I paddle across the still water of the bay nearing another island. Mist hangs in the air. As I get closer, the mist clears, revealing a pebbly beach and just beyond, a row of faces peering at us, sentinels watching us carefully as we approach.
Bare grey poles with jagged tops, etched deeply with carvings hundreds of years old, line the shore. They are framed by their reflection in the still water and backed by a thick wall of cedar trees, draped in moss.
There is a haunting, mystical air about this place. I don’t quite belong here, but feel incredibly privileged to be a witness to this place, even for a short while.
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Haida Gwaii Kayaking Overview
SG̱ang Gwaay llnagaay (English name Ninstints) is on Anthony Island at the southern end of Haida Gwaii (formerly called the Queen Charlotte Islands). It’s as remote as it sounds. In fact, it is accessible only by boat or plane (see Getting There below).
The first moment I saw a picture of the totem poles of Ninstints and then read more about Haida Gwaii, I decided I wanted to go there when I visited Canada.
Where is Haida Gwaii?
Haida Gwaii is an archipelago is off the north west coast of British Colombia, Canada. Haida Gwaii is off the west coast of Canada. It is north of Vancouver Island and south of Alaska. The sea channels between the island and the mainland are part of the Northwest Passage.
The northern part of the archipelago has several small settlements and the south part of the archipelago is the uninhabited Gwaii Haanas National Park.
Haida Gwaii Kayaking options
You can only get to SGang Gwaay llnagaay (Ninstints) by kayak, boat or sea plane. I think that Haida Gwaii tours are best done by sea kayak, because they allow you time to really see the islands and the wildlife.
Eight-day sea kayaking trips start at Sandspit on Moresby island. Because you need to get to the southern part of the archipelago, they start (and end) with a 3.5-hour zodiac ride to the Swan Islands, where you pick up the kayaks.
There are several operators doing Haida Gwaii tours by kayak. I did mine with Butterfly Tours and really liked them. It’s owned by one guy, who has a real love of the islands and cares deeply about their preservation, which I really liked. I get no commission from recommending him – I just really liked him.
You need a basic level of fitness. They teach you how to kayak properly without killing yourself, but having some upper body strength still helps.
How to get to Haida Gwaii
The islands are accessible by air or sea.
You can fly to Sandspit Airport (YZP) from Vancouver in about two hours. There are flights to Vancouver from all around the world.
The other option is take a BC Ferry from Prince Rupert to Skidegate Landing which takes at least seven hours, depending on the weather. You can take a car on the ferry, which can make getting around (before or after kayaking) easier (you can also rent a car on Haida Gwaii). I took the train from Jasper to Prince Rupert, which is a beautiful train ride.
You can also take a ferry from Prince Rupert north to Alaska or south to Vancouver Island (which I did after the kayak trip).
If you are traveling in this part of Canada, don’t miss visiting Victoria on Vancouver Island. There are lots of things to do in Victoria, and it makes a great addition to your Haida Gwaii trip.
An alternative to kayaking
If an 8-day kayaking trips doesn’t seem your thing, it is possible to visit SG̱ang Gwaay llnagaay (Ninstints) as a day trip from Vancouver.
You fly from Vancouver to Haida Gwaii and change to a sea plane and then fly to the totem pole village, before returning to Vancouver. It’s a long day, but is an alternative. You can book the flight day trip from Vancouver here.
Getting around Haida Gwaii
When you are on the island, shuttles and taxis are available. There is a 20-minute ferry ride between Skidegate Landing (on Graham Island and near the village of Queen Charlotte) and Alliford Bay (on Moresby Island and near the village of Sandspit). The trip between Skidegate Landing and Sandspit takes just over an hour.
Where to stay on Haida Gwaii
There is accommodation at Queen Charlotte or Sandspit.
Northern Shores Lodge is basic but comfortable accommodation in Sandspit.
The best time to visit Haida Gwaii
The best time to visit Haida Gwaii is summer (May-September). It rains all year round, but the rain often doesn’t last long.
Planning and packing for a kayak trip to Haida Gwaii
I use the Internet a lot to plan – and I hope this blog is useful resource for you – but I also always use a Lonely Planet to get the big picture and practical things like maps. Use it as a useful resource than a travel bible so that you don’t miss out on loads of awesome things and places and experiences that aren’t listed in it. You can buy the Canada Lonely Planet here or if you are just visiting this part of Canada, you can buy the British Colombia Lonely Planet here. I also recommend using my North America Travel Guide for useful tips and info. As well as my step-by-step Trip Planner to guide you through the trip-planning process.
Haida Gwaii kayak tours description
I was warned that it would be cold on the zodiac, so I donned virtually every item of clothing I had with me and wobbled to the zodiac. People looked at me like I was seriously weird when I brought out the balaclava, but when they were shivering and I was toasty warm, they were envious!
We spent some time learning how to paddle a kayak without overly exerting ourselves and did some short distance paddling the first day. When I first started, my arms and shoulders started to ache and I was beginning to doubt my sanity for doing this thing, but when I started using the correct technique, it was actually pretty easy and fun.
I had expected to be paddling for hours every day, but we only actually kayaked for about 2-3 hours each day, which left lots of time to explore (or rest and nap!).
We camped on pebbly, driftwood-strewn beaches each night …
or mossy glades in the woods.
We kayaked past seals, sea lions, a humpback whale (which swam right past our kayaks!) and beds of kelp floating on the surface.
I hadn’t done much research, so didn’t know that the islands are infamously cloudy and wet. Luckily for me, it was unseasonably sunny and dry and every day was glorious.
There are lots of bald eagles …
and Sitka deer, which are endemic to Haida Gwaii.
Every day is one beautiful view after another.
SG̱ang Gwaay/ Ninstints is the site of Haida totem poles hundreds of years old. The village that was here was abandoned in the late 1800s, but the totem poles remain, slowly returning to nature as they decay. The rows of totem poles gazing hauntingly out to sea are a real privilege to witness.
Haida Gwaii is a really special place. Beautiful scenery, bald eagles, and the haunting beauty of the totem pole village of Ninstints. The slower pace and accessibility of kayaking around them allows you to fully appreciate the scenery. It’s not cheap, but this is an amazing, unique experience that’s worth every penny.
TC ‘experiential travel’ score: Haida Gwaii kayaking
|Authenticity of experience||18|
|Quality of interaction with culture/ environment||15|
|Difficulty to arrange||15|
|TOTAL TC SCORE||85|
Practical Tips: Travel to Canada
Visa requirements for Canada
Check visa requirements as soon as you know you will travel to give yourself time to get a visa if you need one.
I recommend checking your home country’s official government visa websites:
For citizens of other countries, use this helpful website (though it’s best to always check with the embassy as well).
What is the currency in Canada?
The currency is the Canadian dollar (CAD). Check the current exchange rate here.
My aim is to not only inspire you to have amazing experiences when you travel, but to also give you the practical information and resources you need to have them. It is important to be fully prepared when you travel.
In addition to accommodation, planning and flights, you should always have travel insurance, just in case. I always hope I never need to use it but I get it just in case I do! Read my Guide to Buying Travel Insurance for more information.
A great insurance option is World Nomads. You can book it online here or get a quote here:
Enjoy Haida Gwaii!
Do you have any stories of Haida Gwaii? I’d love to hear them. Comment below.
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Read more rowing experiences:
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James Ian has traveled to 82 countries and all 7 continents. He is passionate about experiential travel, i.e. meaningful travel that actively engages with the environment and culture. He helps people have similar experiences that involve active participation in activities and festivals; engaging with the local food and handicrafts through lessons and food tours; and interacting positively with environment by hiking, riding, rowing, diving and low/no impact animal encounters.
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