Why you should go kayaking in Gwaii Haanas National Park
Kayaking in Gwaii Haanas National Park Preserve
Now that summer is officially over and the first of the winter snows blanket our mountains, it’s natural to get caught up reminiscing about summer adventures. Summer is short up north, and much of the year is spent in summer nostalgia. Winter is also wonderful up here but nothing beats a nice Canadian summer, particularly a great backcountry experience.
One of the highlights of the summer was a paddling trip in Gwaii Haa’nas National Park.
This park is accessed from the southern half of Haida Gwaii: the islands formerly known as the Queen Charlottes. The islands have now returned to their original name, Haida Gwaii which literally means Islands of the people, Haida in the Haida language. Haida Gwaii is composed of two large islands (and lots of smaller islands), Graham island in the North and Moresby Island in the South. Gwaii Haanas Park is located on Moresby Island. Gwaii Haa’nas literally means “islands of beauty” in Haida. Technically, the park is called the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site: it’s a mouthful!
Haida Gwaii is located approximately 100 nautical miles off the coast of BC, and is accessible by ferry and airplane. The ferry is only from Prince Rupert and takes 8 hours to cross. Flights are from Vancouver, BC.
A kayaking destination
This park is incredibly popular for kayaking. It’s quite uncommon, but a few people a year take canoes instead of kayaks. We opted to canoe in the park. A whitewater canoe is a good choice for the area, and we were able to save some money on rentals. Canoeing these waters is a lot more technical than kayaking. It presents more challenges particularly if you don’t have a spray skirt, you’ll take on water and some of the swell will be more difficult negotiating that it would be in a kayak. Being proficient in a canoe on choppy seas with larger swell requires greater skill.
Regardless if you are taking a canoe, or kayak, you should be prepared for an emergency with self rescue. It’s not a beginner kayaking/paddling trip, so if you’re unsure, sign up for a guided trip with one of the many guiding outfits on the islands.
History of Gwaii Ha’anas
The National Park was created via partnership with the Haida Nation, Parks Canada, and the Government of Canada. We have the Haida Nation to thank for it’s existence: in 1985, in response to extensive logging of Haida Gwaii the Haida staged a protest on Lyell island to stop logging of old growth and preserve the area for future generations. After much turmoil and negotiation, the Government conceded, and created a Park from this amazing area.
The park is worth a visit for the wilderness experience, wildlife including whales, bears, bald eagles and jellyfish, excellent fishing and beautiful ocean camping. If you are looking for solitude then this is the place for you. Access is via permit only, and Parks Canada restricts the number of permits given out per day. Most visitors are in and out in a day on Zodiac tours.
There are numerous channels and islands to explore, excellent fishing, wildlife to watch, and with the flexibility of being able to choose your own camping spot (with only a few restrictions) the adventures are limitless.
Wilderness and solitude
The park is an incredibly intense wilderness experience. With the numerous places available to camp, and the miles of water and shoreline, you will rarely see people even in the high season. Because park access is limited, people start their trips on different days, everyone is on a different itinerary so the odds of running into others is low. If you love solitude and wilderness (and don’t mind getting wet) this is a place for you!
South vs. North parts of the park
Trips in the park are usually focus on either the north portion (north of Burnaby Narrows) or south portion (south of Burnaby Narrows). A full month is recommended to explore both the whole north and south parts, and most trips are broken down to focus one of these two areas. Generally speaking, the north end of the park is less busy then the south. Some say that it’s common to run into people and groups regularly in the south area, with daily tours going into the Haida Heritage sites and particularly Rose Harbour (the old whaling station).
So, if you want solitude, consider sticking to the north part. The north part is the area encompassing Tanu and south to Burnaby narrows area. In our week there, we didn’t see anyone and only saw Zodiacs from a far distance a few times. They waved to us, and this was essentially the extent of our human contact over that week.
The park is very wild. The south is apparently better for whale sightings, and the north for bears. Nearly all the people we talked to that visited the south part of the park (south of Burnaby Narrows) saw whales almost every day. These same people also didn’t see a bear over several weeks of paddling, and we saw bears every day. Burnaby Narrows itself is one of the best places to see bears because they are busy feeding in the intertidal zones. You’re not allowed to camp in this area because of the high density of bears.
The bears in Haida Gwaii in general are wild and not used to human contact. Most of the time they’ll avoid you or show zero interest in you. If you do see them, they will likely be very uninterested and will move on to feed. These bears love feeding in the tidal zones and are usually full and happy. That being said, always practice bear safety, keep a clean campsite, and practice leave no trace wilderness ethics.
The area is also home to the world’s biggest jellyfish: the Scrambled Eggs jellyfish and the giant Lions Mane jellyfish. The Lions Mane is the largest jellyfish in the world! In some calm channels, such as the very open but protected Darwin Sound, the jellyfish are clearly visible. This monster is at least as long as you are tall with long, trailing tentacles. They like to hang out near the surface of the water and you will see them everywhere. I wouldn’t want to fall in the ocean knowing those jellyfish are in there.
The park is also home to the protected Abalone snail, a classified species at risk. The snail is at risk of extinction due to over harvesting. It’s illegal to harvest these snails, or even take the shells home with you. These shells are everywhere and are very beautiful.
When to go
The islands of Haida Gwaii are known for their extensive year round rainfall. However, the least amount of rain falls in July and August, so those months are recommended. Check out climate data and rainfall in Haida Gwaii.