The Wonderfully Untouched Haida Gwaii

Driftwood and shells on the beach at Tlell. Janna Schreier

Driftwood and shells on the beach at our hotel in Tlell

Sitting off the west coast of Canada, with Alaska in sight, is the beautiful Haida Gwaii. Consisting of approximately 150 islands, across a total landmass similar to one Corsica or two Kangaroo Islands, it is home to just 4,761 people, half of which are indigenous Haida people. It’s really quite hard to get to – we took two flights, one hire car and one ferry – which is a quite a blessing; it’s one of the most unspoilt places I have ever visited.

Northern Beach, Haida Gwaii. Janna Schreier

View of Northern Beach after a mountain climb

Christmas trees on the beach! Janna Schreier

Christmas trees on the beach in Haida Gwaii

It was also quite an unusual place. We spent three days hiking in shorts and t-shirts along beaches and up hills with a hot sun on our backs. The turquoise waters felt very tropical and yet the air smelt of Christmas: everywhere you looked there were spruces and pines, cedars and hemlocks. It really was a curious combination.

Tlell River, Haida Gwaii. Janna Schreier

Our hotel was nestled between a beautiful river on one side and a deserted beach on the other…just perfect for evening walks

But how beautiful it was, after our city sightseeing in Vancouver and Victoria. Even the funny, short, red curtains in our room, the wrinkled prints on the wall and the fawn coloured bedsheets seemed to hold charm after the showiness of Vancouver.

And there was no ‘would you like fries with that?’, anywhere we went. The locals just wanted to help give you directions, wave to you as you drove past and offer excellent quality, and even better value, gastronomic delights. If only there was more of this left in this world.

Moon over Naikoon Forest Bakery. Janna Schreier

Moon over Naikoon forest bakery sign

Bakery in the forest. Janna Schreier

It was hard to make out the bakery within dense forest

The most delightful experience was visiting a bakery in the forest. About twenty kilometres down a dirt road, we came across the ‘Moon Over Naikoon’ bakery. We parked at the sign and walked through dense trees to a little shed, where we were greeted with smiles and pizza and cinnamon buns. There was no electricity, no running water, just amazing smells and tastes, produced via solar power and hard work at half the price I would pay at home.

Moon Over Naikoon Bakery, Tow Hill. Janna Schreier

Inside, the bakery was beautifully (if rustically) fitted out

Wash station in the forest. Janna Schreier

The loos were the bushes but they provided a gorgeous hand wash station next to the bakery (just look at those cute multi-coloured towels rolled up!)

Co-incidentally, whilst visiting Haida Gwaii, I was reading ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ by Tan Twan Eng, which a friend very kindly ‘Amazoned’ me from the UK after enjoying it herself. It’s about a highly skilled Japanese garden designer and talks of his dislike of excess. Reading this, whilst exploring Haida Gwaii make me feel that there are only three things you really need to feel content in life: good light, a large water mass and green stuff. If you have those three things, it is easy to sit for hour after hour feeling really quite satisfied.

Mossy forests in Haida Gwaii. Janna Schreier

Mossy forests were so reminiscent of Japanese gardens

Mosses and ferns at Haida Gwaii. Janna Schreier

Native ferns popping up through gaps in the moss

Life in the rock crevasses of Haida Gwaii. Janna Schreier

Life in the rock crevasses at Tow Hill

Coastal grasses and wildflowers in Haida Gwaii. Janna Schreier

Coastal grasses and wildflowers paint a beautiful picture

The green stuff was all about natural beauty, although the mossy, forest carpets did remind me of the Japanese gardens we’d seen on the mainland. It was fantastic to see so much ‘wild’ space, although I did want to get planting in the residents’  front gardens. The horrid word, ‘yard’, was the only appropriate one for them.

Copper Beech House. Janna Schreier

Copper Beech House

We did see one garden, ‘The Copper Beech’ house, which, along with its namesake had a number of planted shrubs. We also saw the beginnings of a garden at the amazing Haida Gwaii Heritage Centre, but this really did have a way to go.

Haida Gwaii Heritage Museum. Janna Schreier

The beginnings of a garden bed outside the the Haida Gwaii Heritage Centre (I love how this place prompted such generosity of spirit in me!)

Only on our penultimate day did we come across a garden garden; at the Queen Charlotte Visitor Centre. It really did bring a huge smile to my face to see the effort they had made and the wonderful result. It certainly wasn’t an easy spot, right on the coastline, but it was a high quality (if small) garden. It reminded me of Cornwall somehow.

Queen Charlotte Visitor Centre Garden. Janna Schreier

Queen Charlotte Visitor Centre Garden…a delight to find my first Haida Gwaii garden

As well as hunting out gardens, we walked along beaches and rivers, up mountains and through forests.

Rose Spit Beach, Haida Gwaii. Janna Schreier

Rose Spit Beach, Haida Gwaii

Rose Spit, Haida Gwaii. Janna Schreier

Rose Spit Beach from Tow Hill

We went to the Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary and chatted to a lady there who moved to Haida Gwaii from Ireland some forty years ago (and has never looked back).

Wetlands Wildlife Sanctuary Walk, Haida Gwaii. Janna Schreier

Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary: providing important wetlands for migratory birds

We saw traditional totem poles and watched the carving of new ones…

Totem pole at Haida Gwaii Heritage Museum. Janna Schreier

Traditional totem pole

Totem pole carving at the Haida Gwaii Museum. Janna Schreier

Totem pole hand carving in action at the Haida Gwaii Museum…what patience this man has: he was using the tiniest of chisels

…and we saw interesting geological features: Balance Rock, for one.

Balance Rock, Haida Gwaii. Janna Schreier

Balance Rock

I can’t recommend Haida Gwaii highly enough, despite only finding the one garden (which sets the benchmark for everything else at a pretty high level!). The wildlife and natural vegetation and the culture of its people makes for a wonderfully relaxing stay that really re-connects you with the important things in life.

Fishing vessles in Masset harbour. Janna Schreier

Fishing vessels in Masset harbour: a key area of employment for the islanders

Interestingly, on the day we left Haida Gwaii, the light changed and it became overcast with some spots of rain; actually far more typical weather for the region. Paul looked out to sea as we sat on the ferry and said ‘Scotland’; it was true, suddenly it was Scotland in front of us. The conifers looked far more in place in a clearly cold temperate environment and our curious tropical island had vanished in the dim light.

Haida Gwaii Coastal View in the sun. Janna Schreier

Tropical Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii Coastal View in cloud. Janna Schreier

Scottish Haida Gwaii!

It’s remarkable, the effect that light has on our perception and mood. Low light can be dramatic and at least, as a contrast, make us appreciate stronger light. But I still came away feeling that with just some good light, water and greenery (oh, and perhaps a large glass of red wine), I could happily exist for many, many years.

Interesting rock textures at Haida Gwaii. Janna Schreier

Interesting rock textures on the shore at Skidegate

Sculptural driftwood at Haida Gwaii. Janna Schreier

Sculptural driftwood at Skidegate

Spruces on the beach at Haida Gwaii. Janna Schreier

Christmas trees, Christmas trees and more Christmas trees…oh how I love that smell!

15 thoughts on “The Wonderfully Untouched Haida Gwaii

  1. Adriana says:

    I think you have found many gardens Janna rather than just one – all natural (always the most awe inspiring and stunning). The beauty of the Northern beach (looks swept with a broom – the sand is so perfect), the greenness and perfection of the mossy forest, the wetlands and the stunning conifers framing the lake – all amazing natural gardens. But you know – even though Tan Twan Eng suggests that we only need water, light and green stuff (and no excess) we would never be happy with that in reality – people like us need flowers too! A stunning place indeed Janna thanks for your interesting post. I can see you and Paul are having a great time!

    • jannaschreier says:

      I really am coming to the conclusion, like you, that natural gardens are the most awe inspiring and stunning. We have seen so much on this trip and it’s got me thinking very, very hard!

  2. Suzanne Marsh says:

    Janna, what a magical experience. It sounds as though you have stepped back in time into a natural garden of Eden. My garden is my escape from a world I no longer recognise, often find ugly and don’t particularly like. The residents of Haida Gwaii don’t have this problem so why garden…they already live in paradise.

    • jannaschreier says:

      They do indeed live in paradise, although I’m still grateful for our Australian weather. It really did feel a privilege to be there, though. As I get older, being in beautiful surroundings seems to be more and more important to me. I’m not sure if that is true for most people but I agree with you, we all need an escape from less attractive environments. Gardens do so lift the spirit.

  3. rusty duck says:

    That looks so lovely. I was thinking Scottish islands too. Some of the beaches up there are truly tropical in appearance.. on a sunny day! Wild places like Haida Gwaii do pull at the heartstrings. Not sure I’d want to be there in winter though.

    • jannaschreier says:

      We’d both struggle with the cold, I think! Mind you, we later went to Edmonton where it gets down to -40°C in winter and is white for 4 months of the year. I can’t even begin to imagine that.
      Interesting that you spotted the ‘Scotland’ thing. I was very slow off the mark, particularly as I lived in Scotland for three years. As soon as Paul said it, it seemed so obvious!

  4. kate@barnhouse says:

    What stunning and evocative images, the quality of light is simply amazing. I don’t know the west coast quite so well, but even so I am reminded of the many extraordinary skies I’ve enjoyed along the northern coast of Lake Superior where my father lived for nearly 40 years.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks, Kate. It really was such a special place. You know you have great light when you point and shoot with your iPhone and the images come out like this. I’m very keen to get over to the east coast soon, especially if, as you indicate, it’s anything like the west.

        • jannaschreier says:

          I think you are right on both those points. I had always thought the wonderful light in Australia was due to our somewhat thin ozone layer, but that can’t be the case for Canada. It is rare to see those blue, blue skies in England though, isn’t it, even on a cloudless day? I have always lived miles from the coast in the UK though, so perhaps water is the key.

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