They set out with an appetite for surf adventure beyond the frozen slush breaks of a Haida Gwaii February, saddled up on the only tires deemed fit for atypical travel by bike. They found the end of the road. And then they found more.
JAMES BLOWS OUT the tilted candles of his lumpy three-tiered cookie birthday cake, liberally frosted with a tub of No-Name’s finest. He doles out scoops rather than slices while adorning the cardboard crown he won through timely played hands of cards. The snow blows cleanly off the mountains and the sharp walls of the Inside Passage route slip by outside. It’s cold out; a steady stream of continental northeasterly outflow brings clear views but frigid temperatures. The four of us spend the entire day on the MV Northern Adventure en route to the islands of Haida Gwaii; surfboards, wetsuits, camping gear and the better part of three weeks worth of food are loaded on four-inch-wide tires that more closely resemble dirtbikes than bicycles, and the colourful pile of bikes and bags is stashed down on the deck. We’re heading to North and East Beach for the chance of late February surf.
The islands and marine courses of Haida Gwaii are remote. To end up there does not happen by accident. From the south coast, one must travel by ferry over three days, and nobody just happens to be passing through. There is nowhere to pass through to. This remoteness means a distinct group of peoples has risen and flourished over the last ten thousand years and endured and remained over the cultural incursion of the last two hundred. That same geographical separation also gives way to a community of patently friendly residents, mutually supportive in their common isolation. As we wheel up the boulder-strewn beaches of the southeast shore, locals on the way to work U-turn to give a “How’s it?” and a “What’s that?” Four pedallers with boards and paniers are a conspicuous roadside feature. As the pulled-over reporter from the Haida Gwaii Observer pointed out to us, while snapping a photo, that the group is “news any time of the year, but especially news in February.”
All four ravens take to the sky, and they carve through the air, up and around, splitting into pairs, then back as a group. Suddenly two fly upward then collide, locking together while scratching and clawing in a feather dusted descent.
Cresting over to Port Clements, the attitude of the locals is personified in the bristly mustached Dan Bellis, leaning on the trunk of his sedan at the welcome-sign pullout. With a wave over, he mentions that his wife and him had passed us earlier, and that there was a spartan house he was renovating that would make a good place for us to spend the night. So with clam-cracking gulls on the edge of the rippled flats of Masset Sound, we spend the evening there. Bellis comes by in the morning and begins to draw out ballpoint directions to the famed Golden Spruce—a 300-year-old tree illegally cut down in 1997 as an apparent political statement, and it became the subject of John Vaillant’s critically acclaimed non-fiction nature book about the events. Bellis eventually throws out a “what the heck” and offers up a ride.
Reflections on the Yakoun River estuary, Port Clements. Photo: Nicolas Teichrob
The silvering top of the iconic tree rests over the Yakoun river, doubled in the mirroring flat waters. At the base of a nearby sinewy barked red cedar, Bellis remarks, “Every tree has a face, something distinct about it.” Dan is of the islands and a faller of 27-odd years on Haida Gwaii. The job has allowed him to build a family and a log house in Port Clements, and like many people who live and work intimately with nature, Dan has a deep respect for his environment. He recognizes the profitability of sustainably managed timber and the value in preserving its monumental and cultural aspects.
A couple of snow-cloaked spurs later and Bellis points out some of the more traditional features that Haida fallers had left long before him. Sphagnum-draped tops lie a good 10 to 15 metres from their adzed-off stumps, and the concept becomes clear coming upon a rough worked form of one of the infamous Haida cedar canoes. The half-complete weathered hulk, speckled with patches of moss and grasped at by younger hemlock roots, lies in a creek bed possibly intended to float the craft to the beach. Famous as far as California for seaworthiness and robust construction, the vessels were requisite for transportation and fishing in the rough waters bounding the islands. They were also frequently up-traded for goods with other nations of the coast, meaning the boat builders paddled home in an inferior craft. The Haida are intertwined in the lands surrounding Masset Sound.
Falling ravens dance in a 10-million-year-old art form embedded in their DNA. Photo: Nicolas Teichrob
After a day’s ride upon leaving “Port,” which locals call the town, we’re at mile zero of the Yellowhead Highway rolling into the village of Masset. A couple of left turns over the evening-lit buff brown grasses of the Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary leads us to the North Beach Surf Shop. The proprietor, Mike McQuade, is out on the inlet soaking up the last of the day on a stand-up paddleboard, so we make a visit to the Co-op to stock up on the basics. “Mile zero” means the end of the road, and meal planning on Haida Gwaii can require some flexibility when it comes to perishables. With Ramen and chocolate bars, we head back to the shop’s lawn with a bag of the other basics and salt-and-vinegar potato chips.
North Beach edges up against Rose Spit, the five kilometer gravel ribbon that separates the waters of Dixon Entrance and Hecate Strait. This is where the beachcombing Raven of Mythtime, using his same crooning voices, seduced the first Haida from their giant clamshell.
McQuade returns from the paddle and after some jawing with us over a couple rounds of chips, he takes us on a tour of the one-room off-the-grid shop with a cornucopia of watersports gear. A flashlight’s beam floods across racks of wetsuits for purchase and hire, kiteboards both finned and wheeled, wind surfers, surfboards, wax, and even a box of scallop shells that line the shed. Seems like a lot of action packed in a shop for Masset’s 2,500 people. T-shirts on the wall document Expression Sessions gone by, which is an annual early November, weekend-long, non-competitive celebration of surfing on Haida Gwaii, an event marked by demos, free lessons, driftwood-charred hot dogs and general good times. Alongside, there are photos tacked up of two surf kayakers, the local shop pros. There are also cutouts from the Friday after-school surf club McQuade facilitates, who provide one high-school candidate annually to gear-for-a-year, a way to stoke out the local community. The following morning, McQuade throws a log into the wood stove, flips his sign, sells four loose-kit cyclists a missing leash, and gives us a good-luck sendoff. The North Beach Surf Shop, in a small village on the edge of the North Pacific, is less a retail powerhouse and more a community resource facilitating water-borne recreation for all ages.
The author prepares to shred some micro-waves and get wet for the first time on the trip, as he sits in front of a Council of the Haida Nation cabin. Photo: Nicolas Teichrob
BEYOND MASSET pavement turns to gravel. Winding under spruce canopy and crossing the Hiellen River, the road terminates at the exposed level sands of North Beach. A steady cadence sets in and a peloton develops, the regular rhythm accompanied by a steady sucking of wheels over wet sand. This is where the dividends of cycling are paid. Slow enough to take in the details; dendritic patterned micro-deltas of light and dark mineral grains, and saturated tidal flats pass imperceptibly into the purple-hued evening ocean horizon. But with four-inch tires, the travel is fast enough to leave tread marks; In the distance, Masset’s Tow Hill becomes smaller in the distance, and the volcanic mountains of Alaska becomes more significant in comparison. Passing piles of bivalve shells, we poke around in the dark and find refuge for the night: the Diggers Cabin.
There is a red tide warning out; the Council of the Haida Nation monitors the shellfish regularly. We checked with the council and the clam-digging cabin runs on a first-come, first-serve basis so it’s ours for the night. The welcoming structure is in the style of traditional longhouses and set back in a grove of epiphyte-clothed spindly alders. We feed the barrel-chested stove with driftwood, and as the northeasterly clime holds some of us play cards while others burn donuts on the expansive freedom of low tide. In the interest of getting wet, we unsheathe the surfboards and our afternoon is spent slapping ankles and working on the face tan. But the frigid and clear weather rewards we truly redeem at midnight when we wash dishes in the frozen slush waterline below a star-papered sky, painted with an emerald aurora hue.
We are weary-eyed in the clear morning, but it is not long down the beach before the bikes are dropped and boards are picked up. The bars peak into chest-high amplitudes, and we skim lefts, rights and straights before the wind swell dies as quickly as it rose.
We sweep up and the cabin, leaving it as clean as the fresh falling snow outside. In the treetops at the beach entrance are two mated pairs of obsidian black ravens. They take turns circling us, the wheel-mounted newcomers underneath. Perching on spruce branches, the birds’ throat hackles ruffle as they coo, click and crattle with the many tongues that ravens speak. All four take to the sky, and they carve through the air, up and around, splitting into pairs, then back as a group, constantly communicating as their endless routine seems to stall time. Suddenly two fly upward then collide, locking together while scratching and clawing in a feather-dusted descent. With wings spread and their curiosity about us satisfied, they double back and continue down the beach with a “koh koh koh,” looking for something more interesting, or perhaps more edible.
Not much is better than drifting a fat-tire bike through an orange sunset painted on the fine sands of North Beach. Photo: Nicolas Teichrob
Our four bicycles snake wet trails in the tapering snow-whitened sand flats. North Beach edges up against Rose Spit, the five kilometer gravel ribbon that separates the waters of Dixon Entrance and Hecate Strait. The bar narrows, and looking oceanward prompts an edge-of-the world feeling in us. This is where the beachcombing Raven of Mythtime, using his same crooning voices, seduced the first Haida from their giant clamshell. At the spit terminus the two great bodies of water clash on the rising tide, a chaotic spray of competing currents. Between the grating of cobbles ploughed to and fro, the irregular pounding slap of colliding waves and the gusting northeasterly wind, the place is deafening. The raw power and ever-changing morphology genuinely evoke a sense of creation.
Two days of waves in three weeks of cycling was as rewarding as three weeks surfing and two days of riding.
Beyond the spit, the tip of East Beach is the catcher’s mitt of a beachcomber’s dream. Weather-wisened driftwood stretches over shallow frozen lagoons as a jumbled field of timber. Cedar and spruce are the standard, but if you look around you can find the odd hardwood teak log from across the Pacific. On closer combing, we see the beach is rainbow sprinkled with the more anthropogenic flotsam of plastic bottles and foam floats, tossed at the high tide line and concentrated in creek mouths. We spend our days picking out Russian, Mandarin and English characters off of sun-bleached labels while looking for the ever-elusive glass ball floats. We tune daily into the VHF weatherband, and the news of better surf warrants a trip back to the spit to share a driftwood fire and some knicker high beachbreak. The days are wearing on and the window for the last three days ride out to our boat home is growing shorter.
One kilometre into what would become a 60-kilometre day, the group suited up as fast as they could and surfed the best waves of the trip. Photo: Nicolas Teichrob
It is the penultimate evening of the trip, and three weeks of dehydrated vegetables and an ever-shrinking supply of chocolate is wearing thin on us. The trip is ending as it started, and we make a Snickers-fashioned square and light an ad-hoc beeswax candle for the evening of Nic’s birthday. It is also the end of the northeasterly outflow. The winds have fully swung about and quickly rise to over 60 knots, over 100 kilometres per hour. Nobody gets any sleep in the emergency shelter as the nails creak and pull, and the timbers oscillate to questionable wavelengths. We are weary-eyed in the clear morning, but it is not long down the beach before the bikes are dropped and boards are picked up. The bars peak into chest-high amplitudes, and we skim lefts, rights and straights before the wind swell dies as quickly as it rose. If even on the last day, the ocean provides some welcomed energy for the grunt ahead. Further down the beach, the skeletal remains of the log barge Pesuta serve as a testament to the tempestuous nature of the strait, and a reminder of the respect it deserves.
Back across the Tlell River, the pavement is once again taken up. We share a fresh bag of salt-and-vinegar on the back deck of the post office, and the hospitality of Haida Gwaii resumes as locals making the 5 p.m. mail rush pause for a “Hey, it’s those guys from the paper” and ask us about the surf. We reply that two days of waves in three weeks of cycling was as rewarding as three weeks surfing and two days of riding. Stopping on the way to the ferry terminal, as local lore dictates, we take a drink from the waters of Saint Mary’s Spring to ensure that one day, we will return./