Haida Gwaii’s waters run deep

March 19, 2009


Gwaii Haanas National Park offers sea kayakers riches above and below the tidemark; it’s claimed that Burnaby Narrows has the highest density of living matter on Earth.

A kayak trip through the stunning Haida Gwaii islands stays with you long after the last paddle

Ottawa-based songwriter Ian Tamblyn put it best in his composition “Woodsmoke and Oranges”: “There’s something about this country that’s a part of me and you.” All it takes is one visit to a place like Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site to viscerally confirm that. Just start paddling and see for yourself. You’ll get shivers from the thought that this domain belongs to everyone.

Vast natural riches are spread above and below the tidemarks of 200 islands strewn throughout the southern third of Haida Gwaii (also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands). To float at low tide through Burnaby Narrows—properly called Dolomite Narrows—is to drift through a marine dream world. Colourful colonies of whitecap limpets, red turban snails, blue topsnails, and giant plumose anemones spread below the surface and climb the sides of the winding, shallow, kilometre-long channel that separates Moresby and Burnaby islands. Palm-sized red rock crabs scuttle through patches of seaweed that sprout like leaf lettuce. Nurtured by a constant flow of oxygen and nutrients, green, red, and brown algae lend even more hues to the intertidal palette.

Biologist Duane Sept spent a decade studying this remarkable ecosystem. On the phone from his home on the Sunshine Coast, Sept asserted that preserving this marine habitat in 1987 was a great service. “There’s more protein per square centimetre here than anywhere else. Burnaby Narrows in particular is rated as having the highest density of living matter on Earth.’

Such lush scenes set national parks apart from the normal space-time continuum. Removed from all signs of human habitation, you feel as if you’ve suddenly arrived on another plane. A tingling begins in your toes and climbs to the nape of your neck, signaling an elevated state of mind. Higher ground, indeed.

As Sept observed: “There are a few other such narrows along the West Coast, but nothing to compare with what you’ll find at Burnaby”—which is why you’d be well advised to pack along a copy of Sept’s newly revised full-colour The Beachcomber’s Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest (Harbour, $26.95) to help make sense of the wealth on display.

As you lift your eyes from the glassy aquascape, Yatza Mountain rises to the west, one of a rolling series of peaks in the San Christoval Range that culminates in the 1,164-metre Mount Moresby, whose snowcapped crown stands as a reminder that even in the midst of summer it’s wise to keep a tuque and warm gloves handy. In July and August, the two months when fair weather favours paddlers on the Northwest Coast, temperatures generally hover 10 degrees below what Vancouver experiences.

Prolonged stretches of sunshine can never be taken for granted in the “Misty Isles’. A VHF radio is invaluable for staying abreast of weather forecasts. In fact, listening to updated reports offers riveting after-dinner entertainment and provides a crucial link with the water taxis that whisk groups of kayakers to and from the park and with the Haida Gwaii Watchmen staff stationed at five historic villages within the national park and heritage site.

Haida roots run millennia deep here. So when a watchman offers a suggestion or a word of advice, such as where to find sheltered campsites or sources of fresh water, it’s conveyed with authority. Teams of four watchmen work monthly shifts at each site, from Hlk’yah GaawGa, or Windy Bay, on Lyell Island—where Native-led logging protests in the 1980s resulted in the preservation of a 1,475-square-kilometre tract as national park—to Nang Sdins Llnagaay, or Ninstints, on Anthony Island, off the wind-whipped southwest coast.

By far the park’s most sought-out natural feature, besides Burnaby Narrows, are the hot springs on Gandll K’in Gwaayyayy. This island is a must-see for many reasons, especially near the end of a paddle journey, when you’ve been without the benefit of a warm shower. A state of constant dampness, if not outright wringing wetness, is the reality of sea kayaking near the rain forest. The only places you can bank on having warm feet are in a dry sleeping bag and in these naturally hot pools.

Just observe the protocol of only 12 visitors at a time and you’ll be welcomed ashore by the likes of Eric Olson, whose grandfather built the first watchman cabin here in the early 1980s. “I’ve been a watchman since before there were watchmen,’ he said when visited in his carving shed in July.

As an artist with a growing reputation in the Lower Mainland, Olson spends a month or more each year creating masks in the original cabin where watchmen first bunked. Accommodation these days is far less rustic. Newer, more spacious quarters nearby feature solar-powered appliances and a composting toilet. “What brings me back from logging?’ the 45-year-old Olson wondered aloud as he gazed around Juan Perez Sound, where humpback and grey whales were breaching. “How could I not come back?’

Transporting visitors around the park most often falls to Heron Weir and his partner, Laura Pattison, who run Moresby Explorers, an outfitting and guiding company based in Sandspit, on Moresby Island’s northeast corner. At the wheel of a Zodiac water taxi powered by twin 200-horsepower outboard motors, with eight kayaks lashed on top, Weir told the Straight that his favourite time to visit the national park is May and June. “There are obnoxious numbers of whales around then—hundreds, mostly humpbacks,’ the lifelong island resident said.

National parks are celebrated for wildlife. Twenty species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises swim the waters of Gwaii Haanas, along with Steller sea lions and seals. Black bears, sleek river otters, shy Sitka black-tailed deer, and a host of raptors and seabirds work the shorelines and sheltering forest, where spongy, emerald-green mosses thickly carpet the open floor, as smooth as snowdrifts.

Spring is the best time to begin planning the logistics for a self-supported visit or to book a guided tour. Every Canadian should have the opportunity to venture here at least once. It’s our birthright. Just don’t all come at once. Hardly seeing another human soul is an integral part of experiencing Gwaii Haanas. When you do return home, the space-time continuum will never seem quite the same again. Part of you will always be floating here, on the boundary of the world.

ACCESS: Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site can be reached by boat or floatplane only. Parks Canada information, including mandatory visitor orientation times, is available on-line or by calling 1-250-559-8818.

B.C. Ferries sailings to Skidegate Landing and Alliford Bay are posted at www.bcferries.com. Air Canada Jazz flies twice daily between YVR and Sandspit, on Moresby Island. The average cost per person for the two-hour flight ranges between $500 and $800, plus taxes.

For general information on Haida Gwaii, visit www.qcinfo.ca/ or www.queencharlotteislandsguide.com/. Moresby Explorers offers water-taxi service, boat tours, and kayak rentals (1-800-806-7633), as does Queen Charlotte Adventures (1-800-668-4288).

July and August are the best months to explore Haida Gwaii. However, the ocean waters around it are bone-chilling year-round. When paddling, a wet suit is a must, as are basic safety skills, such as self-rescue. Preparation for exploring Gwaii Haanas National Park by sea kayak should include a session in capsize recovery. For information on spring courses, visit www.ecomarine.com.

Text CR Jack Christie

Photo CR Louise Christie

Original Article

Backcountry sports still chugging right along

March 2, 2009


Callaghan Lodge’s Brad Sills

Despite a bad case of the avalanche blues that rocked the new year, reports from the Canadian Avalanche Centre indicate that the local Coast Mountains’ snow pack has begun to stabilize. Recent advisories from the CAC have downgraded the threat of slides from Level 3, “considerable”, to Level 2, “moderate”, and even Level 1, “low”, along both the Sea-to-Sky and Duffy Lake and inland corridors.

This is welcome news for those who venture into the backcountry, whether on snowshoes, skis, or snowboards. In a survey I conducted, lodge operators and alpine guides may not have awarded top marks to snow conditions thus far, but they aren’t giving this winter a failing grade, either. However, as a consequence of the steadily souring economy south of the border, they do point to an avalanche of cancellations.

Whistler-based heli-guide  Dave Sarkany, a member of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, said that many U.S. clients are walking away from their deposits. “This is not small change, either,” he said. “Some of them have put down as much as $20,000 to reserve helicopter skiing at a backcountry lodge.”

In the silver-linings department, belt tightening is credited as benefiting less expensive backcountry operators. Powder Mountain Catskiing Catboarding’s general manager, Gordon Calver, told me he would give this winter a “really good” grade. “We’ve taken a lot of heli-ski business, especially when they see we’re half the price,” the 38-year-old lifelong Whistler resident said. “We’re running at about 70 percent capacity. The majority are tourists. While the U.S. market has slowed down quite a bit, we’re seeing more Scandinavians coming than before.”

Although Whistler-Blackcomb has struggled to exceed a 150-centimetre base all year, Powder Mountain’s terrain surrounding Cypress Peak currently measures 430. “We’re spending more time with clients in the high alpine,” Calver said. “Unlike typical Coast Mountain conditions, this year’s snow is dry and light, with effortless skiing in the wide-open, huge bowls.” As for the sustained avalanche danger, Calver cited the expertise of his company’s guides as the reason that “we’ve never had a problem, never an accident.”

Callaghan Country’s manager, Brad Sills, a long-time leader with Whistler’s search-and-rescue team, dealt with two avalanche-related fatalities on the same day in December. Despite this, he said that this winter’s unusual conditions—both meteorological and economic—couldn’t have come at a better time for his backcountry lodge. “Our guests used to be 70 percent from the U.S. They’re not coming this year, but our business is up, thanks mostly to Vancouverites drawn to the Callaghan Valley because of the new Whistler Olympic Park. People who used to cross-country ski are coming back into the sport because it’s affordable.”

Sills characterized newcomers to Callaghan, which lies immediately south of Whistler, as falling into two categories. “On one hand, you have the over-60 types who grew up at Hollyburn and ski-walk 15 kilometres a day. Then there’s the younger set, many from the mountain-bike community, who want to stay in shape. They’re used to single-track riding and aren’t shy about uphill challenges at all.” He also pointed to a new trend spawned by the groomed 12.5-kilometre trail that links the Nordic centre with his lodge: ski touring on skate skis. “Grooming has introduced a new level of backcountry touring. Elite skate skiers can make it up to the lodge in an hour. It also means faster, safer descents. If you come from an alpine background, this will put the fear back into you.” Sills advised lesser mortals to budget three to four hours for the ascent through the old-growth forest, half that for the ski out.

Is Sills surprised at how the valley has suddenly blossomed into a sports hub? “We started a lodge here in 1981. In our first ever management plan, we envisaged creating the most comprehensive Nordic ski facility in North America.” This makes Sills’s recent hard-earned success even sweeter.

Another sector of the snow-sport market enjoying growth this winter is backcountry-skills training. Programs offered by groups like the Vancouver-based Canada West Mountain School are oversubscribed. When reached by phone at the CWMS’s midtown office, director Brian Jones said that he noticed a marked increase in enrollment even before there was snow on the ground. “It’s been a cumulative effect of seeing several major figures killed in avalanches in the past, coupled with a constant media barrage, plus the new crop of backcountry skiers entering the market each year.”

Jones highlighted the curriculum covered in a typical two-day course: measuring snow packs, then learning to understand and apply the results; crucial equipment needed to adventure safely; and avoiding avalanche terrain by knowing how to recognize it.

Bonus marks are awarded for hiring a guide like Sarkany to safely—and quickly—take you where the best snow lies.

Access: Current South Coast snow conditions are posted at www.avalanche.ca/. Details on Powder Mountain Catskiing Catboarding are posted at powdermountaincatskiing.com/. For Callaghan Country, visit www.callaghancountry.com/. Canada West Mountain School courses are listed at www.themountainschool.com/.

Text CR Jack Christie
Photo CR Louise Christie
Original Article

Powder Time!

March 2, 2009

Just as I’d hoped, March is coming in like a lion – in winter!

Powder snow all the way from here in midtown Vancouver, across the North Shore and over to Whistler.

Check out this video report to see for yourself.

We’re stoked for the weeks ahead as the long-awaited storms sweep down on us. Thanks, Alaska!

The arrival couldn’t be better. We just wrapped up work on the new manuscript for The Whistler Book,  due out in October.

Time to get out my trusty G3 Rapid Transits for the first time this season and head for the hills.

See ya there.