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Bears, Tanu, and One Last Day onboard Outer Shores Passing Cloud
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Sunday, August 10, 2014
I could hear it from my bunk even before I rolled out of it: the sound of torrents of raindrops pounding on the wooden decking above my head. In a way, it made me want to sleep even more: there’s nothing cozier than rain falling when your warm, inside and not wet.
With a busy day ahead, I somehow managed to extricate myself from my surprisingly-comfortable berth and dress for breakfast and the morning ahead. With almost a week spent onboard Outer Shores Expeditions’ Passing Cloud as we sail through Haida Gwaii’s Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site, everyone onboard is well into their adventure expedition shipboard routines.
With a few exceptions, breakfast is served most mornings at 8:00, and I am usually up and on-deck by 7:30. Getting ready for breakfast takes mere minutes: without having to shave, shower (this is done every other day onboard Passing Cloud, usually in the afternoons), or even worry about how my hair looks, I just have to pull on some clothes and head topside.
Dressing for the kind of rain we experienced this morning, however, is another matter. It’s a true production, with rain coats and rain pants being pulled out of the engine room hatch where they’ve been set to air-dry from the heat emanating from Passing Cloud’s Volvo Penta engine.
Because it was nearly raining sideways this morning, I made the call to not bring my Nikon DSLR with me. It had still not fully dried out from our outings yesterday, and I felt bringing it would have practically destroyed it. It turned out to be a good decision, as the rain barely let up during our morning explorations ashore.
It was also a terrible decision, in that it means I have no photographs of our only bear sighting thus far.
We had just come ashore from our anchorage at Echo Point and had anchored the Zodiac as far up the beach as we could when we saw it: a huge Haida Gwaii Black Bear lumbering slowly from right to left in the mist ahead. We were about a mile or so from it, and it didn’t see us. Instead, it just strolled off into the fog and out of sight.
Buoyed by our first bear sighting, we figured out how to relocate our small group further upstream by slowly sailing and paddling our zodiac raft. We were at low tide, and maneuvering the large raft closer to where we thought the bear (and presumably, the salmon) were was no easy feat.
Once we’d successfully reached the clearing, we once again hauled the raft up as far as we could, and set out over the grassy field – and promptly fell down.
You see, the grass had covered up a series of knee-deep holes in the ground that were just big enough to allow your foot to slip in to. I saw Russ do a header in front of me, and just as I wondered what was going on, I also went down hard on the grass. In a hole up past my kneecap, I stood there until the rest of the guests had successfully walked past me, but not before a few took tumbles of their own.
I know you’re never supposed to try to outrun or run from a bear if you see one, but it was nice to have increased confirmation that that would be impossible here.
What was truly amazing here: the salmon, which flowed in the river by the hundreds, all trying to swim upstream and jump through the waterfall to reach the upper river. They queued like passengers waiting for security at an airport, only proceeding further upstream once the salmon in front of them had gone. They took the same path, and essentially followed the fish in front of them.
After half an hour or so of admiring nature at work, we made our way back across the “grassy knoll” – and spotted the bear. He was off to the right, lazily grazing near the trees about five hundred feet away. We all huddled in a group and made some noise to make our presence known. The bear looked our way, turned, and seemed to walk away. Then, he looked back at us – and took a few purposeful romps forward. When something that weighs as much as a pickup truck turns and heads your way, you pay attention!
The bear, however, seemed satisfied. Well, actually, he seemed disgusted that we stood between him and a delicious meal at Chez Salmon, and he carried his corpulent frame back into the woods.
We then made our way back onboard the Passing Cloud and set sail for our last Haida site of the trip: the former village of T’aanuu Llnagaay, which I will simply refer to by its English name, Tanu, from here on.
When we arrived at Tanu, on the eastern coast of Gwaii Haanas near the Hecate Strait, the rain had mercifully stopped and blue skies were beginning to peek through the clouds. As it is Passing Cloud’s last call on Tanu of the season, Russ ground up a pound of fresh Kicking Horse Coffee to bring to Walter, the Haida Watchman on Tanu.
It turns out we’ve already met most of Walter’s family; his wife, Mary, took us on a tour of Windy Bay the other day. He greeted us like old friends, and Russ and the crew of Passing Cloud spent some time catching up before we set out off the beach and through the woods.
Tanu may not be the UNESCO World Heritage Site that SGang Gwaay is, but I personally found Tanu to be the more moving of the two sites. Historically, it was called either Kloo or Clue or Klue’s Village, once again representing a bastardized European translation of the name of the town’s Chief.
Tanu was founded sometime around 1725, and was a burgeoning settlement when it was abandoned in the late 1800’s. Once again, disease ran rampant through the town in the 1880’s, and mass graves were found by researchers here in the 1960’s. The dead had been buried as far away from the town as possible so as to not cause disease and infection to spread amongst healthy residents of Tanu, but at a certain point – by the time those still alive dropped below 50 or so residents – survivors also made their way to Skidegate and Masset further north.
Today, all that remains are the foundations of several of the houses, along with roof beams and crossposts. The memorial and mortuary poles have long since fallen, and the entire site is on the verge of being completely swallowed up by the forest.
After our walk, Walter invited us in to his Watchmen’s hut and offered us hot tea. He also had a present for Russ: a freshly-caught, 24-pound salmon. Russ in turn presented him with the fresh coffee, which he gladly accepted. Walter has been at Tanu since May of this year, and will remain there until the end of the month. It’s no doubt a very solitary job, but it seems to be one that he genuinely relishes and takes great pride in.
We bid Walter farewell and set our sails up for an afternoon of scenic cruising as we left Tanu and headed out into Laseek Bay towards Reef Island. In command of the ship at this point? Yours truly. Well, I wasn’t really “in command”, but I did have the unique privilege of steering Passing Cloud from her outdoor tiller under Captain Russ’s watchful eye for nearly an hour.
I sailed Passing Cloud until we had almost reached Reef Island. We were bound for the Haida outpost of Skedans to deliver some much-needed Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup to the Haida Watchmen there, but the wind evaporated just as we were about to turn to port. My Quartermaster duties over, Russ fired up the engine and we made our way through the increasingly heavy seas towards Skedans.
Of all the many afternoons and evenings spent onboard Passing Cloud, today was arguably the best. The sky, lighting and sea conditions continued to seemingly change with every passing moment. Even here, surrounded by nothing except land, sea and air, the very environment that Passing Cloud sailed through seemed to be alive.
The sea also came alive. In an instant, it went from calm and placid to awash with heavy swells. Landing at Skedans became impossible, so we continued on a northwesterly course to the Cumshewa Inlet. We sailed past McCoy Cove and saw a small sailboat taking refuge from the growing seas, its mast swaying violently from port to starboard.
Set back by the heavy seas, we sailed on until just after 9p.m. when we dropped anchor off Conglomerate Point. Dinner – consisting of the fabulous fresh salmon bestowed upon us by Walter – and wine were promptly served, and Russ and Kai entertained us with some music in Passing Cloud’s lounge. After dinner, we all headed up top to take in the spectacular full moon that lit up the entire bay around us while we helped with the dishes after a long day of sailing.
I thought a lot about Tanu and the other Haida sites we have been to this week as we sailed the stormy seas of the Louise Inlet tonight. Once the few remaining mortuary poles and house beams have been completely reclaimed by the forests from which they originally came, I wonder how difficult it will be for the Haida Watchmen to describe their way of life to the visitors who come here?
It also begs the kind of heavy, thought-provoking questions that only a few glasses of Merlot can bring about: are we, as human beings, defined by our physical creations on this planet? Things like Stonehenge and the Acropolis come to mind; without their physical presence, would our understanding of these long-lost cultures persist?
It’s something I wanted to ask Walter, our kind and knowledgeable Haida Watchman at Tanau, but couldn’t bring myself to. No matter how I formed the question in my head, it made it sound like I was implying that the Haida were somehow trying to outrun their physical history. Instead, I simply chose not to ask.
If I come back to Gwaii Haanas – which I’d like to – no doubt it will be a different sight than the one I have been treated to over the past week. More sites will have been reclaimed; more poles will have fallen. At some point – likely in my lifetime – there will be nothing left. When that happens, who’s to say it was ever here at all?
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