The Haida nation’s ancient name for the archipelago of Haida Gwaii is “Xaadala Gwayee,” which means “islands at the boundary of the world.” To visit the islands is to expose oneself to a vast and powerful beauty; its old cedar forests and brisk beaches contribute to an almost mystic atmosphere. World-class luxury lodges are accessible via Heli-jet and cater to international sport fishers, but if a simple opportunity to convene with nature is your aim, visit Masset—a small harbour town on Graham Island about a two-hour flight from Vancouver. While there, here’s what we recommend.
Stay: Copper Beech House has been owned and operated by poet, author, professor, and Haida Gwaii marriage commissioner Susan Musgrave since 2010. The house itself is hominess incarnate. Originally built by a Swedish carpenter in 1914, it’s named after the stately tree in its backyard. If inclined, one may sit on a cozy sofa in the tchotchke-filled living and look past that very tree to the bay beyond, maybe while flipping through a vintage copy of Gourmet magazine or a Kennedy-era LIFE. Book the Cloud Suite to sleep—it’s the uppermost level of the house, and has sheltered a clutch of Canadian luminaries in its time, including David Suzuki, Douglas Coupland, Margaret Atwood, and Rufus Wainwright. Pierre and Margaret Trudeau even stayed there on their honeymoon. Amenities by Sea Wench Botanicals ensure you’ll exit your morning shower in an herbal steam cloud, refreshed and ready for some of the best breakfasts of your life.
Eat: The morning meal at Copper Beech House is a leisurely and generous affair; elderflower-spiked orange juice, flakey Welsh griddle cakes with local salmonberry jam, omelettes with wild mushrooms and seafood, French toast with candied wild rose petals, or local eggs from the Mennonite-run chicken farm down the road (plus plenty of Musgrave’s signature sourdough bread with butter). If you’re still hungry, or crave the novelty of it, you can also head to the Moon Over Naikoon, an off-the-grid bakery and cafe serving brunch out of a re-appropriated school bus within a mossy clutch of rainforest (eggs benedict and house-made cinnamon buns on our visit). It would be amiss to omit that the island’s best treats are free for the taking. Wild coastal strawberries carpet the grassy dunes in the summer, where you’ll find bolete mushrooms in the fall. Those intent on catching their own dinners can net-dip for crabs in the shallows, or dig razor clams from the sand (Musgrave offers a recipe for them fried up as fritters in her forage-forward Haida Gwaii cookbook). Of course, the halibut and salmon fishing are legendary in early spring, and the deer hunting season is extended.
Explore: Walk along beaches rimmed with trails of large, swirled moon snail shells, huge clam shells, and the fan-like former homes of puck-sized swimming scallops (which occasionally wash up live in droves, to be quickly harvested by locals and thrown, for a just a second, into a hot, buttery pan). Beachcombers can also seek green glass Japanese fishing floats or glittering agates, the latter being a volcanic stone likely produced in one of the ancient subaquatic eruptions that also contributed to the formation of Tow Hill—a small mountain with an easy hiking path and rewarding view from the top. From there, one can see Alaska on a clear day, as well as the vast marshy cranberry bogs within the island’s centre, and the long sandy arm of Rose Spit, where, according to Haida mythology, the Raven freed the world’s first people from a giant clam shell. Surfing is a central hobby for residents of Tow Hill Village, a small, predominantly off-grid community about 15 minutes from Masset (board and wetsuit rentals are available in town). Make sure to visit the Haida town of Old Massett, where renown contemporary artist Christian White’s longhouse may be toured, and connect with Haida Style Expeditions to explore the local historical sites firsthand. The only Haida-owned-and-operated cultural ecotourism company on Haida Gwaii, the company arranges a variety of expeditions (camping, hiking, fishing) including day trips by Zodiac to four different abandoned Haida village sites, including SG̱ang Gwaii, located within Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, Canada’s first marine-protected area and the ancestral home of the Haida First Nation.
Photos by Tallulah.