SETTING FOOT ON THE CHARLOTTES

Two people on one beach is overcrowding

SUSAN MUSGRAVE August 1 1975

SETTING FOOT ON THE CHARLOTTES

Two people on one beach is overcrowding

SUSAN MUSGRAVE August 1 1975

SETTING FOOT ON THE CHARLOTTES

Two people on one beach is overcrowding

SUSAN MUSGRAVE

I was talking the other day to a Danish fisherman on the wharf at Port Clements, one of the largest ports on the Queen Charlotte Islands. “What did you do before you came here?” I asked him. He smiled, delightedly: “I vos a peemp!”

The Queen Charlottes are like that, a cheerful ethnic hodgepodge, where backgrounds vary as much as race. I came to live here two years ago. hoping to find a quiet place to write; now I find I have to go to Vancouver if I want isolation. The old friends and acquaintances who ignore you for years in the city make a point of looking you up.

The first thing you have to do when you come here is take off your watch, for time on the Charlottes doesn’t run to city schedules. When my father came to stay with me, he complained that he had been waiting a month for a new engine part to arrive in Victoria. “That’s nothing,” said Frieda Unsworth. one of the remaining descendants of a pioneering Charlottes family. “I took my radio to Masset seven years ago and I haven’t got it back yet.”

The Queen Charlotte Islands lie about 425 miles northwest of Vancouver, and are made up of two principal islands — Graham and Moresby — and some 150 smaller islands. The atmosphere here is similar to that of western Ireland. Both are warmed by ocean currents, so climate is much the same. Both are accused with little justification of having overabundant rainfalls. And there’s something of the Irish in the people here as well. Talking about the weather, one old Boer-war veteran told me: “On a clear day you can see as far as you can look.”

Susan Musgrave is a poet and an author of children’s literature.

you The Charlottes are one of the few places in Canada where you can still live “off the land” in a log cabin — without freezing. The beaches, rivers and forests offer you a plentiful supply of salmon. abalone, wildfowl, crab and scallops.

The polarities of mainland Canadian society are blurred here. Indians — the islands’ population is about one third Haida — loggers, hippies and Jaycees commingle freely. “What you see when you don’t have a gun,” exclaimed my neighbor one morning. I looked around expecting to see a six-point buck and saw instead a long-haired, bearded fellow in a hillbilly hat. Two days later, my neighbor presented this moving target with a wood stove.

To some extent, the people’s lifestyles are reflected in their architecture. A large section of the population is here only temporarily, and they know it. As in many northern communities, most of the buildings seem to have been imposed on the landscape rather than having grown out of it. The way of life is typified by the luxurious mobile homes and semidetached suburban villas that grace a lumbering town such as Port Clements. Masset, whose population was doubled five years ago by a Department of National Defense invasion, supports an impressive acreage of identical streets and married quarters. On Queen Charlotte City’s “Hippy Hill,” Bucky Fuller follies sprout like mushrooms — hobbit-like dwellings that defy any laws of convention or gravity. The few residents of the hill have expressed a desire to secede from the rest of the province. They don’t share the same sewer or water supply as the rest of Queen Charlotte City, and don’t want to become incorporated when their neighbors down the hill take the plunge.

As it is, Masset is the only incorporated town on the islands, boasting one of two liquor stores and a cocktail bar. The city took its name from the Indian Village two miles down the inlet, now referred to as Old Masset. A town that hasn’t really found itself yet, Masset flounders between pretension, functionalism and slovenliness.

But Old Masset has an entirely different atmosphere. Essentially, it is the same as it has always been — a long row of houses fronting the sea. The old totem poles and longhouses are gone, but that’s not as significant as many seem to feel. The place breathes differently; there’s an intangible quality to the village that many people find frightening, vaguely hostile. It is easy to remember you’re a foreigner here.

This is less true in Skidegate Mission, whose Indians, from all appearances, are much more closely integrated with the white community. Many of them are well-to-do and hold down regular jobs as mechanics or skilled operators with MacMillan Bloedel. Only old photographs recall the scene here 100 years ago: the beached war canoes, the elaborately carved house poles, and the old women gathering food on the tide line. There is one totem left in Skidegate.

Everything you always wanted to know about the Queen Charlotte Islands will not be explained by a drive up the 80-odd miles of paved highway. For the most rewarding parts are undoubtedly the most remote, places you need to hire a boat or plane to get to and where, if the weather turns bad. you may be marooned for weeks. Both main islands are studded with exquisite bays and beaches, with everything from Japanese glass fishing floats to whale vertebrae and coconuts. Often the Haida were there first, leaving behind totems, house posts and mortuary poles now crumbling in the moss — an atmosphere of an abandoned village, unforgettable.

It must have been more than a little shock to the first Indians who spotted the white man’s great flying canoe on the horizon. Joe Tulip, a Haida from Skidegate, told me that when the Indians went out in their canoes from Kiusta (a settlement on the northwest coast of Moresby) to greet the first European ship, one man stayed on board for a few days. He came back with the news that the foreigners ate maggots and had a bear cooking for them. The maggots turned out to be rice; the bear, of course, was a Negro.

Between 1840 and 1880, the Haida population dropped from 8,000 to 800, devastated by smallpox, booze and exposure to the white man’s ways. Missionaries conveniently blamed this disaster on the fact that the Indians insisted on keeping their totem poles.

Today, many Haidas make their living by carving argillite, a soft slate from which native craftsmen have extended their woodcarving technique since the 1830s. These carvings command high prices, though the unlimited market encourages a lot of inferior workmanship. But quality pendants, earrings and brooches can be purchased locally for less than $50.

The Charlottes have a population of fewer than 6,000, and anyone who really loves these islands feels possessive about them. The sight of another human being on a three-mile stretch of beach is an outrageous invasion of privacy.

But the islands survive it all. There will always be another tide to wash away yesterday’s footprints in the sand.