The Edge of the World
Photo Essay by Owen Perry
They call them the ‘Islands at the Edge’ for good reason. Sixty miles detached from the mainland of British Columbia and perched on a continental shelf that plunges 10,000 feet just a few miles offshore, Haida Gwaii it is the most isolated group of Islands on the west coast of North America. Remote, mountainous and surrounded by water, it is not easily explored by land. In fact, few good roads exist outside the one running between Masset and Queen Charlotte, the two main population centers. If you’re going to fully explore Haida Gwaii and visit remarkable places like Gwaii Haanas National Park, it really requires taking to the sea.
It’s estimated that the Haida have been inhabiting the islands for estimated 15,000 years, and over this vast amount of time they perfected the art of canoe building. Carved completely from the trunks of Haida Gwaii’s massive ancient cedars, some of these canoes reached 70 feet in length and carried more than 30 passengers and paddlers. So well-built and seaworthy were they that the Haida regularly made passages across Hecate Strait to trade with, or in many cases invade, tribes on the mainland. Today, the rich history of water exploration in Haida Gwaii continues, albeit mostly by kayak, zodiac or sailboat.
Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to explore Haida Gwaii by water in another type of wooden boat, a classic schooner called Passing Cloud. Owned and operated by Outer Shores Expeditions, Passing Cloud and its crew have taken me to places like SGang Gwaay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where I’ve seen and photographed the finest examples of remaining Haida memorial or mortuary poles in the world. I’ve been privileged to speak with and learn from the Haida Watchmen, an organization located within Gwaii Haanas National Park dedicated to educating visitors about Haida history and way of life. And I’ve seen beauty and wildlife that is hard to justifyingly describe or photograph. The experiences have enriched not only my understanding of Haida culture, but of how their way their life was inextricably woven into the ecology of Haida Gwaii.
In the summer of 2018 I had the chance to sail around Cape St. James, an extremely rugged group of islands inhabited mainly by seabirds and sea lions. The islands mark the southernmost tip of Haida Gwaii and have a notorious reputation amongst mariners for being inhospitable pretty well all year round. As many as five different currents converge at Cape St. James, creating raucous and unpredictable water conditions feared by even the most experienced sailors. Thankfully we were spared the Cape’s worst weather on the day we sailed around her. Conditions were rather excellent for sailing and Passing Cloud thrived at what it does best.