Gwaii Haanas Aboard Passing Cloud

A passing comment by a Haida Watchman last summer in Haida Gwaii started an unexpected chain of events. In answer to a question from my husband, Walter Russ said that his grandparents had been the Haida couple who guided Emily Carr on her visit to what was then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. When this got me thinking about the iconic BC artist and the relationship between her travels and her work, the idea for a book began to take shape – Emily Carr’s BC.

At that point my itinerary didn’t include Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, which encompasses the southern half of the Haida Gwaii archipelago and protects numerous Haida Heritage Sites that Emily painted. So a return visit topped my research list. I got a tip about a 70-foot Roué-designed (think Bluenose) schooner offering expeditions to the area. Ideal. I love sailing. Enter Russ Markel, OuterShores Expeditions and Passing Cloud.

Exploring Gwaii Haanas

Russ is a marine biologist and UBC post-doctoral fellow who bought Passing Cloud and refitted her with an eye to education, research and guided expeditions. She began her new career last year with the first of her annual autumn voyages to the Great Bear Rainforest. Trips to the west coast of Vancouver Island involving sea otter research will begin in 2014. But this summer I had the immense good fortune to sail on her maiden voyage through Gwaii Haanas.

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site (try saying that three times fast) is a cooperative effort between the Government of Canada and the Haida Nation and is seen as a model for similar projects around the world.

The park reserve is also unique in that it protects everything from sea floor to treetops, so exploring it with a marine biologist made a lot of sense. But, since I was most critically interested in the Haida culture, I couldn’t believe my good luck when it turned out that the second specialist aboard (there are always two) was archeologist Nicole Smith, who has spent a ton of time in Gwaii Haanas. In fact, Nicole was my roommate (I got the top bunk), which made for some amazingly interesting lights-out chats.

Passing Cloud completely fulfilled my hopes for a sea boat. She provides plenty of room for eight passengers and four crew to sit, eat (like kings – thanks chief cook and photographer extraordinaire Gem), sleep (like the dead) and socialize. Accommodations are predictably snug, but very comfortable. If your expectations for sea travel involve a junior suite with private balcony on a floating island and shore excursions in the company of a small army, this is not the vessel for you.







Gumboots & Zodiac

And speaking of shore excursions … I’ve sailed on many mega-ships over the years and not once on those guided jaunts have I walked in profoundly spiritual places among the monumental remnants of a remarkably creative civilization that still thrives; linked hands with eight fellow passengers to span
the circumference of a mighty cedar (thanks gang), held a sea urchin in my hand (thanks 1st mate Eric) or shared in the squeals of delight as an archeologist (thanks Nicole) and a passenger (thanks Zaaven) found Haida artifacts on two different islands. (These were carefully returned to where they were found or given to the Haida Watchmen since it’s illegal to remove any artifact.) Our shore excursions were over-the-top amazing.

 Haida Culture

Knowing my particular interest, Russ made sure that we visited all of the Haida Heritage sites. We stopped at Skedans (just north of the park reserve boundary); Tanu; Windy Bay (where a 42-foot legacy pole is being raised in August to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement); Hotspring Island (where last year’s 7.7 earthquake has interrupted the flow of thermal waters, but Olivia and Camille found enough for a hot dip); and S’Gang Gwaay Llnagaay (a.k.a. Ninstints) the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each location has its own distinct flavour and team of Haida Watchmen who shared their knowledge and personal stories to give a deeper understanding of their rich culture.




Through narrow channels and across open water, we skirted many of the more than 150 islands in the archipelago sometimes called “the Galapagos of the north.” And whenever someone shouted “Blow!” – every lens onboard swiveled in the direction of the pointing arm. I still don’t have my bucket-list photo of a breaching whale, although I do have an extensive library of humps, dorsal fins and tails. And Russ would occasionally tease us with a cry of “Boom!” for a phantom breacher.







Yet we did get to sit quietly on the sea, listening to the “whwew, whwew, whwew” of whales breathing all around us – and a nearby group of humpbacks was obviously feeding cooperatively.

There were other dramatic moments.

We’d been tracking a pair (or possibly three) killer whales (me with my long lens). When they disappeared, we locked onto a swimming sea lion. Suddenly he just vanished. A flurry of white water marked the spot for a moment – then nothing – then a pair of dorsal fins.

“Ou-ooooooooo! Wish I hadn’t caught that.”

But just as suddenly there was hope. The head of one very twitched sea lion appeared close to the cliffs. We urged him on as he swam very warily, hugging the rocks until he was able to drag himself to safety.

Much cheering!

We sailed close enough to the sea lion rookeries on the Tuft Islets, Joyce Rocks and Kerouard Islands (off Cape St. James at the extreme southerly end of Haida Gwaii – one of the two largest sea lion rookeries in North America, the other being on northern Vancouver Island) that when we got downwind the smell was like a slap. I recorded the grunts, growls and chatter on my iPhone, but no iPhone for the photos. Strictly 400-mm for those choice shots.

Fair Winds

In a rare stroke of good fortune, wind conditions made it possible for us to round Cape St. James and voyage for a distance up the forbidding west coast of the islands. On our last day we hoisted sail and tacked back and forth in the protected waters off Rose Harbour where one last surprise awaited. In the golden-lit forest on our last shore excursion, to the former whaling station, we found the moss-covered remains of a partially carved Haida canoe, one final testament to the near complete loss of this remarkable culture (thanks again, Russ).

Passing Cloud

Passing Cloud provides a very different experience from the few other vessels that ply the waters of Gwaii Haanas. Our passenger list included a mom and dad with their twenty-something son and daughter, and a grandmother with her two twenty-something granddaughters. We were soon a blended family. The group that followed us was an octet of women who have taken an annual trip together – forever. Passing Cloud is perfect for this. She’s a vessel that invites camaraderie.

She’s also in no hurry. Where the other boats do a round trip from Moresby Camp close to the Sandspit airport, she sails the full length of Gwaii Haanas. We travelled south to Rose Harbour then took a floatplane (aerial photos a major added bonus) back to Sandspit, crossing paths with the next group who flew to Rose Harbour and sailed north.

Every voyage aboard Passing Cloud is unique. Russ (or his alter ego/co-owner Ian) takes into account the interests of each different set of passengers and tailors the itinerary accordingly. This is not a cruise, it is not an “adventure” – it is truly an expedition.