After 40 years of yearning

A firsthand glimpse of the last totems of SGang Gwaay, BC.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this island is the best-preserved First Nations village on the coast. Its melancholy totem poles, slowly disappearing into the earth, represent the souls of hundreds who died two centuries ago.

It took me nearly 40 years from the first time I heard of SGang Gwaay—an island at the southern tip of the Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) archipelago—to the day I jumped from our Zodiac and scrambled up the beach. What took me so long to get there? The usual suspects, time and money, plus the fact that this 2,000-year-old village (home to some of the last standing totem poles carved in SGang Gwaay) is one of the most remote and difficult to access.

I e-mailed my friends for advice. Doug Coupland said they’d chartered a plane to fly to Rose Harbour, then hired a guide to take them to the island. “The German guy who runs you in and out is kind of weird,” Doug wrote. “We call him ‘The Dentist’ because he kept on talking about how, if he’d stayed in Cologne, he’d have been a dentist. But instead of speaking to captive prisoners in a dentist’s chair, he speaks to captive prisoners in his Zodiac.”

My friend Claire told me she’d sea-kayaked through Gwaii Haanas (National Geographic Traveler magazine’s No. 1 park destination in North America) to SGang Gwaay, and convinced me it was now or never. “Those poles aren’t going to be around forever,” she said.

Since I had to make the trip there and back the same day, I put my name on a list at theQueen Charlotte Visitor Centre, hoping to split the cost of the plane with others. Two days later I got lucky. I packed a lunch and drove down island on a rare cloudless day to meet my fellow passengers at the Inland Air office, where we were given brochures telling us the history of the best-preserved First Nations village site on the coast. SGang Gwaay (Anthony Island on the charts) became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.

The plane ride alone was worth the price of the ticket. Marvin, our pilot, flew low so we could get a bird’s-eye view of the humpback whales—at least a dozen of them—in water so clear, you could see their entire mammoth bodies surrounded by aquamarine light as they twisted and turned beneath the surface.

We landed in a sheltered cove on Kunghit Island and then rode a Zodiac across a stretch of open water to SGang Gwaay (which translates from the Haida as “Wailing Island” because of the wailing sound the winds make pushing through a hole in the rocks). It loomed like a tropical paradise out of the misty distance.

Once on shore, we followed a boardwalk trail over the thick, emerald moss that carpets the island. I could hear rap music through the trees, a sign that we were nearing the Watchmen’s cabin, where three or four young Haida—who serve as guardians of the site—spend their summer. After we signed the visitor’s book with an eagle-quill pen, watchman Steven Yeltatzie said he would give us a tour of the site. We set off along another trail to the village, where at one time about 20 longhouses lined the bay.

My first glimpse of the poles was through the trees, and I slipped away from the group onto the crescent beach, feeling shy about taking photographs in this haunted place. I thought of Claire, who landed on this same beach in her kayak. Confronted by the row of massive, weathered mortuary poles carved with the bear, eagle and whale crests of the powerful families of this village more than 150 years ago, she said her whole body started shivering, and then she broke down into sobs.

I’d seen hundreds of photographs of SGang Gwaay: the totem poles losing their struggle with gravity; the pits where huge, cedar-plank houses had fallen and lay rotting beneath the moss. But none captured the true spirit of the place. I stood humbled before a mortuary pole, the Bear Mother Pole, as Yeltatzie explained how her cub was in front of her tongue, representing the people of the mortuary pole and their stories. He told us smallpox epidemics nearly wiped out SGang Gwaay’s population in the late 1800s, and the hundreds who died here were buried in caves, in mortuary poles and in the earth. Whichever way you turn, you could feel the presence of these spirits. Even so, SGang Gwaay is a peaceful place; there’s nothing malevolent about it.

In 1957, 11 of the best-preserved poles of SGang Gwaay were removed, piece by piece, and shipped to museums in the south. Remains of almost two dozen poles still stand while many more are on the ground in varying stages of decay; some would like to see these, too, removed for preservation. But the Haida are adamant: they want the mosses and lichens and the salal to continue growing on these monumental sculptures carved by their ancestors. Yeltatzie believes it will be only another 50 years before they return naturally to the earth.

“I won’t ever see that again,” one of my fellow passengers said, as we boarded our Beaver for the trip back to so-called civilization. I told myself I’d be back, and it wasn’t going to take me another 40 years.

For more area adventures:

Photo Credits: Tourism BC Tom Ryan, courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.