We’re on our way to the Haida Gwaii Islands off the west coast of Canada. And we’re going by motorcycle! OK, technically speaking, we’ll ride the motorcycle onto several ferries to get there, and then ride home through the interior of British Columbia.
Today we had an easy day. After packing all our stuff into the motorcycle’s three travel cases, we rode from Seattle to Edmonds, took the 40-minute ferry ride across Puget Sound to Kingston, then rode 61 miles to Port Angeles. We had a short wait there, then loaded the motorcycle onto a bigger ferry that took us to Victoria (1.5 hours).
We will be riding the entire length of Vancouver Island from south to north, but we decided to detour to the west coast of the island and stay in Tofino because of the whale watching opportunities there. On the way, we stopped in Nanaimo to try a Nanaimo Bar (a layered confection of cookie, custard, and chocolate).
Our 200-mile ride today was beautiful, but we were surprised when traffic ground to a halt on the narrow twisty road that crosses from the eastern shore to the western shore of the island. On the positive side, while stopped, we got to chat with others who were touring by motorcycle — friendly folks who are always happy to share tips about routes, equipment, packing, and so on. Once traffic got going again, we made it to Tofino just in time for sunset.
Today we went for a whale watching tour and a bear watching tour, both by boat. The whales were hard to spot, but impressive once we did see them spouting and diving — though we didn’t manage to get any good photos. The bears are easy to find, just by heading toward rocky coastlines during low tide. Black bears somehow know that’s the ideal time to venture from the forest to the shoreline and flip the rocks in search of delicious crabs. We saw mother bears demonstrating the technique to their young cubs, who then tried to imitate their moms — really cute!
Vancouver Island is big! It took us more than 5 hours to ride the 315 miles from the south side of the island to Port Hardy at the northwest end. It got more and more remote as we went — we felt like we were escaping from houses, towns, and civilization, instead surrounding ourselves with trees and lakes.
We got up early this morning and headed straight for our next ferry. We boarded a huge ship, parked the motorcycle, found some nice seats on an upper deck, and settled in for a long ride: a 15-hour journey up the Inside Passage that runs along the west coast of British Columbia. We enjoyed the relaxing trip, occasionally heading out on deck to view the scenery or check out a whale that the crew spotted. At nearly midnight, we docked in Prince Rupert, which is about as far north as you can go on this coast before reaching Alaska. We rode the short distance to our bed & breakfast and turned in for the night.
Two more ferries today! The first was a seven-hour trip, crossing from the mainland to Skidegate in the Haida Gwaii Islands. There was a chance of rough seas because the route traverses open seas, so we strapped the motorcycle down to the car deck. Thankfully, the weather wasn’t bad and the journey was fairly smooth. From Skidegate, we took another ferry across a small channel to the next island, and rode 15 miles into the town of Sandspit. We checked in at the office of Moresby Explorers, the leaders of the expedition that we’re going on tomorrow, then headed to our bed & breakfast for the night.
Today we began a four-day adventure aboard an inflatable zodiac boat, exploring the historic native settlements and wilderness of the Gwaii Haanas National Park. We’re accompanied by our guide and captain, Bryan, as well as eight others who are brave enough or fascinated enough to travel by zodiac on open waters to see this remote area.
We felt a little silly when we first put on our warmest clothes and added waterproof boating jackets, pants, and boots, but we appreciated all those layers once we were moving fast through the wind and spray on the ocean. We visited the ruins of the ancient Skedans village, where we learned about Haida culture and traditions. And we saw the rusted machinery and other artifacts left behind long ago by a logging operation. Other than that, we saw only wilderness as we made our way to our destination: a floating lodge run by Moresby Explorers. After a long day on the water, we were thankful for a delicious multi-course dinner and basic but comfortable sleeping quarters.
One of the highlights of this trip was our visit to Gwaii Haanas National Park in the Haida Gwaii islands. This park, which is accessible only by boat, protects a huge area containing pristine wilderness as well as the remains of ancient villages of the Haida native people.
We spent four days traveling around the Gwaii Haanas park on a zodiac boat, spotting wildlife along the way and stopping in villages to learn about Haida culture. We were greeted in each village by a couple of Haida people — members of the Haida Gwaii Watchmen program who protect the ancient sites and guide visitors like ourselves. We learned a tremendous amount from the watchmen. They were truly able to transport us to the past, and to immerse us in their fascinating culture.
Traveling at high speed on the open zodiac boat was a thrill (sort of like motorcycling)! One of the days was particularly difficult, though… We endured a storm that brought rain, wind, and rough seas. Let’s just say that the group bonded on that day!
According to Haida tradition, humans and animals share many traits: both have personalities and spirits, and both may inhabit the natural world or the supernatural world. Many Haida stories involve animals speaking with humans, or transforming from supernatural creatures into humans, and vice versa.
One of the women serving in the Haida Gwaii Watchmen program told us a creation story, in which Raven discovers the first humans hiding inside a clamshell, and convinces them with her singing to come out and play. Another watchman recounted the story of a woman who goes to live in the realm of the bears for a while before returning to the human realm. We also learned that according to the Haida, people who drown in the waters around Haida Gwaii become orcas (killer whales).
These stories helped us understand the Haida people’s tremendous respect for the natural world around them, and their strong drive to preserve it.
We braved rough waters today to get to the southernmost islands of the Haida Gwaii archipelago. Faced with choppy waves, strong winds, and driving rain, our guide asked us whether we should turn back, but the group agreed to forge ahead so long as the weather doesn’t get any worse.
We stopped only briefly for lunch, and again to check out a waterfall, then kept going to reach Rose Harbour. There are two houses there, permitted because they were there before these islands became a national park. We were treated to a fabulous dinner by the owner of one house, and we slept the night in the other house.
We awoke to blue skies and much better weather. The group climbed aboard the zodiac and we made our way to the SGang Gwaay village, one of the best preserved of the historic Haida sites. After learning about the village and its totem poles, we returned to the boat and headed north. On our way back to the floating lodge, we saw seals sunning themselves on rocky islands, and spotted a whale breaching. When we got to the lodge, we had just enough time to take a tandem kayak out for a paddle around the bay before another great dinner.
The SGang Gwaay village is a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognized for being one of the finest examples of a Northwest Coast First Nations village.
Before contact with Europeans, the Haida population numbered about 20,000. External contact brought trade, but also diseases. Smallpox devastated the Haida, reducing their population to fewer than 600 people by the late 1800s. The survivors from the southwestern villages gathered in SGang Gwaay, making it one of the last villages in that area to be occupied.
This village is particularly known for its display of beautifully carved mortuary poles — totem poles that held the remains of a dead person. When a person of high status died, the body would be placed inside a bentwood box which was left to rest in a mortuary house until the carving of a mortuary pole was completed. The Haida people are a matriarchal society, so when a man died, the eldest son of his eldest sister was expected to assume his position in society. The successor also had the task of carving the mortuary pole that would hold his uncle’s burial box.
The mortuary poles in SGang Gwaay are being left to return to the earth, as is done in Haida tradition.
The talented chef at the floating lodge supplied us with homemade granola bars for our return journey — yum! We visited the remains of another old Haida village near Windy Bay. Then we learned about the Legacy Pole, a totem pole erected in 2013 to celebrate 20 years of cooperation between the Haida and the Canadian government in managing the Gwaii Haanas park, following many years of contention over resources and native rights. We enjoyed one more walk in the forest, stopping to see one of the biggest trees on the islands (twelve of us could not reach all the way around it). Then we climbed aboard the zodiac for the final leg of our boat excursion, returning to Sandspit.
In 1985, in response to years of unsustainable logging on the Haida Gwaii islands, the local Haida people organized a blockade of one of the logging roads on Lyell Island. Over a two-week period, 72 Haida people were arrested, including the elders of the tribe. According to the story we heard, Haida police officers in particular were ordered to arrest members of their own community.
The standoff between the Haida and the logging industry drew international attention, and eventually led to an agreement between the Haida Nation and the Canadian government. This agreement outlined the creation of Gwaii Haanas National Park, which is now protected and cooperatively managed by the Haida and the government. In 2010, the marine area around Gwaii Haanas was also designated a protected area, making Gwaii Haanas the first place in the world to be protected from the top of the mountains to the bottom of the sea.
These days, trees are harvested and replanted using more sustainable methods, and the Haida people are deeply involved in the conservation of the natural habitat.
Today we reversed our steps, riding the motorcycle back to Alliford Bay and taking two ferries back to the mainland. Arriving in Prince Rupert in the evening, we returned to the same bed & breakfast, and found two other adventure motorcycles parked there. We enjoyed chatting with the other riders — Australians who were on their way to Alaska.
We went on another bear watching tour today, this time to see grizzly bears in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary. We saw several solitary adults and a juvenile bear, but the highlight was seeing two momma bears with their incredibly cute cubs.
Today we turned inland, riding east into the interior of British Columbia. We were amused (but not surprised) to see a couple of black bears chewing on grass right by the side of the road as we were riding along. This 305-mile stretch was perhaps the most enjoyable ride of the trip, with an excellent road winding its way through forests, mountains, lakes, and rivers. We stopped in Hazelton to visit the ‘Ksan Historical Village, which beautifully preserves the art and architecture of the Gitxsan First Nation.
We traveled 335 miles today, and again it was a very pleasant ride. Except for a stop for gas and lunch at a big grocery store, we pretty much bypassed the big city of Prince George. We definitely prefer rural roads over city riding!
Today’s 200-mile ride followed the Fraser River, which cuts an impressive gorge and makes for impressive scenery. We skipped the tourist-trap activities at Hell’s Gate, and opted instead for a quiet stroll at Alexandra Bridge Provincial Park, where a bridge built in 1926 for cars is now accessible only to pedestrians.
As we rode the final 160 miles to Seattle, we witnessed a fairly rapid transition from wild areas to cultivated farmland, then from small towns to suburban and urban areas. We avoided big highways from the Canadian border to Seattle, instead opting for the smaller country roads. Not only did this make the ride more pleasant, but it also paid off when we found a farm selling freshly picked blueberries — we pulled over and ate quite a few before stowing several boxes more to take home.
When we were planning this trip, we weren’t sure how many days we would be willing to sit on the motorcycle, so we made sure we included lots of other activities. Now we know that we’d happily keep riding much longer, especially on roads as beautiful as the ones in British Columbia!