As predicted, the wind continued to build overnight, and a healthy chop as formed in the anchorage. Nonetheless, today is out day to visit Sgang Gwaii, and UNESCO world heritage site and the most intact traditional Haida village site in the world. Leaving our mechanic Jordan behind to keep an eye on things, we welcome everyone aboard Deception for the quick trip to Anthony Island, which lies on the exposed SW corner of the archipelago. Tufted and Horned Puffins, their bright breeding plumage already fading into a more subdued winter style, dive along current lines as we make our way towards the small anchorage. Out to the west, great breakers roll in off the open Pacific and explode onto the storm-beaten coast. Small shore pine and stunted spruce cling to the exposed faces, bent and gnarled by the unrelenting wind.
With the hook securely set, we launch the dinghy and radio in to the watchmen for permission to come ashore. Slipping past kelp forests and into a protected nook in the rocky shore, we land on a gravel beach and set off inland over a well-worn trail to the watchmen’s cabin. There we meet our Haida hosts Brian and Ken. Ken is a carver and painter in the traditional Haida style, and he shows us some of his most recent projects while we sign in. His work is a powerful interpretation of the form-line tradition, and the work-in-progress raven mask he is carving from yellow cedar is full of life.
Ken led us out of the house and down a boardwalk trail through old growth forest toward the village site, where it became evident that he was not only an artist, but also an accomplished historian and storyteller. The Haida, traditionally having no written language, relied on oral tradition to pass on their extensive history, and Ken’s family is one of the families that has held much of that history for untold generations. His narration and expansive knowledge set the place into context and transformed our visit from a sightseeing outing into a fascinating educational journey.
The grounds of the village have been cleared of the trees that grew since its abandonment in the late 1800’s due to the terrible impact of smallpox, but otherwise remain much as they were when they were found. Of the totems, nearly 20 remain standing. Many are mortuary poles, with hollows carved at the top to accept the remains of a deceased person of high standing, the carvings telling the history of their life and the status of their clan. Others are frontal poles, which stood at the front of the great timber longhouses and acted as identifiers of the family that resided there. Great pits and standing posts still clearly show the create side and careful craftsmanship that went into the building of a home, all shaped and dictated by strict societal rules that determined what members of which clan were the appropriate people to do what task.
The exaggerated, severe faces of raven, eagle, frog, bear, and killer whale look out across the cove where visitors would’ve landed in their canoes. Doubtless, they would have made quite the impression to anyone thinking of visiting with less than friendly intentions. The Haida of the Khungit Island region were famed for their hardiness and toughness as warriors, and evidently the village of Sgang Gwaii was never successfully raided.
The carvings at Sgang Gwaii are unbelievably striking and powerful, and as we walked a looping trail back through the ancient forests, under mossy cliffs and through narrow gorges we were all deeply impressed. At the same time, as we beat our way back to the anchorage through the building wind, we were happy not to be paddling canoes.