“There’s one,” says one of our Haida guides as the captain cuts the boat engine to a crawl. “A fat one. Look at those stubby legs—he looks like a sausage.” We move to the port side to see the bear, plopped on his haunches on the rocky shore about 400 metres away. Through my tourist’s eyes, with no binoculars, the bear doesn’t look all that big: more like a good-sized dog. In the next few minutes, we see three more bears in the area. One in particular, roaming the estuary grassland at the head of the inlet, does look impressively large. As we watch, it takes off at a run, galloping away from shore and out of view. “He’s chasing a deer,” says Jaylene, one of our guides. “They’re vegetarians mainly, though they’ll eat fish and sometimes a fawn if they can get one. But there’s no way he’s going to get that deer. He’s just having fun.” Two of the guides yell a traditional Haida bear chant toward the shore. This lets any bears know that you’re in the area and you aren’t looking for fun. After we disembark—following the guides onshore and into the mossy woods—I get a sense of the bears’ actual size from sidestepping platter-sized piles of scat. In Alaska I’d seen
ursine poop, along with the sizable brown bears responsible, but nothing nearly as big as this. It makes me nervous. Haida Gwaii, it turns out, is home to one of the largest black bear subspecies in North America, Ursus Americanus Carlottae, which can reportedly weigh more than 300 kilograms. That’s a lot of bear to run across while tiptoeing through the spruce. To get that big, you need plenty of food. And in Haida Gwaii, in one way or another, everything comes back to food. On an outing the day before, one of our local guides— a bearish, cinnamon-bearded young man nicknamed Tuna—had led us into a forest glade. “Haida have harvested from these forests for thousands of years,” he said. “Look around you. What can you eat here?” A couple of answers sprung out of the group—salmonberry, spruce tips—and Tuna filled in the rest. Haida don’t traditionally gather wild mushrooms, he told us, but many other items were on offer: licorice fern root, stinging nettle, thimbleberry, single delight flowers, sourgrass, miner’s lettuce and, nearer the shore, sea asparagus. We were standing in a pantry.
Ocean House is all about immersing its guests in the culture of the Haida, and one of the key ways of doing this is to get into the forest to start learning about the unique environment of Haida Gwaii.
Writer Tyee Bridge