Haida Gwaii: The Edge of the World
The archipelago of Haida Gwaii, off the northern Pacific Coast of British Columbia, is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. Photographer Benjamin Johnson captured the essence of what Haida Gwaii has to offer, from lush rainforests to ancient Haida villages. Read on for details on the trip and a fantastic selection of photos from sandy beaches, thick forests, and crystal clear lakes…
Have you ever planned a trip only to find that once you arrive at your destination, your original plans were average at best; not because they were terrible ideas on their own, but because the place offers you an experience beyond your wildest dreams? Our two-week bikepacking tour of Haida Gwaii was one of those trips. When seasoned travellers Adam, Frankie, and I ventured to this remote island last summer, it didn’t take long for us to feel a part of it. Much like the area’s moss that engulfs all that lies in its path, we felt overtaken by our surroundings. Rather than fighting its pull, we surrendered our original plans and submitted ourselves to the land: the rhythm of the tide, the direction of the wind, and the ways of its people.
The prep for this trip started like so many before it. We’d previously really only taken Adam and Frankie’s tandem bicycle, Betsy, as far as the brewery and back. So, we scrambled to acquire parts that would ensure she could withstand all that Haida Gwaii would throw at her. After some great finds at the shop, one quill adapter, and lots of elbow grease, we successfully converted Betsy from a long-retired pack mule to a robust(ish) transporting machine (more on that here). She was ready to roll, and with my Giant tethered to the back of the truck, so were we.
After a last-minute trip to Bulk Barn for a healthy supply of Sour Patch Kids, we were off. Adam said the words we’d all been dying to say, “Hey Siri, take me to Haida Gwaii.” “Okay Adam,” Siri replied, “It will take one day to drive to Haida Gwaii. You are on the fastest route.” We arranged ourselves for maximum comfort and settled into the audio version of The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant. His words are popular with many first-time Haida Gwaii travellers. We listened intently as he spoke of the island’s history.
The Edge of the World
After an 18-hour drive and an eight-hour overnight ferry, the island began to reveal itself in the distance. Once we were on dry land, we knew we wanted to get riding as soon as possible. We treated our first ride as more of a warm-up. We rode along a nearly zero elevation strip of North Beach to Rose Spit, a long sandbar on the northeast tip of the island where the rough waters of Dixon Entrance and the Hecate Strait meet. Only a few kilometres in, we found ourselves on a sandy beach as far as the eye could see; the width of which was so expansive I was barely able to see Adam, Frankie, and Betsy on the other side as I rode along the water’s edge.
Just as we were passing an unnamed shipwreck, and settling into a good and comfortable cadence, we were confronted with that familiar heart-pounding feeling as we noticed the water quickly begin to rise towards us. Our tide window was closing quicker than we thought, and our casual warm-up ride turned out to be a hammer session back to camp. This was undoubtedly a good test for the legs.
We settled in to our first camp at Agate beach for a few days. Here, the rhythm of life was simple, but the scenery was anything but. We filled our time searching for agates (because it’s in the name!), and night after night, we were treated to some of the most epic sunsets of recent memory. In case we weren’t fully aware of just how very “north” we stood, a local reminded us that “on a clear day you can see Alaska from the top of nearby Tow Hill.” This place truly is the “edge of the world.”
We treated ourselves to one night of luxury at the Copper Beach House in the village of Masset. This turned out to be a great opportunity to meet a few locals. There is no greater way to experience a place than by having conversations with people who call it home. In only a few short hours, we met local Haida artist April White who was an invaluable resource on the culture of the Haida people. We were also given keys to a cabin from a generous stranger. As we rolled through town we noticed a local church hosting its weekly thrift store; and, after little deliberation, I broke the bank on a $2 pink button-up for some added flare.
We added Bonanza Beach to our list of must-sees after a recommendation from local bike shop owner, Terry. Terry owns Masset Bikes, the only bike shop on the island. He is a wealth of knowledge, and I would strongly suggest paying him a visit.
We camped for one quick night near Skidegate and planned to head out first thing the next morning. An early departure when bikepacking is always the best laid plan until you begin packing. This fact was amplified even more for us because we are all pretty much rookies at this bikepacking thing. Nonetheless, we finally got packed and rolled out… or at least we attempted to. It took Frankie and Adam a few running starts to take off on the tandem. Getting started uphill is hard enough on a standard bike, so you can only imagine how difficult it is on the fully-loaded tandem.
We knew we were in for some serious climbing to make it to Bonanza. Sweating and subsisting on a diet of cheese and pepperoni, the alpine revealed itself in front of us. We let out some howls as we rolled into Rennel Sound. Here, we experienced one of the sketchier moments of the trip: descending an aging tandem bicycle down a very steep hill. Getting out of their saddles, Frankie and Adam attempted to walk Betsy down the 24% grade descent while pumping her brakes. In cries of fear and laughter, they uncontrollably sprinted down the gravel, only barely managing to hold on. Running out of light, we pulled in to Bonanza Beach and handed out a few high fives.
Packing enough food for several days away from civilization is always a bit of a challenge. To make sure we had our bases covered, we stopped at a trusty Canadian institution, Canadian Tire, to purchase a Lucky Strike fish net. We figured we could bring less food on the bike and fill the gap by dip-netting for crab. This was also the strategy on a recent trip to Vancouver Island and we struck out, so I was really hoping our attempts would pay off this time.
How does one catch crabs with a fish net, you ask? First, acquire your fishing license and familiarize yourself with the regulations for gathering shellfish in tidal waters. In British Columbia, you can harvest Male Dungeness and Male Red Rock crabs, but they must measure over a specific size (more information here). The key is to walk out to the tidal flats during the lowest tide of the day; ideally, in a spot where the water is calm. When you set eyes on a crab scurrying beneath the surface, strike! At Bonanza we found hundreds of baby Dungeness, but no adults. Then, out of nowhere we saw an adult Red Rock scramble out of the sand. The chase was on!
Using the abundance of driftwood found on the beach, we made a roaring fire and cooked the bounty we’d caught only metres away. There is something special about sharing a meal in the wilderness with food from the land. As we enjoyed our meal, we reflected on the many people who had come before us; those who, like us, had used this bay as protection from the wind and caught fish and crab from its waters. And wow was that crab ever good; no need for butter (never thought I would admit that!). These moments made for a theme at Bonanza. We lived a simple life, filtered our water from a nearby river, caught our food, and pondered life’s purpose – all without another human in sight.
After a few days on the beach feeling thankful, and humble, we hit the road in anticipation of the climb ahead of us, coming face to face with the monster of a hill we had descended a few days earlier. But, what comes down must go up (right?!), so we cranked the tunes and started pushing. I cycled ahead, and then shuttled back to give Adam and Frankie an extra push. Before long we surprised ourselves and crawled our bikes over the peak of the monster mountain and settled into a groove best explained by Frankie: “One foot in front of the other. Adam and I matched our pedal strokes and began to relax into a rhythm. Our surroundings enveloped us, awakening and sharpening our senses. We began to notice subtle shifts in the wind, creaks and squawks of the old growth forests, and the musty smell of earth combined with robust floral perfumes.”
Consistent to our previous experiences on the island, our final chapter was marked again by the knowledge and generosity of the people. We figured it would be neat to ditch the bikes for a bit and climb up one of the highest peaks on the island. But en route a local logger imparted some wisdom: “You don’t wanna do that! Take my boat, paddle across the water and live the life atop my one of my favourite mountains, trust me!” he said. Stunned by this stranger’s generosity, we agreed to go for it. The next morning we pushed off the beach, leaving our wheels in favour of oars.
After some casual fishing off the boat, several horsefly bites, and a very sweaty slog up a surprisingly well marked trail, we arrived at a crystal clear lake below the ridge. This was the perfect spot to set up camp. Adam, an avid hunter, brought his bow with him in hopes of harvesting a Sitka black-tailed deer. Fast forward a couple days and we’re grilling wild game on a thin rock, swimming on the hour to stay cool and sharing long lost stories found deep within the recesses of our minds.
Several days earlier, after we arrived at the trailhead and left the boat behind, Adam strategically planted one of the Yeti hopper coolers in some cold water tied to a tree and prayed it would still be there on our return. Sure enough it was right where we left it. After a “Stanley Cup” style celebration, we cracked a few cold ones on the paddle back and reminisced about just how nutty this trip had been.
Before this expedition, I thought Haida Gwaii was a place you heard stories about but were never certain whether those stories were real or fantasy. And after experiencing it I’m still not sure I could give you an answer. It felt like a dream. A place so out of the ordinary; it’s rhythm is so contrary to the rhythms of the bustling cities we call home. Five-minute hellos with strangers became hour or more long conversations. We soon discovered that many people came to visit for two weeks and never left. This isn’t lost on us. We felt so enveloped by the island that we began to consider it for ourselves. What if we just left it all behind and lived on the edge world, allowing this island to overtake us even more than it already had?
About Benjamin Johnson
Coming from a design and digital media production background, Ben brings a curiosity for the unknown and a penchant for exploration. With a distaste for mediocrity, he pursues new storytelling approaches and capturing techniques that push the creative limits of his work. You’ll find him biking up mountains, leaping tall buildings and dangling from car windows with camera in-hand. Ben is also a dual citizen, Canada and USA.