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Civilization's edge

Haida Gwaii teeters on B.C. Pacific coast

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Waves broke like thunder against the rocky shores of the island just off our starboard bow. The zodiac rose and fell with the mighty swells rolling in from the open Pacific Ocean just beyond.

"Lovely day today," said Max, our guide, one hand on the tiller. "You ought to see it in a storm. The whole island shakes."

Anthony Island, known as S'Gang Gwaay to the Haida people who have lived here in this remote archipelago for time immemorial, teeters on the edge of the vast Pacific Ocean.

Formerly called the Queen Charlottes, the island group of Haida Gwaii is as remote a destination as can be found on the planet, and S'Gang Gwaay is its shining jewel. Getting to this World Heritage Site is itself a great adventure, as is a stay at the nearby "village" of Rose Harbour, the only inhabitation to be found here at the edge of the world.

Highly skilled kayakers have been wending their way to the far southern reaches of Gwaii Hanaas (as the national park that comprises the southern end of Haida Gwaii is known) for years, but travellers less skilled with the paddle and wary of the fearsome tides and winds for which the archipelago is renowned can only sail or charter a seaplane in Queen Charlotte City, far to the north.

Charter flights are extremely expensive, but intrepid and determined travellers now have a third option. Local outfitters Moresby Explorers (www.moresbyexplorers. com) are offering four-day excursions of Gwaii Hanaas via swift hovercraft, greatly shortening travel times and opening up previously inaccessible territory. Like Rose Harbour.

Our exploration of Ninstints, the now-abandoned village on S'Gang Gwaay where the last of the mighty Haida totems still stand defiantly in the face of hellish winter storms, is necessarily brief.

No visitors are allowed to stay overnight on the tiny island, and any short tour of the site under the guidance of Haida Watchmen will make you wonder how anyone could possibly have survived any winters there.

Luckily, both kayakers and zodiac passengers alike can find warm and pleasant accommodations at Rose Harbour on nearby Kunghit Island. If New York City is the Big Apple and self-named Centre of the Universe, then Rose Harbour is very small potatoes hiding at the far end of the known world.

In summer -- the only time to venture forth to the more remote wilds of Gwaii Hanaas -- the population of Rose Harbour swells to six people. The only full-time resident is Goetz Hanisch, who built a home and rustic guest house (www.roseharbour.com) here 25 years ago. Ever since, he has been hosting those truly adventurous explorers who somehow make it this far and, rather than camping on the beach, crave a soft bed and hot shower in the midst of utter wilderness.

"Wood is chopped, water's ready," Goetz announces as weary zodiac riders hover next to a blazing stove in the three-bedroom cabin's living room, warming their hands.

"Who wants the first shower?" A hearty dinner from the sea is served up next door at Susan's house. She grows all her own vegetables in a huge garden behind her home, but the main attraction of the meal is fish fresh from the sea. Susan catches all the fish herself, whether it's salmon, rockfish, halibut, octopus or other delicacies that abound in these unspoiled northern waters.

Herbs and spices add zing to giant platters of fresh vegetables she lays out for guests to savour, a gourmet banquet in the midst of the rainforest.

The sun sets to the west towards S'Gang Gwaay, a rare golden fireball descending into the lush green rainforest. A lick of purple flame from the northern lights darts forth from its lair far to the north. Cool sheets and thick warm blankets welcome the weary traveller to bed, while the wind whistles though red cedars and the soft strains of classical guitar waft forth from Goetz's cabin in the woods.

Medieval maps showed dragons guarding the edge of the world. In truth, it's really the spirit of the Haida ancients under the careful eye of the Watchmen.

-- Postmedia News

Haida Gwaii has its own world of art; Hundreds of artists kept busy

The word is finally getting out that Haida Gwaii now hosts one of the most robust art scenes in the world. Famous artists like Bill Reid, Robert Davidson, Reg Davidson and Jim Hart have already established traditional Haida art on the global art scene, but equally interesting are the hundreds of local artists, both native and white, working away on carvings, paintings, pottery, glass and other materials unique to the island.

The Misty Isles Economic Development Society has created a special brochure (www.gohaidagwaii.ca) for travellers keen on discovering what makes Haida Gwaii unique. A tour of local studios is a real eye-opener.

Begin in pretty little Queen Charlotte City where nearly two-dozen artists and galleries are open to the public. In his studio artist Brian Eccles (www.charlottegraphics.ca) works with clay, silver and found items from the natural environment.

At Spruce Point Lodge Nancy Hett performs wonders with clay. Check out Queen B's Gallery and Cafe and the Purple Onion Deli for other artists.

A visit to the Haida Heritage Centre at Kaay Llnagaay and its longhouses, totem poles and major galleries is compulsory. The little village of Skidegate itself offers several carvers and weavers open to public visits. A short drive up the spectacular east coast brings the visitor to Tlell; hidden in the woods are a dozen professional artists whose work can be seen at Sitka Studios, or on the walls at the "don't-miss" Rising Tide Bakery where owners Kris and Ralph Leach promote the best local work.

Masset and its adjoining village of Old Masset may boast more artists per capita than anywhere in Canada. Be sure to visit with Haida weaver Christine Carty (250-55-5531). Working mainly on special order, Carty harvests red and yellow cedar bark from nearby forests, hanging the strips to dry before hand-weaving her ceremonial headgear with traditional Haida patterns.

In Old Masset, a visit to the studio of Sarah's Haida Arts and Jewellery is a real shock. Here, argillite sculptures of master artists such as Donny Edenshaw (who requires a year to hand-carve an order) fetch prices up to $18,000. Owner Sarah Hillis estimates there are 200-300 artists producing art on Haida Gwaii, and that 90 per cent of the adult population is busy painting or sculpting in the long and rainy winter months.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2011 D5

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