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Adventures In Haida Gwaii

Hiking, fishing, birding and whale-watching in Canada's most remote island chain--while living in luxury at the Clubhouse
By Peter Potterfield - November 27th, 2013

I follow Blake through the ancient forest of towering old growth stands of cedar and Sitka spruce. Fog drifts through the trees, lending a spooky vibe to our hike through the rain forest. As we approach a small cove, Blake stops me and my companions to remind us we are about to enter an ancient Haida village with a burial site, long abandoned. As the modern day incarnation of the traditional Haida “watchmen,” those who looked after the islands and villages of their ancestral land, Blake is quietly reminding us to be respectful of this special place.
 
For more than a century the official name of these remote islands was the Queen Charlotte Islands. But the Canadian government in 2010 renamed them simply Haida Gwaii—home to the Haida people, who have lived here, archeologists say, for thousands of years. Blake, well versed in Haida history and culture, walks us through the remains of the village, the ruins of long houses still visible just back from the beach in the trees. He shows us the original ridge poles and corner supports, now rotting in the mossy forest floor, with the distinctive mortise and tenon joints still recognizable. Nearby stand the burial trees, with cut outs clearly visible where remains of deceased Haida were stashed high off the ground in ornate burial boxes. They are a moving sight.
 
As we approach the end of the nearly mile-long village, astonishingly, we arrive at a standing totem pole, weathered but still upright. It’s a rare triple memorial pole, commemorating the deaths of the village chief and two others. Soon it will topple into the lush, wet, moss covered floor of the rain forest. That is the Haida way. But the opportunity to see that, the site of the old village, and hike to remote beaches where it’s possible no other travelers have been, is the allure that brings people to this unique part of the world.
 
Haida Gwaii is a place emphatically on the edge of things. Perched on the wild Pacific coast near the frontier between Alaska and Northern British Columbia, this cluster of 150 islands is off the grid, about as wild as it gets in North America. Here is the ancestral home of the Haida people, one of the coastal first nation cultures that stretched along the Pacific coast from Washington’s Olympic Peninsula all the way to Alaska. The Haida were fierce, and feared by other Coast Indian tribes, who became the victim of raids in which the Haida pillaged and took slaves. The primeval atmosphere of those ancient ways remains palpable here, even now.
 
But, Haida Gwaii is not an easy place to get to. This cluster of islands on the Hecate Strait has little tourism infrastructure, and can be reached only by British Columbia ferry or scheduled air service, and that just gets you to the three largest settlements. But the world- class salmon fishing in these waters has made it easier to come here, and not just for fishermen. The West Coast Fishing Club, based in Vancouver, runs several lodges on Langara Island, the northern most of the island chain. The club operates fishing lodges from Central America to Haida Gwaii, and has the expertise to get their clients into remote places, and offer five star accommodations and food even in the middle of daunting wilderness.
 
For me, the opportunity to travel with the West Coast Fishing Club to its premier lodge in Haida Gwaii, The Clubhouse, offered not just a chance to see the remote chain and its Haida history, but to try my hand at ocean fishing. A hiker, climber and wilderness traveler, this would be my chance to experience perhaps the best salmon fishing in the world, an allure that brings sportsmen here from as far away as Europe.  The lodge gives fishermen an enormous advantage: all migrating salmon must pass the Clubhouse on their migration routes to rivers on the BC coast.  And the lodge is so well situated on the northern end of Langara Island, the best fishing is mere minutes away by boat.
 
But it’s not just fishermen who come: the Clubhouse offers the perfect base camp for Haida walks, beachcombing on wild empty coastlines, and whale and bird-watching excursions. The West Coast Fishing Club has expanded its offerings to include culinary weekends with clinics from its famous chefs, even "fish and forage" trips for those who want to gather seafood and other wild foods available here and learn how to prepare them.
 
Whatever reason you come, the journey begins at the relaxed South Terminal at Vancouver’s international airport. Here, far from the hubbub and security of the main terminal, float planes and small passenger aircraft venture into the wildest parts of British Columbia and Alaska. We climb aboard the chartered turbo prop, half its cabin taken up by a huge storage box that permits fishermen to bring home boxes full of their flash frozen catch, and settle in for the flight. From Vancouver, it’s a two hour run along the wild west coast of British Columbia to reach the village of Masset, the primary airport for Haida Gwaii, located on Graham Island, one of the two largest in the chain. But even in Masset, you’re still a long way from the fishing grounds of Langara Island.
 
That’s where the Sikorsky S-76 helicopters come in. Right off the charter flight, our small band boards the helicopters for the 20 minute flight to the lodge. The helicopter ride is part of the excitement as we fly over the remote coast of Graham Island and across Parry Passage  to Langara Island, making a tight turn before settling down on the Clubhouse heli-pad.
 
World Class Salmon Fishing
 Many who make the journey here are extremely serious about fishing, so the Clubhouse gets you onto the water right away. On arrival, you’re assigned to a room, and directed to the dining room for lunch. After that, it’s down to the gear room for your heavy weather equipment, a stop at the snack table, and then a ride down to the dock to meet your guide. Typically, a guide and two clients work out of a Boston Whaler fishing boat from the Clubhouse’s extensive fleet. That gives each client one of the two fishing rods, port and starboard, so each is able to fish non stop.
 
When we met him at his boat, I let Sam, my guide for the first few days, know that I was pretty much a rank amateur when it comes to salmon fishing. His response was to laugh, and remark, “I think we can show you how to put a few in the boat.” Sam studies law in Victoria when he’s not guiding, and he’s been working in Haida Gwaii so long knows the area intimately. Up here on Langara, the trophy fish of choice is chinook salmon. The big ones, 30 pounds or bigger, are known as “tyees,” and are most prized. Generally tyees and many other chinooks are released and returned to the ocean after they are caught. Salmon about 15 pounds are considered best for eating, and the Clubhouse staff process and flash freeze every fish a client chooses to take home.
 
Well stocked with beer and sandwiches, we're off. Sam guns the big Yamaha and we zoom out into Parry Passage in appalling conditions: high seas, big wind and driving rain. It hardly mattered, as each client is issued top of the line heavy weather outerwear and rubber boots. One stays remarkably dry, and warm, even in nasty weather, which is not atypical up here at the north end of Haida Gwaii. There’s nothing west of these islands but open ocean, so Langara takes the brunt of all the water and wind rolling in off the Pacific.
 
The big appeal of the West Coast Fishing Club is that the guides make it easy to catch fish, and quickly educate rookies and experts alike on what to do. It works like this: Once at the chosen spot, Sam cuts the engine and fires up a smaller one, called a kicker, to keep a little way as we fish. Then he baits the hooks with herring, then connects the line to a downrigger with a big weight called a cannonball that carries the baited hook down to the desired depth for fishing. Guides have different ideas on what is the best depth, today Sam said he was thinking 70 feet was the sweet spot. Once baited and set at depth, the fishing rods are flexed almost to the surface of the water.
 
Now you’re fishing. It’s time to crack open a beer and have a seat, keeping a sharp eye on the end of your rod.  If it starts moving, you might have a fish on. And in Haida Gwaii, you won’t sit long enough to finish a beer. I soon saw the end of my rod start to dip toward the water, and as instructed by Sam, took the rod out of the holder and began reeling it in. “Real fast, real fast!” Sam instructed, so I cranked away, the idea is to keep tension on the line. But whatever was hooked, wasn’t giving up, and gave big resistance. “Let him run, Let him run!” Sam said, as the drag mechanism on my reel screamed as the fish took off. As soon as the fish slowed, Sam shouted, “Real fast, real fast,” and I reeled it back in.
 
All the while, Sam is maneuvering the boat to keep the line from fouling in the kicker propeller, and keeping the fish on my side of the boat, where I’ve got my back up against the wheel house and my knees jammed against the gunnels. I alternately reeled in and let the fish run for about 20 minutes, until finally a big chinook broke through the white caps. As I reeled it closer to the boat, Sam expertly netted the 18 pounder, clubbed it, marked it as mine, and dropped it into the fish tank. Sam rebaits the hook, I find my beer, and we start all over again. That’s fishing in Haida Gwaii. That first afternoon, not three hours on the water,  my fellow client and I each caught two chinooks in the 20 pound range, and I bagged a red snapper by accident.
  
The fishing was good that day, but that’s just the start of the fun here at the Clubhouse. Because you’re in Haida Gwaii, there’s much more. We saw humpbacks blowing and breaching, we saw more than 100 eagles, some diving in for a fish just yards away from our boat, and miles of wilderness shoreline. Just being in that environment was a reason to come, and the fact you can experience this wild place with all the comfort and fine dining of a luxury resort is what makes the West Coast Fishing Club experience unique.
 
When you return  to the lodge for lunch or at the end of the day, the Haida watchmen are there to monitor your catch, as they keep track of the resource. The lodge has close relations with the Haida people, as it should be, as this is their home. That relationship makes it possible to get permission and guides to visit the Haida ancestral sites, and take hikes, like to one out to wilderness beaches such as Lepas Bay. Many employees of the lodge are Haida, including the young people who fillet and freeze the fish you decide to keep.
 
There’s a bit of strategy there, as each fish you keep counts against your limit. And while landing a fighting chinook is considered the big fun by most sport fishermen, many get tossed back to allow for a fish that’s best for eating. And since almost everyone wants to go home with some salmon and some halibut, that last afternoon or morning on the water, with one or two fish left on the limit,  is often dedicated to finding a good sized halibut. Fishing for halibut is a whole different ballgame. No fighting here. Just a 30 minute run out past distinctive Pillar Rock to the “chicken farm,” or halibut grounds, where you drop your hook to the bottom (a good 200 feet), and wait. Pretty soon the beefy halibut rod will start to flex, and then it’s a matter of stamina to reel it up. Thirty pounders are routine.
 
The guides and lodge staff keep careful track of the fish you catch, whether you keep it or not. In fact, there’s an electronic scoreboard in the lodge that shows every fish every guest catches. If you have a bad day, everybody knows it. The winner during my four day stay was Patrick, who caught a 43 pound tyee. That's an epic salmon, one of the largest ever caught at the Clubhouse. Patrick threw that one back, but each fish you keep is weighed, cleaned and processed according to your directions, and then flash frozen. The processed fish you wish to take home are put in a fish cooler, loaded onto helicopters, and placed on the charter flight for the return to Vancouver.
 
When that day comes, when it’s time to board the Sikorsky for the flight back to Masset and then on to Vancouver, it’s bittersweet, and many guests already start plotting a return visit. Life at the Clubhouse is easy and fun. Want a drink or a glass of wine? Just help yourself. Want a massage? Just write your name on the schedule. Want to hike to a remote beach or visit a Haida village? Just let your guide know. Want something special for dinner? Just let the staff know at lunch. But perhaps the best part of a four day stay at the Clubhouse is that deep immersion in the wild landscape and rich history that is Haida Gwaii.
 
Getting There
Traveling to Haida Gwaii can be troublesome, which makes a stay at the Clubhouse so easy: everything, down to the fishing license, is included. See more about the Clubhouse, and more about the West Coast Fishing Club's other world wide locations on the web site. But once in Masset, there are ways to explore other parts of Haida Gwaii. Both Naikoon Provincial Park and  Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site offer hiking, kayaking and wilderness exploration. Visits to the main cities of Queen Charlotte City, Masset and Skidegate offer opportunities to learn more about the Haida Culture. See the  official website for more information on Haida Gwaii.
 
 
 
 
 

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