One of the greatest sailing adventures in the world is the Haida Gwaii- Queen Charlotte Islands journey by Maple Leaf Adventures. It is a dream excursion which I took with my 14 year-old daughter. Together we explored the wildlife, nature, history and Aboriginal heritage of Canada’s northwest Pacific coast. Rich wildlife and evolutionary changes have led scientists to dub these islands “the Canadian Galapagos”.
This sailing cruise explores every-thing from the abundant and rich intertidal species and abundant sea life ranging from huge Orca and other whales to sea lions and eagles that make this domain their home. The trip redefined my impression of Canada, of the power of nature and most importantly of the rich heritage and culture of Canada’s Haida Gwaii people. Over the nine days, we experienced first-hand the lush intercoastal life in the Queen Charlotte Islands. We learnt about the Haida culture, a civilization so impressive and a people so noble that it stirs the soul to learn of their demise in the 19th and 20th century as a consequence of European expansion and of their gradual cultural recovery now.
Maple Leaf Adventures has been offering natural and cultural history cruises aboard their century old 92-foot schooner and classic tall ship, the Maple Leaf, since 1986. The ship is made of coastal Douglas fir and cedar with mahogany brightwork. It has 5 huge sails. The company has a reputation as one of Canada’s finest tour operators and is ranked one of “The Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth” by the editors of National Geographic Adventure, with a perfect score of 100 for customer satisfaction and one of the highest rankings of all 192 companies listed from across the globe. I can attest to the fact that they meet and exceed this standard.
Our excursion began with a ninety minute flight with Pacific Coastal (www.pacificcoastal.com) from Vancouver to Masset B.C. We met the other passengers and our crew of superior sailors and delightful people. The Captain was the thirty-something James Warburton a lifelong resident of the Queen Charlotte Islands. A wine connoisseur, fisherman, naturalist and environmentalist, he gave everyone a sense of comfort and at no point did we ever feel unsafe or unsure of anything while onboard. First Mate Tavish Campbell is a twenty-two year-old sea faring dynamo who has more outdoor adventure experience in his young life than most people I know. One of my greatest memories of the trip is watching Tavish clean 4 large fish he and James caught. It was like watching a maestro perform a concerto…and the fish were great later for dinner!
Photo by Caroline Penn
Our trip Chef was Lila Ruzicka, a who prepared spectacular meals featuring local food traditions and fresh produce along with the best seafood the Pacific West coast has to offer. The food presentation was a dinner highlight. She did this from the kitchen galley that may have been 6 feet in length. The ship Deckhand, Terese Ayre, was also a talented naturalist, environmentalist and host who always made sure we were comfortable, had lots of hot tea and snacks, had our lifejackets and raingear for excursions and pretty well anything else we required.
Our first day was spent on Graham Island and at the Haida Heritage centre at Skidegate. We had a land tour of the rainforest in Naikoon Provincial Park with stops at Tow Hill, Agate Beach and North Beach. The locals have built an impressive wooden pathway for the hike up Tow Hill and once at the top, the vista view of the Queen Charlotte beaches and terrain is breathtaking. The famous cedar trees that I have always read about and have seen in photos were everywhere. It is hard to believe that right up until the early 1990s Canadian lumber companies were going crazy clear-cutting the forests in the region. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney finally put a stop to all this by putting the area under federal protection in partnership with the Haida people.
Photo: Caroline Penn
The art of the Haida totem poles is fascinating. Our guide told us about the history of Bill Reid’s Dogfish pole in Skidegate. Reid is probably the most famous Haida Artist and his totem poles are legendary. One of his great works was for the Canadian Embassy in Washington. A stop in the Kaay Llnagaay Haida Heritage Centre was fascinating. It sells many representations of his and other Haida artists’ work and we were fortunate to meet two totem pole artists working on a new pole which had been commissioned for the federal government. Both artists were Bill Reid apprentices.
Our first night was spent at the Alaska Lodge in the Queen Charlotte Islands. It sits on wonderful beach and is teeming with local wildlife such as eagles, ravens and as we are told, bears.
The next morning, we headed to the Bay to board the Maple Leaf. The boat’s interior accommodations are very comfortable and merge modern conveniences and good space design sense with a decor that nods to her Edwardian past. The spacious main cabin is open and airy by day and the kitchen is compact, including the dining area. Shelving on the wall around the table holds the ship’s library and is a pleasant place to sit and read, chat or enjoy a cup of tea.
Our sleeping was below deck and featured large comfortable bunk beds, six-and-a-half feet long, with fluffy duvets, pillows, throws and brass reading lamps. There are walls on two-and-a-half sides and thick, heavy curtains on the remaining sides. There were five other people in similar accommodations feet away from us. There are three small washrooms on the ship which also can be used as showers. This is precision accommodation that was extremely comfortable especially for sleeping as you could lie in your bunk and feel the gentle floating sensation of the ship. I loved it and found it very relaxing as did my daughter!
The Maple Leaf has lots of deck space on which people may choose to sit and watch the coastal scenery, chat with others, steer the ship, or have quiet time alone.
Photo by Caroline Penn
The first evening was casual, each person getting a general comfort level onboard. The ship galley was prepared for our first meal and as he would do each night on the trip, James pulled out a couple of great bottles of BC wine and we toasted our day, our trip, each other and any other positive thing we could think of before delving into one of Lila’s spectacular meals. The 13 of us are squeezed in tight around the galley table and we share stories of our day and of our lives. James shows us the map of where we sailed and where we are headed the next day.
Our days are spent sailing and going ashore in the inflatable zodiac boats to experience the magic of different habitats and the special life that inhabits each area. The Maple Leaf has two 15-foot Polaris rigid-hull inflatable boats for shore excursions and wildlife viewing. These zodiacs, take us to some of the most remote beaches for hikes, seabird watching and marine mammal viewing. The Maple Leaf has access to some of the best places along the Queen Charlotte Islands that are rarely seen as most other tour operators are forbidden to go there. A highlight of the trip is zooming over the water in a zodiac to be near a whale pod or to get close to some Northern Seal lions whose average length is about 3 metres and weigh between 450-1,000 kilograms, making them the largest of all eared seals. These seals live on rookeries which are exposed, remote islands where calving and breeding take place. The males are very defensive of these breeding territories so we were careful to not get too close!
Photo by Caroline Penn
A key point of the trip is to stop and learn more about the Haida culture. We sail to the remote Haida sites of T’aanuu Llnagaay and K’uuna LLnagaay and explore the natural and cultural heritage of Gwaii Haanas. These areas are protected by The Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program. In the past, Haida Watchmen were posted at strategic positions around a village to raise the alarm in advance of approaching enemy. Watchmen also crowned poles as carved figures protecting the village from evil spirits. Today, from spring until autumn, the Haida Gwaii Watchmen serve as guardians at these sites.
One night we pulled into the Bay that features the famous Hot springs of Haida Gwaii. The Watchmen are laughing as we all take comfort in the hot spring water-better than any spa treatment in any place I’ve been. The temperature is so hot that after ten minutes most of our group hops out and into the extremely refreshing and cold Pacific Bay next to the hot springs.
Later, heading back to the ship in our zodiac, I noticed James speeding off in a zodiac towards another ship in the Bay. He returned moments later with a basket of fresh prawns. He said it was a great trade as we’ll enjoy the prawns and they’ll enjoy the BC wine he just gave them in exchange. We did enjoy those prawns which Lila quickly fried up in garlic and butter And by the way did I mention the breakfasts aboard the Maple Leaf each day or the end of trip brunch? Well, you should really go and experience it yourself. In all the adventure and comfort travels I have done, nothing even comes close to this trip. It was simply spectacular. I like to think that years from now my daughter will realize what a special adventure we had but I think she already knows it.
For more beautiful photography by Caroline Penn please see her website: http://photo.net/photodb/user?user_id=6606949