A Great Time and A Hard Climb

Graham Richard

School District 50 supported seven Haida youth as they climbed Tllgaduu Slatechuck Mountain to collect k‘aas hlGaa argillite on Friday November 16. Lupdaagaa Robert Vogstad and Luu Xxydals Sascha Jones led the team safely up the inlet, across a stream, through swamp, over root, and up rugged the mountainside. Haida have been cutting k‘aas hlGaa from this vein of earth for generations. Tllgaduu is the sole source of fine, black, carveable argillite in the world. In hiking the trail, the youth followed the footsteps of master carvers before them and exercised their exclusive right as Haida descendants. Along the way Lupdaagaa stops the team to practice Xaayda kil and teach about the forest’s unique connection to Haida history.

As we head up inlet aboard Spruce Cove, Skaaw Ts’il Mount Seymour comes into view. The sight brings SGaana Guunangs Kaas Supernatural power that walked around with no clothes naked to mind. For days SGaana Guunangs Kaas sought strength in the medicinal ts’iihlinjaaw Devil’s club and xilguga Single delight that grows throughout the surrounding mountains. There he helped and met with jiigwul awGa Dusky shrew, who fed and advised him in turn. Throughout the days Skaaw Ts’il and its neighbour Tluu K’aa.andas Double Mountain called to one another in greeting. With the help of jiigwul awGa, SGaana Guunangs Kaas used his newfound strengths to restore his siblings and destroy their enemies at GuuhlGa Skidegate Landing.

Spruce Cove begins to run alongshore as the boat approaches the trailhead. The passing shoreline brings to mind a woman of the inlet who knew the secret to eternal life. A man chased her for days along the shore, winding in and out of the many inlets and bays. Finally he caught her and she relinquished her secret. Satisfied, the man fell asleep in exhaustion, but upon waking he could not remember the secret. As Spruce Cove sets anchor her shadow seems to run alongshore.

As they set ashore and begin walking up-river the youth find the signs of taanuud autumn all around them. Flocks of fattened siigaay xidid seabirds line the ambiguous network of taan Black bear, k’aad deer, and XaaydaGa trails. Lumps of pungent flesh slowly relinquish their hold on scattered sk’aagii kaaguuaanii Chum salmon skeletons and seep into surrounding clusters of k‘ulGa tree roots. The run is finished. The steady schools of fresh sk’aagii have ended. Without any fresh food to squabble over, the xidid are left to bicker for better perches where they can rest their full bellies.

The strong smell reminds of the wealth that kept kuuniisii ancestors strong. The village at the mouth of Tllgaduu Gandlaay was one of many fishing centres found at the mouth of every creek. Kuuniisii from the surrounding area were part of a rich and complex system of societies spanning Xaana Kaahlii GawGaay Skidegate Inlet, diida xwaa gwaayaay shoreward country or Haida Gwaii, k‘aada xwaa gwaayaay seaward country or the mainland, and even the mountains and plateaus beyond. Their descendants today continue to live in dignity amongst the wealth of Haida Gwaii, and their territory flows with thoughts of them.

The way into the woods is attended by a pageant of mushrooms sprouting from invisible mycelia networks. The fungi form into a series of autumnal creatures of every contour and colour, bursting from the cryptic mat that stretches ubiquitously from Tllgaduu to distant reaches at Yaaku ‘Llngee and K’ay Tlagee Rose Point.

Huge evergreens echo the roar and trickle of innumerable streams and runnels tumbling between their roots, so that the voice of water surrounds the youth as they clamber up steep slopes. Closer to the quarry signs of failed ambition appear: large pieces of k‘aas hlGaa dropped or flung in frustration from slate packs; or a few pounds patiently conceded, cut from the tops of larger blocks and returned to the mountainside. These litter the trail’s end and signal that the youth are nearing the quarry.

A large, wind-thrown evergreen still serves as the final obstacle, but upon arrival at the quarry the work only just begins. Haida youth spend time slipping about on discarded remnants of imperfect pieces, which form a huge fluvial hill under the quarry. They dig into the quarry to find sizeable blocks with even grain. After sizing and sawing they load the k‘aas hlGaa into their packs and start down the winding trail back to shore.

The weight of the stone makes the hike down far less amicable, driving the youth as quickly as possible back across marsh, bridge, and slippery streambed. Sparing no time to look about, the youth clamber back down the rough trail. The whole experience becomes a very pragmatic exercise in keeping feet dry and pack-adjustment. As often as they stumble, the familiar sequence of smells reassures them they are always getting closer.

After pushing through a few additional obstacles the youth finally load their treasures aboard Spruce Cove. Throughout the coming winter Haida carvers, both amateur and expert will transform the precious stone into new beings to inhabit our world. There is no doubt the new carvings will spread throughout the world to join the many thousands of masterworks that precede them.

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