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Haida Gwaii (“islands of the people”), formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, were occupied by Haida First Nation when Spanish sea captain Juan Pérez sighted the archipelago in 1774. A seafaring and artistic people, the Haida traded sea otter pelts with European traders during the early 1800s. By the late 19th century, however, the Haida had to vacate many of their ancestral villages to escape a devastating smallpox epidemic.
Only a fraction of their original number still inhabit the islands—at Haida, near Masset, and Skidegate, near Queen Charlotte City. Continuing their cultural traditions, they carve elaborate works of art from argillite, a black slatelike stone found only in mountain deposits off the coast.
A group of about 150 islands forming an elongated triangle, Haida Gwaii stretches 250 kilometres (157 mi.) from north to south, 90 kilometres (56 mi.) off the coast of British Columbia. Characterized by fog and low clouds, these islands also are known as the Misty Islands. The towns are small and decidedly rural; the entire population of Haida Gwaii is about 5,000.
The two main islands are Graham and Moresby. The largest and most populated is Graham. In the north on its broad and flat eastern side are most of the archipelago's communities—Masset, Old Masset, Port Clements, Queen Charlotte City, Skidegate, and Tlell—which are linked by a paved road. An airport is at Masset as well as at Sandspit, on the northeastern tip of Moresby Island. A 20-minute ferry ride connects the two islands.
A temperate marine climate supports dense coniferous forests, which, as the basis of the islands' economy, have been logged extensively. The fish and shellfish in the coastal waters supply the islands' important commercial fishing industry.
Visitors are attracted by the pristine wilderness, the hunting and fishing prospects, kayaking and hiking opportunities, and the handicrafts and art of the Haida. In fact the main destination of many travelers to Haida Gwaii is Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site , in the southern part of the island chain on Moresby Island.
Wildlife is abundant here; tiny Sitka deer and bald eagles frequent the shores, and seals, sea lions, porpoises and migrating whales often appear in the inlets. Bird-watching, wildlife viewing, hiking, kayaking and freshwater and saltwater fishing are popular activities.
Points of interest include Naikoon Provincial Park on Graham Island, the remote Haida village sites, the Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary in Masset, the Haida Heritage Centre at Kaay Llnagaay in Skidegate and the various carving sheds in Skidegate and Old Masset.
Permission to visit Haida unoccupied village sites must be obtained from Band Council offices; phone (250) 559-8225.
The islands' main visitor center in Queen Charlotte City has videos and interactive displays that provide information about life on the islands and in the waters that surround them, including craft galleries and a touch-tank saltwater aquarium. The center is open year-round.
Haida Gwaii can be reached by air from Prince Rupert and Vancouver and by ferry from Prince Rupert. Phone BC Ferries at (250) 386-3431 or (888) 223-3779 for ferry reservations. Kayak rentals, fishing charters and various guided boat and land tours are available.
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Current Location: Haida Gwaii, British Columbia