Tourist invasion ends islands’ solitude

Malcolm Gray October 25 1982

Tourist invasion ends islands’ solitude

Malcolm Gray October 25 1982

Tourist invasion ends islands’ solitude


Malcolm Gray

There is a new convenience this year in the village of Masset, the largest settlement on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Many of the 2,000 villagers accept its presence grudgingly, because they do not really need a sani-station. There are actually two of them on the islands now, places where increasing numbers of tourists in vans and campers can dump their effluent. The appearance of these homely sewage dumps—like the television signals that give detailed weather forecasts for Manhattan and Atlanta courtesy of satellite receiving dishes—is a symbol of change on the fabled Misty Isles. These are the islands of the Haidas, Indians who had the most advanced society on the Northern Pacific Coast before the Europeans came and smallpox destroyed their villages. Now, the islands themselves are suffering from an invasion of a different kind—a growing influx of tourists.

The tourists come to see the totem poles in deserted Haida villages and the whales and sea lions that gather in isolated bays and inlets. Until recently it was difficult to reach the Queen Charlottes and almost impossible to get close to a killer whale. The archipelago of 150 islands, which is

roughly 100 km from Prince Rupert on the B.C. mainland, could once be reached only by air and a makeshift ferry service. Then, in November, 1980, without consulting the islanders about what they wanted (better freight service, many of them say), the province

laid on a regular ferry run. Suddenly the boats were arriving three times a week, and anyone wanting to take a truck to the mainland no longer had to ship it by barge while he flew over to Prince Rupert. That was the convenience the government emphasized in a venture that lost $5 million last year. But the islanders did not accept the gift graciously. “I think we almost started a civil war on the islands when we introduced the service,” said B.C. Ferries spokesman Betty Nicholson. “Half the people wanted it and the other half didn’t.”

Masset village Mayor Gordon Feyer was one of the service’s strongest supporters. “I’m 100 per cent in favor of the service,” he said. “Nobody chases me out of Stanley Park when I go down to Vancouver, and I’m willing to share the islands with anyone who comes here.” But, for some of the 6,000 residents, most of whom live on the two large islands, Graham and Moresby, the very remoteness of the Queen Charlottes—with kilometres of deserted white sand beaches,

colonies of seabirds and undisturbed forests—is their chief attraction. An influx of visitors—4,500 took the ferry across in the summer of 1982—cannot help but change that, particularly when the islands are not equipped to deal with tourists. Nor are the outsiders pre-

pared for what they find on the islands. “It was always stupid to assume that people couldn’t get here,” says Carey Linde, a lawyer who came to the Queen Charlottes 10 years ago. “They could, but, because it isn’t as easy as it is now, they knew what to expect.”

Now, many people who arrive do not know that there are no roads to Anthony Island, where the finest totem pole villages are, that the colonies of ancient murrelets—a rare coastal bird—on Lyell Island are hard to reach, or that there are few hotels, campgrounds and commercial amusements on the Queen Charlottes. There is only one hotel left in Masset; the other one burned down two years ago.

The tourists’ detractors are legion. Linde, who can recall the controversies that arose when an occasional Winnebago arrived by barge in the pre-ferry days, says that many of the islands’ storekeepers expected increased profits from tourists. That has not happened, because the campers buy cheaper gas and groceries in Prince Rupert before they board the ferry. “Now, we’re finding that islanders are going over to Prince Rupert to buy their groceries there,” he said. Nick Gessler, an archeologist who was drawn to the Queen Charlottes 12 years ago by the prospect of working on untouched Haida sites, is

also disillusioned by the tourists. “Those who came before the ferries were active; today, they’re more passive. Not long ago I had to haul a rubber boat up on a beach, and there were 15 to 20 people standing around watching, not offering to help, as if it were a spectacle,” he says.

Nor is an island vacation cheap. James Allan, who runs Ecosummer Canada Expeditions, offers a two-week

tour by sea kayak that costs $900 per person. Despite the hefty price tag, the number of people coming back for a second visit has steadily increased during the five years he has been operating. “When we started, it was rare to see anyone else in the places we visited,” he said. “Now, the six tour companies operating in the Queen Charlottes have had to co-ordinate schedules so that everyone doesn’t end up in the same bay at one time.”

Both the sea kayakers, who leave no

traces of their nightly campsites, and the more disruptive ferry passengers in vans and campers, mean that the isolation that drew people to the islands is slowly disappearing. That lends urgency to the efforts to preserve parts of the Queen Charlottes as they have always existed. Keith Moore, a habitat technician with the provincial ministry of the environment, favors an option to protect 500 square miles of Moresby Island, although he acknowledges that a wilderness park is something of a contradiction in terms. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Moore says. “To get a wilder-

ness park you have to demonstrate that the park will be used—and if enough people use it, then you lose the wilderness. Still, most people believe that some part of South Moresby will be saved as wilderness.”

The spot with the best chance of being preserved is Windy Bay, one of the last unlogged watersheds on the Queen Charlottes. The fight to save it from the lumber companies was touched off by Paul George, now a director of the Western Canada Wilderness Commit-

tee. He had planned to write about the islands as Canada’s version of the Galapagos Islands: a place rich in plant and animal life that had been barely studied. Just before he and a friend left for the islands in 1977, an official in the B.C. ministry of lands and parks asked him to look out for an unlogged watershed. When he returned later that year, George mentioned that he had travelled to Windy Bay, an area where groves of cedar and giant Sitka spruce still stood, unlike other valleys and river bottoms on the islands’ eastern shore, where the wood was taken to

build Mosquito fighter-bombers in the Second World War.

His suggestion that Windy Bay be preserved started a movement to save the trees, the seabird colonies along the shore and the ancient Haida villages waiting to be explored by archeologists. But a large lumber company already holds the right to cut trees for the next 22 years on a tract that includes Windy Bay. Instead of the 7,400 acres environmentalists and several government agencies want to save, Western Forest Products Ltd. is only prepared to give up 1,700 acres. Complicating the issue is the fact that logging, the main industry on the Queen Charlottes, is in a severe slump and every job is precious. “Even our option means that 18 jobs will be lost,” said John Leesing, chief forester at Western Forest Products. “If the other plan is accepted, it means that 123 jobs will be lost.”

The debate cuts across partisan interests, however. Even Malcolm Dunderdale, a project supervisor with forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel, supports the plan to save Windy Bay. “One of the oldtime loggers said that the reason Windy Bay wasn’t touched can be found in its name—the winds were too strong to work there,” he said. “It should remain untouched to give people an idea what the Charlottes were all about.” As he spoke, ravens and eagles looked down on him from scores of Haida prints decorating the walls of a comfortable trailer in the logging camp in the middle of Graham Island. His wife, Sandra, takes a stronger stand, because she is a Haida, and the Haidas are demanding that more be done to preserve the wilderness. “We have to do something now if we want to save the salmon streams. I support what the Haidas are doing,” she said. The Haidas have declared a huge part of the islands (988,000 acres) a “tribal park” and off limits to industrial development, in particular, logging, which can destroy fish by altering the drainage pattern of the valley. Technically, the Indians do not own the land, which is part of the unsettled issue of land claims. But they have promised a confrontation if there is logging within their park.

The intricately carved totem poles of the Haidas, raised in memory of a great warrior chief or to ridicule a rival, are mainly of interest to tourists and archeologists. But new poles, made by a few carvers who have revived the old ways, are starting to rise again even as the 2,000 islanders with some Haida ancestry become more politically active. The black slate carvings, which the Haidas have been making since 1820, can still be bought as souvenirs. But a visitor to the Queen Charlottes takes away the unsettling knowledge that he, too, is part of the process that is changing them. &t;£?