By Molly Brewer Hoeg
The final miles of our “Yellowhead Tour” proved we had saved the best for last. And to think we almost missed it.
My husband, Rich, dreamed up this itinerary for our latest husband/wife cycling adventure. Chosen for exploring the beauty of British Columbia and the coastal mountain range, the natural route was to follow the Yellowhead Highway – one of the only roads that reaches the coast. To get there, we took the ferry from Vancouver Island through the inland passage to Prince Rupert. There we dropped our car and boarded Via Rail with our bikes to arrive at our starting point in Prince George. Already, we had an eyeful of gorgeous scenery. But cycling brought more yet. We started out crossing the Nechako Plateau with a surprising amount of agricultural land and peaks gracing the horizon. In Smithers, we met the mountains up close, and soon connected with the Skeena River to snake through the mountain passes to the sea.
We originally assumed our tour would end after 470 miles when we returned to Prince Rupert. But in the process of planning the route, I noticed a dotted line on the map that showed the highway continuing out into the water. Really? That led me to Haida Gwaii. It only took a little research to convince me. We had to go there.
Haida Gwaii is about 80 miles off the coast of mainland British Columbia and is made up of two large islands and over 150 additional islands. Graham Island to the north hosts six communities and the final stretch of the Yellowhead Highway. Moresby Island to its south has one community on its north edge. The remainder of the archipelago is wilderness. 4,500 people live on Haida Gwaii, and about half of those are native Haida people. Theirs is a long and difficult history during which their culture and language were nearly wiped out.
Fortunately, they have succeeded in reclaiming their heritage, which now thrives on these islands. Long known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, in an official Giving Back the Name Ceremony in 2010, the Haida Nation literally returned that name to the Crown to become Haida Gwaii. It means Islands of the People.
My first views of the islands were from the ferry then cycling the short distance to the village of Queen Charlotte. The small quiet road meandered away from the ferry landing along the calm inlet between the two large islands. Impressions flooded my mind – lush, green, peaceful and natural. I already sensed the slower pace of life. The focus on the outdoors. And the lack of commercialism. I couldn’t wait to explore this intriguing land.
Allocating four days to cover the 70 miles from Queen Charlotte to Masset at the north end of Graham Island and back seemed excessive, but was in fact hardly enough at all. The cycling was easy on the quiet well-paved road. Paralleling endless miles of beach, followed by forested wilderness and the Masset Inlet with a mountainous backdrop provided a mere sampling of Haida Gwaii’s wilderness and natural beauty. It was only by getting off our bicycles that we could truly indulge in the depths of its offerings.
Naturally drawn to water, walking the beaches was imperative for me. The east coast offers a beach that extends the length of the island. Easily accessible from the highway, it offered calm waters that belied the power of the ocean. I was informed that the rock-strewn stretches that contrasted with the soft sandy shores were evidence of nature’s fury, which resculpted the shoreline at will. An extreme example is Balance Rock. Precariously perched on a logistically minute corner, it hovers over a flat rock bed. The last glacial retreat is credited with leaving this van-sized boulder there.
I was eager to reach North Beach beyond Masset to camp near the beach and climb Tow Hill for its iconic views. But the final eight-mile stretch involved rough gravel and construction that were beyond the endurance of my touring bike. Not to be deterred, I found a community park with a path that reached the beach. Waves pounded the shore and although I had sunny skies overhead, thick fog lay in a blanket over the water and obliterated the famed Tow Hill from view. Taking refuge in the dunes to watch the fury of the ocean, my disappointment receded knowing that the hike to the top would have been pointless that day.
Haida Gwaii offers a number of parks, with endless possibilities for wilderness pursuits. Limited to our stretch of highway, we still had access to more opportunities than we could indulge. Naikoon Provincial Park is the largest, offering camping, hiking, beachcombing, wildlife viewing and backcountry wilderness exploration. At the other extreme, tiny Pure Lake Provincial Park offers a small secluded lake just minutes down a trail from the road. My afternoon swim in its clear and refreshing waters was a spontaneous delight.
Of all the wildlife on the island, the most ubiquitous was the bald eagle. At first amazed at seeing 29 eagles in a two-mile stretch, we became accustomed to their constant presence overhead and I quickly learned to identify their noisy scream. Our most dramatic encounter was in the Haida village of Skidegate. A nest high in a tree hosted several eaglets eager to be fed. When a villager came out with a bucket of fish parts, a high-flying battle ensued as swarms of eagles fought over the tasty morsels. We were mesmerized watching hard-earned tidbits successfully delivered into the hungry mouths in the nest.
While Haida Gwaii’s natural environment is a draw, to visit the islands is to be steeped in the heritage of the Haida Nation. This is what sets it apart from any other group of beautiful islands. Throughout their history, the Haida have been known for their art. Blessed with a temperate climate and bountiful resources, they had the benefit of time to invest in developing their crafts.
Today the Haida populations are concentrated in Skidegate in the south, and Masset and Old Massett to the north. Cycling through those communities was a lesson in their culture, as represented by the outdoor art that adorned their buildings. Haida totem poles appeared just about anywhere in town – front yards, community buildings, signs, and cemeteries. Many were memorials. One was a Chieftanship pole. Another a medicine pole.
The best source of information and displays of Haida culture is the Haida Heritage Center. It is an ideal first stop after arriving on the ferry to get a good grounding in the Haida Nation. This recently built museum and resource center houses collections of Haida artifacts and detailed displays to preserve and share their history. Its buildings include a carving shed, where I was able to watch a craftsman carving a new totem pole. Seeing its design etched on the log and coming to three-dimensional life under his tools was the highlight of my visit to this center.
Artists’ workshops and galleries abound but are often tucked away. Like much of the islands’ offerings, it was only by following side roads and exploring away from the main route that I found some of the exquisite displays and tidy shops nestled in abundant gardens and humble buildings. Half the fun was seeking them out.
We came prepared for the islands’ wet climate. Bearing the brunt of the ocean’s winds which frequently drop rainfall and create a near-rainforest climate, its wet reputation is honestly earned. But we never unpacked our rain gear, blessed with sunshine and warm weather throughout our stay. We took it as additional confirmation that we were meant to explore Haida Gwaii.
We left behind far more to explore than we covered. But we retained a sense of awe for the beauty and culture that pervaded our visit. It was a finale which was truly grand.
Molly Brewer Hoeg is a freelance writer living in Duluth, Minnesota. She is currently writing a book titled America at 12 Miles an Hour about her experiences bike touring with her husband. You can also read more of her work on her website, Superior Footprints. Her husband Rich is a photographer and birder. His work can be found here.Tweet Print