Outdoor Skills

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The Wind Book for Rifle Shooters

The Wind Book for Rifle Shooters

How to Improve Your Accuracy in Mild to Blustery Conditions
edition:Hardcover
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Hiking the Gulf Islands of British Columbia

Hiking the Gulf Islands of British Columbia

4th Edition
edition:Paperback
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The Great Canadian Bucket List

The Great Canadian Bucket List

One-of-a-Kind Travel Experiences
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback eBook
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Excerpt

Haida Gwai

West of British Columbia’s west coast, beyond the boiling water of stormy dreams and on the knife’s edge of the continental shelf, is a 280-kilometre-long archipelago of unsurpassed myth and beauty. A region of mountains, creeks, and towering trees, these Pacific islands are inhabited by a culture whose uniqueness means its art is instantly recognized, and the language of its people found nowhere else on Earth. When I set off to discover the best of Canada, I asked fellow travel writers what tops their own national bucket lists. More often than not, the answer was Haida Gwaii.
Flying into the sleepy village of Sandspit, I catch a ferry over to the $26-million Haida Cultural Centre to give the adventure some context. Here, I learn about the two Haida clans — Eagles and Ravens — and how they balance each other in marriage, trade, and even death. I learn about the importance of western red cedar, how imposing “totem” poles were carved to tell legends, honour people, and identify homesteads. I learn how this proud warrior nation, whose seafaring and ferocity have been compared to that of the Vikings, was all but exterminated after a century of European contact in a deadly cocktail of disease and cultural genocide. Of the Haida who thrived on these islands, 95 percent disappeared, but their descendants are staging a remarkable comeback. First they reclaimed their art, which is recognized worldwide as a pinnacle of First Nations cultural expression. Next they reclaimed ownership of their land in an unprecedented deal with the federal government, so that the Queen Charlotte Islands became Haida Gwaii (Place of the People). Now they are relearning their language, before it, too, becomes a ghost echoing in the forest. It gives me a lot to think about as the Moresby Explorers’ 400-horsepower Zodiac speeds down the coast into the vast protected realms of Gwaii Haanas Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. I am late for a date with Bluewater Adventures’ 21-metre-long Island Roamer, on which I will join a dozen tourists from around the country on a week-long sailing expedition. This 1,500-square-kilometre national park reserve, unique in its stewardship from mountaintop to ocean floor, can only be accessed via boat and float plane. Only 2,000 visitors are allowed each season. Founded in 1988, the reserve was a hard-fought victory for the Haida over political roadblocks and multinational logging companies busy shearing the islands of their forests. I hop on board to find new friends, deeply fascinated with the culture, wildlife, and beauty, and relishing the comfortable yacht in which to explore it. The islands of Gwaii Haanas boast 40 endemic species of animals and plants, are a haven for 23 types of whale and dozens of seabirds, and are covered with dense old-growth temperate rainforest. Sailing the calm waters between the coves and bays of the park’s 138 islands, we spot humpbacks, seals, sea lions, and a large family of rare offshore orcas. Bluewater’s Zodiac and kayaks deposit us onshore to explore forests of giant western red cedar, hemlock, and Sitka spruce, the ground carpeted with bright green moss and fern. We walk among the ruins of an old whaling station in Rose Harbour and pick up Japanese garbage on Kunghit Island, blown in with the raging storms of the Pacific. In Echo Harbour, we watch schools of salmon launch themselves from the sea into the creek and a huge black bear (Haida Gwaii boasts the biggest black bears found anywhere) lick its lips in anticipation. We do the same on the yacht, with chef Deborah serving up fresh coconut-crusted halibut and other delights from her small but fully equipped galley.
As an eco-adventure, Gwaii Haanas deserves its reputation as a “Canadian Galapagos.” Yet it’s the legacy of the Haida themselves that elevates this wild, rugged coastline, a history best illustrated by the remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site on Anthony Island, now known as SGang Gwaay. Haida lived here for millennia, but after the plague of smallpox, European trade, and residential schools, all that remains, fittingly, are eerie, carved cedar mortuary poles. Facing the sea like sentinels with the thick forest at their backs, they make it an unforgettable and haunting place to visit, and all the more so for the effort it takes to do so. The five Haida village National Historic Sites in Gwaii Haanas — Skedans, Tanu, Windy Bay, Hotspring Island, and SGang Gwaay — are guarded by the Watchmen, local men and women employed by the community and Parks Canada. James Williams has been a Watchman at SGang Gwaay for over a decade, showing visitors around and enthusiastically describing the history of the village and the legacy of the poles. He tells us how the Haida attached supernatural qualities to the animals and trees that surrounded them; hence their culture borne out of tales featuring bears, ravens, eagles, killer whales, otters, and cedar. Unassuming in his baseball cap, James discusses violent battles with mainland tribes, the Haida acumen for trade, canoe building, and their interaction with European sea-otter traders, which ultimately killed off the animal and very nearly finished off the Haida themselves. Today, these weathered ash-grey mortuary poles are maintained to honour a tradition that once thrived and shows signs of thriving again. Tombstones that seem older than their 150-year-old origins, they remind me of the stone heads on Easter Island, the stone carvings of Angkor. Trees rattle in the onshore breeze as the forest slowly reclaims the remains of abandoned cedar longhouses. Isolated for months, James gifts us with some freshly caught halibut as he welcomes some arriving kayakers. With Watchmen having to live in solitude for months at a time, it is not so much a job as a calling.
Each abandoned village is different, and each Watchman reveals more about this rugged West Coast wonderland and the people who call it home. By the end of the week, both the land and its stewards have woven a spell over us. Designed to last the length of a single lifetime, old Haida totem poles will not last forever. Fortunately, the protection of Gwaii Haanas, by both the Haida people and Parks Canada, along with the deep respect paid to both by operators like Randy Burke’s Bluewater Adventures, ensures this magical archipelago will remain on the Canadian bucket list for generations to come.

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Outdoor Adventures in Halifax

Outdoor Adventures in Halifax

25 exciting & little-known adventures less than 30 minutes away
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Bushcraft

Bushcraft

Outdoor Skills and Wilderness Survival
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
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A River Never Sleeps

A River Never Sleeps

by Roderick L. Haig-Brown
illustrated by Louis Darling
introduction by Nick Lyons
afterword by Thomas McGuane
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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