Subsistence Living in Haida Gwaii’s Small Communities

Gwaii Haanas in Southern Haida Gwaii

Of the few thousand people who live on Haida Gwaii, 1,000 live in the town of Daajing Giids near Robertson’s Island where I stayed on my visit. As I said introducing my kayaking trip here, it feels like the inner corridor of Alaska: mostly undisturbed nature with bountiful resources (at least in these ‘warm’ summer months) punctuated by small communities. As in many small communities, you more easily know your neighbors, they are more willing you help you out, people have to work together to get things done themselves and gossip abounds.

Living Off the Land and Water

A float plane landing near the dock at Daajing Giids

One thing which always strikes me when visiting less developed, natural environments like Alaska or Haida Gwaii is how at odds the grocery-store and nature-harvesting approaches to getting food are. Here in Haida Gwaii (5,000 population), it is much easier to obtain food recently caught or harvested (at least in the summer) than in the Western US (78M population). By any measure, people in the Western US put huge amounts of time, money and effort into catching fish they just throw back in the water and don’t eat. Contrastingly, in these remote places, grocery store food travels far and can be incredibly expensive and limited in variety (although I felt the natural food store in Haida Gwaii had a pretty great variety).

In this contrast, I found myself locked into the grocery store mindset while in a place where many people offset grocery costs by harvesting their own food or know locally the person those eggs, bread, hummus, etc. came from…and its not a corporation. It’s interesting because this “Eat Local” by default diet is kind of what the whole “Eat Local”, “Organic”, “Clean Eating” popular approach to food imagines. In Haida Gwaii it is common place, not just something for Elites who can afford expensive grocery bills. Replicating this lifestyle widely in the Lower 48 is impossible due to competition from a higher population and less productive natural environments (such as the arid West or highly farmed Midwest). As a result, more strict regulations exist trying to prevent the former from ravaging the latter. However, the bounty of remote ecosystems also follows the seasons with choice and freshness evaporating in the winter compared to commonplace, year-round availability through grocery stores.

Just in my two weeks here we harvested:

  • 8 fish in 20 minutes for dinner one night on the kayak trip
  • 15 Dungeonous Crab a 20 minute paddle from where I was staying after leaving a crab pot for 24 hours
  • Picked 100 Salmon Berries and Raspberries for breakfasts out of thousands
  • Casually grabbed several handfuls of Sea Asparagus out on a walk for some breakfast vegetables
Rockfish caught from kayak

Meanwhile, there are plenty of larger harvests available:

  • Small deer are everywhere (although invasive) and they really are not that afraid of humans.
  • “Incredible” Halibut fishing and bountiful Salmon runs enough to draw fishing tourism
  • Hundreds of oysters affixed to the rocks around Robertson Island

So many of these activities are just unfeasible in the more impacted, populated and less environmentally productive areas of the lower 48. Something I noticed immediately moving from a lush, forested area of Minnesota to the arid, desert and mountain climate of California is that there are a lot less animals in the US West. Of course these highly productive areas I’m describing exist in the Northern part of the Northern Hemisphere. There are prosperous warm months followed by desolate cold months without much activity, however, those winter months are not to dissimilar to how productive our nature is all the time in arid climates… We just have grocery stores.

I cannot imagine living off the land in the mountains of California (even in the summer) since the variety and density of natural food sources is small outside of maybe Trout. Regardless, regulations would prevent harvesting at a rate I could sustain myself. Meanwhile, the subsistence lifestyle seems very doable in Haida Gwaii, especially if not always harvesting everything yourself. It’s these unique, turn your experience on its head experiences that I really appreciate. I enjoy seeing a range of lifestyles since it can be hard to imagine them as possible until I see it.

In a completely different context, this discovery of different lifestyles was why moving to California where people have the freedom and encouragement to try new things and express themselves outside of cultural norms was an awaking of possibility after leaving the Midwest conformity values of my upbringing. “The nail that sticks out is the one that gets pounded down” was an adage I heard growing up.

Here in Haida Gwaii, the experience of traveling around and exploring via kayak instead of car, foot and bicycle was also very interesting. Traveling often teaches you that reducing convince can open new opportunities and appreciation. I found it a very cool experience kayaking five miles to the Haida cultural museum‘s beach to check it out while stowing our kayaks ashore for the paddle back. Of course, this also means things take more time and I’m on vacation so it’s not inconvenient, but I feel like this is part of the Island Life culture that people comment on around the world.

Visiting local Haida Cultural Center via kayak

I’m not saying life is perfect up in Haida Gwaii, more that its interestingly different where expensive items are inverted between Haida Gwaii (fresh vegetables, bread, manufactured goods) and California (Salmon, Halibut, Oysters, Crab). Life here (as in the Eastern Sierra) feels more disconnected from the existential problems of the world, of population centers, of the United States in 2024. However, your connections to resources can be quickly cut off from a storm or a missed ferry from the mainland. Few services exist so you have to do most things yourself and infrastructure (water, plumbing, electricity) is not guaranteed. Finally, like pretty much everywhere, there is a housing squeeze and property rights for the non-Haida (50% of the population) are a little more uncertain given the Haida recently gained governance and Title to the land here. The diversity of human experience is one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of life and it’s always refreshing to see other ways of thriving.

What drew me to Haida Gwaii was the opportunity for a unique experience facilitated by someone who has lived here for 15 years and it definitely delivered. In closing, here are some pictures from the one of the best established hiking trails up the Tarundl Trail to Mount Raymond along the geographic feature named Sleeping Beauty for its chain of peaks that resemble a woman’s face laying on her back.

Sleeping Beauty (face at middle, feet on right)
View from top of Mount Raymond