Fish dries in the window of a modern Haida Gwaii house. [Photo by Gayle Mitchell Stokes]

Watery world

Our boat, the 68-foot motorized sailing vessel Island Roamer, lurched and bobbed in storm-tossed seas off the coast of British Columbia.

Half of its 10 passengers had their heads hanging over buckets, while spouses and crew worked to empty those buckets and uttered condolences. It was our first day exploring the shores of the island complex of Haida Gwaii. As turbulent as this first day was, we could not have foreseen that the trip would end in an even more dramatic way involving the Canadian Coast Guard.

These islands, formerly known as the Queen Charlottes, are located north of Vancouver Island. They include a national park, a marine conservation area and a designated World Heritage Site. After struggling our way to the southern part of the archipelago, we mercifully found calm waters on the lee side of a maze of small islands. Now we were able to really explore this mysterious rain forest and its life-sustaining coastal waters.

Haida Gwaii, with its dark-green interiors, rocky cliff headlands and quiet bays invites speculation about its past. The relics of that past lie in the ancient village sites, and its history is being resurrected by the First Nation Haida people of today.

The Haida population, numbering close to 20,000 when Europeans first made contact, shrank to fewer than 600 by the late 1800s. Now, under the Haida’s Watchman program, two or three trained Watchmen live for several weeks at a time at the five archeological village sites. Their job is to lead tours of the sites and protect against further looting and vandalism.

Meanwhile, older Haida are working on developing a dictionary of the old Haida language, and they are passing on the oral history to a younger generation. That history is told through their totem poles — many Haida totem poles reside in museums around the world, where they were taken "for preservation." However, the Haida believe totems are meant to fall back into the earth to complete a natural cycle. That is why they are raising new totems, carved by Haida artists, and displaying the original Haida crests and symbols. These reflect not only the ancient past but more recent events, as well, such as an environmental stand the Haida made in 1985 to protest logging on their ancestral lands. That protest is credited with the eventual protection of the area and establishment of Gwaii Haanas National Park.

In addition to becoming immersed in another culture, we were immersed in the water world that is Haida Gwaii. When we weren’t hiking in the rain forest or exploring an old village site, we were on the deck or in the wheelhouse of the Island Roamer watching for puffins, murrelets and auklets — or hoping for an encounter with a whale or orca.

During the mornings and evenings, when we were anchored in a protected bay, we kayaked among giant orange and purple-red jellyfish, and watched oyster catchers probe along the gravel beaches. We listened as bald eagles trilled in the trees above us as we paddled a tidal area between two islands, called the Narrows, where we encountered blue bat stars, huge turban snails, multi-armed sunflower stars, and current-swaying anemones.

One day we had been back on the boat for about 20 minutes after visiting one of the Haida sites and hiking in a light rain. I was looking forward to the evening’s anchorage, where Captain Jonas promised we would enjoy calm kayaking. Jonas looked ahead as he tried to keep the boat at an angle to the wind and waves. We knew he had his eyes peeled for any disturbance in the water that could signal an uncharted rock beneath the surface.

Our rock gave no warning, however. Suddenly our conversation was broken by a very loud clang and the boat pitched bow down. The wheel was yanked from Jonas’ hands. He grabbed it again with one hand and throttled back on the engines. Somewhere an alarm was sounding. I don’t actually remember when he said the word “muster,” but I know he did. Within two minutes, all 10 passengers and four crew were assembled quietly in the wheelhouse. Someone passed around life jackets.

Jonas made a radio call giving our location and advising all boats in the area that we had "touched ground" and were taken on water. Pumps aboard ship were immediately engaged and, after 30 to 40 minutes, it was apparent that the rising water in the bilge and engine room had been equalized by the pump’s outflow. Fortunately, the engines were still working. Although we couldn’t move very fast, we could maneuver.

Another tour boat, the Maple Leaf, acknowledged our distress call, but it was an hour away. The Canadian Coast Guard rescue ship, Tanu, was eight hours away. A second Coast Guard fast-response boat and a Parks Canada vessel were dispatched — both too small to take on passengers, however.

Jonas’ first priority was to get the passengers off the boat. He managed to navigate us to one of the archeological sites where Haida caretakers had a small cabin. Our naturalist was assigned to take us ashore in one of the Zodiacs, freeing up the rest of the crew to look after the boat. We passed the time on shore anxiously listening to the emergency-channel radio for news about our boat and crew.

The Coast Guard fast-response cutter and the Parks Canada boat arrived, providing more pumps and manpower for the damaged Island Roamer. About an hour later, we were transferred from shore to the Maple Leaf and a ship caravan formed to escort the injured Island Roamer to a safer anchorage. Because we could only go the speed of the Roamer, it took us two hours to make the distance that the Maple Leaf had covered in an hour in response to our call.

The original Maple Leaf passengers had been transferred to a third tour boat when the emergency broadcast was transmitted. It was about 2 a.m. when we stretched out, in our clothes, on their hastily abandoned bunks. We tried to sleep, but few of us were successful.

The 180-foot Canadian Coast Guard patrol boat Tanu eventually arrived. By about 6:30 a.m., we were taking a wet ride in a 20-foot “fast rescue craft” out to the Tanu. We gratefully boarded the larger ship and began the 10-hour run back to Sandspit, where we had started our adventure. During our daylong transit, the crew of the Tanu fed us a wonderful breakfast, lunch and dinner. We were free to explore most of the ship and were given a tour of the very sophisticated bridge area. They also let us use their lounge and a few bunks where we almost all finally got a couple hours of sleep.

Our trip aboard the Island Roamer was cut short by a couple of nights. However, it ended with everyone safe and left us with more than the usual story to tell. I will never listen to a safety talk at the beginning of a trip in quite the same way.

— Skip and Gayle Stokes live in Jacksonville.




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