By Jackie Gay
When I first moved to Vancouver Island I would wake in the night knowing the whales were nearby. I could feel them. ‘The whales live here!’ I’d think, every cell of my body thrilled by this and I would close my eyes and listen to them blowing, see the water breaking off their knuckled backs, their flukes perfectly outlined on the crystal mountain skyline.
Now I’ve been to Haida Gwaii, to Gwaii Haanas and the Great Bear Rainforest and crept, unbelieving, into the lands of the legendary spirit bear. I’ve trodden the bear paths, slipping on eyeless fish heads. I’ve crouched underneath the dripping moss and watched the bears scoop out spawning salmon, scuttled back from the path as Warrior – the young female – jumped up and eyed me with her battled-scarred face. Now I can close my eyes and I see her, too, water dripping from her shining fur, ambling along a fallen log. They live here! Protected – now – by the Gitga’at and the ‘gift to the world’ that is the Great Bear Rainforest. By the tiny community of Hartley Bay that fiercely defended their territory, that ‘drove a stake into the Northern Gateway project.’ They live here as they’ve always lived here and as witnesses it’s our job to protect them forever. ‘If you love a place then you must protect it,’ Guujaaw said. ‘You can’t sit back on the sofa.’
Everything I write about Haida Gwaii sounds like a fairy tale. Once upon a time there was a girl with one leg, who travelled on a ship of hope to some magical islands at the edge of the earth where the world began, there she met a wise man and a young prince, and learned there was still hope in the world.
‘Don’t be normal,’ said Guujaaw, the wise man, the Haida leader who travelled with us on the ship to Gwaii Haanas, now protected from mountain top to ocean floor. He drew a line on a map round the lands and waters, one pencil line that began the end of the logging in the southern archipelago. I smiled when he said it. ‘Don’t be normal.’ As if I could. ‘Sing us a song,’ I said, ‘a love song,’ and he hummed Al Green, my all time fave, ‘How can you mend a broken heart…?’ Once upon a time I was given a song.
Two days before, I’d been sitting on a beach on the Isle of Wight, England, picking up shells to lay in my beloved Dad’s coffin. I looked out over the Solent where he taught me to sail as a little girl, a boat came in, a small family sailboat just like ours and I wept until my tears reached the rising tide. I landed back home just a few hours before taking flight again to Rupert, to join the Polar Prince, all my long-planned prep for the voyage – the leisurely reading, the pouring over maps and charts – blown apart by the death of my dad.
I laid the shells on Dad’s body with cigars for the afterlife, and brought back stones from the beach for my husband.
I wasn’t prepared. I even brought the wrong notebook.
In Xaayda Sahlinda Naay, the Saving Things House, I learned how it all began. We come from supernatural beings that come out of the ocean. In the beginning this island was nothing but saltwater, they say. Raven flew around. He looked for a place to land in the water. By and by, he flew to a reef lying at the south end of the island, to sit on it. But the great mass of supernatural beings had their necks resting on one another on it, like sea cucumbers. It was both light and dark, they say.
We were welcomed royally to these lands, every detail precise and beautifully chosen – cedar branches laid across electrical wires used by the ship’s musicians, dining tables adorned with berries and shells, cedar bark wrapped and tied for our bracelet-making lesson. We’ve been welcoming people for thousands of years, said Cohen, our guide, and that lineage lives in the songs, the stories, the knowledge, the stolen poles scattered worldwide and the new ones carving out today’s stories. There is good evidence that these islands were refugia during the ice age – bear caves, fish and bird remains, Staala Gwaii (the Haida Gwaii slug). There was life here when all else was frozen and it’s a but small sidestep from this Western, archaeological, scientific knowledge to the Raven, alone one day on Rose Spit beach, where he spied an extraordinary clamshell from which protruded a number of small human beings. The Raven coaxed them to leave the shell to join him in his wonderful world.
This is, after all, the edge of the world. The lands where a golden spruce (that science can’t explain) thrived for hundreds of years. The lands which hosted the only caribou known to have lived in a rainforest; whose oceans are home to the Pacific Giant, the world’s largest octopus, and across those waters lives a white black bear.
The spruce was chainsawed down in the middle of the night in 1997 – a disillusioned timber scout’s bizarre environmental protest. The last of the caribou were shot by hunters in 1907. A creature of ‘mischief and craft’, the Pacific Giant blends seamlessly into the rich marine environment while the spirit bears shine, mesmerizing everyone whose lucky eyes get to see them. Their lives seek out the light within us.
My notebook for this journey was a soft paperback with quotes from the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi on each page. This is a lovely idea when you’re travelling in cars, or trains or aeroplanes… but on a ship in the temperate rainforest, where rain is ‘liquid sunshine’ and water drips from every glistening leaf, it’s not very practical. I was cross with myself for this – I should know better, I’ve taken notebooks all round the world with me; I own hardback notebooks and weatherproof notebooks and chinagraph pencils. But Rumi I had and Rumi I took with me into the forest, soggily, following the path which was marked out by shells, like Hansel and Gretel I followed the line of white into the forest. ‘What you seek is seeking you,’ said Rumi.
The first thing I saw when I stepped ashore at SG̱ang Gwaay was the turban shells, home sweet home for sea slugs, they have a latch like a magic door, they close it and vanish from view. The latches are prized by the Haida carvers and used to make eyes and teeth for monsters and beasts, for the supernatural creatures carved on the poles. Never did I think I’d be able to visit those poles, walk into that ancient culture, as it crumbles back into the forest. A girl with one leg stepped her foot on to the beach and into a dream come true. She vanished into the forest. ‘You’ll have to drag me out of here,’ she said to her companions, who were already sinking into the deep soft moss, crouching on branches, letting go, letting be. Here she finds Wasco the sea wolf, the sea grizzly, the thunderbird – she brushes the wooden feathers of his indomitable spirit. The mortuary poles, standing guard over the ocean, over the land, over the past, are now shadows in her mind forever. Round every corner, every wind of her path: their eyes, their wings, their teeth, their claws, their fins. When her eyes slide away, they move, tricksters, like the raven who caws in the tree tops, shrieking to the living forest, ‘the humans are here.’
Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints. This is basic. This is yah’guudang (respect). But my hand closed over the shells, there were three of them in my pocket and even though I knew I would leave them – place them gently back on a piece of driftwood – the pull was magnetic, it took energy to draw them out and return them to where they belonged. I wanted them for John, my husband, who broke his neck when he was 19 and who – in his words – ‘lives vicariously’ through me when I travel to places that his wheelchair can’t. The weight of this, the sadness that he can’t come here, be part of this magical place, was too much; I dissolved in the diffused light of the ancient forest, the steady gaze of the eyes on the poles watching. I cried for them, my brothers and sisters back behind the barriers, as I’d cried for dad, on a different beach on another island shore.
‘A diverse crowd makes a greater whole’ said Gwaliga, the young Haida leader, the prince in the fairy tale. He knows this from the land, the ecology of these isles and waters. He knows it in his heart. One day I hope that everyone in Canada will understand, believe, that we – the people on the edge, the people who are not normal – can give as much as you think we might take. It’s the wish I’ll carry home from this trip, that I slid into my pocket instead of the shells. Haida Gwaii sends a message to the world, said Gwaliga, that it’s possible, to heal, to make meaningful ties from the colorful tapestry of Canada, to build a sustainable life protecting our values and our home.
Stay hippie, said Guujaaw. Don’t go back to work.
SG̱ang Gwaay means ‘man who has the strength of two’ and now we – all of us on the C3 voyage – must have the strength of two to carry home these dreams, these messages, yet stay here, on the edge of the circle, on the fine knife’s edge where all is clear and we’re drenched in spirit.
Before we leave Haida Gwaii, the ship stops at Woodruff Bay, a sandy beach on the southern tip of the islands. On the beach there was space and light in front and dark forest behind, jagged and magnificent, clouds snagged in the high branches. A raven circled. Here I found the most beautiful shell. I asked the Gods, can I take it for John? I collected plastic from the beach in exchange, but still wasn’t sure. My mind made all sorts of reasons why this was OK. It’s only one shell, there are hundreds of them on the beach. He would like a shell like that; he would love a shell like that. In our home we have shells and rocks from all our travels: from Ireland and Arizona, Tobago and the Alps. It’s only one shell.
I slipped into the forest and slid down into the bush. We were warned not too, there are bears – of course there are – but I did it anyway. Resist, said Guujaaw. The other walks were too quick; I wanted to linger, absorb. I pulled the shell from my pocket and brushed the sand from the opalescent sheen. I still wanted it, like an avaricious magpie eyeing the shiny stuff. The raven croaked. The clouds slid across the sky. Pine needles landed on me. The wind ruffled the ocean.
I was quiet.
I wrote in my notebook and Rumi told me my heart knows the way. A branch cracked and that heart leapt to my throat, a bear! That’s what you get for rebelling all the time, you get eaten by the bear, by the wolf in the fairy tale. But I turned my head and it was a deer, right here, right under the next tree, grazing.
The shell wasn’t for him. It was my magpie instinct, to take, always take, pretending that taking doesn’t matter. It’s only one shell,
only one tree,
only one valley.
Only one island.
I stayed still and silent. I left the shell behind.
Out here on the edges there is ferment. A desire to talk, understand, make progress. The ship has traversed this edge, this intertidal space all the way around three oceans. It makes the middle seem stolid, stuck, while these hidden histories on the fringes cut deep and flow fast like rivers in the fall.
Here is just one of them…
The village of SG̱ang Gwaay Llnagaay – named Ninstints by the colonists, after the powerful village chief – had been inhabited for thousands of years. We saw the remains of the 17 longhouses, homes to 400 people. By the time of abandonment in the 1890s there were just 30 people left. In 1862 traders from many of the Pacific North West tribes had been camped outside Victoria when a Gold Rush paddle steamer arrived from San Francisco and smallpox ‘ripped through the camps like a whirlwind.’ Panicked municipal leaders drove the sick away at gunpoint; forced them into their canoes and escorted them away with a Royal Navy gunboat. The ‘pestilence spirit’ of Haida myth was riding north.
Up to 95% of the Haida died. The watchmen who take care of this place told us stories of bodies piled high on the beach, the stench, how the remaining villagers were advised by missionaries to bury the dead instead of the Haida way, in the air, on poles. ‘It was the only good advice they ever gave us,’ he said.
On the beach we sat with the ghosts of the past. It was both light and dark. We watched the children playing, the women weaving and singing, the ‘esteemed ladies’ nodding their assent to the chiefs at the potlatch. ‘The past is over there, in front of me,’ say the Haida. Áwaahl – it happened a short time ago. This is a song for the lost villages, for places where it’s so quiet you can hear the voices of the dead. If you listen carefully, you might hear the lost histories too; the stories, genealogies, songs.
I was given a song by a wise man, but it’s not mine to pass on. For the Haida a song is a solid as a tree, a whale, a stream gushing with life; it can only be used with permission. If you want the song you will have to go, to Haida Gwaii and find your own song.
All of this is part of me now. I see the spirit bear in the face of the moon; a totem in each tree. I see my dad in the big black bear, ambling down the stream; in the captain of the ship as he guides us through swirling waters. ‘Don’t grieve,’ says Rumi. ‘Anything you lose comes round in another form.’
All over the world there are tales of small groups who have turned the tide. A boy who put his finger in a dyke and stopped a catastrophic flood; David and Goliath battles like the Gitga’at vs Enbridge. Cam, the spokesman at Hartley Bay, reminded me of that famous photo of the man who stepped out in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square. ‘I would be the last guy on the battlefield,’ Cam said. ‘We’ve got to protect what we have.’
Take what you need from this earth, say the Gitga’at. Use what you take. Since I came back from the edge I’ve stopped buying. No more shiny geegaws; I have everything I need. We are drowning in an ocean of things. Do what you can, said Guujaaw.
None of this is fantasy, I swear, every word is the truth. Well, except that I’m not a girl, I’m a grown woman as my mum would have said. And although some of it sounds impossible, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Believe, Canada. Believe in the stories and the songs and the tides turning. In resistance and resilience and potential and the tall trees of this wonderful world growing straight and true towards the sun. Growing, protecting, enriching – like the best parts of ourselves.