Issue Seventeen

WHAT REALLY MATTERS

Escaping the Noise to Find Answers in Haida Gwaii

WORDS & PHOTOS x Danielle Baker

8 February 2017
Part One

Needing to Go

Standing in the middle of the forest on Haida Gwaii is like being the stationary figurine inside a souvenir snow globe. The moist air swirls around you, whipping raindrops and pine needles sideways and up, while the ocean, crested with foaming whitecaps, maintains a barrier to the rest of the world. There is a stillness that grounds you, and a peacefulness that this isolation in space creates. It is no wonder we were drawn here.

Claire Buchar, Dylan Sherrard and I found our way here together – each motivated purely by a visceral feeling that we needed to go. Haida Gwaii is not known as a mountain bike destination and as Claire noted, for our little group of avid mountain bikers “it was refreshing to bring bikes on a trip that wasn’t all about bikes and how rad we were going to get on them or any result we were aiming for. The focus was on exploring a beautiful place, its culture and community, and seeing how our bikes fit into that. It totally happened organically. Our bikes were a part of the whole process; transportation, exploration, and meeting new people.”

Claire remembered learning about the Haida people as a young child in school and instantly feeling a connection to and appreciation for their culture. We had all heard of this mystical Northern place and its people at various times during our lives, and we were all drawn to making the journey and experiencing this vast wilderness for ourselves. So with our bikes, our enthusiasm and only a vague idea of what we would be getting ourselves into we set off for new territory and to finally scratch an itch that had been present for a while.

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Part Two

Hard to Find

It turns out that part of what makes Haida Gwaii so special is that to experience it you have a bit of work to do in getting there. We certainly didn’t help ourselves in that regard however. By the time we were finally on the 8-hour ferry that provides access the islands, we slept, exhausted from the unanticipated 24-hour drive that was the result of an oversight and lack of planning. After arriving quite late at our mid-point in Prince George we checked into our hotel for the night. Or so we thought. A quick, and regrettably first, check of the ferry schedule at 11pm revealed that they were running on the winter schedule and only operating twice a week. In order to make the next days ferry (we were exceptionally fortunate in that regard) we would have to be at the terminal – a 7.5-hour drive away – by 8am. We had barely a buffer of one and a half hours, and even if we made it there was no guarantee we would get on the ferry. But the thrill is in the journey, right?

One long and coffee fueled car ride later and we did arrive to the ferry terminal in time, but just. I suppose ideally you never want to start a trip this way – stressed, sleep deprived, and strung out – but in hindsight this may have been the perfect atmosphere in which to greet Graham Island and what awaited us. Our self-induced debacle punctuated an experience that was about to be one of the most healing and fulfilling of our lives.

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Part Three

Islands of the Haida People

Haida Gwaii, which literally means ‘islands of the Haida people’ is an archipelago on the North Coast of British Columbia in Canada. It is the most northwest point of the province, and as such experiences both the long and short days of the north and the characteristically temperamental wet weather of the west. Human habitation on the islands dates as far back as 13,000 years and structures found on the seabed of Hecate Strait (the waterway connecting Haida Gwaii to the mainland) may establish the earliest signs of human habitation in Canada. The remoteness and uniqueness of the island has drawn more intrepid international visitors for centuries.

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Part Four

Sid's Place

We arrived to this legendary place in the rain and dark of night, stumbling our way to ‘The Bunkhouse’ and our host, Sid. Inside the broken sliding glass entrance we stepped onto the unexpected gravel floor that is Sid’s living room, where just beyond lay a dimly lit area full of bunk beds and a shower room that consisted of a garden hose fashioned with a carwash wand on one end. If ever there was a time to not tell your parents where you were staying for the night, this was it. But we were exhausted and it was warm and dry and over the coming days Sid’s place would become a welcome home base for us. His wood fire being what we dreamed of while we were shivering in our tents, his daily morning marathon of X-Files only endearing him to us all the more.

From tip to tail the island is a 1.5-hour drive, yet even at that accessible size five days proved not enough time to see and do everything we had hoped. We explored where we could on bike; taking them off the rack on the first day only to realize the wet salty air had already rusted our chains. We found secluded beaches, giant old shipwrecks, the decaying bodies of dead animals, and mystical skies that you can only witness after seemingly endless miserable rain. We hiked up mountains to find ourselves enclosed by a barrier of thick white clouds hiding us from the rest of the world. We took a small ferry to Morseby Island for a day and explored endless logging roads, lakes, and an incredible variety of wildlife. Everywhere we turned we were simultaneously dwarfed by the sheer mass of the trees and rocks while made giants by the minuteness of intricate woven textures and life that existed all around us. And still there was more to see.

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Part Five

Somewhere in the Forest

It was telling to feel the confoundment in answering the ubiquitous ‘how was the trip’ question upon returning home. It felt to all of us so much greater and more profound than simply the retelling of our experiences, but I decided that the essence of it was best described in the hour that we spent along the winding paths of the Yakoun River. From our first steps into this forest we felt as though we had slipped into another world. And while I still can’t quite put words to why, never in my life has it been so easy, so completely effortless, to be present. Every surface – every textured leaf, every gnarled tree trunk, every curled and tender fern – was damp. Deep moss carpeted the entire forest floor on either side of our ribbon of trail and buried deep within it were mushrooms of every shape and size, every colour and texture. Our senses were so enveloped in the breathtaking layers of greens and the magical detail of everything that no other thoughts could exist in our minds. We arrived at a small clearing when the sun suddenly broke through the canopy illuminating an isolated rain shower and we felt an instant connection and responsibility to the earth. We spoke of feeling a similar nature connection through mountain biking, but also understood that this sacred area needed to be seen at this level, at this speed. Our absorption in the area was so complete that when we finally made our way out we were shocked to find we had moved only minutes from our waiting car. There was something spiritual and revelatory that day, and as Dylan aptly noted “somewhere in the forest of Haida Gwaii, I felt tiny and insignificant. And I thought that was very inspiring.”

Awe and wonder were not the only things we experienced on those islands though. The range of emotion was greater and more surprising than we would have guessed before arriving. “I wasn’t expecting to feel so sad at times,” Claire said. “I don’t know if it was just me but there seemed to be a powerful sense of loss entwined in the forests and coastlines. Perhaps the beauty, abundance and somewhat remoteness of those islands reminded me of how we used to live, so close to the land, and how we have become so disconnected. And what we have done to the planet.”

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Part Six

Looking Inwards

One night after setting up our camp during a deluge we had finally given up having a fire for warmth and were sitting around the empty pit as more of a ceremonial gesture to the tradition of camping than a practical one. We had hung a tarp overhead and speaking loudly to be heard over the drumming of the rain, we talked. We talked about the bike industry, about the exhaustion that we experience this time of year (the fall), and about the deeper meaning of it all. Dylan shared that he felt ‘it was the perfect opportunity to turn inward after a long and challenging year’, and we all agreed. We discussed the concept of learning our responsibility to the earth, to ourselves, and to the people around us, and we felt inspired by this connection. “I remembered something really important,” Dylan said later, reflecting on our time together on Haida Gwaii. “We have a huge responsibility to look after and love each other and this planet that has always done the same for us. That really followed me home and has had a governing impact on my every thought and motion since returning. I mean, its great to get a lot of stuff done, but if you aren’t taking care and spreading something positive, are you really doing anything with your time?” He wasn’t alone in those thoughts and sensations. There was a connection that was ignited up there and that we all agreed we wanted to carry with us from that tiny part of the expansive world.

Earlier in the day while escaping the element in a small gift shop in Old Masset a local woman sitting behind the counter had told us that the weather here is always the same, in the summer they just have longer days. And at some point we came to appreciate that through our restricted schedules we had visited during the shorter days and that we had been forced into balance. Forced by nature and circumstance not to overachieve, not to shoot for hours on end, and not to be able to spend all day exploring. We came to realize that we’d been forced to set up camp earlier than we wanted to and that we were afforded this time to slow down and talk, to connect with each other and to disconnect from the rest of the world.

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Part Seven

Hippy Shit

It’s not often that we have the fortune of being completely aware that these moments are going to have a lasting effect on the story of our lives, but away from all the noise of our everyday lives we had the incredible opportunity of knowing this to be true. As we sipped our freshly gathered ‘tree tea’ on our last morning, Claire spoke for all of us when she said, “this trip has given me more respect for our connection to the earth. I’m leaving feeling reaffirmed to live life more simply, with more heart, less consumption, more living, more art, and less war – all that hippy shit!”

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Thanks
Issue Seventeen
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Thank you to Claire Bucher and Dylan Sherrard for coming along for the journey.

The carbon footprint for the travel for the production of this Issue has been offset by a contribution of $20 to the Eskapee Carbon Offset Fund.

The End
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