National Geographic
Menu

Journey of the Sea Lion, Part Two: Totem Poles, New and Old

Jon Waterhouse uses canoes to travel along rivers, recording traditional knowledge from local people and making detailed scientific readings of water conditions and quality using cutting-edge technology.

Recently, he and his wife and partner Mary Marshall were invited to share their stories and the details of their work with travelers making the journey up the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia aboard the Lindblad/National Geographic expedition vessel, Sea Lion. As they traveled further on our voyage, they were introduced to an amazing and vibrant native culture: the Haida.

For us, as spectacular as the land and seascapes, the quaint towns of Sitka, Juneau and other communities, and the marine and wildlife of the Inside Passage were, we are truly enamored with the people we met along the way. Our travel companions engaged and delighted us with their varied passions and experiences. The native people who hosted us while visiting Haida Gwaii amazed us with their dances and songs, with the traditional foods they shared, as well as their art. Literally every one of the dozens of Haida folks we met during a visit with traditional Haida carver, Christian White, are accomplished artists in one medium or another. Ariane, now 20, explained to Mary that she made her own regalia as a teenager, and when it was finished her beautiful creation was put on display in Vancouver’s International Airport.

Visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site at SGang Gwaay was like entering another realm, and we were all affected by its haunting beauty. We saw “totem poles” on the shore, unmoved from where they were originally raised over 200 years ago. These imposing icons awed and amazed us. In their seaward positions on the edge of the misty woods, they rise from the lush forest floor like regal sentries. Today the SGang Gwaay poles stand at random angles and in varying states of decay, yet they are imposing and majestic still; breathtaking in the most literal sense.

We are spellbound by these coastal lands called Gwaii Haanas and by the people who watch over them. The human guardians of Haida Gwaii are known as The Watchmen. A select group of Haida, The Watchmen have dedicated their lives to protecting and preserving this mysterious place, their homeland, and the honor of doing so is passed down through generations. Chosen at an early age and schooled by elder Watchmen and by their own families, Watchmen grow up sharing the history and the many amazing stories of this world, presenting them just as they were taught as small children, word for word.

An Arcane Landscape

The archipelago known as Haida Gwaii encompasses 138 beautiful islands. Larger vessels are not permitted here and it’s been 22 years since an expedition boat such as the Sea Lion has been offered the opportunity to dock. Granted permission to visit from the First Nations who preserve this place they have called home since time immemorial, the Sea Lion was welcomed with open arms to view a world which few have experienced. We were honored to be invited.

The night we sailed away from Haida Gwaii, we reflected on our feelings about being there. All of us were moved by our own unique experiences, as evidenced by the response to a presentation of our visit that Mary and I created and shared—and the emotional reactions which followed. We were further moved by the number of our fellow travelers who made a meaningful connection with these wonderful people and their culture.

Later on in the journey, I was offered the microphone and asked to read a bedtime story—because apparently, in the right setting, my quiet voice can take on a sleep-aid-type quality … So reflecting on our time in the variety of places and communities we visited, our interactions with the people who live along this passage, and witnessing the amazing displays afforded us by nature, I chose the story of a little Haida boy who was caught in a storm and ultimately saved by the clan of the killer whale.

It was a good end to a good journey.

With our canoes and gear strapped to the floats, we will board seaplanes tomorrow for the very remote Peel River in northern Yukon Territory, Canada. The spectacular landscape that is the Peel Watershed is under immediate environmental threat, so our goal is to collect water quality data while the region is still untouched by looming development. We’ll spend the next 10 or so days paddling this pristine and uninhabited wilderness and we look forward to sharing our photos and observations when we return (Google Peel River images and see for yourself this stunningly majestic part of our world).

As always, thanks for caring!

Read More by Jon Waterhouse