Many years ago my wife and I succumbed to the lure of a glossy brochure and signed up for a wilderness kayaking trip to Haida Gwaii. So long ago, in fact that the area was still known by its colonial name, “the Queen Charlotte Islands”. Neither of us had been in a kayak before, but the real lure of the trip was the “wilderness” as we both love the outdoors, and the idea of pottering about in really remote places without the need to carry everything you own on your back, seemed sensible. And, after all, the family motto is: “How hard can it be ?”
We expected the adventure to be our first encounter with “true wilderness”, since our destination was remote, and accessible only by float plane and I, at least, imagined the trip in terms of “man vs nature”- us against the raw elements, battling through wild terrain seldom, if ever visited by humans, overcoming extreme danger to successfully complete the expedition.
The first cracks in my vision of going “mano-a-mano” against the forces of nature began to appear when, on the eve of our departure we met our guides. I had simply assumed that we would be guided by husky members of Grizzly Adam’s immediate family, sporting large beards and even larger Bowie knifes at their belts. Instead, in strolled two slightly built young women with not so much as a Swiss army knife in evidence, but still exuding a quiet confidence that none of us were likely to perish in the coming week.
Indeed, they were superb guides, expert kayakers, and skilled not only in wilderness travel, but also group dynamics and the art of herding novice paddlers. The only casualty of the week was the bruising of my faux frontiersman’s pride, as we were led, seemingly effortlessly, through our route by these young women.
It wasn’t until our third day that the last of the city tension had finally drained from my body and I was able to re-consider the remarkable ecosystem through which we were paddling. The real epiphany came at Tanu, an ancient First Nations village site, long since abandoned and now reduced to barely discernible moss covered ruins.
We were met by Betsy, an elderly Haida watch-keeper, who kept a vigil at the site, welcoming travelers, and safe-guarding the bones of her ancestors. After warm tea and corned beef sandwiches, she strolled with us through the site, pointing out fallen house posts, the decayed remnants of totem poles, barely recognizable to city eyes, and some ancestral bones unearthed by playful otters.
“We are, ” she explained . “The People of the Edge. For thousands of years we have lived here, on this narrow ribbon of land between the forest and the sea. Here, on the edge we have everything we need” With those words I felt my entire perspective shift. No longer could I view this place as wilderness, raw and untamed. It had been the home, the garden and the highway of First Nations people for millennia. This was not an environment to be battled and defeated, but one to be nurtured, as within it could be found everything needed not only to survive, but to thrive. Living on the edge gave access to all of the resources of the forest, trees for shelter, bark for clothing, berries and animals for food, and access too to the incredible abundance of the sea.
No longer could I view ourselves as explorers venturing into Terra Incognito. At best, we were tourists, gawking at the wonders of past civilizations, at worst, trespassers, snooping through someone’s back yard. It was a shock to realize that what we city folk think of as “the Wilds”, are anything but, and that the huge empty spaces on the map are not “wilderness” but in fact have been populated and cultivated through the ages
We have returned many times since to that edge where forest meets sea, and have learned to travel gently through it. With each visit our appreciation of it increases. Twice we camped on remote Tricquet Island, in the Hakai, before an archeological dig revealed that the Heitsuk people had lived there for over 14,000 years. People were inhabiting this “wilderness” island, while the glaciers of the last ice Age still covered most of North America.
We now see, instead of wilderness, fish traps, clam gardens, and culturally modified trees that had provided clothing to First Nations people in centuries past, shell middens marking ancient village sites, and sometimes, on remote windswept beaches, small burial caves, all reminders that he People of the Edge were here long before us.