Burnaby Narrows is a biophysical ‘hot spot’, which supports one of the most abundant, diverse, and colorful intertidal communities found in temperate waters anywhere in the world. We entered the narrows where tidal action pushes seawater through a channel that is just 50 metres wide. This provides a nearly constant stream of plankton and nutrients to the organisms living there. Hundreds of marine species have been identified in the narrows. A kaleidoscope of bat stars, turban snails, sunflower stars, clams, and many other creatures make up this colourful slice of marine life. The animals at Burnaby Narrows live in amazing concentrations. The same characteristics that make Burnaby Narrows special also make it one of the most vulnerable places in Gwaii Haanas. Because of the topography of the tides, the rich intertidal life is often exposed, easily trampled, and threatened by warming waters.
At the end of our two-week kayaking and camping journey, a zodiac picked us up at Rose Harbour for the long and bumpy ride north on the waters of temperamental Hecate Strait. Our zodiac fought a heavy northeasterly wind, and the driver took us through some serious waves. In quieter, more protected spots we hugged the shore and saw the majesty of sharp Pacific outcrops and fog-engulfed inland peaks. Gwaii Haanas has a natural heritage forged by the immense power of the earth: the collision of continental plates, the fiery eruptions of volcanoes, and the movement of glaciers.
Walking through the mossy forests or scrutinizing the beaches for interesting still life to paint, I came across abalone shells. The northern abalone is a marine snail that clings to life in the subtidal waters of Haida Gwaii, where it flourished for millennia, co-existing and interacting in ways we have yet to discover.
Sometimes we tend to overlook the things that are right before our eyes. Once a common food source around the waters of Haida Gwaii, the abalone is now on the brink of extinction due to over-harvesting in past decades, and more recently, because of poaching. Before the introduction of a dive fishery, the Haida traditionally harvest abalone by hand at depths of up to one metre. There was always plenty of it, but as the elders advised, you would take only what you needed. Today, the loss of abalone is both nutritional and socio-cultural.
Our elders teach us about traditional ways and how to work in harmony. Without an abundance of the species, there are no opportunities to teach youth traditional methods of finding, harvesting, and preparing abalone. My innate respect for tradition, as expressed in my work, reflects this same idea: culture is a means for transmitting the accumulated knowledge of society to future generations. The abalone, in my eyes, is a vessel for communicating knowledge and sharing collective memories.
Leaving Hotspring Island behind us, we paddled across Juan Perez Sound, the largest stretch of open water that we would encounter on the trip. Conditions were perfect, the water was topped like glass and a gentle swell barely pulsed beneath the surface. If the weather turned on us midway, the 8-mile crossing would have been perilous. The Sound is known for its erratic winds that can switch direction in a heartbeat while not giving up any of their force. Deep grey clouds swirled above us, but we were welcome to cross safely in mercurial water, and we gratefully accepted our windless situation in trade for the calm seas. We were alone in the deep blue. In my painted image of the crossing, we had already arrived to the other side of the Sound and our starting point can just be seen beyond the distant landmasses at the right.
The Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate is located at K’aay Llnagaay or “Sea-Lion Town”, an ancient village site. The Centre was designed to resemble the traditional oceanside Haida village that once stood in its place. The first phase of this massive project was raising six poles over six days in 2001. The poles represent six of the southernmost villages in Haida Gwaii: Skidegate, Ts’aahl, Cumshewa, Skedans, Sgang Gwaay, and Tanu, and are now standing in front of the Haida Heritage Centre. The pole in my painting is the pole of the K’aadaas Gaah K’iiguwaay and the K’una K’iiGawaay clans from the village of T’aanuu Llnagaay (Tanu). The pole was carved by master carver Giitsxaa (Ron Wilson). The five carved creatures on the Tanu pole (killer whale, raven, wolf, dogfish, and eagle) look out onto the Pacific. I sat by the pole for much of the afternoon and envisioned the stretch of beach in front of me as it once was, populated with large cedar canoes, longhouses, and totem poles of all kinds telling the stories associated with an individual or family lineage.
Walking silently on mounds of soft moss in the forest where a raven’s croaking call is the only sound…
There is nothing like arriving at a place with the feeling that you are the first person ever to visit.
We stopped for lunch between Koya Bay and Koya Point, and waited for the tides to turn before riding the current to Rose Harbour. Our group scanned the beach finding all sorts of Pacific flotsam; from large bags of Guatemalan coffee to a Japanese green glass fishing float. I separated myself and wandered into a forest of old and new trees. One of the ancient trees I came across was gnarled, replete with the wisdom of innumerable seasons. The young trees were everywhere, taking over. But the old clung on somewhat miraculously. The noon-hour sun pierced through the tree canopy above me, and a smokiness drifted about, like a perpetual campfire of long ago burning in the forest. This ominous haze both petrified and attracted me. In my painting, I tried to capture the contra-light of the moment and the haze creeping between the trees. I titled the work “Place of Epiphany” because it was then that I discovered just how thin the veil is between us mortals and the spirit world. Only later did I learn that this was the site of an ancient Haida village.
Hours after we crossed Juan Perez Sound, we meandered down-land seeking a protected cove on what our map told us was (appropriately named) “Wanderer Island”. Dark violet clouds gathered above and the roar of a thunderstorm hurried us along. Just as we beached and hung up our gear on branches to air out from the paddle, rain descended. Drenched, we hauled our kayaks onto the pebbly beach and pitched our tents quickly, rushing in the downpour. The darkness above us suddenly separated and piercing sunlight bathed the island across from our cove highlighting the ochres and greens in the tree tips. Behind the little island, two larger landforms were brooding blue in the storm that passed us.
Our last days were spent in a lodge owned by fellow kayaker and artist April White (SGaana Jaad – Killer Whale Woman). The lodge backs onto Dixon Entrance, a strait between Haida Gwaii and Alaska. At 65 kilometres wide, Dixon Entrance connects the Pacific Ocean with Hecate Strait and the inside coastal passages. It was named for George Dixon, whose exploration of the BC coast in the 1780s helped to initiate the maritime fur trade.
Just outside the sliding rear door of April’s lodge is a feast of tall grasses, which gave me an opportunity to play with an endless palette of ochres, greens, violets, and blues in the painting. The low lying, dense clouds above move the eye to the distant land mass at the horizon. I tried to capture the last sliver of light as it fell on the waters of the strait. Night comes late to this part of the world.