anemones, jellyfish, mussels and scallops way past counting. The beach above the waterline is a veritable fountain of spitting clams.

The natural highlight of the trip was a midnight encounter with ancient murrelets. They're a kind of auk, related to penguins but weighing only about half a kilo. They live their entire lives at sea, but breeding pairs nest and incubate two eggs in metre-long burrows under tree roots on several islands. For 32 days, each parent alternates between sitting on the nest and feeding in the ocean, switching roles every night. The day the chicks hatch, both parents return to the sea and begin to call around midnight. As we sit in the dark among the trees, incoming birds begin to fly through the branches and plop down into their burrows. There are so many, we occasionally get clipped. Then, sure enough, as the darkest part of night comes on, we hear the scurry of large feet (the chicks hatch with feet as big as their parents') zipping by us towards the rocky shore. Down by the water we can just make them out, diving from the rocks and paddling through the surf to find mom and dad. They've been known to travel 50 kilometres on their first day out of the nest! oberta's feast

For the last couple of days we try to reach Ninstints, the best-preserved (or least-pillaged) of the ancient villages with many poles and artifacts still intact. This means facing the open Pacific and the weather is not cooperating, but we get there eventually. Jane's friend Brian, who runs Maple Leaf Adventures, happens to be there taking a group through Gwaii Haanas on his yacht, the Maple Leaf. Once they find each other on the radio, it's quickly arranged -- we get a wet and wild zodiac ride over three-metre swells to Ninstints. Once again, the stories are retold by the carvings on the poles and witnessed by the cedar returning to earth. Girl says the stories are much too complex for her to recite. "Ask Brian to tell you this one," she says as we look at Mother Bear and her human cubs. "He tells it well."

There's one last beach, a shore lunch of leftovers and then the Otter hauls us unceremoniously back to Sandspit. We dip our wings to a pod of gray whales. After a quick shower at Bonnie's (the Seaport B&B) we catch a ferry across the bay to the Haida village of Skidegate. All Whitney & Smith trips to Gwaii Haanas end here, at Roberta's House of the Dawn. Roberta is a Haida food gatherer and chef who serves a traditional island feast to dream of. After prayers and a song from her granddaughter, we eat salmon, smoked and cooked half a dozen ways, herring roe or k'aaw (pronounced "gow") done three ways, several seaweeds and salads, venison, relishes -- it goes on and on. Roberta's house is lavish with her family's art and has an east-facing view of the bay. Whales swim by and an eagle waits patiently on a rock for our scraps.

This was a humbling trip. It's hard to learn that we have almost lost our immediate connection with the land. But it's also exhilarating to find people who still know and have it to share.

Like many people, I can recognize and admire Haida art which is displayed in museums and exhibits around the world, but I never knew much about their stories. Now, along with the beauty of the place, I think the stories may have altered the shape of the world in my imagination. At Tanu, the Watchmen have not yet arrived and Jane leads us through the village where huge cedar posts, beams and gables lie across the moss-filled indents of the dugout homes. It rains steadily and we're grateful to find the Watchmen's neat-as-a-pin cabin where we build a fire in the stove and begin the task of absorbing the story of this place.

As we travel from Tanu, we begin to read Haida stories around the campfire. We work our way through the book The Raven Steals the Light, reading about the Raven trickster, the Bear mother, the Frog and how light, salmon rivers, people and great sex came to Haida Gwaii. The stories are an intricately complex fusion of human, animal and spirit creatures in what I can only describe as a wild romp through the beginnings of time. What slowly emerges from the campfires, rain walks and dreams under the cedar is not really someone else's story, but a bit of the Haida's touching yours.

After four days of this ponderous struggle to advance through wind, rain and heavy cultural work (also, Jane was not rationing the wine), we finally make it to Hot Springs. There is nothing more beautiful on earth than to slide into a natural pool of water, as hot as you can stand it, sip cold beer (if you brought some -- lucky Dave) and gaze across the sunny blue bay toward snow-peaked mountains hovering over the Pacific. It goes straight to a travel writer's brain. The water comes out of high ground on the island and flows downhill, continuously filling three pools for swimming as well as the Watchmen's bathhouse before reaching the beach. This must be the assignment every Watchman lives for.

We spend a few minutes a day watching whales breach and blow their way through the islands. Jane says they're humpbacks and grays migrating to the Bering Sea and you only see them at this time of year. Dave emails me a few weeks later and says a gray whale and her baby swam directly towards them, dove about 45 metres away and their "footprint" welled up among the kayaks. Lucky Dave. What lies beneath, and above

A couple of days later we're floating through Burnaby Narrows and, as the tide ebbs, it's like the primordial origin of life is rising to meet us. Thousands of bat stars, a kind of starfish, appear in an explosion of colour under our kayaks and our guides cannot stop talking. They show us chitons, those soft-lipped molluscs from Haida mythology that were used by the Raven to populate the islands with humans. Jane shows us a sea cucumber, which, as she predicts, grows hard and large as she strokes it, water squirting out of one end.

 

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