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The Queen Charlotte Islands

The Charlottes. Everywhere I traveled in British Columbia the locals asked me if I had been to the Charlottes. So I went.

First, the particulars:

150 islands (the peaks of a submerged mountain range), 2 main islands: Graham and Moresby. About 190 miles long. Alaska's about 45 miles away. On a clear day, you can see Prince of Wales Island. Mainland B.C. is a 7 hour ferry ride to the east, but probably only about 50 or 60 miles as the bird flies. The Charlottes are as far west of Vancouver as Banff is east. The annual temperature is 46 degrees (F). Quite livable year-round, although you may get a tad soggy; it seems to rain a bit each day. Total population is less than 6,000. The strongest earthquake ever recorded in Canada (8.1) happened here (off the west coast of Graham) in 1949. The largest sea turtle known to the modern world was also found here.

The Charlottes are known to the natives as Haida Gwaii, (Islands of the People or Place of Wonder, depending on the source). People have lived here for over 10,000 years, most notably the Haida, who were known for their strength, ferocity, and manual dexterity. These guys took their jobs very seriously, and everybody was scared of them. I read of one chief who kept a snake coiled up in his hair. He was also known to split his wives' (yes, plural) feet so that they couldn't run away. Nice guy, eh? They built incredible ocean-going cedar canoes, and they were piratical. (Is that a word?)

The Haida lived in villages, and within the villages there were three kinds of chiefs: the house chiefs, the family chiefs, and the town chief. And they ruled independently; if a family chief didn't want to go war against someone, his group didn't go. They were a matrilineal society; the sons in the families were turned over to their maternal uncles at a young age to learn the family stuff. They were tattooed in a lot of places, and they ornamented themselves with all manner of nose and ear and lip jewelry. Ankle bracelets. Regular bracelets. The works. They were big on silver. And their artwork is handsome and very distinctive. They are famous for their totems, their carvings (argillite, in particular) and their magnificent button robes.

The Whites brought the usual epidemics to the islands and just about wiped them out, but they adapted and filtered into the logging and fishing businesses.

The Charlottes have also been called the Canadian Galapagos. I have seen more Bald Eagles here than I've ever seen in one place anywhere. They are all over the place.

And what a place it is. I was enchanted. The ocean, the mountains, the rainforest, it's all there. And the people are delightful; everyone that I met has been very friendly. ONE exception: I went into a restaurant (the initials of the place are T.R.L., if you really want to know) one day looking for a late lunch, and the proprietor was rather short with me; they had stopped serving 10 minutes before. There were two people in the entire place. I asked him what time they started serving dinner, and if I could please see a dinner menu. He kind of threw one into my hands. Someone on the beach told me that this guy is notorious for manhandling the help and that he is almost as well-known for being ill-bred. I'm not quite sure what that means.

I hopped on the ferry in Prince Rupert at 10 am for my trip over here. Actually, I was over-eager, so I showed up at 9. They told me to go grab some coffee or something and come back in an hour. Oh well. :-)I had never driven onto a ferry before; they really cram the cars on there. (Am I like a newborn babe, or what?) First in line in the lane right next to mine was an older VW bus. The VW's were leading the pack; this was a very good omen. The other bus was driven by a man and his girlfriend who winter on the islands. They spend the summer bartending at Atlin Lake. Atlin Lake is the one place in B.C. that I really really wanted to get to, and didn't. Four different people have told me in the past month to go to Atlin Lake. I tried. Really. I just couldn't get there. Next summer.

The six hour ride over on the ferry was pretty nifty. Mostly I sat on the back, sucked down diesel fumes, talked to people, and watched the scenery. I met a woman from Florida who was returning to the Charlottes after visiting family on the mainland. She had come for a visit years ago, met a logger, and I guess she never left. She told me a lot about where everything was and what to go see. She was very sweet. Then I asked her a bunch of questions about logging. (She and her husband live in a logging camp.) Then another passenger on the ferry piped in with a bunch of tree-hugger quips and made her very uncomfortable. I felt bad for her; he was quite pompous and rude. Logging is a BIG issue here with the locals, and they are very vocal about it. They are also very vocal about commercial fishing. Do not bring up the off-shore fishing lodges unless you're prepared to hear a vehement litany.

I also met a woman from Vancouver on the ferry. She was a sea-sick nurse, and I fetched crackers for her. I offered to hold her head, but she said that was above and beyond the call of duty. I did not get sea sick. The locals on the boat said that it was a tame ride. They also said that in the winter-time a lot of people get sick on the ferry; it's that rough a ride through the shallow and treacherous Hecate Strait.

I watched scenery for a while toward the end of the ride with Patrick, a psychiatric nurse from Vancouver who was hiking the islands, and then I gave him a ride to his hostel so that he could check in. I checked in at the Hecate Inn, and then we went out for dinner and drove the beach road and checked things out. There is a great little carving tucked into a hillside next to a spring known as St. Mary's Statue. Supposedly if you drink from it, you will return to the Charlottes. I was leery of drinking from it (HEY! I've had Giardia, and it's no picnic), but we did dribble it on our heads.

My hotel room was okay, but I felt claustrophobic; I was ready to get out and see STUFF, so the next day I got up early and drove to the north end of the island to Naikoon Park, where I camped at Agate Beach. (Gee. Guess why they named it that?) On the way, I stopped and looked at Misty Meadows, the other campground in the park. It's very nice. Sheltered, it sits back away from the beach in the woods. I wanted raw open sea, so I drove on to Agate and set up right on the Pacific Ocean, about 20 feet above the high tide line. What ecstasy. What incredible bliss to hear the ocean again. I slept that night like a baby.

I ran into a couple of men from Vancouver and Victoria whom I recognized from the ferry ride, and I ended up hanging out with them. It was great, because they took me hiking with them. They took off for a couple of days to hike the Rose Spit trail. I didn't go with them. (Translation: they didn't invite me :-) )Right before they left, though, Shelly, the nurse from Vancouver, showed up and set up next to me, so I hiked with her for a few days. These B.C. people are NOT lazy. I kind of am. If everyone hadn't shown up and dragged me off to hike, I fear I may have beach-combed and sat on my duff and read for a solid week. They also seem to be impervious to inclement weather. Shelly was fearless. We hiked to the top of Tow Hill in the rain, and it was grand. And we hunted for goodies for hours on the beach. I found a couple. Then Shelly had to leave and the guys returned from their outing. Then they left the next day, and I stayed. I probably could've stayed weeks except everything that I owned was wet. So, finally, somewhat reluctantly, I moved on.

I didn't get far. I drove to Tlell, and stopped at a bookstore/gallery and they happened to have a vacant guesthouse out back. Seredipity. I unloaded the car, took a shower, and kicked back. The place is phenomenal. Acres. Cows. Horses. Gardens. Guinea hens running all over. The Tlell River is out the back, and the roar of the ocean is within hearing. The tree house that they've built is beyond description. Check out the picture; you'll die. Actually, the entire property is beyond words. I want to steal these people's life; it's that wondrous here. Noel is an artist (wonderful paintings, stop at Sitka Studio and check them out), and Barbara runs the studio and does a whole lot of other things. They are both multi-talented, very nice, and extremely entertaining.

One day I took a drive and stopped at the potters' down the road for a couple of hours. Very nice people, also. (Are you getting bored with all these nice people?) They're Brits, and have been here for 20 years or so. I bought Christmas presents and played fetch with their Golden Retriever, who is as large as Hoover. Then I had to drive on down to Queeen Charlotte City to replenish the coffers. And who should I run into at the ATM, but the V (Victoria/Vancouver) men. We all got cash, then went for lunch, and on to an incredible bookstore. A delicious day, all things considered.

Tlell is my favorite area on the islands, and were I to buy a piece of ground here, I would look there first. It has an agricultural base and was settled mostly by European homesteaders. There is a nice hike out to the shipwrecked Pesuta, a 2,150-ton cargo barge that went down in December of 1928. Trumpeter swans winter all around here. The farm that I am staying on gets washed by 25 foot tides in the winter, and Barbara and Noel can hop in a boat right out their door. The rest of the year it's pasture.

I looked at a couple of properties that are for sale in the area. Everything is rather reasonably priced., and they tell me it's because of the unstable economy and the ferry ride. Most people vacationing on a fixed schedule don't want to spend a couple of days getting to the islands. Trust me; if you like history and water, it's worth it. There is excellent fishing, stupendous kayaking, magnificent hiking, and unlimited exploring. (Get the point?)

I ended up staying in the Charlottes for more than two weeks. There's a whole lot of wilderness there, and I couldn't even begin to explore but a touch of it in two weeks. I need to go back for a month or two. A summer. Maybe a lifetime.

My last day there was uneventful and a little disjointed. I stopped at the museum and dropped off the tool (maul? Pounder? Plain old rock?) that I had found on the beach. If it had any historical significance, I wanted it to stay on the island. Then I took an early ferry over to Moresby and wandered around there for most of the day. Some of the logging roads were closed because of bridge construction, so I couldn't wander very far. That was probably a good thing; I was having a hard enough time leaving, as it was. Moresby is best explored by water, anyway. The ferry (11 pm scheduled departure) was late getting loaded, and I waited in line for 3 hours and talked to a woman from the island who was headed to Terrace for the biggest bingo game of the year. By the time I got on board and got my berth assignment it was 1 am, and I was exhausted. I slept fitfully. It was noisy and everytime the boat tipped, I felt like I was going to slide right out of bed. About the time that I finally got to sleep, I got my wakeup call. I grabbed a Coke and my cigarettes and headed outside with the rest of the addicts to watch the sun rise. It was glorious.


More Photos

I went back and looked over all of this before I uploaded, and I really am doing an injustice to the Charlottes. There is just so much more there. There are bogs and forests and an active fishing industry. The ocean. The beautiful bays. The rivers. The birds are incredible. And if I saw one deer, I saw a thousand. There is a park on Moresby that has been declared an International Historic site. The housing is eclectic and sometimes bizarre. The tidal pools are captivating. The sunsets and the sunrises. The Northern Lights. There is nowhere else like it. It's a living museum.