Monday, June 27, 2011

Queen Charlotte who?

Sorry everybody, had no internet or phone signal for quite some time.........plenty to catch up on which will come in a couple of chunks. We really wanted to visit the QC's; we did know about the beauty and the watchmen. But we discovered that the prettiest half of the islands are now a park with restricted access; a visitor quota. And we had to phone in advance, provide our provisional visit dates, and pay the $235 fee. And, before going into the park, to get your visitor permit, everyone has to attend a one-and-a-half hour orientation session; 9am Monday to Friday at the Haida Gwaii visitor centre outside Queen Charlotte City. What was going on?

Let's look at the history of these islands. The geographic background is a good place to start. There is the Japan current flowing offshore, where depths plunge to a couple of thousand feet in a mile or two. Therefore these islands to some extent escaped the last ice age and while mainland Canada was still thousands of feet under ice, flora and fauna were developing uniquely here in the islands and ultimately an estimated 10,000 Haida people lived here, complete with there own language and culture. (Sub-text - these islands were very rich in natural resources). In 1774 the first documented encounter with white men was as a result of contact with Juan Perez, commanded by the Spanish Crown to proceed to 60 degrees North and add claims to the Spanish Empire. However Perez did not go ashore due to the poor health of his crew and he returned South. Captain Cook arrived in 1778. One of Cook's crew, George Dixon, later surveyed the islands and named them after his ship, itself named after George III's queen. Yes, Queen Charlotte. But of course the islands did already have their own name from the thousands of people that lived there already. The Haida peoples were and are fiercely independent and have never acceded their territory to either the British Empire or to Canada. The colonialists sought every means to marginalise the Haida and, mainly through the introduction of Western diseases (some allegedly deliberate such as smallpox), the indigenous population fell to a few hundreds by the end of the 19th Century. Intensive depredation by the colonials of natural resources led firstly to the local extinction of the valuable sea otter; then the whaling stations and the canneries cleaned up whales and salmon, also the abalone, and then the loggers started clear-cutting the islands to build firstly airplanes (the Mosquito bomber was made from Sitka Spruce) and then to provide fodder for the pulp mills (toilet paper). Up until just recently trophy hunting of the unique Haida bear was commonplace. In the 1980's the recovering Haida were using Canada's Courts to challenge the logging policies and some twenty five years later, in 2010, the Queen Charlottes became (a) Haida Gwaii (b) a National/Ecological/Marine Park (c) to some extent, involved in their own fate. It only took 230 odd years.

Visiting the islands one quickly becomes drawn into analysis of what has been going on here. During the last couple of days while the wind has been blowing (non-cruising speed) we drove up to the North of the islands to explore. The museums have been a fascinating treasure house of information; even the museum of logging where the chainsaws are proudly on show, along with an interesting book "History of Chainsaws" by David Lee (I am not making this up!). We drove up the coast and inland where logging is still being carried out, scenes of complete devastation, a treescape just completely ripped up. I don't consider myself a tree-hugger but it is hard to comprehend quite why the Ministry of Forests (sic) has appeared to let the logging business conduct itself in this way over the past hundred years. It goes like this (simplified). 1 All land and trees belong to the state. 2 The state gets revenue from issuing licences to log. 3 Logs are processed and sold, generating tax revenue and giving people livelihoods, for a while anyway. 4 Getting the logs down the watercourses destroys the salmon breeding grounds permanently. 5 After being logged, the topsoil runs into the streams and rivers and ends up in the sea so the area will never recover. I could go on but will stop there. I really need to understand more about the dynamics of all this. There are the pro-loggers and the anti-loggers; it would be good to hear more of the pros and cons, but the demise of fishing seems closely related to relentless logging (along with uncontrolled mass extermination of fish as well of course).

Our trip North by car was wonderful, visiting Masset and staying at the Copper Beech House B&B, in the room that was the Trudeau's love-nest. A hike up Tow Hill for the fabulous view along the Beach, and fresh baked lunch at the last house - funnily enough, a wonderful tiny bakery. But soon enough we were back on board Last Mango and preparing for our travels into the park. Our wonderful new friends Charleen and Jack came to see us off and sent us on our way with fresh crab and sockeye salmon. The kindness of these friends is humbling to Susie and me. We headed South and out into Hecate Strait (behaving itself now) and ended up at Gordon Cove anchorage after dropping the prawn traps; we were now starting to travel with wonderful sailing/cruising companions from Ibis (Bill), Estrellita (Livia and Carol), Steel Eagle (Wayne and Wendy)and Canik (Bill and Lyn). The yo-yoing type of travel whereby some of you travel together and every now and then boats peel off for a while and then you all meet up again. The next day we pulled the prawn traps and found...........nothing (more on this later). We transited Louise Narrows after some careful study of the charts, the tide tables, and consulting the Coast Guard. It is a dredged channel, well marked, no problem. And quite beautiful. (But it was dammed tight, only room for one boat at a time in there! Susie was on the bow all the time checking for depths). That night we were anchored at Thurston Harbour, again after dropping the prawn and crab traps, and also after a few hours fishing which unfortunately yielded only rockfish which all were put back.. The next day we went to pull the prawn trap and found we had about half a ton of kelp on the line and not a single prawn. Took an hour to free it all up...........and we headed that day to Echo Harbour, Haida Gwaii National Park. Last Mango hosted the potluck dinner and we discovered that amongst the five boats we had 3 guitar players, one would-be guitar player and one ukelele player. It's going to be fun cruising with these folk!

Another of the boats hosted a fishing trip and once again there were plenty of rockfish. Where were the halibut, the salmon.........and where were the prawns? Time and again the boats tried for prawns but found virtually none. No salmon, no halibut.........unheard of. After a night at the water dock near Shuttle Island, we headed for Murchison Cove anchorage and Last Mango hosted the expedition to Hot Spring Island. What a great place; the Haida Watchmen look after the fabulous hot springs; we anchored in the bay and lounged in the pools taking photos. When we left, Michael had caught a halibut surplus to requirements and hey presto we had the halibut supper organised for Susie's birthday. (Watchmen know where the halibut are!) The next day we headed for Matheson Inlet, the birthday party and the first serious guitar session. Jammin' at Murchison. A great evening in the middle of nowhere making as much noise as we liked seeing as there were no neighbours for miles and miles. The next day it was Island Bay, another anchorage. These anchorages are so impressive in Haida Gwaii. Room for several yacht clubs to swing. Deer grazing on the shore. Eagles everywhere. We explored Dolomite Narrows by dinghy, and trekked along the beach. Lots of oystercatchers, beds of huge horse mussels, enormous gooey-duck clams squirting everywhere, and plenty of fresh bear scat (pepper spray required for that close encounter). We moved on to Rose Harbour, close to Sgang Gwaay. Got the downriggers out to try for those salmon but all we could find were...........yes, poor rockfish. Tried for crabs but only found red rock crabs (still good eating).Prawns - gave up; we think that prawns are fished out in the East Coast perhaps. The halibut are taken on long lines; a few salmon trollers still prowl around.

I have been able to spend quite a bit of time contemplating the circumstances behind the creation of the National Park and the achievement of a measure of "independence" of the Haida, achieved finally by the showdown protests against logging in 1985. White man came here 200 years ago. Traded, invaded and harvested the natural resources of the Galapagos of the North. The Haida are now largely left alone to pick up the pieces. There are large areas which are closed to all fishing and shellfish harvesting, harvesting of abalone is illegal. Certain areas one is not allowed to walk below the high-water mark for fear of damaging the fragile marine ecosystem. There is some considerable irony in the plethora of rules burdened on the Park visitor to protect nature in contrast to the last couple of hundred year's of wholescale plunder of nature's bounty. Haida Gwaii is an unfortunate example of man competing against man for resource and survival; it was caught in the crossfire.

I hope to get some pictures up soon when I get decent internet coverage, and also cover our visit to Sgang Gwaay; resting place of the last Watchmen.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Haida Gwaii arrival

Back in Prince Rupert we were back at our perch on the outside float at PRY&RC; meeting and greeeting the steady procession of boats heading North to Alaska. However our plans were to head south and west, across notorious Hecate Strait to Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands. Hecate Strait is well known for vicious South Easterlies kicking up sharp swells, particularly against the tidal flows. We selected a two day period of suitable weather and made a leisurely start down the Inside Passage, turning out to sea and then to the usual weather-holding location on Banks Island, Larsen Harbour. Plan A was to look at the Spicer Island anchorage; Plan B was to pick up a mooring buoy in Larsen Harbour; Plan C was to press on............. Spicer Island looked fine but we thought that we get another 10 miles nearer to the Hecate launch point. After a careful entry into Larsen Harbour unfortunately the promised mooring bouys are no longer there........government cutbacks maybe. And after crawling around the back of the bay we just didn't like the depth or the swinging room. The Board Meeting didn't last long and we decided to head across the Strait. One of the many benefits of having a boat like Last Mango is that you know that she is totally untroubled by the prospect of heavy seas, it certainly gives you a comfortable feeling whenever you travel and wherever you go. We also benefit from having an Owl and a Lark on board. Once we were into the twilight zone Susie took the helm and took us across Hecate past midnight while I got my head down until we reached the range at Lawn Point, Graham Island. Then Susie turned in and I brought us across the bar and into the Southbound Channel. We planned a swiftish crossing of the Strait and a slow passage down the channel into Skidegate so that we could pick up the flood tide and then check the anchorage at first light, radar is fine but it is always good to make sure that you are not dropping your anchor right into someone's crab trap set. And travelling at that time of night is good; there is no traffic, the navigation marks (usually) help your comfort level and you are so busy that there is no time to even think you are tired. By 0330 we were circling my target anchor zone outside Queen Charlotte City Harbour; by 0400 the hook was safely tucked into the shells and mud and we were fast asleep.

This is one of the fascinating things about travelling. What would we find in Haida Gwaii? Although one does one's research it is impossible to know how it is going to be until you arrive. Would we meet the local folk? Would there be space in the harbour? There are a million uncertainties floating around and it is always interesting how things pan out. Susie and I like to try and spend real time in the places we get to, and try to get involved in the local community. I think on Day 1 we discoved that QCC is one of the friendliest places on the planet. From the moment that we called in on the VHF and tied up in the harbour we keep meeting more people involved in all walks of life in the Islands......... It is now Day 3 (I think) and we are settling into a peaceful groove of chilled life.............a wonderful wine and cheese evening. The hockey game. My latest gig at Queen B's party. Networking with fellow cruisers (Hecate Strait is having a 35 knot tantrum and we are all sitting it out). Asking the very knowledgeable fishing captains about crossing the bar. and we keep hearing people say that they came here for a visit and are still here. Like, 30 years later. Worrying stuff!