Queen Charlotte Islands
Wild. Quiet. Mysterious. Primordial. Inhabited by the proud and ferocious Haida people for over 10,000 years, the Queen Charlotte Islands spread like a large upside-down triangle approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) off the northwest coast of mainland British Columbia. Linked to the mainland by scheduled ferry and air services, visitors have the opportunity to immerse themselves in native culture, view the abundant wildlife, explore the rugged coastline, and share a laid-back island camaraderie with the 4,600 permanent residents.
Of the chain’s 150 mountainous and densely forested islands and islets, the main ones are Graham Island to the north and Moresby Island to the south, separated by narrow Skidegate Channel. The islands stretch 290 kilometers (180 miles) from north to south and up to 85 kilometers (53 miles) across. Running down the west side of the islands are the Queen Charlotte and San Christoval ranges, which effectively protect the east side from Pacific battering. Nevertheless, the east coast, where most of the population lives, still receives over 1,000 millimeters (39 inches) of rain annually.
Life on the islands is very different from elsewhere in the province. Visitors can expect a friendly reception and adequate services. Motel-style accommodations are available in each town, but bed-and-breakfasts provide a better glimpse of the island lifestyle. Other services are similar to any small town, though choices of fresh fruit and vegetables can be limited. Gasoline is only slightly more expensive than on the mainland, and raging nightlife is nonexistent.
The Haida people have lived on the Queen Charlottes since time immemorial. Fearless warriors, expert hunters and fishermen, and skilled woodcarvers, they owned slaves and threw lavish potlatches. They had no written language, but they carved records of their tribal history, legends, and important events on totem poles rising up to 104 meters (340 feet) high. Living in villages scattered throughout the islands, they hunted sea otters for their luxuriant furs, fished for halibut and Pacific salmon, and collected chitons, clams, and seaweed from tidepools.
The first contact the Haida had with Europeans occurred in 1774, when Spanish explorer Juan Perez discovered the Charlottes. The islands weren’t given a European name until 1787, when British captain George Dixon arrived and began trading with the Haida. He named the islands after his queen, the wife of George III. The Europeans gave the Haida goods, liquor, tools, blankets, and firearms in exchange for sea otter furs; over a 40-year period the otters were hunted almost to extinction. In addition, the traders brought European diseases that ravaged the Haida population.
At the turn of the 19th century, white settlers from the mainland began moving over to the Charlottes to live along the low-lying east coast and the protected shores of Masset Inlet. By the 1830s the traditional lifestyle of the Haida was coming to an end. The governments on the mainland prohibited the Haida from owning slaves and throwing potlatches—an important social and economic part of their culture—and forced all Haida children to attend missionary schools. The Haida abandoned their village sites and moved onto reserves at Skidegate and Masset on Graham Island.
Today totem poles are rising once again on the Queen Charlottes, as a renewed interest in Haida art and culture is compelling skilled elders to pass their knowledge on to younger generations. The first totem pole to be erected in 90 years was put up in 1969 in Masset, followed by one in 1978 at Skidegate. In 1986 a 50-foot dugout canoe, created out of a single huge cedar log, was commissioned for Vancouver’s Expo86, and a second canoe was launched in Old Massett.
For many years the Haida struggled alongside the Island Protection Society to preserve their heritage. Their longtime efforts paid off in two major events: In 1981 the best-known of the abandoned Haida villages, Ninstints, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 1988 the southern section of the archipelago was proclaimed Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.
Getting to Queen Charlotte Islands
The main gateway is Sandspit, where the small air terminal has car rental agencies (book ahead) and an information center, and across the road is the Sandspit Inn. Air Canada (888/247-2262) flies daily between Vancouver and Sandspit. The Airporter bus meets all Sandspit flights and transports passengers to Queen Charlotte City for $18. From Prince Rupert’s Seal Cove Air Base, North Pacific Seaplanes (250/627-1341 or 800/689-4234, www.northpacificseaplanes.com) has scheduled flights to Masset ($160) and Sandspit ($258).
In summer, BC Ferries (250/386-3431 or 888/223-3779, www.bcferries.com) operates the Northern Adventure between Prince Rupert and Skidegate five or six times a week, less frequently the rest of the year. Departure times vary, but most often it’s 11 a.m. from Prince Rupert (arriving Skidegate at 5:30 p.m.) and 11 p.m. from Skidegate (arriving Prince Rupert at 6 a.m. or 7:30 a.m.). Peak one-way fares are adult $39, child $19.50, vehicle $140. British Columbia seniors get a discount, as do all travelers outside the peak summer season. Cabins are available for $70–85.
The ferry terminal is five kilometers (3.1 miles) east of Queen Charlotte City at Skidegate. Taxis usually wait at the terminal when the ferry arrives; expect to pay around $15 to get into town.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition