In conversation with James Cowpar, a member of the Eagle Clan from Haida Gwaii, British Columbia

Giving insight into the rhythms and call of nature, James Cowpar shares his tales about the transformative powers of his home of Haida Gwaii, known to some travellers today as the Galapagos of the North.

Haida Gwaii is a chain of around 150 islands off British Columbia’s northern coast, known for its diverse wildlife, temperate rainforests and remote beauty. 

Photograph by Destination BC/Grant Harder
Published 7 Sept 2021, 16:11 BST, Updated 11 Sept 2021, 00:38 BST

Sprinkled across the Pacific like stepping stones to a wilder world, the islands of Haida Gwaii off British Columbia’s northern coast are a place of remote, near-spiritual beauty. The Haida people have called this archipelago home since time immemorial, and still today they know its rocks and roots, its birds and bears, its tides and trees as intimately as their own heartbeat. 

Hailed the ‘Galapagos of the North’ by travellers around the world, these astonishingly biodiverse islands are the perfect slow-the-pace escape from a world moving at breakneck speed. Whether you’re staying in a traditional longhouse, sleeping under the stars or watching black bears run, orcas blow and eagles soar, here it’s all about tuning into nature and its seasonal rhythms — a skill that, once mastered, can really transform you.

James Cowpar’s Haida name is Sk'aal Ts'iid (Flicker Bird). The bird is held in high esteem in Haida culture — its bright-orange tail feathers were traditionally used in chieftain headdresses. 

Photograph by Indigenous Tourism BC

Born into the Tsaahl Eagle Clan, James co-founded Haida Style Expeditions in 2000, together with his twin brother William Shawn (whose Haida name is Kung X angajii, meaning Moon Shadow). The now highly successful cultural adventure and fishing expeditions company was born from a profound love of the land and sea, a desire to share stories handed down over generations and the deep-felt need to protect Haida Gwaii’s rich ecosystem and heritage.

“We teach people about Haida culture, too, not by reading from the highly subjective history books, but in ‘real time’, through our stories and those of our ancestors.”

James, Haida Style Expeditions co-founder

James becomes more peaceful as he speaks about growing up on the islands. “My childhood was spent outdoors. I would play freely for hours on the beach. We’d hunt for giant sunfish, watch bears running down the creek. Mother Nature resonated strongly with me. Kids have tablets now, but our tablets were the rocks we lifted to find crabs. We had experiences that can no longer be taken for granted: exploring old-growth forest, walking at low tide, nights out under the moon. It was amazing growing up here. Now I’m almost 46, I still find it amazing.”

James has made it his life’s work to share this wonder. “We help out locally, mentoring kids from the age of around 14. On our tours, one of our core principles is education — showing people the wildlife, taking them fishing and foraging. We teach people about Haida culture, too, not by reading from the subjective history books, but in ‘real time’, through our stories and those of our ancestors. This might mean trekking to the village of SGang Gwaay [Ninstints], now a World Heritage Site, with its carved totems, for instance, or going on an immersive overnight trip to Swan Bay, with the chance to stay in a longhouse in a pristine environment.”

Many of Haida Gwaii's totem poles are thousands of years old, traditionally used by the Haida people to express kinship groups, history and to welcome visitors.

Photograph by Destination BC/Brandon Hartwig

There are seven remote communities on Haida Gwaii. “We’re like one big family,” says James. “There are economic and logistical challenges we must face, but we’re learning to adjust our lifestyles and move forward. We’re seeking innovative solutions: the possibility of renewable wind and wave energy instead of diesel, logging that takes into account wildlife habitats and valuable medicinal plants, infrastructure that balances supply and demand, policies that put the environment first. It’s a work in progress but we’re keeping the upper edge.”

In Haida culture, people are considered to be part of nature, not separate from it. “We don’t own the land, the land owns us,” says James. “Haida Gwaii is perhaps called the Galapagos of the North because the ecosystem is stable and we carefully manage the impact of human footprint. Personally I call it the West Coast Jurassic Park as it’s so wild. The ocean is like a highway of marine life: seabirds, sea lions, seals, transient killer whales, humpbacks and minkes. Our tours are conservation-focused and respectful — you’re going to see wildlife but we’re not going to chase it for the perfect photo.”

"It’s important not to lose sight of who we are and where we come from," James continues. "I still look up at a picture of my elders. That respect, those strong family ties, they are always there. As is our culture: there is a cohort of young women keeping the language alive; there are longhouse conservation areas and canoe-carving workshops. The bottom line of reconciliation is that we are all real people and it is our responsibility to educate and save what we have left here on earth."

James Cowpar describes the ocean around the Haida Gwaii archipelago as a highway of marine life, with seabirds, sea lions, seals, transient killer whales, humpbacks and minkes.

Photograph by Destination BC/Grant Harder

James has no shortage of wildlife stories to tell. “A couple of years ago we had a honeymoon couple at the front of the boat,” he recalls. “We suddenly saw the fin of a killer whale coming in, just 3ft off the bow. It slapped its tail hard, sprayed the honeymooners with saltwater and went off on its merry way. They got their orca up close and personal.” Some encounters are less welcome. “I fished up what I thought was a big chunk of plastic and it turned out to be an 8ft wolf eel, with a wrinkled face like an old person but jaws so powerful they could take the tips off your fingers.”

Defined by the tides and the seasons, Haida Gwaii’s wildlife peaks in May and June when the herring spawn, and in autumn when there are good runs of local salmon. “Depending on when you come, you can see deer, red-tailed hawks, pine martens, larger migrating birds like sandhill cranes, seals, tufted puffins and the largest black bears in the world,” explains James. “The black bears are doing well since the Haida people halted the hunt around a decade ago.”

The Haida have always been master mariners, using the stars and natural landmarks to navigate and fish. “My cousins taught me to line up the rocks and look out for waves to know when the reef is coming — no GPS can do that,” says James. “Now it’s our job to pass on this knowledge to our children. We have a saying in Haida: Chiix̱was gen gaguu gataa daanaay guu ga taa iijii (when the tide is out, the table is set). Food is a big part of who we are. Here it’s about realising the value, respecting the environment and continuing the harvest in a sustainable way. When we forage, we don’t wipe the area clean, but we might have tasters of huckleberries or edible kelp.”

“Nature here is meditative and puts everything into perspective if you know how to watch, how to listen and pay close attention.”

James, Haida Style Expeditions co-founder

But where does a man who spends his life under British Columbia’s open skies go to relax? “The water,” says James. “I’ll grab my notebook or camera, take the kayak, go for a hike, find a Dungeness crab for a feast, and enjoy the silence. Nature here is meditative and puts everything into perspective if you know how to watch, how to listen and pay close attention. Right now, through my window, I can hear the sound of an eagle feeding her chicks. Isn’t that a beautiful thing?”

 

Essentials
 

Getting there & around
Vancouver International Airport is the obvious arrival point from the UK, and Air Canada and British Airways fly direct to Vancouver from Heathrow. Prices start from around £467 return. From there, connect to Sandspit or Masset, in Haida Gwaii, where you can hire a car. BC Ferries also sails to almost 50 different ports of call along the coast, including Skidegate in Haida Gwaii, via Prince Rupert.

How to do it
Haida Style Expeditions offers a range of weekly cultural and fishing tours from April to September. 

When to go
British Columbia is beautiful year-round, with lush forests green all through the winter. To really make the most of the province's incredible natural bounty, however, come in the spring or summer, when the temperatures are milder and the waters more calm.

Nature has a lasting effect on us and experts say that the bigger the nature, the better. Take a moment and connect with British Columbia's great wilderness, even before you travel. Call the Wild at HelloBC.com

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