Dew Drop Diaries: Paddling to the West Coast of Haida Gwaii

Hello friends, today I am going to tell you the story of a short kayak trip with some of my closest friends. Setting the scene for this tale: Alex Beauchemin and I met at the start of our second year at UBC, both transfer students with hideous messes in our university credits and a near obsession with remote northern places. Luckily, as we became friends, we found a unique opportunity to fulfill both of these passions by undertaking an exchange program to Haida Gwaii, with no proper accreditation from the UBC science faculty. This past September, we drove North, seeing many marvels of BC, trees, trees, waterfall, mountains, trees, bears, and ocean. We finally stepped off our 8 hour ferry on the northern archipelago where we would live for the next 4ish months. It was an exciting time and we both learned more than either of us know how to express. We made deep connections with a small group of friends and had opportunities to build a community that will always be a part of us. We undertook many adventures seeing beauty, magic, and the richness of the world, each a good story on its own, that can’t all be captured here.

Before we left for the North, Alex and I both became masters of Facebook marketplace and invested in a pair of ocean-ready sea kayaks. Haida Gwaii is a mecca for sea kayaking – Gwaii Haanas Haida Heritage Site and National Park Preserve, a massive protected area on the southern half of the archipelago, is only accessible by water and air, and hosts spectacular paddling. Notably though, the waters in the area can be particularly dangerous and we were told before we came that the paddling season largely ends come September because of the frequent and violent storms from the North Pacific that bless the islands. It should be further noted that Alex has significant experience in a sea kayak, with several years experience as an instructor, whereas I do not… but that didn’t deter me and my craving for a little adventure. I’ve spent a great deal of time on remote wilderness canoe trips, and while those skills may not be entirely transferable, I decided I was going to make them so.


As our reading break approached, Alex and I started scheming up ideas to fill the time. Lucky for us, two members of our class—Marina and Linnea—were actually sea kayaking guides, with more experience, expertise, and knowledge than I will ever hold. I would say that my many suggestions for paddling trips were met with caution from both of these much-wiser-than-I paddlers, but as a beautiful weather window opened just in time for our week off school, both of them jumped into action. My loosely planned suggestions suddenly came to life. Our friends quickly developed a whole operation, expertly organizing a trip with tide timings, safety protocols, and a rental kayak fleet for half the class. It was nothing short of miracle work on their part, and this was a constant theme of the trip – I have to thank both of them endlessly for making every part of this a reality and giving up their time and energy out of the kindness of their hearts.

Leading up to the trip there was endless chaos. In the two days before we left we had two major presentations, a final exam, a potluck, and then an impromptu world-changing 12-hour boat trip to Gwaii Haanas, in which we went to G̱andll K’in Gwaay.yaay (Hotspring Island) and Ḵ’uuna Llnagaay, and saw two dozen whales. That night we got home exhausted, but we weren’t done yet as Alex and I had the unique privilege of also being essentially evicted from our housing situation, midway through our contract, and needing to move everything we owned and clean our two units before leaving for kayaking at 8 am the next morning. Now, this was supposed to be a trip report about a kayak trip, and you may note that I’ve already written almost 1000 words, but I promise (or I hope or feel) the chaos is necessary to illustrate the experience. Anyway, back to being evicted.


Alex and I had moved onto a property outside of the town of Daajing Giids, in which I lived in a partly furnished basement suite, while Alex lived 50 metres away from the house in an airstream trailer. The units weren’t perfect, but they were functional and we persisted – the fun began entirely with the landlord. Before we moved in she told us about horror stories about previous tenants who would come home late, slam doors, and yell in the middle of the night, and as such she was being very cautious to ensure we were a “good fit” for her house. I’d like to believe both Alex and I are pretty easygoing guys, and we were not planning to be out clubbing nightly, in the major metropolitan area The Village of Daajing Giids (population 852), so we went forward with the arrangement. The trouble started quickly, and on our first day, our friends came to help us move in. In the first 20 minutes we had multiple interactions with our landlord concerning the “strangers” on her property. Her paranoia was palpable. Anytime we came up the driveway after dark, anytime we walked with a flashlight between the airstream and the basement, anytime we made noise, ran the washing machine, took a shower, played music, got picked up by friends, took trash out, spoke on the phone, whenever it was windy out, or most notably, if we had a light on, we received a barrage of text messages critiquing our childish behaviour and demanding an explanation. I was told I could not have lights past 10pm – I once received 5 calls at 3AM because I fell asleep with my bedroom light on. Another time, I called my girlfriend at 7 in the morning before class, and received a text message about how my landlord “heard an unfamiliar voice this morning” and wanted to ensure I wasn’t having overnight guests. With minimal googling, we found her blog, in which she equated herself, a 40 year old white woman, to Martin Luther King Jr, claiming their “souls touched”, because she was born the day he died. The stories really go on, but finally, after essentially threatening to illegally evict us, Alex and I decided to move out on our own terms. Our final goodbye was the (only somewhat accidental) decision to move out everything, at 2am, and that was that (until she tried to keep our damage deposits the following week).

The next morning, on maybe four hours of sleep, I woke up and stepped onto my new oceanfront deck. I watched the sun rise over the Queen Charlotte Range, made a fresh cup of coffee, and I carried my kayak to the ocean, filling it with food and gear for the next three days and paddled into town to meet my friends. Alex arrived in classic Alex fashion, having just started packing for the trip 30 minutes beforehand. And, at 8 am that morning our hearty crew departed from the docks of Daajing Giids onwards towards Skidegate Narrows. 11 of us left that morning, Marina, Linnea, Fiona, Charlotte, Isaac, Zoe, Mabel, Sephine, Emma, Alex, and myself (Elias).


We paddled through narrow channels between mountains and sounds, we passed cut blocks and old growth, and watched as birds, fish, and nudibranchs whizzed by our kayaks. At one point we even passed a beach on which stood an unexplained and unflinching herd of sheep. The major event for the first day was passing through the Skidegate Narrows, a tight and highly tidal-affected channel where the massive Moresby and Graham Islands meet. This was our doorway to the west coast of the islands, a famously rugged, remote, and exposed area of the coast. The narrows connect the waters of the Hecate Strait on the east, and the North Pacific on the west, in the middle of the several hundred kilometre long island chain. As such, the ebb and flood of the tides can lead to vigorous and even dangerous currents through the stretch, and motorboats need to be particularly cautious, especially in the very shallow waters of low tide. Luckily for us we arrived at roughly slack tide and paddled through with little trouble.

After we crossed through the first narrows we finally felt like we hit the mythical West Coast. Here, everything felt more extreme. Not only were the mountains taller the waves bigger and the views better, but we were progressively more remote. As we kept paddling west everyone in our group was starting to tire at this point, but just before we hit our collective bonk, we approached a second narrows we had to pass through to reach access to the open ocean. The west narrows were one of the most awe striking places I have ever been, and immediately energy returned to the group. In the narrow strip of ocean we paddled into my first ever kelp forest, the whole area was blanketed by the floating pneumatocysts of Bull Kelp and Giant Kelp. The crystal-clear water made it easy to stare down into the forest below and see fish darting in and out of shelter, crabs climb up the stripes of the endless brown algae, and jellyfish float on through it all. Next to us was a beautiful estuary full of birds, grasses, and fallen trees.


As we left the narrows we approached a major crossing, paddling from one side of a sound to another. It just so happened that the day before we left, while being toured around Gwaii Haanas, we were invited to stay at 2 cabins in the area, belonging to one of our guides’ clans. We didn’t know the precise location but had a general sense that one was a bit further onwards. The ocean between us and the channel with the cabin had much larger swells than anything we’d seen so far, and it was starting to get dark, but with warmth and our plan for the next day in mind, we carefully made the decision to go on. As we paddled across the ocean towards a wall of mountains, we chased a sunset directly in front of our bows. We passed one camping option as we had been warned of the many bears spotted there this year, and entered the narrow and steep channel of arbiters, separating the smaller Chaatl Island from Moresby Island. We hunted up and down for the cabin, but with our luck failing us and the light dwindling we decided to make camp at a low lying region at the east end of the narrows. We made dinner, talked about our favourite terrestrial snails, and slept peacefully.


The next morning was frosty, and as we packed up and left we all developed a deep hatred for the feeling of putting on ice-covered neoprene. We paddled west towards the open ocean, in the dim light of the morning, the mountains behind us. Our destination was the village site of Ts’aa.ahl (pronounced “Joth”). This Haida village was once one of the largest on the islands, but as with nearly every community on the archipelago, it was decimated by disease and colonialism. Smallpox, introduced by Europeans, killed somewhere in the range of 70-95% of all Haida. The village site of Ts’aa.ahl is known today for two standing house-front totem poles which remain from the once ~35 houses which are no longer standing. As we paddled outwards towards the village and towards the ocean we felt the sun on our back and the large and gentle swell of the Pacific Ocean. We landed on an unassuming beach after a short paddle, and walked up into the woods. The village site was notably different from other patches of forest; we found building depressions and pathways where houses once stood, where families once lived, and where a community flourished. Standing off the trail we found a decaying house-front pole. This legacy of the people who lived here stood alone in the heavy woods. We spent several hours in that place, and I cannot describe the weight and the emotion we all felt as we took time to learn and take in what we could. I feel permanently changed by these moments on Chaatl Island.


Eventually we found ourselves sitting on the beach again where we talked and sat. We cooked salmon and halibut, caught nearby and given to us by our friends in the community, and we fought to keep ourselves warm by pouring boiling water into our neoprene. As we left, the swells were at our back and we spent the next hours surfing back the way we came. In the most beautiful golden hour lighting I have ever seen we completed the same crossing as the day before between the West and Arbiters narrows. This time we were searching for a second cabin, but this time as we neared the end of our patience we came across it. The Dew Drop Inn, a small, hearty, and breathtaking trappers cabin was our bedroom for the night. We lit a fire in the wood stove and cooked food together, before mulling wine on top of the fire, and singing songs. We spent a good long while hand transcribing The Black Fly Song by Wade Hemsworth and completed many rousing renditions, supported by spoons and harmonicas, before heading to sleep. I heard those lyrics in my dreams and well into the next day “black flies, little black flies, Always the black fly no matter where you go…”. We slept late and woke up the next morning rested and happy. We paddled home uneventfully. As with any paddling trip, a dull rain set in for the last 2 hours, setting the scene as we floated back into Daajing Giids, somehow different than we left…



Over the past four months, all of our experiences, adventures, and lessons took place on Haida Gwaii, the unceded and ancestral territory of the Haida. The Haida continue to steward, protect, and live with the land and are as much part of Haida Gwaii as are the trees, animals, or rocks. We couldn’t have undertaken this trip or any other experience without the support and wisdom of countless Haida and locals, and it would not have been the same without these relationships we formed with the people who live on this land, and the land itself. It was a unique privilege to live and learn on this territory.

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One Response to Dew Drop Diaries: Paddling to the West Coast of Haida Gwaii

  1. Duncan MacIntyre says:

    Sounds like a transformative experience. Thank you for the interesting trip report!

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