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Into the wild in Haida Gwaii, Canada's 'Galápagos of the North'

Kayaking through Haida Gwaii, a string of weather-pummelled Pacific islands cast adrift from the western coast of British Columbia, reveals biodiversity on a giant Canadian scale.

Sea kayaking in Haida Gwaii, a string of more than 150 weather-torn Pacific islands located some 60 miles off the northern coast of British Columbia.

Photograph by Getty Images
Published 14 Jul 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 30 Jul 2021, 10:34 BST

The kayak cuts through the velvet water like a knife. Giant forests of moss-draped spruces and cedars line the shore, the scene reflected in perfect symmetry below. The dawn has brought mist. Colours emerge slowly, pastels on grey like a magician’s trick. 

Then, in the distance, I see a ripple on the surface, an arched wet back, the hiss of a blow hole. “Stay back,” says our guide, Jordan Ackerman. “We don’t want to disturb them.” I clutch my paddle, white-knuckling my salty wet hands. The whales are coming.

We’re in Haida Gwaii, a string of more than 150 weather-torn Pacific islands located some 60 miles off the northern coast of British Columbia. I’ve come here because it’s one of the world’s best destinations for sea kayaking — but the appeal of this archipelago is far greater. 

The islands are known as the ‘Galápagos of the North’ for their remarkable levels of biodiversity: the bays swell with herring and salmon; the skies squawk with millions of nesting seabirds; and gray whales, orcas and humpbacks pass through the waters. Kayaking Haida Gwaii isn’t just a fun paddle, it’s one of the most unique wildlife experiences on the planet.

Susan’s Kitchen in Rose Harbour, Haida Gwaii, a wildlife-rich archipelago off the west coast of Canada.

Photograph by AWL Images

The plan is to spend three days circumnavigating Alliford Bay and the Skidegate Inlet, camping out on deserted island beaches along the way. There are four of us: me, a city-dweller seeking refuge in nature, local guide Jordan and a mother-and-daughter pair seeking adventure. They won’t be disappointed.

We set off from the docks of Queen Charlotte, a tiny village on Graham Island — the archipelago’s largest and most populated island, home to around 5,000 mostly native Haida people, who have made their home here for millennia. From there, we paddle 10 miles west to Burnt Island, our camp for the night, passing bald eagles by the dozen; there are more per capita here than anywhere else in the world. Curious sea lions tail us, their dark eyes and whiskers popping up above the surface. 

Read more: Travel writers share 17 ultimate adventures to inspire your next big trip

“Anyone hungry?” asks Jordan at lunchtime, picking kelp straight from the sea and stuffing it into his mouth. It’s rubbery and salty and dissolves in my mouth like ocean-flavoured jelly. 

Dinner may have started on a challengingly slimy note, but Jordan, it turns out, is a sea kayaking gourmand. We cook over campfires each night — candied salmon, cod roasted in red wine — taking turns with chores, watching the day fade to dusk and listening to crabs scuttling around the inter-tidal zone. Slowly, the city lifts from me, as though taking off a heavy coat I hadn’t known was there.  

A cedar long house with traditional totem pole, Haida Gwaii.

Photograph by AWL Images

For the next two days, we cross southeast through open water and ocean storms, making our way towards Maude Island and the ancient Haida village of Haina. Sites like this populate these remote islands, where little more than a century ago, bands of families would make their homes — collecting seashells for beads, gathering plants for medicines and building totem poles carved with faces and animals looking out to sea. Much of this old way of life has faded now, but as we step through the mossy forest into a small clearing, I can see the foundations where a long house once lay, as well as the holes that held the totems. Everything is dissolving back into the land, back from where it came, as is the Haida way.

We’re not done yet, though. On the last afternoon, we hear that hiss of a blow hole and stay back to give the whales space. But the sprays come closer, the ripples grow stronger and my kayak begins to rock. Then, suddenly, a 50-foot gray whale breaches less than five metres away. I can smell the ocean on its skin, feel the spray from its breaching body. It circles me, and my hands tremble as I take in its size and power — a monster of the deep, big enough to swallow me whole. But it’s gentle, too, and curious, and for just a moment our two worlds, land and sea, are connected. Just like the Haida Gwaii itself.

Green Coast Kayaking has a three-day guided tour, including all meals and equipment, from £350 per person. 

Published in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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