Into the Wild on Haida Gwaii
To experience a summer holiday immersed in nature and surrounded by wildlife, you can’t do better than travelling to remote Gwaii Haanas National Park on Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands), often referred to as the “Canadian Galapagos.”
Only a limited number of visitors are allowed to enter Gwaii Haanas National Park every year on Haida Gwaii, 120 kilometres west of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada. Gwaii Haanas is the world’s only ecosystem in which both land and sea are fully protected—from the tip of Mount de la Touche at 1,123 metres to the depths of the ocean, the park contains almost 5,000 square kilometres of protected land and water.
Visitors who make the remote journey get to experience nature so deeply that many call it a spiritual experience. Snow-capped mountains stand at the highest points of the island, fading into thick green rainforests, before reaching out to the wildlife-rich coast—the destination for most travellers to Gwaii Haanas.
From May to August, 1.5 million seabirds, such as the tufted puffin and ancient murrelet, nest along the Haida Gwaii coast, half of which are found within the boundaries of the park, according to the Gwaii Haanas Trip Planner 2011. Nesting time, though, isn’t the opportunity to do some serious birding. Located along the Pacific flyway, the park is an ideal place to spot migratory birds in both the spring and fall. The park’s marine life equally impresses.
Twenty whale and dolphin species can be seen in these parts; regulars include the humpback, orca and minke. Porpoises, seals, urchins and sea stars are some of the other common marine creatures living in the park’s waters.
Though the nature is sublime, it’s not the only reason people travel to Gwaii Haanas. The village of SGang Gwaay has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though the village was abandoned in 1880, long house ruins and carved memorial poles demonstrate the Haida culture and their close relationship to nature.
The tranquil water wilderness of Gwaii Haanas is best explored by sea kayak or other non-motorized sea craft. Haida Gwaii is remote, so facilities are minimal. Furthermore, this archipelago of 450 islands experiences major tidal variation, highly unpredictable weather patterns and strong currents and winds, so preparation is key. Inexperienced kayakers are recommended to travel with a tour guide.
To protect the wilderness that draws travellers, the park limits the number of permits it distributes, splitting them between guided and independent travellers. Whether travelling alone or booking a tour, it’s best to book well in advance for this epic journey deep into nature.