A Trip in SGang Gwaay

This post is from late February, earlier this year. I didn’t post it in time, and have been sitting on it ever since.

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SGang Gwaay (Red Cod Village) is one of the most remote places in the world. A UNESCO heritage site, it lies on a tiny island, just through the Burnaby Narrows, in extremely treacherous waters that have sunk many ships and halted many explorations. Even now, journeys down to SGang Gwaay are often limited immediately by the weather, which changes in an instant. Swells rise, wind howls, and Mother Earth simply cannot be challenged. The East side of the island is a coast of the Hecate Strait; infamously choppy and unpredictable waters. The west side of the island faces out across the vast Pacific, some of the wildest seas in the world, looking out clear all the way to Japan.

If ever there was a true edge of the world, it would be this place.

What are now but haunting remains – thanks entirely to the repercussions of colonialism and the devastation intentionally brought about by the introduction of smallpox – SGang Gwaay was once a powerful epic of Haida civilization. For thousands of years, they lived here, riding these deadly waters in their expertly crafted canoes, demonstrating an ancient knowledge and modest mastery of the seas. The Haida have stories about ‘the people who eat the maggots’, referring to the rice-eating peoples of Japan whom they had visited, voyaging in these canoes. There are also stories SGang Gwaay Haida adventuring out to Hawai’i, and all the way down to South America. If you know where to look, there are Haida canoes, breaking down slowly in the forests of Peru. Traditional knowledge traveled fast and far.

When an opportunity arose to visit this sacred place with some of the Haida Watchmen and friends from the program, I had to jump on it. This was truly the chance of a lifetime – not to say that I don’t plan on visiting again, but by the time I am able to without the fortune that fell upon me this time, it’s more than likely that many of these poles will have returned to the Earth, as they were meant to so many years ago.

The voyage down there was magical on its own. There were ten of us, on a tough aluminum Watchmen boat. The boat had enough space in the cabin for six, including the Captain and his first mate. We all alternated shifts inside warming up, and outside, feeling the sea spray and seeing the eagles glide at speed along the coast.

Our glorious ride into SGang Gwaay - thank you to the Watchmen for bringing us down on this incredible trip!
Our glorious ride into SGang Gwaay, docking just at low tide.

Once we hit the narrows, my perception had broadened, my third eye wide awake. Though the sky was grey, the sea was calm, and the air was practically vibrating with ancient and powerful energies.

We landed at low tide, clambering carefully out of the boat and through sacred old forest, many signs of life presented themselves to us along the way.

Killer whale out of water.
Killer whale out of water.

 

And then, making our way through mossy forests and misty outcroppings, we reached the poles.

 

Relics of the Ancestors
Relics of the Ancestors
The Poles.
The Poles.

Carefully separated from you and I by a line of clam-shells, they stood.

I guess it’s a matter of perspective, but when you think about how long these poles have been here… how long they’ve stood looking out over the water, the beauty they’ve seen, the vast diversity in appearances and region. They’ve overseen the arrival of war canoes, and successful voyagers returning from unknown adventures, they’ve seen tides and whales and animals we probably can’t even imagine anymore. It’s not too far a stretch of the imagination to believe that the Haida Wasco, a mythical sea-wolf, was just a pre-evolution of a whale, transcended through the ages through Haida knowledge and story, eventually becoming an inextricable symbol in Haida history – part of their story.

 

Thank you to my friend Will for taking this picture. I’ll never forget what it felt like to sit there and contemplate this powerful part of human history. It felt like if I had dared to close my eyes for longer than a moment, there would be no leaving SGang Gwaay. It was a spiritual experience, teetering on the enforced division between history and present, between joy and empathy.

I want to bring my children there one day.

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