Haida GwaiI visit- Summer 1997
by Laurel Borisenko
Ferry to Skidegate
We are gliding gently away from Prince Rupert. The ferry leaves its white trail in the water like a banana slug in the rain forest. Fir-covered hills rise out of the water on either side of the channel. White clouds shroud dense dark green cliffs. Ancient Haida hills. layers of wispy grey, charcoal white light; deep green, grey-green, blue-grey, forest green, yellow-green. The quality of light here is mesmerizing in its brilliance and intensity. Even when you are up close, everything green is alight with an inner glow.
I am sitting at the back of the ferry trying to paint a watercolour. The smell of whatever propels this boat makes my stomach queasy. I look down at my page for a moment too long, and when I look up my watercolour scene is completely covered by thick grey fog. Yet in the midst of this grey universe a hole of blue sky appears directly above me; the smoke hole in the Haida lodge. We have become our own floating grey world, complete with foghorn.
The Rain forest
There is not one square centimeter of the whole place that is not crammed with life. It oozes, drapes, pushes, twines…springing up, hanging down, twisting around, carpeting, covering, dripping. And it does drip. Like our bodies the rain forest must be 98% water, everything made to catch and absorb. Each plant strains with every ounce of chlorophyll energy to capture sun and rain, filling as much space as pliantly as possible. Plants and trees vie with one another in a competition for the most beautiful shade of green. There must be hundreds of shades of yellow-green and forest green and a thousand lines and textures.
Rose Spit is “Haida Bethlehem”. It is a long narrow spit of land with a spine of tall pine trees gently bowed to the wind. Along the edge of this ridge are small twisted shore pines. They have a dramatic windswept look, like a cartoon drawing of someone sticking their head out the window in a fast-moving car, their hair blowing horizontally behind them. Next to the shore pines is a layer of sand reeds, and then the driftwood beaches. The shore is covered with a veil of mist and smoke. Steam rising from the sand makes Tow Hill look softly smudged in the distance. But far out on the west horizon of sea there is the thinnest line of bright glitter where the sun still finds a clearing.
Sandpipers, the size of chickadees, play in the waves. They run on little stick legs, chasing the surf out and it chases them back towards shore. We treasure-hunt agates, but there is serious competition. Two families walk in a line across the pebble beach, shoulder to shoulder, drag-net style. They find a rich deposit, and swoop down like crows in for the feed.
Two eagles sun themselves in a pine tree, taking occasional lazy glides soundlessly through the blue, impervious to wind. A raven flies overhead, “Caw, Caw”, whoosh of strong jet black wings, long downward-pointed beak. Ravens can live to be 70 years old. That’s why Raven is the Trickster. Eagle glides soundlessly into blue. Raven- whoosh-winged, caw-black, hooked beak. Eagle and Raven, Bear and Beaver- Haida totems.
This is where Haida mythology was born. What is its Haida name? What was born here? What seeds did this great long northerly pointed penis spray into the embryonic fluid of the Pacific- Sperm whales? Or the bizarre archipelago of only-found-here life.
Haida Gwaii Visits
We were told we could get the best fish ‘n chips on the Island at a yellow trailer in Old Massett. Just follow the road around. No further directions supplied. So we find our way to Old Massett, we follow the road around, and lo and behold– a yellow trailer in someone’s front yard that looks like it might sell fish and chips. We get out of the car, but before we can get to the door a little boy comes running out. He stops dead in his tracks when he sees us, like a stunned deer. He turns around and goes back into the house. “Customers!” he shouts. Jerry comes out. A gentle looking Haida fellow in his early 50’s. We ask him about the famous fish and chips. It’s close to the 2:00 closing time and our mouths are salivating at the thought. “Well, you know, I ran out 2 days ago.” “Oh. So no fish.” I state the obvious in my hunger and disappointment. We chat a bit about fish supplies and he sits down at the picnic table and we start chatting about local things. No one feels the need to rush off. This is the first Haida person I have spent time with in my 5 days on the island. Jerry tells us a story from his childhood. When he was a young boy he broke his grandmother’s most treasured blue china bowl. He was so scared to tell her because he knew how much she loved that china bowl. She came out and saw the bowl and saw Jerry, and said to him, ‘Jerry you are more important to me than this bowl. It’s just a thing”. Jerry absorbed the influence of his grandmother. Our visit with him ended with a gift: he brought out a huge can of agates, poured them on the picnic table, and told us to help ourselves. I couldn’t help but think of the drag-net families of the day before, scouring every agate they could find from the beach.
I told him I was interested in seeing some Haida art. He sent us to his neighbors house, a few doors down. The house was very simple, but with a huge carved totem pole in the front yard. I cross the yard and knock on the door. In the split second before someone answers, it occurs to me I haven’t the foggiest idea what I should say- ‘hi, my name is Laurel and I’m interested to see some Haida art…’ A distinguished looking older man answers the door. He has long silver hair in a ponytail, and dark eyebrows. He looks slightly surprised, but invites us all in and calls his wife. We end up visiting with her around the kitchen table, as she explains to us how she weaves hats from cedar bark strips that sell in California for $2000- $3000 each. Another lovely impromptu visit with these gracious people that welcome strangers into their home.
And then there was the bed and breakfast where the hostess fed us way too many meals, and we picked raspberries for her, and felt like family by the time we left, and there was the little store with fossils and rocks where I bought a piece of mammoth tusk from a pile in a cardboard box, and there was the sign in the Skidegate café– “Closed for Lunch”.….