Where in the World is Haida Gwaii? (And Why It Should Be Your Next Kayaking Destination!)

Orca in Haida Gwaii. Photo: David Roth.

Imagine a single location encompassing 150 islands scattered directly in the migratory path of gray whales, humpbacks, orcas and all five species of Pacific salmon.

Minke whales are also regular visitors, as are dolphins, porpoises and seals – not to mention half of this province’s sea lion population. Sei and fin whales show up occasionally, too.

But that’s not all: 1.5 million seabirds nest along the archipelago’s nearly 3,000 miles of coastline from May through August. It’s no wonder so many birds and mammals are drawn here: the sea teems with life to sustain them.

These waters are home to herring, halibut, rockfish, mussels, crab, starfish, sea urchin, octopus and myriad other species of fish and marine organisms. The intertidal areas are so rich here that Burnaby Narrows is said to contain more protein per square meter than any other place on earth.

Temperate rainforest in Gwaii Haanas National Park. Photo: Parks Canada

Ashore, the land has a primeval feel. Ancient Sitka spruce, giant western hemlocks and shaggy red cedars thrive in the cool marine climate, nourished by rains that blow in from the Pacific. The understory is a lush tangle of ferns, mosses, salmonberries and devil’s club.

The islands feel like some sort of coastal Eden, and indeed their name, “Haida Gwaii,” means Place of the People in the Haida First Nations language. With more than 500 archaeological sites, these islands are among the world’s most significant cultural treasures. Historic artifacts, like the evocative forest of totem poles that mark the now-abandoned village of Ninstints, litter the landscape, left to natural processes per the Haida tradition, rather than contrived methods of preservation.

Fewer than 3,000 visitors a year make it to this remote outpost, equally rich in indigenous culture as in its dense, diverse ecosystem. But then, Haida Gwaii is hard to reach, with 60 miles of open water separating it from the mainland.

That span, known as Hecate Strait, has fostered the unique ecology of these islands, to the extent that they harbor at least 39 distinct subspecies of plants and animals found nowhere else on earth. In fact, they are sometimes called the “Canadian Galapagos” in recognition of so many endemic forms of life.

Intertidal life in Gwaii Haanas National Park

Nowhere on the Pacific Coast does one find more idyllic natural environs for sea kayaking. From the dark beauty of the rainforest to the prolific marine wildlife rising feet away from your paddle, from empty beaches to natural hot springs and tidepools brimming with a colorful collage of sea life, with the mystical presence of an ancient cultural heritage woven throughout, Haida Gwaii will arrest your senses and your spirit.

You may have figured out by now that Haida Gwaii is an archipelago off the northwest coast of British Columbia, perhaps more familiar by its former name: the Queen Charlotte Islands, named for the wife of King George III by British sea captain George Dixon, who surveyed the islands in 1787.

That’s the name by which they were known to outsiders until the Canadian government negotiated the Haida Gwaii Reconciliation Act in 2010, which officially renamed the islands as part of an agreement between British Columbia and the Haida Nation, at home here for millennia. All lands and waters in the archipelago fall under Haida jurisdiction, while the Canadian government shares administration of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. The park comprises most of Moresby Island, the southern main island of Haida Gwaii.

Gwaii Haanas is our focus on Explorers’ Corner’s sea kayaking adventure, Paddling the Coastal Wilderness of Haida Gwaii. The national park was voted the #1 wilderness park destination in North America by National Geographic Traveler and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural treasures. A strict Parks Canada quota system ensures that visitors to this area are limited.

The park is a stunning collection of natural features, and Gwaii Haanas means “Place of Wonder” in the Haida language. With 138 islands and islets, 42 freshwater lakes and the 3,000-foot peaks of the San Christoval range rising like a rugged backbone down the center of the island, Gwaii Haanas holds plenty of visual drama.
Our two sea kayaking itineraries traverse the east coast of Gwaii Haanas in the late springtime, when wildlife and weather conditions are typically in their prime and moss-carpeted campsites tucked beneath tall cedars place us in the very heart of this marine wilderness. The rich tidal zone, crenellated shoreline and countless islets make for ever-fascinating paddling, with something new to surprise us around every rocky point.

Sea lions in Gwaii Haanas

Whales feed on a bounty of plankton, sea lions crowd surf-battered rocks and bald eagles grapple for newly gathered herring. The powerful spirit of Haida ancestry is everywhere—from abandoned villages to the forest where modified trees show evidence of bark stripping, burning, or massive plank splitting.

Each evening, as we gather round the campfire to enjoy freshly caught fish cooked over the coals, we drink in the profound peace of the wild, marveling at the harmony in which humans have coexisted with the land and sea for millennia, here in the People’s Place.

Our Haida Gwaii paddling adventure on Canada’s outer edge takes place in May and June. Visit our website or call for more details: 1-877-677-9623.

Wendy