The Places I have been – Haida Gwaii

After what seemed like an extra-brief (and shortened) weekend thanks to the delayed flight home from Halifax, I was off to Haida Gwaii bright and early the following Monday.

My visit wasn’t going to be at the ideal time of year to visit the islands, Fall and Winter can be very stormy up the north coast and I was warned that there was always a possibility of not being able to get on, or off the island when planned. Fortunately due to some scheduling changes I was able to go in early October rather than the two or three weeks later I was originally supposed to travel there. Still a good chance of storms though.

There are a couple of ways to travel to the main island, via Air Canada to Sandspit along with a ferry ride to Queen Charlotte City, or Pacific Coastal airlines to Masset. I opted to fly into Masset even though I’d be starting work in QCC, the drive is about 90 minutes give or take and the flight landed early, so plenty of daylight to find my way down island. I figured cutting an extra mode of transportation out lessened the likelihood that I’d end up stuck there as ferries often will pull service (for good reason) during storms and I didn’t want to miss a flight because of that.

The flights run out of the South terminal at YVR and I knew the plane would be a smaller prop job, but it was a couple of hours flight so I figured I could handle it. After so many years of flying now, I am getting MUCH better at it…

Tom dropped me off at the terminal and I checked in and wandered around the small terminal area until flight time. When the flight was finally announced we walked outside to the plane and clambered up the stairs. It was indeed a smaller plane, but not horribly so. One side of the aisle had single seats, the other double. I was one of the last to board so I ended up at the back of the plane near the bathroom (lucky lucky) in one of the double seats. After everyone was settled the flight attendant asked for a male volunteer from the back to come sit up in an empty seat near the front. The guy in the rear single seat agreed to go, so I hopped over into his seat and both my seatmate and I got to sit alone.

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I buried myself in a book for the duration of the flight until I caught bits of land appearing below me, so I knew we were approaching our destination. At first smaller groups and then finally a larger landmass with a distinguishable coastline appeared in my window as I felt the plane start to descend.

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After a perfect landing we all trudged towards the small terminal to retrieve our bags. I was to pick up the car I was being provided while on island at the check-in counter. I’d received confirmation that it was there and what to ask for, but still the lady I spoke to didn’t seem to know what I was talking about At first she thought I was picking up a rental car (which I understand can be difficult to guarantee without a reservation) but after a bit more explaining she went to check the office and thankfully came back with a key. It was for a much bigger vehicle that I’ve been driving lately, an SUV, so I approached with trepidation. But after driving it around the parking lot to get used to the feel, I figured I’d be perfectly fine, despite the somewhat soft brakes.

I snagged a quick picture of the terminal from the parking lot before I left.

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There is a lack of Google street view on Graham Island, but I did take a peek on Google maps to get an idea of where I was facing distance wise, unfortunately for me I neglected to write down if I was to turn right or left when I reach the end of the airport road. I sat there for a minute and finally turned left.

I passed a few properties and then a golf course, I figured seeing that I was on the right path, that is until I reached two bridges with alternating traffic, then finally a dirt road that warned me to proceed at my own risk. Uh. No. So after wasting 20ish minutes going the wrong way, I turned around and went back to the airport to ask directions, hoping someone was still there. I mean this ISN’T a busy airport with lots of flights. Thankfully there was and when I inquired how to get to Queen Charlotte City, the gentleman told me to turn right and just keep going. See there is one main paved highway on the island. I commented on the lack of signs at the airport and I was told that most people know where they’re going.

When I mentioned that to one of the people I worked with later, they laughed and told me that it’s probably very true. Most of the people coming were coming home or visiting family especially that time of year. But as they’re looking for more tourism there were finally some road signs put in geared more towards the first time visitor. As I discovered though it was once you’d turned the right direction. Ah well.

Safely on the right road now I headed towards QCC. I saw a little traffic nearer to Masset, but once I had a few KM behind me there were long stretches where there was no-one in sight. Unfortunately I had the wrong cell provider as there was ZERO signal even in the cell coverage areas (which are basically just around the main areas of population) but nothing, no matter which in the stretch of road between the communities. Not great for safety! I was glad though that I was travelling during the day for both of my driving days.

I started to notice plenty of what I thought were fawns by the side of the road. It confused me a bit as I figured fawns would be seen in the spring. I found out later though from a local that they are in fact full-grown deer, just a smaller local variety and plentiful due to no real predator. They made me nervous though, I didn’t want to end up in a wreck due to a spooked deer. When I saw them I would slow the car down and prepare for one to dart. Needless to say I did this a lot so the drive took me longer than it would have otherwise. Turns out I was told later to not slow down as that is more likely to spook them, and to be more concerned about deer on the water side of the highway (where that was the case) as they were the more likely to dash across the road to the safety of the forrest. Good to know for my trip back to Masset.

I finally came to see water through the trees and I knew I was starting the approach to QCC. I finally started to see a few more cars and then as I pulled into Skidegate I knew I wasn’t that much farther from town. I came to a very confusing signpost and the road angled a bit. I wasn’t sure which way to go and saw a smaller sign that said Queen Charlotte on the right up a slight incline, so I followed it and ended up RIGHT back on the highway. Huh.

Fortunately I saw a ferry worker and asked which way to go to get to QCC, she probably thought me an idiot and pointed to her left. So that meant basically to go up and around the signpost not quite straight. Got it.

I was told to watch for the hospital sign to locate my guest house. I saw the sign and looked for the hospital which was a smallish building which looked to be under construction. Now as a city girl I was expecting a bigger city when I hear city, but it wasn’t a city like I know a city, it was a village. I saw the sign for where I was staying on the main road and headed up a VERY steep incline to get there. The place is owned by a lovely couple named Dorothy and Mike and they are also part of the local volunteer run SPCA so there were a number of cats and kittens in the main part of the house where I was staying.

After settling in I attempted to email Tom and let him know that I was safe in QCC. No dice. I couldn’t get a message to go through. Thinking it was maybe their wifi I tried a few places in town to find a phone card or something. It’s a small village and things are kind of spread out. I happened to come across a business area and found out the internet to the island was down and had been for a couple of hours. That is the reality there. One pipe in that everyone shares and when it’s down it’s down.

I decided to find somewhere to eat and while I was there the internet came back, I got the wi-fi password from my server and was finally able to get a message through. I warned Tom that it was likely we’d not get to Facetime or maybe even message while I was there. It looked like that was indeed going to be the case. The food in town was pretty good, even the pizza which I wasn’t too sure if I should try. Pizza is pretty hit and miss at best even in the big city. On my way back to my temporary home I passed a small liquor store under a bar and picked up a case of cider as it didn’t seem practical to get wine. I forgot how much I do like a dry apple cider.

Needless to say while staying at the guest house I had fun with the kittens, but there was one particular cat that I couldn’t help falling in love with. He was still up for adoption and unfortunately I hesitated a day, because it isn’t something I would do without discussing with Tom. He immediately started looking up how to get a pet on a flight and I went to ask Dorothy about Mister the cat. She sadly told me that he was just spoken for by a nurse from Masset who came originally to look at the remaining kitten, but fell in love with Mister instead. Boo!

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She said the adorable taffy coloured kitten was still available, but knowing Cinny and the, well face it, bitch she can be, I wouldn’t want to subject a tiny kitten to her! He was ADORABLE though.

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It rained a bit while I was in QCC, but no major storms had yet hit. One evening I was drawn outside by sound of someone singing while musicians played. It was a lovely haunting voice from somewhere down the street. The evening was dry and cool, so I sat on a chair on the deck and listened to the music and watched the clouds dance over the moon for a while.

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Soon it was time to head back up island to Masset. I was going to go right to work when I got there (logistics had me needing to spend two full days in each village) but I wanted to start the drive after daylight. Wise decision as it turns out as there were even MORE deer on the drive back. At least I could see them. The weather had cleared and it was a bright sunny day with a few scattered clouds. Apart from almost being run off the road by a truck that came flying onto the highway from a logging road without stopping, it was faster drive back up.

After work I grabbed a bite to eat at a local place and had a burger and fries. The burger seemed a little more dense than I was used to, and someone said maybe it was deer. Uh. Hope not!

I eventually headed down to my accommodations, this time a guest house called the Copper Beech house which is owned by a writer named Susan Musgrave, but was run by a lovely lady whose name unfortunately has slipped my mind. She showed me to my room which had a separate entrance at the side of the house but was in the basement area. It was a very eclectic place to say the least, but I liked it. The bed was difficult to navigate in and out of without, well, scooting, but it was very nest-like and I slept like a LOG.

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There were some interesting people there to say the least, an older man with long flowing hair with a pink streak and his much younger lady friend with a matching pink streak. He reminded me of Sean Connery from the Rock before he gets his hair cut. Anyway, nice enough couple and he was nice to chat to, but she was a bit more into the whole spiritual journey thing. He lived there for a time and the trip there was a birthday present for him to return to a place he loved, so a spiritual journey for him too. Even a lawyer who was staying there, flown in for court day on the island. When asked why I was there, I said for work and I basically wouldn’t ever be otherwise they all stared at me. Heathen!

I think the point of the place is to spend more time up in the common area and socialize, but that’s not my bag. I stayed in my room and watched movies on my laptop.

That night there was an amazing storm and wind and rain lashed my window most of the night, but I still slept great overall.

My second work day, I happened to run into a local artist named Wayne Edenshaw riding a bike past me. He was carrying a canoe paddle and asked if I was interested in buying it. He’d made it and it was very cool but a bit big of a souvenir to get into my case home. He asked if I was interested in seeing some of his signed prints and I said sure! I needed something to take back home and I hadn’t had any luck at the shops in QCC. I chose this hummingbird, it’s sitting on my mantle as we speak waiting for a frame. He said his background was part Haida and part Skidegate First Nations. After our chat he said “Háw’aa” for purchasing the print, which he explained was Haida for “Thank you” and that phrase has stuck with me (though I admit I googled the spelling)!

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After I was done working my final day in Haida Gwaii, I went out for dinner with few local ladies I had worked with and had a great time.

After work was through I started to become desperate to get home, especially as there are no flights off the island on Saturday for PC airlines, so it meant I wouldn’t get to leave until Sunday. Now maybe for the adventurous type this would be a great opportunity, but that’s not me and as I started to hear that the weather was going to turn for the worse again, it meant a possibility of not being able to leave.

I attempted to visit a local shop that according to the lady with the pink streak had some really nice stuff in it. It turns out though, that she may be open a lot, but will close on a whim to go to the beach if she feels like it. I guess the day I walked there was one of the days. I stopped off at the 50’s diner and had a grilled cheese (no more burgers for this gal) and then stopped at the local grocery store to get a snack to accompany my last couple of bottles of cider and yet another laptop movie watching session.

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The store was busy for sure and you could definitely see that it was a bit picked over. I guess with the restocking of shelves happening less often than say a store back home, certain things were more likely to be bought first including meat. I was told that most people hunt and eating the rather plentiful deer was common.

Saturday night there was the literal calm before the storm. As I was sitting in my room I noticed the sun was breaking through so I ran out to the slough and snapped a few pictures before the storm clouds choked off the sun.

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FINALLY the day to come home dawned and it was stormy. The worst of it hadn’t hit yet and there was still a good chance that the flight would get out I was told by the guest house hostess, the pilots were used to flying in bad weather. Still there was more gales approaching and I sat chewing my nails while I breakfasted. She called the airline for me and confirmed that the inbound flight was delayed, but was still on the way from YVR. As long as they could land okay and there wasn’t any danger to taking off I was going to get home. I still wouldn’t believe it until I was on the plane.

I finally see the incoming plane land (yay!) but notice it is smaller than the one I came in (boo!) and my stomach sank.

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It was very small, so small you had to duck to get to your seat. One row on each side of the aisle and you could see the pilot and co-pilot the whole time. There were a few nervous people on the plane with me and our slightly bouncy ascent didn’t help. We were forewarned that it may be a bit choppy and it was. Still these are skilled pilots used to the area and they soon had us up above the worst of it. There were a few bits of turbulence but I didn’t care, I was just happy to be going home.

A couple of hours later a perfect landing and I was finally home! I don’t think I’ve hugged Tom any tighter than when I finally saw him again.

I’d wondered in the past what it would be like to travel to Haida Gwaii (or as it was known back then Queen Charlotte Islands), now I know. For the many people who love the natural unspoiled land and the remoteness, it is probably heaven. Me on the other hand, I think I need a bit more (minimum) four star hotels in my life. Still, an adventure just the same and the people who live there are some of THE nicest people you will ever meet. If you are the adventurous type and plan a visit to Haida Gwaii, I would recommend either of the places I stayed.

Personally though,  if I want to see the BC coastline, I’d probably stick to Tofino, it’s a little more my speed.

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