Bouncing along the waters of Hecate Strait for five hours in an inflatable zodiac is not for the faint of heart. The water was rough, and every bone in my body had been rattled and rearranged by the time we arrived at our destination. I suppose this was appropriate, given that my soul was about to be shaken to the core too.
We were with Haida Style Expeditions, headed for the very southwestern tip of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. Specifically, we were going to SGang Gwaay, a tiny island and UNESCO World Heritage site that has some of the finest examples of Haida totem poles.
Upon reaching shore and walking up the short beach, the first thing I felt was ‘enveloped’…embraced with a light hug by the giant trees that surrounded me. “Come. Sit for awhile,” they were saying. “We have stories to tell.”
First though, we were to meet James, one of the Watchmen who spends part of his year on the island welcoming visitors, sharing stories, and ensuring the protection of the site. He took us to the totem poles, many of which – after 200 years – were in various stages of decay. As is the Haida way, once a pole is carved it is allowed to live out its natural life and return to the earth in its own time, without any kind of preservation.
There used to be a few hundred Haida living in this village. As a result of the smallpox epidemic that ravaged the West Coast in the late 1700s and 1800s, their numbers rapidly dwindled to a handful. Maybe five. James told us there is not one person alive today who can trace their ancestry back to SGang Gwaay. There is no one who carries the stories of these totems within them. So once the poles are gone, so is much of the last remaining evidence of that earlier life.
But the spirits will still be here, I am sure. And there are a great many of them. I felt them among the trees, along the shoreline, and sitting amidst the remnants of some of the long houses. I was overwhelmed with sadness. But then the trees spoke again. “It’s OK,” they said. “We are taking care of these ancients.” And I have to believe that they are.
I left SGang Gwaay feeling like my molecular structure had been rearranged. I can’t get the place out of my head…not that I want to. I must find my way back there.