The wild archipelago of Haida Gwaii: Where raw, natural beauty is unparalleled

Our floatplane glides effortlessly over the water's surface, coming to an abrupt standstill as the propellers sputter to a halt. A faint smell of gasoline is quickly replaced by a briny waft of saltwater and out of nowhere I notice a Zodiac speeding towards us.

It's driven by Patrick Lemaire, a French-Canadian seadog with straggly grey hair tied in a ponytail. Tossing each of us a thick waterproof suit worthy of Deadliest Catch, he cranks the throttle and soon we're careening out over two-metre ocean chop, the Zodiac's hull thumping and thudding over squalling white caps.

Twenty minutes later, drenched, exhilarated, and no longer convinced the Deadliest Catch suits seemed like overkill, we stagger onto the shores of SGang Gwaay where we're met by a Haida "Watchman". She leads us through an forest boardwalk, beautifully serene beneath a lush forest canopy and – almost like it's a gateway to another world – we emerge from the trees to a ragged beach cove that is now a sacred Haida site.

On a raised grassy clearing, a dozen totem poles, weathered and charred from exposure to the elements stare out to sea. Some lean askew, others are still upright, but all of them are of special significance to ancient Haida culture.

SGang Gwaay (also known as Ninstints) was once a thriving village when Haida Gwaii was home to some 40,000 Haida Nations people. But throughout the 1800s, contact with European traders and explorers decimated that population to just 350 by 1900, with around 90 per cent of the indigenous people succumbing to smallpox and other fatal diseases. Today Haida Gwaii's population is around 4500, around half are Indigenous. Occupied until shortly after 1880, SGang Gwaay serves as testament to this earlier era, with the mortuary poles being allowed to decay naturally rather than displayed behind glass facades in a sterile museum

Situated 60 kilometres off the northern Pacific coast of Canada and 100 kilometres south of Alaska, the wild archipelago of Haida Gwaii retains a mythical aura haunted by ghosts of the past. Comprising two main islands, Moresby Island in the south and Graham Island in the north, it is surrounded by an additional 400 smaller islands formerly known as The Queen Charlottes.

It's an hour-long floatplane ride north from the southern reaches of Gwaii Haanas National Park back to Queen Charlotte Docks off the east coast of Graham Island. Our base from here is Haida House, a charming 10-bedroom property on the banks of the Tlell River. Back in 1984, Kathy James and her partner Phred Collins paddled here in a seven-metre expedition kayak with nothing but their dog and a handful of meagre possessions.

Nowadays James runs the lodge while Collins works as a wildlife surveyor, cultural historian and bio-geographer of sorts. Dressed in a black fishermen's beanie, plaid shirt and glasses, he is a passionate naturalist, often spending days at a time alone or with select Haida people deep in the bush.

Working alongside him is Aay Aay Hans, a Haida from the Gidins-Eagles of Skidegate-clan (the islands' other main clan is The Ravens), who, while softly spoken and somewhat taciturn, possesses a deliciously understated drollness. Though "good cop, bad cop" might be a stretch, Collins' unerring zeal to impart information is countered by the sense that knowledge must be earned from Hans, who frequently answers questions cryptically with a wry smile.

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The two act as our cultural guardians for the trip, escorting us to sites of historic significance.

At the village of Old Masset, we stop by a mortuary pole erected in 1969 on a manicured lawn. For thousands of years, totem poles like this have been an integral part of Haida culture, with each carved component detailing its own intricate story or belief system relevant to a Nation's band.

Of similar importance is the Potlatch, a gift-giving ceremony practised by many Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, designed as a form of wealth distribution. Outlawed by the Canadian government between 1884 and 1951 as part of a policy of "assimilation", religious missionaries also considered it a type of devil worship.

"I get a kick out of this one, as it's right in front of a church," says Hans, gesturing to the totem pole with a smile.

At the nearby Haida Heritage Centre at Llnagaay in Skidegate, we learn more relating to Haida Gwaii's complex history and culture. The culmination of a 40-year dream to provide in-depth insights into Haida history and practices, the award-winning $C26 million facility features a carving house, canoe house, hundreds of exhibits, archival photographs and interpretive talks.

We visit many more sites including a canoe carving shed, a Haida artists' studio and other villages, but on our final day, Collins leads us on a hike up Tow Hill Trail, an isolated volcanic plug in Naikoon Provincial Park.The air is cool and crisp, thick with the scent of hemlock and cedar, a network of wooden boardwalks and staircases cutting through the heart of a coastal forest. Pausing periodically at lookout platforms, we stare at miles of desolate white sand beaches strewn with driftwood, or out towards the coastline of Alaska.

The raw, natural beauty of Haida Gwaii is unparalleled but like much of the world, hangs in a delicate balance with a the logging and fishing industry frequently at odds with members of the Haida Nations, environmentalists and those keen to sway the region's economy towards responsible adventure tourism.

For his part, Collins believes looking to the comparative simplicity of the past to provide answers for a more sustainable future is paramount, a concept he refers to as "postmodern primitivism".

"At Haida House we're trying very hard to curate experiences that will enhance people's perceptions regarding nature," he says. "We look at our visitors as dandelion seeds. Beyond just coming here to visit and having a grand old time, we want them to learn a little bit of what we have going on and hope that they can take that home with them to disperse a few lessons regarding our culture as Haida Gwaiins and our relationship with nature."

Haida Gwaii is not your average travel destination. It's a place of intense beauty steeped in a historic, supernatural connection with the land that's rooted in a culture 14,000 years old. And while so often indigenous travel experiences have been excessively commodified, simplified into little more than a saccharine snapshot for the amusement of passers-through, that is not the case here.

This is a place where you feel you can unplug from the world, but also return to it hopefully a little wiser, your perceptions towards nature elevated.

"I like the fact that the Haida are here and that the Haida have been here protecting and living with the land for millennia," says Collins when I ask why he's remained here ever since that fateful kayak odyssey all those years ago. "I like the level of protection they provide for the landscape based on their cultural concerns for the land. It's verydifficult to find that kind of ethic in a metropolis."

FIVE MORE CANADIAN ISLANDS TO VISIT

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

Rolling hills, bike rides, lighthouses, fresh seafood and a maritime culture on the island famed for Anne of Green Gables. See tourismpei.com

VANCOUVER ISLAND

Diverse landscapes, storm watching and outdoor adventure – this sums up Pacific Rim National Park and Strathcona Provincial Park. See vancouverisland.com

BAFFIN ISLAND

A remote island in the Nunavut territory with a population of 11,000, this is where to experience polar bears, the northern lights, dog sled tours and more. See baffinisland.ca

MAGDALEN ISLANDS

From pristine white sand beaches to towering sandstone cliffs, this archipelago in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence is a beautiful enclave claimed by Quebec. See tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com

CAPE BRETON

Famed for the Cabot Trail, a ruggedly beautiful scenic coastal drive, this island is great for camping, boreal forest hikes and all-round outdoor adventure. See cbisland.com

THE DETAILS

Guy Wilkinson was a guest of Destination British Columbia.

MORE

traveller.com.au/canada

gohaidagwaii.ca

FLY

Air Canada flies directly between Sydney and Vancouver with connections to Sandspit, Haida Gwaii. See aircanada.com

STAY

Haida House offers 10 comfortable guest rooms just metres from the beach. Ocean front cabins from $C449 a night. See haidahouse.com

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