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Casting off…

I may — indeed I have — done more than 200 cruises and know my way around most waterfronts, but this is my first shot at blogging. So bear with me.

What I want to say is that there is more to cruising than meets the eye, such as lingering in a port after your cruise, or not missing out on a great golf course (or restaurant) en route.

So, come with me on my travels, sail on the best ships, find the must-do stuff in the ports, and think of the airport bus as an option. You’ve probably paid plenty for your airfare, so have some more fun with it!

DAVID WISHART

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SO you want to get away from it all? Try Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), Canada’s most remote archipelago, formidably protected by the punishing Hecate Strait and eye-watering airfares. But the islands are refreshingly natural, entirely free of bicycle lanes, and you can buy a bottle of wine in the supermarket at Sandspit.

Some go for the amazing fishing at Langara Lodge, others take out second mortgages and rent cars, and the lucky ones go by the sailboat Island Roamer of Bluewater Adventures.

So it was that a dozen of us set off down the east coast of Moresby island to visit the spirits of the Haidas. Prior to the arrival of Juan Perez in 1774, Captain Cook and Yankee traders there were about 100,000 Haidas living here. Smallpox wiped out most of them, but when these intrepid people were almost a footnote to history they were saved by a determined stand at the 1985 Lyell Island logging standoff, which led to the founding of the Gwaii Haanas park.

Big men at the barricades, the Haida activist Guujaaw among them, and artists including Bill Reid, whose mother was Haida, made it happen. Other characters such as Island Roamer’s entertaining captain Brian Falconer, with his passion for the islands and their nature, opened our eyes to the wonders on these shores.

We landed by Zodiac at secluded coves each with a deserted village, house timbers covered with thick moss. Totem poles, once the regal frontage of every Haida waterfront, were decayed if not collapsed. Haida watchmen, one in a handsome cedar hat, who are guardians of the park, gave us warm welcomes and licence to wander sacred sites, the most compelling being SGang Gwaay in the far south.

The village on this UNESCO World Heritage site was known as Ninstints, meaning “the one who is two” as the chief was so great he was equal to two men.

We walked in forests of cedar, sitka and hemlock, many of them giants that had escaped logging, stopping frequently for Island Roamer’s two guides to explain flora and fauna never seen on the mainland.

At sea we got close to humpback whales, stood off rocks with a sea lion colony, and marveled at tufted puffins and kingfishers, as well as red-footed guillemots running across calm seas.

The Zodiac trips were always an adventure, such as the time a big black bear was spotted near the shore, busily turning over rocks looking for lunch. He ignored us completely, although we were maybe 40 metres away, and at one point laid down for a quick nap at water’s edge. Almost overhead an eagle in a tree made shrill calls to its mate, deer grazed nearby, a kingfisher swooped low in search of prey, and ravens circled. This was the nature we came for.

There were fun times too, such as the visit to Hotsprings Island where we bathed in hot pools. The Haidas used to bathe naked, as did Guujaaw when he escorted dignitaries to the island 25 years ago. These days swimsuits are the rule, as missionaries would have liked, and while nobody objected, it was one aspect of the experience worthy of debate.

Another day we anchored at Rose Harbor, a former whaling station on the edge of an old growth forest and Haida village sites, now home to three B&B’s where kayakers also camp and dine at Susan’s or on Thai food next door. Susan has a remarkable garden and a grain grinder fashioned from an exercise bike. Rustic only begins to describe her place, but it is perfect for the setting on this pretty little cove.

Then Tanu, where we walked silently on shores which once fronted fine longhouses, now broken by time. At a headland is the resting place of Bill Reid’s ashes; his mother was from this island. The artist Emily Carr came here twice.

Island Roamer headed north to Skedans, where Emily Carr also painted. In her early visits there would have been stout cedar houses with people living there, and many poles topped with eagles and ravens, as well as mortuary poles where the bodies of chiefs were placed atop in bentwood boxes. What we experienced was moving and profound and let us grasp the significance of what was lost.

Days were often long with early starts to go kayaking in search of river otters, and Island Roamer’s course occasionally deviated as Falconer searched, usually successfully, for humpbacks. Some passengers hardly ever got out of their rubber boots (ranging from Hunters to my $13 Wal-Marts) while others enjoyed the salon and its library.

Meals were excellent, some of them featuring fish caught from the deck, and the accommodation snug but adequate.

If you go:

Island Roamer, a 20-metre ketch, is one of three vessels operated by Bluewater Adventures, based in North Vancouver. The eight-day Haida Gwaii trip costs $4,400 per person. Extra are flights to and from Sandspit, where trips begin and end. You can also take BC Ferries from Port Hardy via the Inside Passage to Prince Rupert, then across to Skidegate.

Also included was a visit to the Haida Heritage Centre at Skidegate, with its totem poles and canoes, and on the waterfront the totem carved by Bill Reid.

For further information, and enjoyment, visit the Royal BC Museum in Victoria for its extensive displays on aboriginal culture and art, and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC.

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