Haida Gwaii: Canada’s Galapagos

A river in Haida Gwaii
Burnaby Narrows

An Expedition to Haida Gwaii, British Columbia

By Jared Shein

There are two big landmasses off the Pacific coast of Canada.  The first and better known of the two is Vancouver Island.  The island is quite sizable and Victoria, the island’s biggest city, and the capital of British Columbia is developed, densely populated, and easily accessible by both airplane and ferry.

Captain Russell Markel about the Passing Cloud
Captain Russell Markel aboard the Passing Cloud

The second is an island archipelago and is much more remote.  It can be reached by plane, but an overland and sea journey could take days.

The history and culture of its Indigenous people date back over 15,000 years, over the course of which they have lived harmoniously with puffins, albatross, sperm whales, humpback whales, killer whales, sunfish, sharks and a host of other creatures.

Not many people have heard of Haida Gwaii, but those who have, have the itch to see it.

Russell Markel, A Life at Sea

Some of the most spectacular tours of Haida Gwaii are lead by Captain Russell Markel and his crew at Outer Shores Expeditions.

Markel grew up in a family with close ties to the BC coast. His grandfather was a commercial fisherman, and Russell would spend his time snorkeling, fishing and exploring the coast in his family’s boats, so it was no surprise when he decided to get an undergraduate degree, then a graduate degree, and then a PDH in marine biology at the University of British Columbia.

Throughout his academic career, Markel continued to be an avid boater and sailing instructor and eventually ended up as a captain and wildlife guide for a coastal touring company where his interest in combining his background in marine biology and ecology with tourism and education really started to bloom.

A conversation between Captain Markel and a passenger
Captain Markel speaks with a passenger

All along Markel knew deep down that if he found the right vessel at the right time, he would start an expedition company of his own, and the opportunity came knocking in 2012 when the classic schooner Passing Cloud became available for Markel to purchase.

Outer Shores was founded soon after.

Outer Shores Expeditions

Outer Shores Expeditions leads private voyages and photography tours throughout Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii.

Their crew of experienced captains, mates, naturalists, and chefs are leading twenty-three 5-9 day expeditions in 2020 to places like the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, the Great Bear Rainforest, the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, and of course Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.

All expeditions are aboard the Passing Cloud.

The Passing Cloud

The Passing Cloud sailing through the Pacific waters
The Passing Cloud sailing through the Pacific waters

The schooner Passing Cloud was designed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, by the famous Canadian architect William James Roué in 1945.

Roué rose to shipbuilding fame for his design of the legendary schooner Bluenose which smoked countless American schooners in the annual Internation Fishermans Race on Canada’s east coast.

Despite its design in the ’40s Passing Cloud’s construction wasn’t actually started until 1969 by a shipbuilder named Brian Walker in Victoria, British Columbia.

The common salon area aboard the Passing Cloud
The common salon area aboard the Passing Cloud

Markel lovingly explains, “Passing Cloud is traditionally constructed by plank on frame construction.

She’s got a huge ring around her, she’s extremely fast (she’s won all sorts of races), was designed to sail around the world and has been all over the South Pacific. I’ve had her since 2012, and she just provides everything a classic wooden boat should provide.”

Along with her speed and classic look, Passing Cloud also offers luxurious accommodations.  Outer Shores Website tells, “Guest accommodation is in three private staterooms. Each stateroom has two spacious single berths complete with fluffy duvets; a private vanity with sink, mirror, and hot and cold running water; a skylight or deck prism; brass reading lamps; and drawers and a hanging locker for personal effects.

The spacious head and shower are accessed from the main salon.”

She also has a fully equipped kitchen and salon area where guests can eat meals, socialize and gaze at the natural light streaming in through the skylights.

A puffin flying close to the ocean
A puffin flying close to the ocean

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site

Carved trees in Haida Gwaii
Totem poles in Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii is made up of over 160 islands two of which are populated. Moresby and Graham Islands have a total of approximately 5,000 residents, 3,000 of which are Haida.

The Haida people have lived on the islands for around 14,000 years over the course of which they have developed a rich cultural heritage that is tightly connected to the islands.

The residents have lived in harmony with the surrounding natural features for generations, but have had to contend with loggers moving onto the archipelago since the 1800s.

Five Good People, A Haida wood statue
Five Good People, A Haida wood statue

This has not been taken lightly by the residents, who have staged many anti-logging protests and rallies over the generations to try and send the loggers away.

“The people are so fundamentally connected to the land and the sea, that if you destroy the land, you destroy the people,” says Markel.

The residents continue to fight loggers to this day, but they had some success in the 1980s with the establishment of a national park reserve and Haida heritage site on the Haida Gwaii Islands.

The reserve is casually referred to as Gwaii Haanas, but the full name is Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site.  The Reserve protects both the Haida islands and the surrounding sea.

Outer Shores expedition

Captain Markel teaching passengers
Captain Markel with passengers

An Outer Shores’ expedition to Haida Gwaii begins with a private tour of the Haida Gwaii Museum, followed by a traditional Haida feast.

The next morning, the group takes a short ferry ride to meet the Passing Cloud at Moresby Camp

K’uuna Llnagaay

The expedition will then sail to the ancient village of K’uuna Llnagaay (Skedans) where guests will have the opportunity to converse with Haida Watchmen, view mortuary and memorial poles and learn more about the history of the islands.

Passengers exploring some pools in a raft
Passengers exploring pools in a raft

The next few days are then spent sailing, kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, and viewing wildlife both on land and at sea.

Markel, however, stressed to me that the expeditions do not follow a rigid structure.  “One of the key things about our expeditions is that they’re unscripted,” says Markel.

Dictated by the Weather

“We know when we are going to start, and we know when we are going to be back, but we’re in the wilderness, so the rest of it is mostly dictated by weather, wildlife, tides, and the specific interests of our guests. No two expeditions are exactly alike.”

Wildlife Sightings

Markel is especially fond of the wildlife sightings on and around the islands.  “There is remarkable wildlife viewing around the islands,” says Markel, “From humpback whales, killer whales, dolphins, sea lions, puffins to all sorts of oceanic animals, like pelagic sharks, ocean sunfish, occasionally sperm whales, black-footed albatross.” The list goes on and on.

Roaring sea lions on a rock in Haida Gwaii
Roaring sea lions

Markel also raved about the sights on land, “We spend time in remarkable old-growth coastal temperate rain forests, where we see towering spruce trees, western cedar, western hemlock, and a unique species of black bear only found on Haida Gwaii.

A killer whale spotted near Haida Gwaii
A killer whale spotted near Haida Gwaii

We like to help our guests get a taste of the open ocean, beautiful white sand beaches, and ancient coastal rainforest.”

Natural beauty and adventures aside, Markel and his team are really focused on creating a meaningful and educational experience for the participants.

“Throughout my career, I’ve really realized that people’s values are a really big part of conservation.” Says Markel.

“People really value and care for what they connect with and what they know about, and Outer Shores really does its best to connect people with the BC coast.”

The expedition season for 2019 has ended, but Outer Shores Expeditions is currently taking bookings for 2020.

You can visit the Outer Shores Expeditions website here.

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