Land of the Watchmen: The Queen Charlotte Islands

Known as the Canadian Galápagos, the Queen Charlotte Islands make a breathtaking argument for sustainable tourism. You can thank the native Haida, who keep a close eye on the place.

Near Tow Hill, the sea had receded a quarter of a mile, revealing scuttling crabs and giant purple starfish. Beachcombers in hip-length waders scanned the sand for the telltale holes of razor clams. On Agate Beach--sprinkled with milky stones tumbled smooth by the tides--I watched surfers doing their thing, and was able to see Alaska in the distance.

Until 1997, a 300-year-old Sitka spruce mutant, famous for its golden needles, stood on the banks of the Yakoun River, three miles south of Port Clements. Sacred to the Haida, the golden spruce was chopped down by a woodsman-turned-activist, Grant Hadwin, in a misguided attempt to draw attention to the effects of logging in British Columbia. (It's rumored that Hadwin later faked his drowning, and that he still roams in the woods.) Today, only the stump remains, and to get to the old viewing spot requires a 10-minute hike through old-growth forest. I found a hopeful epilogue to the sad story at the Port Clements Historical Society and Museum: Photos showed another, smaller, golden spruce growing on Graham Island. Fortunately for its long-term prospects, this one is only accessible by helicopter.

I still hadn't gotten that call, so I booked a room at Copper Beech House in Masset. A sprawling cedar house built by a Swedish carpenter in 1914, the B&B is surrounded by a garden of rhododendrons and poppies. The drive from Queen Charlotte City took about 90 minutes, and I arrived just in time for a buffet of halibut sashimi; smoked oolichans, oily fish eaten head and all; and rhubarb and salal berry pie.

Owner David Phillips, a self-taught cook, used to be an interior designer in Toronto. How he ended up in the Queen Charlottes is quite a story. "In 1971, I tried to circumnavigate the islands in a rowboat, in black dancing pumps," he said. "I got to the west coast, which is like the Emperor's Garden--these three-mile, deserted sandy beaches, with one rocky outcrop after another--and my boat started to sink. Fortunately, a fishing boat came along at the last minute and threw me a line." Phillips's only serious culinary competition is Roberta Olson. She's a Haida grandmother who runs a regular event called Dinner at Keenawii's (her Haida name) at her house in Skidegate. After serving her guests lavish seafood meals, Olson encourages them to toss salmon scraps to the bald eagles on the beach outside.

In Old Masset, I stopped for a cappuccino at Haida Rose, an Internet café, where I struck up a conversation with a gentleman wearing a fedora woven from cedar bark. In addition to being a spokesman for the Haida Nation, Gilbert Parnell is occasionally a tour guide, and he kindly agreed to show me around Skidegate (pop. 750), the islands' largest Haida community.

We began at the Haida Heritage Centre at Qay'llnagaay, a 53,000-square-foot complex opening next spring that will include a performance space, museum, restaurant, gift shop, and more. "People on Haida Gwaii are getting out of the traditional fishing and logging industries," Parnell said, with the polished tones of a radio announcer, "and each year we're seeing the Haida people becoming more involved in tourism. The Heritage Centre is a good example." Another example is Aay Oo Guiding Services, which offers an environmentally sound alternative to expensive lodges: Native guides take small groups out in four-passenger power boats to do a limited amount of sportfishing.

"We've got some things happening, cross-culturally, that I think the world has to look at," said Parnell. He drove me to a workshop where craftsmen carve cedar canoes and make jewelry from argillite, a soft, black slate that only the Haida are allowed to mine. Though Skidegate's native population is among the fastest-growing in all of Canada, only 30 people still speak Haida fluently. The Skidegate Haida Immersion Project was designed to preserve the language: Elders create teaching materials, including glossaries and workbooks, to be used in schools.

Our last stop was a popular stretch of beach just north of Roberta Olson's house. The tide was out, fully exposing Balance Rock, a six-foot-wide boulder poised on a pivot point not a whole lot bigger than a dinner plate. A campfire was burning nearby, and Parnell bowed his head as he crumbled a cigarette into the flames--an impromptu Haida offering to ensure comfort and security for his family.

Later that afternoon, South Moresby Air called to say they had a place for me on a plane leaving the next morning. I met up with Brad Koop, the pilot, and my fellow passengers, a nice couple from Alberta. Sharing the Cessna meant that I paid $561, versus $1,500 if I'd gone alone.

We flew south, over forests and abandoned logging camps, finally landing in Rose Harbour, the only private land in the national park. Patrick Lemaire, a tall, bearded French Canadian, met us at the dock. Lemaire first came to Moresby Island in the 1970s, before it was designated as a park, and he now runs the funky, solar-panel-heated Gwaii Haanas Guest House with his wife and two sons. Rooms start at just $96--a fraction of the cost of airfare to get down there--so Lemaire arranges discount flights for guests.

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