DAY THREE: Saang’aay Hlg̱ung̱ahl – G̱aaw to Juskatla

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Ḵwaa G̱adaas sits amongst boulders, surrounded by a field of algae.

The last installment: This August a Haida-language team set forth from Gaaw to survey the north and west coasts of Haida Gwaii. Guided by elders’ teachings, the Haida language, historical records, and century -old maps, they learned and confirmed a selection of the ancestral place names that cover Haida Gwaii. Haida speaker Hlgawangdlii Skilaa Lawrence Bell and language consultant K’aayhltla Xuhl Rhonda Bell joined linguistics professor Gulkiihlgad Dr Marianne Ignace and language learner Jaalen Edenshaw aboard the vessel, Highlander under the command of skipper Meredith Adams. What follows is the second piece of a three-part series that describes their findings.

Long ago, Gaaw Kaahlii Massett Inlet was formed by a slender river pouring forth from a glacial lake. Since then the river has been flooded with rising sea levels and today a long inlet has formed with a large bay at its end. When the sun and moon pull on this heavy body of water it rushes forth from the large bay into the slender channel. I imagine it like the force of a spindle-whorl concentrating all it’s energy into such a small channel creating fast, strong, currents.

The shores of Gaaw Kaahlii are littered with landmarks. Many are the remnants of Taaw’s Tow Hill journey along Juus Káahlii Juskatla Inlet from the mountains at the heart of Haida Gwaii. In the story, Taaw walks away from his family to settle on the coast at Hl’yaalang Gandlee Hiellen River.

The mouth of Gaaw Kaahlii is marked by Taaw’s story. There, on the shore in front of Gaaw Llnagaay Old Massett, Hlgat’at’áas stone broken by foot lies in pieces. When Taaw passed in front of the village, Yaahl Raven came out of the house and jumped and shouted on top of the rock, crushing it.

Before that, Taaw had been trapped in the mud of Del Kaahlii Delkatla Slough, where today, geese and herons share the rich waters of the sanctuary with the boats moored at the Massett docks.

As our boat, Highlander, casts off from the dock, I imagine how Del Kaahlii would have looked in the shadow of a supernatural being formed in a volcano’s throat. I imagine an entire mountain wading down Gaaw Kaahlii, sliding through the forest with a watery trail, looming like a gigantic sea snail.

Pushing against Gaaw Kaahlii’s ebbing tide, our attention turns towards the sea floor which is dotted with xaguu k’ujuus halibut houses. These holes are ideal for xaguu, who wait inside and pounce on prey that encroach along the thresholds of their homes. On Haida Gwaii, xaguu k’ujuus are precious food-gathering spots.

As the tide grows stronger, we approach a low, flat area strewn with boulders and coloured a deep algae green. This flat intertidal meadow is hemmed in by a convenient ledge of miniature mud-cliffs. It’s a bonus for Jaalen as Captain Adams brings us close enough for him to bound ashore. But it takes us two attempts, as the tidal current pushes Highlander sideways and into muddy, rock-strewn shallows. These dangerous currents the Highlander is grappling with come from the massive quantities of water situated at the top of Gaaw Kaahlii near the Yaagun Gandlee Yakoun River. As these waters yield to the moon’s pull, currents converge, surging through Gaaw Kaahlii’s long and relatively narrow neck with an enormous force. As the Highlander approaches the meadow, our efforts to make headway, remind me of an eagle attempting to alight in a bitter crosswind.

Safe ashore, Jaalen passes through a field of furrowed stones to inspect Kwaa Gadaas, a distinct, bright, and large boulder. Kwaa Gadaas is a ‘morain deposit’, part of a mountainside heaved and once carried away by glaciers. As the glaciers melted, Kwaa Gadaas was gently lowered to the shore where currents polished its glossy faces.

As Highlander continues south, we pass the place where T’aahl Kaahlii Kamdis Slough rejoins Gaaw Kaahlii from behind Kamdis Island. Taaw blazed this pathway as he moved from the large bay into the side channel. From Highlander, the small inlets, creeks, and islands are indistinguishable to the inexperienced. Until one consults a map, all of these features blend with the forests.

As we leave Gaaw Kaahlii’s narrow channel and enter the vast bay our guides are Moses Ingram and Adolfous (Fussy) Marks. We are listening to their voices recorded many years ago. They recite the places in order from memory as we pass by. Hlgawangdlii Skilaa smiles affectionately at the familiarity of their voices and laughter. “I can see them talking,” he says with a grin.

We continue along Gaaw Kaahlii’s northwest shore, and eventually come to Aayan Gandlee Ain River. Here the crew disembarks for lunch. This place is home to a large population of salmon, which has provided thousands of years of food for Haida people. For now, only the fat geese have returned. They watch us skittishly as they nibble on carpets of sea asparagus. A few cabins stand here, as empty as the river, in wait of the next salmon run when they will spring to life again. High above us thrushes call, their songs carry from tree to tree inflated by the hot August air and punctured by the lethargic creak of a lazy fir leaning on its neighbour.

Farther down the shore, we come to Sgaan Gándlee Killer whale Creek. Here, springs of fresh water gush forth from a curved cliff and fall straight into the sea. Sgaan gather below to sweeten their tongues in the waterfall and fishing boats come right under the cliff to refill their water supplies. For now the cliff’s parched flanks are chalked with an orange stain that marks the waterfall’s path. Sgaan Gándlee has dried up in this hot weather.

We can see Galgam Tladaaw McKay Range from here, where some Haida seek solitude and go in search of visions. In stories, Skil Jaadee comes to bestow fortune and wealth on those who persevere in their quest and somewhere, high above us, K’aalangt’als, a rock wall covered in petroglyphs is concealed in the forest, awaiting its next student. I consider the drought-parched cliffs at Sgaan Gándlee, and how the thrushes’ song echoed through the leaf-bare understory at Aayan Gandlee, and think about what kind of wisdom K’aalangt’als might offer.

The farthest corner of Gaaw Kaahlii is distinguished by the ‘claw marks’ of Stl’aadaa Gaaywaa With-Fingernail-Caused-Sloped Bank. It is easy to imagine the white ‘fingernails’ of glaciers scraping away the mountain range as they were dragged into the sea. Highlander turns around to face east and begins tracing Gaaw Kaahlii’s southern shores.

When we come to Juu K’iijee Juskatla Narrows upwelling currents swallow each other, clambering onto one another’s shoulders. Thousands of tonnes of seawater are forced through Juu K’iijee by the minute. Whirlpools make obscene reflections of the sky and back-eddies obscure the wealth of sea-life that supported the many villages in the area. Three of these villages were located on the small island of Juus Gwaay alone and included K’iinya ’Lngee and Tsiij ’Llgee.

From Juu K’iijee, we can see where Taaw walked down from the mountains. There his mother and brother still stand at Taaw Linuwée Half of Taaw. As we reach the starting point of Taaw’s journey, so we reach the end of our own. Captain Adams steers Highlander back through Juu K’iijee and heads for Gaaw. Hlgawangdlii Skilaa, K’aayhltla Xuhl, and Gulkiihlgad settle down in the forecastle, and quickly fall to joking and chattering. Jaalen and I sit amidships, enjoying the warm wind.

The three-day journey has shown how Xaad Kil and Haida Gwaii are intertwined. The sea and land revealed subtleties about the place-names. Similarly, the place-names revealed secrets about the sea and land. Thus, both render more complete versions of the other, and both are teachers. As I ponder the many lessons of the three-day trip, I begin again to wonder about the wisdom that a cliff might impart.

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