THE CANADIAN WONDER HAIDA GWAII, my jiffs feel accompanied to the drumming of Cohen Isberg. A Haida fibber, he’s singing and drumming amid the incredibly green, moss- drenched timber girding Kaysuun, an ancient vill on Haida Gwaii. I ’m mesmerised by the spirit of Haida Gwaii.

This archipelago off British Columbia’s northwest coast is renowned for its beauty, where on a sunny day like this, rainforested mountains rim the azure Pacific Ocean.

flights to haida gwaii
The flight to SGang Gwaay offers impressive views of the western coastline of Haida Gwaii. Tip: negotiate with passengers as to who sits on left/right/front of Beaver plane so everyone gets a chance to see and take good photos.

As I sit, it seems a spell has been cast.

Everyone is quiet save for the drummer and his song.

Skillfully, irrevocably, Isberg weaves us into the tapestry of living memory which keeps Kaysuun of long ago alive.

Children would have scampered about right here, playing but also perhaps gathering food in the shallows lapping the beach.

I imagine how the chief’s potlatches (celebratory feasts) must have made these forests ring with ceremonial dancing, songs, drumbeats, and the buzzy chatter of news-sharing, trading and gossip.

haida gwaii tours
Clockwise from top left: 1- Haida cultural ambassador, historian Captain Gold explained the Haida Watchmen program he helped start after his trip to SGang Gwaay. He introduced me to authentic Haida foods such as raw sea urchin. 2- Cohen Isberg drumming and singing at Kaysuun 3-Ocean House’s outside operations manager Sascha “Luu Tydals” Jones points out the cut marks made by stone tools, on cedar. This is a Culturally Modified Tree (CMT). 4- Peel Inlet: future site of the Ocean House Lodge, awaits exploration. It’s a calm, protected inlet, perfect for kayaking, bird and wildlife watching and photography.



Architecturally imposing cedar longhouses faced with towering poles dramatically lined this shoreline, where house poles declared a clan’s animal symbols (totems) and stories which would be interpreted by visitors.

Abandoned in the 1880s, Kaysuun springs to life under Isberg’s storytelling.

At our feet, he explains, lies Dogfish House, once home to village Chief Cha’atl.

Today all that remains are the sunken remains of a foundation and gigantic cedar beams stretched like a skeleton over the forest floor.

All are returning to the earth, shrouded in moss.


aboriginal totems

Left: One afternoon, Sascha “Luu Tydals” Jones took us searching for prawn pots. We hauled some up (well, he did!) and we enjoyed the freshest of fresh sushimi – raw ocean foods gathered with our own hands. Right: Gladys “Jiixa” Vandall’s woven hats, rose and frog. She led weaving workshops in the lodge’s lounge.

With poles long gone, Isberg knows it’s crucial to continue the traditions, sing the storytelling songs, and thus reveal and keep alive the traditions of his ancestral lands.

After all, this is what Haida Gwaii means: “Islands of the Haida People.”

Despite the decimation of their population from some 30,000 to 40,000 to 500 to 1,000 persons by the late 1800s after European contact, the Haida have not merely survived, they are thriving.

This is where Ocean House comes in. It’s the brand-new luxury floating lodge owned by HaiCo, aka Haida Enterprise Corporation, which operates several Haida-run businesses.

During the three-, four-, and seven-day trips, Haida chiefs and cultural ambassadors stay at the lodge, telling stories, drumming, guiding trips, and offering workshops on such Haida traditions as carving, or cedar-bark weaving.

Here at Kaysuun for instance, historian Captain Gold accompanies Isberg on our excursion, along with Ocean House’s indispensable outside operations manager, Sascha “Luu Tydals” Jones, an equally informative Haida guide.


Jones guides us to view some Culturally Modified Trees or CMTs.

These are still-living cedar trees which were live-harvested to make longhouse planks and other items.

Kneeling before an immense tree where a clear “plank-cut” remains visible, Jones points to the precise cut, “We can tell this was harvested with stone, not post-contact iron tools because there’s no burn mark. We only took what we needed so trees could keep on living.”

Hiking, boating, and in fact, just being here on Haida Gwaii offers reflective meditation, because the land breathes spirits like this old-timer of a tree.

What stories could it tell?

Returning to our boat to en route to our lodge, I reflect on how different these forests would have been, with a scattered but vibrant population of some 30,000+ people.

Kaysuun was a winter village, thanks to the protection of the forest, but during spring, the villagers “broke camp” and left.

Clever architectural design meant houses were modular: villagers disassembled the longhouses, putting planks on canoes to make large “rafts”, then paddled to their summer village site.

Here, fish and other foods would be collected, dried and stored for winter. Before the weather turned, the routine was repeated.


north beach haida gwaii
Top: Helicopter approach to Skidegate, where we were visiting the Haida Heritage Centre and Museum reveals beautiful bays and islands of Haida Gwaii. Bottom: The floating lodge staff are excellent: they assisted us to extricate ourselves from the Beaver aircraft. Pilot Peter Grundmann expertly flies the Beaver plane while explaining the geology of Haida Gwaii. He also searched for humpback whales which we spotted both going to and returning from Sgang Gwaay.

Although Kaysuun is intriguing, I can’t wait to see SGang Gwaay, the ancient Haida village off South Moresby Island famous for its several still-upright totem, mortuary and memorial poles.

Just getting there is fantastical: a brilliantly sunny day gives our group a splendid view of the west coast of Moresby Island from the Beaver float plane.

Eyes riveted to the window, I see jaw-dropping views of the craggy coastline beaten by immense ocean swells and we also discover humpback whales in deeper water.

Arriving at Rose Harbour, we disembark onto a Zodiak, then scoot to SGang Gwaay, which is tended by three Haida Watchmen who offer guided tours to small groups of people.

If a tour takes a bit longer for any reason, the next guests have to wait their turn.

For us, this means bobbing about in the Zodiak, where pilot Goetz Hanisch encourages us to look for seals and birds in the rocky islets.

We are lucky to spot two tufted puffins but I long for my binoculars to see them better.


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