Graham Richard —
At the top of Hlkinul Kaahlii Cumshewa Inlet runs a river called Gawu Kuns Gandlaay Pallant Creek. This is the home of Jiila Kuns, the owner of salmon and mother of frogs. Here her husband Nang Kilsdlas built the house where she bore five sons and five daughters. These daughters became mothers of Kuustak the eagle moiety, placing Jiila Kuns in the company of Kalga Jaad and SGuuluu Jaad, the supernatural ancestors of the Haida Nation. Thousands of years later some of these Kuustak people still build their homes just a few kilometres away at the village of Hlkinul Llnagaay Cumshewa Village.
Today a Haida Mapping crew is charting the forests that clamber over the hills, mountains, and cliff sides. They headquarter at a fly camp in Diinal GawGa Gray Bay. “Welcome to my crib,” says Staast David Vanderhoop as we step into a large, open tent. Maps of the surrounding forest drape the walls. Markers crowd the charts, making the area’s wealth obvious. The coloured points signify monumental trees, yew trees, bear dens, culturally modified trees and heritage features. These markers are the result of a season of bramble-wrestling, mud-crawling, and cliff-scaling and they reveal how action-packed these tranquil woods really are.
As we leave camp for Hlkinul Kaahlii the crew falls to recounting the brightest moments of their rainforest research. They recall the secret dance a skaw Sooty grouse performed deep in the woods. They tell of a taan Haida Gwaii black bear who likes to perch high in the saddle of a favoured cedar. They describe coming across a hlGaa guu x‘id petroglyph, the handiwork of kuuniisii ancestors who patiently ground their mark into a large stone. Suddenly a new memory is made, and ahead of us a SGid gawGad Red shinned hawk pounces on an animal in the road. The stories continue until we load into the boat at Gawu Kuns Gandlaay and rip along the northern shore of Hlkinul Kaahlii, once dotted with fortresses, and now overshadowed by the remnants of logging implements; rotting railways, disintegrating trucks and slanted dock pilings.
The friendly site of a Haida-style longhouse greets us as we pass through the kelp-fronds resting on the ocean’s surface in front of Hlkinul Llnagaay. The solitary home is dwarfed by a high wall of old growth that rises from TlldaGaaw Gid Kinjuuwas Mountain Person of High Standing. The low, broad mountain hangs like a thick, green curtain behind the village. In front of the house the inlet’s running waters conceal a sprawling eelgrass plain pocked with clams and patrolled by gunnels, cod, and flatfish. At the centre of this seascape a small burial island called Hlkinul Gwaay wades into the water. To venture out to it we balance along the edge of a serrated isthmus, an intertidal bridge of jagged barnacles encrusting water-worn stones. The crew picks its way over the wobbly rocks, wary of the resting tide, which will flow again soon.
Hlkinul Gwaay is covered with mounds and markers, and we step delicately along its edges. The tranquility of this resting-place brings life to a diversity of rare flowers and orchids, which burst forth in the pine shadows. Amongst these perennials the island’s sole living resident scatters a generous carpet of bird skeletons, which melt away alongside the bones of the kuuniisii. The ts’aag Bald eagle who excels in hunting these birds, watches confidently from a hefty nest tottering high above a colourful splash of ripe k’ay crab apples. The crew leaves a moment for distraction and stop to enjoy these bright fruits.
Nearby we discover a chipped stone used to manufacture arrowheads. We search the beach for more treasures and inspect the soil for signs of budding medicines, whose little leaves are concealed in moss. Crew member Nicole Day looks up from her inspection of the forest floor, beaming brightly at the diverse collection of unique feathers she has found. The crew members burst into grins and exclamations at each new discovery, but their enthusiasm turns out to be their undoing. Having lingered too long, we realize rising waters are spilling over the pathway back to the village. Everyone dashes towards the flooding isthmus, and Day is the only one who manages to cross with unsoaked boots.
After a quick dry-off we clamber up the bushy bank into the village site, where Day almost immediately discovers an old, stone pestle. The tool fits perfectly into the palm, and its end is clearly scoured from grinding. The slim stone is left close by at the foot of a crumbling gyaaGang monumental pole.
While a hemlock has soaked up most of the monument’s deeply carved lines, a crest figure’s eye still watches from its perch above us, perfectly articulated. The pressures of age have cracked its face in half, and a split running along its contours reveals what lies behind its gaze. The grain flows like water around the evergreen as it slowly transforms the gyaaGang’s body. While its neighbours have already dissolved and turned to soft moss, this supernatural waits patient and composed as it follows after them.
Nearby, the last remnants of its whitened neighbour have given way to the inevitable as a large, young hemlock prepares to earn a place amongst the ancients of the surrounding forest. Even without a face, the gyaaGang maintains its posture, making a stand on what little footing is left as its companion pushes it from its place and transforms the carving back into bark and branches.
Beneath the shadows of the gyaaGang, fungal roots stretch through the wealth of decay that falls from the trees. Even though this veil of life pervades the soil it only reveals itself at this time of year, when mushrooms emerge. These composters cultivate the earth, releasing nutrients for sGil tawaatl’lýaay Calypso bulbosa, lady slipper, a medicinal orchid. As refugia amongst the glaciers that once dominated Haida Gwaii, sGil tawaatl’lyaay depended closely on michrorizal fungi, and today the fragile plant remains susceptible to disturbance. These small, purple perennials depend on deception to survive, luring insects with the promise of nectar and offering none. Finding them demands focus and explains their Latin name, “Calypso”, meaning “concealment”.
The SGil tawaatl’lyaay are interspersed with xil GuuGa Moneses uniflora, Single delight, whose rhizomes reach through and push slender stems from the ground. Each is topped with a lonely, nodding flower. In patches, these appear as little white dots in thick forest shadows. In our search, we clamber over a fallen pine and ford a trickling rill that feeds a neighbouring plot of invasive fireweed. As Shawn Edgars tears the proliferate patch from the soil, Day explains that the hidden native flowers may be even harder to find than usual, given the time of year.
We pass beyond the flower patches to reach the base of TlldaGaaw Gid Kinjuuwas. Huge cedars hold the steep slope in place, and we scramble over their thick roots and grapple with their fallen limbs to reach the first plateau. There, Staast finds exactly what we are looking for; a “culturally modified tree” (CMT). Kuuniisii left their marks on these trees by boring test holes into their cores to check them for quality prior to felling and by pulling bark from their flanks to weave containers and clothing. Today the scars of the cedar recall their work in deep, naked healing-scars and holes darkened by fire, shadow and rot.
This first CMT is 3.8 metres in circumference. Staast records the tree’s location, circumference, and the size and place that kuuniisii bore the test hole into the cedar’s side. The blackened hollow revealed that the cedar contains rot, and was unsuitable for carving, canoeing or construction.
Staast points out that sometimes, tools can be found within the roots of CMTs. Everyone excitedly talks about the possibility, remembering the stone bowl Guusdagun Mary Hart discovered this way in 2015. This is how the crew convinces Staast to investigate an aperture within the mass of roots. With a little work he reluctantly concedes, and decides to investigate what also appears to be the lair of a k’uuxan Pine marten at the base of the CMT. He nervously places his hand within the roots, then slowly reaches deeper and deeper into the darkness. Once the mouth of the burrow has consumed his arm up to the shoulder, Edgars suddenly pounces on him, and Staast jumps up again shouting in surprise. After everyone bursts into laughter, no amount of conniving will convince him to try again.
The crew admires the giant again before moving on. While it was left standing, many of those deemed ready for harvesting litter the forest floor beyond. Their remnants disintegrate in soft, rain-soaked heaps. These are covered with rows of sGiidllGuu huckleberry sprigs, hlk‘aang’waal young hemlock and small ts’uu cedars that spring towards the light. Staast shows us the stumps of those felled, the sections that were left on the forest floor, and those sections that were turned into monuments, vessels, and beams and taken back to the village.
In addition to the logs, stumps also nurse a new generation of trees. Those that grow atop the stumps are higher than their cousins, reaching more light and growing faster. Their place is at the very centre of a clearing that previously fell under the shadow of the surrounding forest. These nurse-logs play an important part in growing a new generation of straight-backed, healthy trees that, over hundreds of years, were part of a sustainable management regime organized by each region’s most influential families. The year each tree was felled can be determined by the age of the new generation that sits atop each stump. If the new cedar looks roughly 125 years old, then the tree was felled around 1891. A quick review reveals that kuuniisii actively worked with the surrounding area throughout the 1800s.
The forest grows thicker and muddier as Staast leads us on a transect that falls across a steep ravine. After sliding through a muddy patch of hlGawGandala Salmonberry bushes we emerge from the thicket to find ourselves on the top of the waterfall where Taa is Kaasdllgiis Sand Always Gathers tumbles down into a basin full of mushrooms and berry bushes. We work our way around the edges of the basin, descend and follow the river back to Hlkinul Gandlaay where Marni York is already loading the boat.
As we pull away from shore again, the conversation wanders to the territories that remain unseen; the groves of yew on the mountain’s higher slopes, the rich intertidal spread that emerges from the low tide, and the mountain lakes tucked away from view high above the trees. I think about the stories of the supernaturals who mark my memory of the wooded shores of Hlkinul Kaahlii. For a brief time the skill and imagination of kuuniisii brought these unyielding beings into our world, where they overlook running waters through the untiring eyes of the gyaaGang. At Hlkinul Llnagaay these embodiments of the supernatural world give way to the natural, and elsewhere carvers are calling it back again from cedar, silver, and stone. I gaze into the dark waters passing below us and inspect the sea for the visions that inspired Sta-th and his father An-o-wat to carve the first monumental pole. I am watching the sea warp and churn as the tide begins to change.