A Week Wilderness Kayaking in Gwaii Haanas, BC

Three 1-2 hrs flights followed by a bus, ferry, friend’s car, friend’s boat and finally a friend’s ATV to help carry our bags, we finally arrived at Sadie’s mom’s place on Robertson Island near the village of Daajing Giids on the Haida Gwaii archipelago in British Colombia, Canada. It feels like the inner corridor of Alaska: ocean surrounding heavily forested misty mountains where there is little development and abundant bald eagles. Our first goal is to explore indigenous cultural sites and nature of Gwaii Haanas National Reserve in the South via eight-day ocean kayak trip guided by Green Coast Kayaking totaling 45 nautical miles.

Reno > Seattle > Vancouver > Sandspit > Daajing Giids > Robertson Island

Short Aside About Haida Gwaii

50 miles off the coast of continental North America, these islands were home to the distinct (while similar in artistry and culture to Alaskan indigenous peoples) Haida people who were devastated by smallpox in the 1850s, but seem to have regained or retained much authority here over the land, sea and small communities. After 15 years, Sadie’s mom is saying goodbye to being a half-time resident here in a place where most everyone knows everyone. Throughout my time, I heard many people rattle off the names of the store owner, service operator or local producer of almost anything. It is a place where the person who fills a need such as a mechanic, tree trimmer or building inspector is just the person around best at the job rather than necessarily someone trained in the skill. It reminds me of other small oceanic, northern communities such as those in the Lofoton Islands of Norway or our last trip up to Alaska.

Haida artwork on wooden canoe in ‘back yard’ of Sadie’s mom’s place

Pack, Preparation and Launch

As you might imagine, it can often be misty, rainy, cloudy and cold in Haida Gwaii even in June with temperatures ranging from high 50s to low 40s and a good chance of some rain on any day. So I packed pretty warm clothing with high quality rain gear and some quality shin-high rubber boots (people like XtraTufs). On the night before our launch, I packed my clothes, sleep setup, tent, a small amount of snacks and other personal affects into 4 (5L), 1 (10L) and 2 (20L tighted down to 10-15L) bags, loaded them into a large Ikea bag used for hauling to/from kayaks and wheelbarrowed it to the end of Robertson Island for a short, 5min canoe to Daajing Giids followed by a 40min ride up to Green Coast Kayaking’s HQ / hotel / lodge for a meet-greet / dinner / last chance for adjustments before going in with our party of nine: Sadie, her mom, myself, two Oakland residents, two locals and two guides.

Day 1: Launch

Boat with kayaks and gear heading down towards Gwaii Haanas

On launch day, we drove to the dock in Daajing Giids to take a flat bottomed steel boat with our kayaks towards our first campsite at Ramsay Island with a stop at a Haida site at Skedans (Grizzly-bear-town). These sites are historical locations of Haida communities managed by Watchmen who act as docent and look after these locations which were often abandoned after smallpox decimated villages by 50-60% and were later raided by settlers. Here at Skedans we were shown evidence of the long houses where families lived, mortuary poles where high status individuals were buried in hollowed out tress or boxes atop and remains of the surviving carved totems not hauled away by settlers. The wet ecosystem here proliferates moss and decomposition, causing me to wonder how much longer these structures would be preserved at their original locations.

Foundation of a large longhouse

After a short lunch and tour we continued onwards to land 3.5 hrs after launch at Ramsey Island, setup camp and eat a dinner of Salmon with daal sauce made over a fire before turning in.

Witchy Camp

Day 2: Hot Springs

Breakfast at 7am was eggs and peppers while seals poked their heads from the water. In general, it seemed it would be 2-3 hrs after breakfast until camp was broken down and we loaded into the kayaks for launch. We took a short paddle over to Hot Springs Island and waited our turn. There were Haida Watchmen here which also regulated how many people were at the natural hot spring sites so they are not overrun. I had a great time going between the cold ocean and hot springs.

One hot springs pool. There were rustic facilities for changing, bathroom, showers.

Afterwards around 2:30pm, we took a two hour, four mile crossing of the straight to a small bay for a mossy campsite and a hearty dinner of halibut tacos. The food was really good on the trip and reminded me of how people pack on river trips. Honestly, I felt there was an overabundance of food this trip, which I get because on a guided trip not having enough food is a big sap to moral, but I had a hard time getting over my heavily-impacted public land, leave no trace mentality from the lower 48 backpacking. It was weird to pour out our food into the ocean even though it is so vast that dilution probably means it makes no difference. Especially given we also used the tidal zone for the bathroom.

Day 3: Burnaby Narrows

After a granola breakfast, we watched a black bear on the beach before taking off on a longer paddle day of 6 hrs / 12 miles through the Burnaby Narrows to setup camp for two nights.

Bringing down loaded kayaks to prep for launch

I started the day making up Sea Shanties with my kayak mates and we christened Sadie’s and her mom’s kayak the Dead Weight. My legs were too long to use the internal rudder paddles even in an XXL kayak so I was constantly brake-paddling to maintain conversation distance, orientation and speed to the other rudder’d kayaks within the current of the narrow channel which took a lot of energy. The seas remained calm and the sun came out enough for my face to feel hot.

Narrows gets tighter and shallower

Day 4: Day Trip

We had a late morning because of the prior day’s paddle (9am breakfast) so we got out later and would have had to fight the tidal currents to get to Island Bay (8mi round trip) where typically some dolphins resided and a trail up to Yatza Mountain (2,300 ft) which was supposed to have views of both the West and East coast. Most people were not into the idea of pushing all day and it would’ve been hard to get back to camp for a 6-7pm dinner for the guides so we bailed on the plan and went to a small nearby bay instead and walked up a river.

There were a lot of old growths in Gwaii Haanas

I took some great underwater photos of Fried Egg Jellyfish and starfish on the paddle.

Fried Egg Jellyfish

With the short day trip, we had some down time before dinner which I spent reading from “the library” of local books our guide brought. I saw a few boats and one kayak group. Pretty much everyone we saw the whole trip (5 groups) was here around the Burnaby narrows. Meaning we had most of the preserve to ourselves.

Day 5: Jedway Stopover

We had really good weather during the trip, but things were to change near the end so we did another push 14 miles to the next camp with a stop at the old mining site of Jedway. Apparently a bunch of the houses from this site were floated to be housing elsewhere after the site was abandoned and some are still lived in. There were lots of purple urchin shells on this beach.

A bunch of these tunnels below Jedway site

We passed a distant island with loud barking sea lions before rounding a point where we jigged for rock fish. It was the easiest fishing I’ve ever done and I caught two 14 inch fish in 2 minutes from fishing line wrapped around driftwood and a bright lure. We cooked up these fish for dinner and saw a salmon jump four feet out of the water several times trying to escape a seal.

Day 6: Short paddle to Seymour Rock

I don’t typically paddle so expected some blisters. I could really tell if the gloves I had were better than no gloves but I used sports tape a few times to tape over small blisters to prevent them from getting worse. On our way to Seymour Rock we saw an adolescent humpback whale 30-100 ft from us and it even gave a few fin slaps which echo’d loudly across the water. This whale would stick around all day in the bay nearby where we camped spouting while hunting.

It was a short paddle so we had some more down time which I used to do an off trail (there are no trails here) hike to try to get a higher view of the islands since we didn’t ascend Yatza. I outlined a route and headed up stream before the walls got high enough where I walked up an old growth log 30 ft to partway up the gulley wall and started up towards the ridge. Walking through a heavily mossy floor that varied from dense ferns, large tree fall bridges, interlocked trunks and landslides I made my way up to 1,000 ft but was unable to get a view through the forest before my turn around time when I descended a stream to the ocean and walked short beach cliffs back to camp.

Four foot diameter log I walked up onto left bank (30ft and steeper than looks)
I could see some sky at 1000 ft but no large break in the forest

Day 7: Rain day

The small weather event we tried to beat arrived and we went out for a short 3 mile paddle around the bay in the rain with slight winds before having tent time for most of the day with occasional very loud sea lion gruntings. It was a very high tide so we moved up our kayaks up onto the undergrowth and mostly Sadie and I read our books. S’mores were the highlight of the day.

Rainy short paddle

Day 8: Return

We had another late morning with the constant rain mostly stopping while the water remained choppy. Our return motorboat bringing the next set of kayakers doing the South Route came 1.5 hrs after expected so we knew we’d have an interesting ride back. It took about five hours with choppy sea on a flat steel bottom boat which shuttered and popped us around frequently slapping a swell or wave with occasional spray over the side. We saw one dolphin but it was a chilly, wet ride back to end the trip.


Haida Gwaii, like Alaska, was a great reminder of what true wilderness is, where you rarely see people or human impact. Places where there are not trails and animals are more commonplace. I didn’t feel like I had the skills for handling the more hazardous situations on the ocean that could occur or predicting the weather in this area and so it was great being with a guide who was very chill and didn’t need to constantly keep eyes on everyone. We were very lucky with very calm seas, very little rain and occasional prolonged direct sun. My only criticisms of the trip are that I felt like we spent too much time eating or camping instead of more movement in the kayak and making more use of the long daylight. It can be hard to feel accomplished unless I am very sore at the end of a trip and it felt physically pretty chill. However, a strenuous trip isn’t really the vibe the rest of the group had and that is how it goes with a guided group who don’t know eachother. In all, a really unique, interesting experience with great guardrails from having it guided on the things I know less about.