Today was our first full day inside the Gwaii Haanas Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, and the highlight was without a doubt out visit to Tanu Island and the Haida Village site there. A little over an hour from last night’s anchorage at Crescent Inlet we hove to in a gentle swell off the rock beach below the village site and dropped anchor. Many of the important cultural sites throughout Gwaii Haanas are guarded by Haida Watchmen, who in addition to protecting these historical resources act as guides and interpreters for visitors. Invited ashore by Watchmen Mary and Sunny, we entered past the reef in Deceptions dinghy and set off to see the site.
It is easy to imagine children playing among ornately carved cedar canoes hauled out on the broad gravel beach. Huge cedars and spruce grow up to the beach, their tick canopy shading an open, mossy forest within. Berry bushes grow from fallen logs. Mary and Sunny take us down a trail lined with white clamshells to show us the massive timbers and tiered pits that remain where the cedar longhouses once stood. Even still, corner posts show the careful notching of precisely carved mortise and tenon joints that held the huge split gables. Fallen mortuary poles sit draped in moss on the forest floor, the curve of an eagle’s beak or bear’s claw showing through the greenery. Piles of rock on the beach mark “octopus’s gardens”, where the Haida built rocky cairns to entice the creatures to take up residence, returning later to reap an easy harvest.
At the northern tip of the island lie a number of somber gravesites. Two mass graves stand unmarked in the trees, a painful reminder of the smallpox plagues that ravaged these islands and killed upwards of 90% of the island’s Haida residents in the late 1800’s. Bill Reid, the famous Haida artist and cultural force is buried here as well, the headstone facing east towards the rising sun.
In the early afternoon we departed, rounding the headlands at Dodge Point on Lyell Island, where decades ago Haida activists blockaded the logging roads to protest the wholesale destruction of their lands. We skirted the northern edge of Juan Perez Sound and slipped into the narrow entrance to Beresford Inlet, which leads back river-like deep into Lyell Island where we anchored in quiet waters surrounded by old growth forest.