The Queen Charlottes in British Columbia are a group of islands south of the Alaska panhandle that is the ancestral home of the Haida - the West Coast Aboriginals who have lived here for thousands of years. Their name for it is Haida Gwaii - "islands of the people". These islands contain one of the most diverse landscapes in the world. They are actually the peaks of a submerged mountain chain, with the tallest peaks perpetually capped in snow. Just 2 or 3 kilometres offshore on the west side of the islands, the continental shelf falls away dramatically to the immense depths of the Pacific Ocean.
Haida Gwaii is the most active earthquake area in Canada. Natural landslides are a common occurrence and scarred mountainsides are visible from the fjord-like inlets.The total land area of Haida Gwaii is approximately 3,840 square miles; 156 miles (250 km) from north to south. They lie southwest of Prince Rupert across the Hecate Strait.
Two Islands comprise the majority of the land mass.Graham Island is the largest of the Queen Charlotte Islands, covering 2,500 square miles (6,500 sq km) and is the most accessible and populated of the islands, with most of the significant communities. The small village of Masset is the largest town on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Located at the northern end of Graham Island, Masset is the northern gateway to Naikoon Park. The laid-back fishing village of Queen Charlotte City is located along the shores of Bearskin Bay, 5 kilometres west of the ferry terminal at Skidegate Landing.
Known as Charlotte by the locals, the administrative centre for the Queen Charlotte Islands is a small thriving village of government offices, a hospital and a variety of shops and accommodations. The Haida community of Skidegate is the cultural centre of the Haida, where the visitor can examine art and cultural artifacts first hand. The two ferry docks at Skidegate Landing serve ferries to Prince Rupert on the BC mainland and to Alliford Bay on Moresby Island.
Moresby Island is the smaller and less accessible of the two main islands, with less than 18 miles (30 km) of public roads. Sandspit is the only settlement on Moresby Island and is the location of the main airport for the Queen Charlotte Islands. The first settlers at Sandspit established farms and ranches around the grassy flats.Haida Gwaii, as it is now known, was - according to Haida legend - the place where time began. They also have an older name for these isolated islands and it may be the most appropriate name of all. It is Xhaaidlagha Gwaayaai meaning "Islands at the Boundary of the World".
There is a mystical nature to the place, some say even somewhat spiritual. Nicknamed by biologists the "Galapagos of the North", the unusual and abundant flora and fauna that thrive on the Islands, coupled with the diversity of the marine wildlife in the surrounding waters make it an ecological marvel.In all there are 1,884 islands in the archipelago, a mixture of snow-topped mountains and fiords that plunge into the sea, mist-enshrouded forests and windswept sandy beaches. The seven largest of the islands are - from north to south - Langara, Graham, Moresby, Louise, Lyell, Burnaby and Kunghit Island. Haida Gwaii has been home to the Haida people for as long as oral history and archaeology have recorded occupation of the islands - at least 7,000 years. At least 14,000 people have lived in over 126 known village sites.
The population plummeted to 589 by 1911 following first contact with Europeans, all resident in either Skidegate or Old Masset. Today, the Queen Charlottes are less populated, at 6,000 people, than they were a century ago when Haida communities thrived along the shores. Today, two out of three Haida live off-island, many of which say they are planning to return.The Spanish explorer Juan Perez first discovered the islands in July 1774.
A decade later the fur traders followed and were the only visitors for the next 100 years. This had a major impact on Haida culture that had had little outside contact with the off-islands world. In the 18th and 19th centuries the area was a thriving fur trading centre, as the Europeans arrived in huge sailing ships to trade in the Haida villages. The islands were named after HMS Queen Charlotte, Lord Howe's flagship named in honour of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. Dispatched by King George's Sound Company to trade in sea otter furs between the Pacific coast of America and China, Captain George Dixon named the islands after his vessel in the summer of 1787.
The Queen Charlotte Islands is largely a resource-based economy. Logging, commercial fishing, mining and tourism are the main industries. The local economy is particularly dependent upon the forest industry, located primarily on the east and west sides of Graham Island, with a smaller portion on northwest Moresby Island. The timber supply area is around half a million hectares of western hemlock, western red cedar, Sitka spruce and yellow cedar.
Salmon, herring, halibut, black cod and crabs are the main products in commercial fisheries. In addition to these industries, employment is also high in the service industries and government, which employs a full 32% of the island population of 6,000.Skidegate Lake is the heart of a thriving industry for the harvest and export of Chanterelle mushrooms, primarily for the Japanese market. Mushrooms are an annual, if totally unpredictable, harvest on Haida Gwaii. They only grow in second-growth timber, requiring careful management of crown lands to the benefit of both loggers and mushroom pickers.
With 60 to 70% of the harvest coming out of the Skidegate Lake and Mosquito Lake areas of Moresby Island, up to 200 pickers can be working in and around Skidegate Lake during August in a bumper crop year.Six new cedar totem poles - each 13 metres or higher, were pulled upright on the shores of Skidegate in June 2001. The new poles are the first to be raised here since 1978. They honour six major southern Haida villages, five of which were devastated by smallpox before the 20th century. Totem poles are wonderful examples of aboriginal art. The ancient practice of totem carving has been handed down through generations as a way of preserving the history of local native heritage as well as honouring tribal rituals and sacred spirits of people.
Even with modern transportation and communication, the islands are still relatively isolated, to some an attraction in itself, with recreation and native culture as the main attractions. Sport fishing, hiking, camping, kayaking, boating, whale watching, beachcombing and sightseeing are the major recreational activities. For the tourist who wants to get away from it all, the Queen Charlotte Islands are a twenty-first century best bet..Your Independent guide to Canada Vacation.
By: Michael Russell