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Paddling Over To Ninstints

Trip Highlights of Kayaking Gwaii Haanas in BC

It took me the better part of 20 years to finally knock off a kayaking trip in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. It’s a phenomenal place to explore, especially between May and September when there’s actually a high probability of sunshine for days, if not weeks at a time. Visit to experience nature and wilderness in a spiritual setting that the Haida people have lived in for over 14,000 years.

Our one week Gwaii Haanas kayaking trip

Our one week kayaking trip took us from Rose Harbour to Burnaby Narrows, in the southern part of  Gwaii Haanas National Park Preserve. It was a stand-out from start to finish. For starters, the weather was sunny and hot except for the four hour boat ride down to Rose Harbour and an hour of rain on the last day. Considering this is where you find temperate rainforest, I think we all felt very lucky.

Also the wind was almost always light, so the ocean was calm which is an amazing occurrence for this part of the world. Granted there were swells on a couple of the days, but they were entirely manageable. Food was delicious and the company – a mixed bag primarily from British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, was great.

Campsites were beautiful and the pace was such that on most days there was time for an afternoon siesta. Sounds fantastic doesn’t it?

Kayaking Gwaii Haanas is first rate
First rate kayaking in the islands of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve

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Where is Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve?

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve is located at the southern end of Haida Gwaii – formerly called the Queen Charlotte Islands.

If you look at a map, you’ll find the islands off the coast of northern British Columbia near the southern edge of Alaska. They are a difficult place to visit so I think you need to go for at least a week.

How do you get to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve?

First you must fly to Sandspit, a small town serviced by Air Canada or take a seven hour ferry ride from Prince Rupert to Skidegate. Then you must get to the boat launch, usually via a shuttle with Moresby Explorers. That’s via a well-traveled dirt logging road.

Then there’s a three to five hour boat ride down to Rose Harbour, depending on the logistics of the day for Moresby Explorers. The boat ride is exposed, cold and sometimes wet. It requires that you wear every piece of clothing you’ve brought. I wore seven layers. But it’s all worth it. 

Here’s a look at the highlights of kayaking Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.

Note that if you want to do the trip self-guided, there is a mandatory 90 minute orientation. You can find more information on the Parks Canada website here.

Our boat ride out to Rose Harbour starts here, accessed via a 45 minute van ride on a logging road from the town of Sandspit
Our boat ride out to Rose Harbour starts here, accessed via a 45 minute van ride on a logging road from the town of Sandspit
AKayaking Gwaii Haanas on the first day out required only a minor amount of easy paddling
A minor amount of easy paddling on the first day
Rose Harbour, Haida Gwaii at sunrise
Morning mist and calm waters the first morning out

Paddle to SGang Gwaay

The village of  SGang Gwaay or Ninstints in English is a UNESCO site and a must visit island if you’re kayaking in Gwaii Haanas National Park Preserve. Look for the remains of large, cedar longhouses, and carved mortuary and memorial poles, on a tour with Haida Gwaii Watchman.

The Haida Gwaii Watchman showcase Haida culture by telling the stories and sharing their knowledge of songs, dances, stories and traditional foods. The Watchman, who do this as a seasonal job in summer, can be male or female and range in age from as young as 16 to over 75. Our group learned a lot from Natasha, our Watchman guide on the island.

Landing on SGang Gwaay - a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Landing on SGang Gwaay – a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Walking past Memorial Poles on Ninstints Island
Walking past Memorial Poles on Ninstints Island
Learning about the Memorial poles from Natasha, our delightful Watchman guide
Learning about the Memorial poles from Natasha, our delightful Watchman guide
Giant jellyfish are plentiful on the west coast beaches
Giant jellyfish are plentiful on the west coast beaches
A classic West Coast sunset
A classic West Coast sunset
Kayaking around Gordon Island
Kayaking around Gordon Island
A Haida canoe that was never finished, perhaps because smallpox decimated the population
A Haida canoe that was never finished, perhaps because smallpox decimated the population (seen in Rose Harbour)
Great rock outcrop at one of our stops
Great rock outcrop at one of our stops
Simple pleasures - hit the rock off the piece of driftwood while sitting (or standing or left arm only.)
Simple pleasures – hit the rock off the piece of driftwood while sitting (or standing or left arm only.)
The only sunrise I got out of bed to see - and what a sunrise it was!
The only sunrise I got out of bed to see – and what a sunrise it was!

Catch Burnaby Narrows at low tide

Burnaby Narrows has been called the Galapagos of the north. Time your paddle through the narrows to coincide with low tide so you can ooh and aah at colourful starfish, snails, giant plumose anemones, mussles, limpets, red turban snails – along with numerous other varieties whose names I don’t know.

Reportedly “there is more protein per square centimetre than anywhere else on earth!

If you’re planning a trip to the area take a reference book with you so you can make sense of all that you’re seeing. Revised and expanded in 2019, The Beachcomber’s Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest is the one you’ll want.

The tidal zone is wonderful - especially through Burnaby Narrows seen whike kayaking Gwaii Haanas
The tidal zone is wonderful – especially through Burnaby Narrows
Hardly any breathing room if you're a mussel
A lot of protein packed into the Burnaby Narrows
Seeing a massive tree while kayaking Gwaii Haanas
A massive tree in Haida Gwaii – just before Burnaby Narrows
A post lunch siesta on the beach
A post lunch siesta on the beach
Dining and humpback whale watching - what a lucky combo
Dining and humpback whale watching – what a lucky combo

Kayaking Gwaii Haanas means great campsites like this one with a view down towards Burnaby Narrows on the last night outOur tent with a view down towards Burnaby Narrows on the last night out

A pretty campsite in Gwaii Haanas near Burnaby Narrows
A pretty campsite on our last night out

Hopefully you’ll still get a sense of the wonderful scenery that’s in store for you should you decide to visit. You don’t have to kayak either.

There are “motherships” where you sleep on board and explore by day and there are single day and multi-day trips to visit the area arranged via Moresby Explorers as well.

Our trip was with Green Coast Kayaking, a great outfit though you do have to provide and cook a breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Further reading on kayaking in Haida Gwaii

Visit the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve website for more information.

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

Kayaking Gwaii Haanas National Park Preserve

 

 

 

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 40 Comments

  1. You know me and my map “addiction”, Leigh! 🙂 So, I immediately got onto Google Maps to check out first where the Gwaii National Park was and to see how close I ever came to it – Prince George! I would probably follow your suggestion and fly vs the ferry ride. The jellyfish and star fish are amazing! Then seeing a humpback whale swimming by your campground. That is just off the charts! I’m with you on simple pleasures…i.e. throwing rocks and pebbles. Great post 🙂

    1. @Mike It was a wonderful trip and such a treat to be unplugged for a week. The kayaking was great and we were just so lucky to have once incredible sunny day after another. Whatever were you doing in Prince George??

  2. Wow! It looks even more beautiful than I expected. The giant jellyfish is amazing and the unfinished canoe sobering. Looks like an amazing trip. . . I’m glad to see there are options for the less-fit among us!

    1. @Cindy It was an exceptional trip and an area well worth visiting. It’s only about a 2 hour flight from Vancouver and connections are great. I think you would really enjoy the cultural part of the trip as well.

  3. Absolutely stunning photos. I am not comfortable in a kayak (or canoe or small boat of any kind) so was glad to read I could explore the area in a “mothership”.

  4. I am amazed by the enormous jellyfish and chubby starfish. Fascinating part of the world, and good to be off the grid.

    1. @gypsynester Motherships are the civilized way to go as you get a comfy bed and have a chance to cover more area. And if the weather turns bad, you’re protected inside. Definitely some benefits.

  5. Great shots! They make me want to go there, and since my husband has never been to the west coast, he would LOVE to do the kayaking.

    1. @Jane There are many ways to do a kayaking trip – with a guide without a mothership, on your own or via a mothership – which allows you to cover more ground. The area has a reputation for big seas and wind so we really lucked out.

  6. Leigh these are stunning photos. . .not sure about getting there as I am not a fan of small planes or boats, so guess this is another or your experiences that I will enjoy as an armchair traveler! What an incredible area. . .

    1. @Jackie It doesn’t sound like you will make it here but there’s nothing wrong with being an armchair traveler. It is a phenomenal area in so many ways – with everything on a giant scale.

  7. We’ve kayaked a couple of times and while in theory I think it’s lovely, calm and peaceful, but in practice I’m not a fan because I can’t move, I get too twitchy. 😉 That is one big jelly fish! Lovely photos.

  8. Wow Leigh! Your post makes me dream of home. I’m in the South West of Western Australia. There are lots of lovely delights here, but that moss covered Haida canoe does make me pine just a little. Stunning photos.

  9. This looks absolutely incredible! When you were describing how difficult it is to get there I was wondering why someone would go through all that 😉 Your photos explain exactly why someone would travel so far. What an adventure!

    1. @Talon I used to live in Vancouver and we did a lot of weekend kayaking trips. In Calgary I don’t have the same opportunities so it was a treat to be out for a week – especially with great weather.

  10. I have visited the temperate rain forest of southern Alaska, so I can’t believe you were so fortunate to have a string of sunny days. Your photos are wonderful, so I imagine that the real thing was truly superlative.

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