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Flying at the edge

By Akky Mansikka

The Queen Charlotte Islands or Haida Gwaii lie at the northwestern edge of Canada. They consist mainly of two large islands. Graham Island to the north is 150 km long and contains most of the towns and population. Moresby Island is to the south. There are a hundred or more, smaller islands and islets. From the northern shore of Graham Island, you can see the panhandle of Alaska on a clear day.

As a pilot, I wanted to fly there. I looked into renting but there were no flight schools, no flying clubs and no members of the 99s - the Women Pilot’s Association in the area. I would have to go on a charter.

South Moresby Air operates out of Queen Charlotte City, a town of 900 people on the south shore of Graham Island. Most of their flights are into logging camps but they do sightseeing flights as well.

I contacted the owner Marvin Boyd and his wife Sheila. The most interesting route would be along the western shore of the Queen Charlottes to the southern end of Moresby Island with the final destination a remote, abandoned Haida Village of Ninstints also known as Nan Sdins Ilnagaay.

If the weather did not co-operate we might be able to go on a shorter trip to the village of Skedans on the eastern shore instead. However the best preserved Haida mortuary poles were at Ninstints. UNESCO declared Nan Sdins Ilnagaay a world heritage site in 1981.

I flew Air Canada to Vancouver and met my friend Eleanor Nielsen at the airport and the two of us flew on an Air Canada Jazz Dash 8 into Sandspit on the north shore of Moresby Island.

The airport shuttle drove along the shore and onto the ferry to Queen Charlotte City. The ride along the shore was spectacular with the large trees, the ocean and the occasional bald eagle sitting in a tree or flying overhead. From the ferry we spotted a grey whale, porpoises or dolphins as their dorsal fins surfaced near the ferry, and otters. Layers of misty mountains surrounded us as we crossed the Bearskin Bay which was part of Skidegate Inlet.

Eleanor’s sister Elizabeth Inkster, the post master in Queen Charlotte City, and her grandson Taimen greeted us on the other side. Eleanor was staying at her mother’s in Tlell half way up Graham Island and I would be staying up the laneway with Elizabeth.

One morning I woke up to Eleanor shouting up to my bedroom window, “Akky get up. Today is the day we go flying!” She was as excited about going as I was. Marvin had called and said today looked good for the flight to Ninstints. After breakfast and packing a snack for lunch we went on the 45 minute drive to the float dock in Queen Charlotte City.

South Moresby Air building was a small building with a red roof right on the water’s edge, in town. A long catwalk went out from it to the dock where two floatplanes, a Cessna 185 and a Beaver were docked. We would be going in the 185.

Inside we met Marvin and Shirley who I had been e-mailing, and Brad Koop the pilot. There were two other passengers to help share the cost of the flight.

After the safety briefing, we climbed in. I climbed into the right seat. Inside the plane was almost identical to the Cessna 185 I flew with Andre Turgeon and Ron Marshall of the Buttonville Flying Club to the Bahamas except no dual controls.

Departure was at 9:20 a.m. Winds were light from the southwest, visibility +15 clouds broken at 3,500 feet. Take-off was towards the southwest on Bearskin Bay over the tree tops of Moresby Island towards the highest peak of the Queen Charlottes, Mount Moresby.

In no time we were flying between the mountain peaks. Mossy alpine meadows and lakes with waterfalls plunging down hundreds of feet floated by. The west coast of Moresby Island was rough and uninhabited, a maze of inlets, and mountains meeting ocean.

After an hour we arrived at Rose Harbour in the south end. From the air Rose Harbour seems to consist of three or four widely spread out cabins. Patrick who lives there with his wife Mary met us in his Zodiac called “The Rubber Ducky.”

We climbed out of the plane into the boat, donned survival suits and sped out to Ninstints across the open water of the Pacific to isolated, uninhabited Anthony Island (SGang Gwaay). Thirty minutes later we arrived at the westerly side of the island where we disembarked, took off our survival suits and walked the short distance across the island through the rainforest to the Haida Watchman’s house and the village.

The Haida, along with the Government of Canada look after the archeological sites with guides called watchmen, on the premises. They live there during the summer and are there to act as interpreters, guides and at the same time protect the area. We were too early in the year. There was no watchman there today.

Patrick was our guide. He checked the watchman’s house and found it to be in good shape after the winter.

From there we followed a trail to a beach well protected from the elements, facing east towards Moresby Island. There we came upon the first totem pole. Patrick explained the lay out of the village, the type of post and beam construction used for the Haida’s long houses and about the poles.

The poles remaining were mortuary poles. Other house poles and family poles had been taken to museums to help preserve them. Only the mortuary poles remained. We walked further along and reached the main beach with its grassy embankment. There we were greeted by many poles in various stages of decay and askew at various angles. It reminded me of pictures I had seen of Easter Island. The place seemed to have the magic and spirituality of Chichin Itza in Mexico or Machu Pichu in Peru.

After some quiet time on our own to take in the splendour and significance of the site, back we went to “The Rubber Ducky.” Patrick took us back over the open water and in through the channels of Moresby and Gwaii Haanas National Park to where the Cessna 185 was moored in Rose Harbour.

In no time we were lifting off for the journey back to Queen Charlotte City. Brad had the GPS set to the marine chart for take off so he could see where shoals and rocks were in the water.

This time we flew along the eastern shore where we spotted sea lions on rocky islets and many humpback whales in small groups as they breached, spouting water in the air. Brad circled over them first one way and then the other, so we could get a good look at them. We continued seeing the great humpbacks but it was time to continue our journey back toward land.

As soon as the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve ended so did the trees on Moresby Island. The whole northern end of the island was clear cut and crossed by logging roads. There was an open pit mine. The beach at Skedans came into view but we could not spot any remains of houses or poles.

We descended southwest of Sandspit and could see it in the distance. We tried to spot bears on the logging roads beneath us but no luck. Brad got the weather and winds from Sandspit ATIS as we approached Skidegate Inlet with Queen Charlotte City in the distance.

We landed along the shoreline of town and taxied in to the dock. What a day this had been. I felt as if I had been to the edge of the world.

If you fly out that way you will see some spectacular scenery. If you can’t fly yourself, get in touch with South Moresby Air.

Check out their website at www.smair.com.