Salt Spring Island to Haida Gwaii

Taking the 70' schooner Passing Cloud on a crew only transit from Salt Spring Island to Haida Gwaii, and taste of the magic from 8 days in Gwaii Haanas.

Haida Gwaii, the place of the Haida people and home to Gwaii Haanas, the only jointly managed national park in Canada. The federal government and the Haida people agree to disagree on the technicalities of ownership but work in a consensus-based decision-making process to preserve the southern portion of the island archipelago. This makes Gwaii Haanas an incredibly interesting model of partnership as well a unique intersection of culture and preserved ecological abundance. It's also a blossoming tourism destination.

A fresh perspective of the Passing Cloud from her foremast.

In June I had the chance to join the 70' wooden schooner the Passing Cloud operated by the eco-tourism outfit Outer Shores Expeditions on a boat transfer from Mill Bay on Vancouver Island, to southern Haida Gwaii. Additionally, under the position title 'Intern' I solved the dilemma of gaining experience aboard as a deckhand and photographer as well as completing a month of experiential learning as my final university credit. Under this guise, I was fortunate enough to have been granted passage on the 'Kunghit Island Photo Tour.' An eight-day expedition around the southern islands billed as a photography trip, and lead by the talented James Thompson (

My hope on the trip was to observe the relationship between eco-tourism, photography and the environment. Many schools of thought suggest the eco-tourism and conservation photography can be models of inspiration and change. Yet others argue that eco-tourism and photography are influenced by the culture a person is from; which means the photos may do nothing more than to assert prior experiences and cultural views onto a place (potentially in complete juxtaposition to other cultural norms). Thus, equipped with my own biases, the whole experience made for a good chance to join people and cameras in an environment far away from the books and theory.

So after two weeks and one shower hopefully the photos and words from my journal below offer a wee peek into life as a deckhand, photographer, eco-tourism, Gwaii Haanas and Haida Gwaii. I look forward to hearing some of your reflections on photography in the comments below. 

To view the whole 300 photo gallery (and for guests to download images) CLICK HERE.  

Day 1.

First Mate Joel White picked me up in the zodiac from Vesuvius Bay on Salt Spring Island at 7:30am and we joined up with the Passing Cloud as it motored north up the inside of Vancouver Island. The day passed uneventfully as we watched the coastlines roll past. Spotted a humpback and calf near Comox before anchoring in Gowland Bay off Quadra Island. 

Cruising into the most colourful sunset of the trip. Quadra Island off the starboard bow.

A palette of colours plays with the Coast Mountains off to the east.

Day 2. 

We woke up to the early grey of a 5am start to head north through the treacherous tides of Seymour Narrows in Discovery Passage (previous home of Ripple Rock and one of the world's largest non-nuclear explosions on record). A pod of ~25 pacific white sided dolphins briefly played along the bow before a lunge feeding humpback stole the show.

Headed NW up Johnstone Strait I was blown away by the expansive range of the Coast Mountains and their jagged peaks stretching out to change the silhouette of the horizon. Went up the foremast to fix a deck light and stayed like a trussed koala, arms and legs wrapped around the 60' mast as it waved through the swell. The lads also decided it would be fun to raise the sails while I was up top. Made Port Hardy late in the evening and I called Renée for the last time before losing cell reception.

Joel watches the world wake up as the Passing Cloud approaches Seymour Narrows.

I went up to fix a light. They smiled and left me up there for a while.

Obligatory selfie and a photo for Helly Hansen & who generously sponsored me the jacket for the trip.

Day 3. 

Took on our last supplies and 2000 litres of diesel early before heading north to round Cape Caution and come up the inside of Calvert Island. Seas were monotonously rough and unsettled the world's equilibrium. We anchored outside the Hakai Institute (an old fishing resort converted into a research foundation largely privately funded by the Tula Foundation) and repaired some rigging before crossing Hecate Strait the next day. 

First Mate Joel on watch.

Calvert Island basks in coastal rains and the cloud dance of late evening light.

Day 4. 

Start at 4am. The world is grey, land sea and cloud all share the same shades. A drizzle mellows spirits as we motor out between Calvert Island and Hecate Island. But as the day warmed we found Hecate Strait a sheet of rolling glass painted by round clouds and unmired by ripples of wind. Over a hundred nautical miles, several of them with nothing but the horizon in every direction. It was the first time I'd felt like a raft afloat upon the sea. Ignorantly I imagined we wouldn't see any wildlife on this section of the trip. 

Early morning departure and transit between Calvert Island and Hecate Island south of Bella Bella. Next crossing, Hecate Strait.

By the end of the day we passed the lolling fins of three ocean sunfish (Mola mola the largest bony fish in the world), had come across an albatross floating on the surface before taking off in large graceful wing beats to share the waters with murres, ancient murrelets, kestrels and other pelagic bird species, 19+ humpback whales and one massive super-pod of 100+ pacific white-sided dolphins who came from every direction to surround the ship and thoroughly check us out. 

A pacific white sided dolphin exhales moments before breaching the surface as it plays in the bow wake of the Passing Cloud in the middle of Hecate Strait.

In checking each other out, I imagine the dolphins thought us the stranger species.

We spent the time napping and looking introspectively off into the distance before pulling into Heater on Kunghit Island, Haida Gwaii as the sun fell. We dropped lures and caught and released six rock fish and a black cod in 15 minutes (rock fish can live for hundreds of years, thus the release). It was dark by 11:15pm and we hunkered in to get some sleep before receiving our first guests at 9am the next morning.

The stern wake fades off into the distance as the sunset turns the lights down and we round into Haida Gwaii.

Day 5.

The sun rose early and by 9am the hard sun of late morning was already glinting off the wings of 'Peter the pilot's' floatplane as it came soaring in towards a landing beside the ship. Joel and I got on shore for the first time and I immediately lost myself to my imagination in an ecosystem untouched by modern logging practices. We sailed south to a beach Matt hoped would deliver something special. In and amongst the floatsom Dave got lucky and found what Matt had hoped we might see; a glass Japanese fish float. A treasure of coastal driftwood hunters. Later we anchored in the next cove over back in Heater.

Sharp rock, bold spruce, a preconceived stereotype of Haida Gwaii to be found occasionally.

Lucky damn Dave with his Japanese glass ball. No better nor cheekier person could have found it.

Day 6.

Started the day with a foray into the woods. I snuck off up the creek and took a bath amongst the moss covered everything. From there we headed north to view a puffin rookery before setting sail and heading south back along the east side of Kunghit Island. Struck the sails when we made nine knots with only the fore and genoa and motored into Woodriff Beach, something out of a tropical postcard if it weren't for the large sitka spruce forest. 

If you have a chance, go explore the forest on that beach. On a sunny day the light slants through the spaced old growth and warms the hummocks of green grass in a way I only ever imagine. Everyone explored it in their own way, I walked into the bush side by side a black-tailed (invasive species) deer and spent the first half hour of alone time I'd had on the trip with an inquisitive shit-eating grin plastered to my face.

After a good show-and-tell of mussels and sea stars with Joel we headed south to Cape St. James, the southernmost tip of Haida Gwaii. It's probably more likely to find the Cape in a gale force wind than without one, so it had been on my list to see as a potential (insane) kitesurf spot for a while. Captain Matt Lemay skillfully handled the ship through sea lion rookeries and standing waves before following three pairs of humpbacks off the western side of Kunghit Island. Eventually, we motored north to anchor near the spot we'd started earlier that morning.

Looking for a place to bathe.

James doing his early morning bicep curls.

The Passing Cloud sits at anchor in a place that was difficult to wrap my head around.

The Passing Cloud plays hide and seek through the trees.

Joel very much in his happy place.

Cruising south towards Cape St. James.

Sea lions bask in the sun as mellow swell crashes into the rocks.

Day 7. 

Headed NE then NW around Kunghit Island to anchor in Lascoun Bay. Fished along the way but didn't have much luck catching any keepers and later got hit by a raunchy squall which absolutely drenched us as we tore down the foresail in the rolling swell. Anchored and explored the grassy lagoon in the mist and rain for hours as everyone pursued their own photographic interests. Filled my gumboots to the brim with water.

I've never taken a picture of a rainbow, so yeah...

Joel and Barb hanging out on the back deck as a squall rips through.

James making the best of any weather.

Dave meanders up the estuary.

Looking back towards the speck of the Passing Cloud riding at anchor.

Five minutes earlier the water was falling vertical.

Day 8.

Woke up to calm waters and cloudy skies. Motored through a football field-sized swath of jellyfish, I've never seen anything like it! Spent a few hours sailing, then cruised back to anchor up the same inlet we woke up in.

Stillness. Sitka spruce and low cloud.

The masses of jellyfish. A picture can't do the numbers justice.

Matt in his happy place, on the back deck sailing. I have literally no idea what anyone is looking at.

Chef Ryan Bissel (the real star of the show for placing incredible meals I've never heard of down in front of us all time again) takes some time out of the galley to get a photo of the sunset. Thanks for the class act.

Chef Ryan Bissel (the real star of the show for placing incredible meals I've never heard of down in front of us all time again) takes some time out of the galley to get a photo of the sunset. Thanks for the class act.

Sunset over a different skyline than I'm used to.

Day 9.

Started the day in sun dripped stillness, breath in the air and polish on the water. Saw a pod of rare risso dolphins cruise back out to the open waters they usually call home. Then it was off to see what is often thought of as the pinnacle of southern Haida Gwaii's tourism, the mortuary poles and remains of the village of Skangwaii (often referred to as Ninstints). We were lucky to have the longest serving Watchman, James, share the stories of the place and the lessons he's learned over the years. It's hard to imagine the scale of the pre-contact Haida and the strength of the persevered culture today. I was torn between fascination and sadness for the turmoil that is the swirling tides of humanity. Anchored in Rose harbour for the night.

James sips a cup of coffee and complains about the view.

The majesty of hot food, aka the first time Ryan cooked oatmeal in his life.

Risso dolphins transit back towards open waters.

Each poles carvings represent the diversity of the families lineage.

Day 10.

Guests toured the eclectic community of Rose Harbour and we spent some time putting the boat back in order. Headed north up the east side of Kunghit Island to investigate the remains of a dead Fin whale (the second largest creature on earth). Got left on the beach. Then cruised by another sea lion rookery for a close up look. Anchored in Ikeda Cove (the previous site of a large and industrious copper mine which closed more than a half century ago). 

Matt isn't little. Neither is that vertebrate.

A magestic immature bald eagle (they'll stay mottled for the first ~4 years) perches on a branch.

And then again, maybe not so majestic.

Day 11.

So tired. Woke up early and followed a male and female orca northwards towards Burnaby Narrows. Passed Ian McAllister's old boat, Del Sur, which looked like an awesome trimaran with an intrepid group of young people onboard (if anyone knows them, drop me a comment!). I've given up counting humpbacks. Anchored in Bag Harbour and saw the first black bear of the trip scamper into the bushes.

A male orca cruises north along the archipelago.

Day 12.

Final day. Engaged in some interesting conversations with guests in the downtime between float plane shuttles. It felt good to take the time to settle into a line of thought again. Owner/operator/captain and new dad Russ re-joined the Passing Cloud and we motored south to spend another evening in Rose Harbour. But not without a fish along the way. Called Renée on the satellite phone and we both sang my dad a happy birthday over speaker phone.

Sharing the anchorage at Bag Harbour.

Day. 13.

Peter the pilot of Inland Air picked up Matt and I and flew us north to a shuttle that took us to Sandspit airport. I finally took some alone time and spent the afternoon walking around the airport with pants rolled up and shirt off. I think I probably walked ten times farther that day than I did in the previous twelve days. Enjoyed the sight of the coast mountains and mystic rivers of ice tickling glaciers through mountain ranges whose names are unknown to me from 30,000'. Landed in Vancouver in the rain and then Renée surprised me at the Victoria airport with an awesome hand-painted sign and a big smile.

It felt good to be home.

The transition between land and sea becomes harder to distinguish in calm clear waters.

Islands on a calm day.

Peter the pilot brings us home safe in his beauty 1950's Beaver.