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Sanesh and Nathan Paddle Haida Gwaii Part 1: Chaatl Island

Updated: Jan 14, 2023

This is the first post in a three part series about Sanesh’s trip to visit Nathan in Haida Gwaii, including their circumnavigations of Chaatl and Louise Island and their witnessing of Yaghu ‘Laanaas pole raising & potlatch!

With our mixed schedules, it was a little challenging trying to get a paddle in together over the summer, so when Nathan told me he had two weeks off and I realised I had enough Aeroplan points to get me to Haida Gwaii, we jumped on the opportunity. Our original plan was to do a 10 day paddle from Daajing Giids, through Skidegate Channel, and then point North up the west coast. Things didn’t quite go to plan, in the best possible way.

Sunset in Daajing Giids over Sleeping Beauty, my first night in Haida Gwaii

The story starts as soon as I land in Haida Gwaii. I walked off the plane, and there with a big smile and a sign with my (and others’) names on it was S from Gwaii Taxi & Tours. She said to meet her at the bus out front with my bags. Easy, S is awesome. While I waited for my checked bags, I was checking out the beautiful 3D map of Haida Gwaii getting excited for our trip, when a woman — a week later I’d learn her name, we’ll call her M. — walks over to me and says:

“ You have to come to the pole raising this weekend. We need big strong boys like you.”

A little flattered and very surprised, I replied:

“Oh that sounds incredible! Where is it? I’ll have to check with my friend first.”

M’s response:

“Old Massett. Follow the Crowd. Bring your friend, they can help lift the pole too, see you there!”

She then walked away to meet her friend who she was there to pick up, before we had the chance to exchange names. Ok. Pole raising?! Plan’s changed.

On the bus to Daajing Giids, I chatted with a woman who'd flown out to volunteer at the pole raising and potlatch since it was hosted by a member of her clan. I snagged a photo of a Facebook Post for the pole raising that contained more details, perfect. S dropped me off, I met up with Nathan, and we re-arranged our trip!

All the information I had for the pole raising, time to shuffle our plans

The next day, Nathan and I went to Jags, walked around town, and grocery shopped for our trip. I had brought a lot of food in preparation for camping, but Nathan needed some stuff. We took a look at the chart and decided we were going to circumnavigate Chaatl Island in 3 days (from Tuesday to Thursday). It is an out and back that took us through Skidegate Channel, gave us a little time on the west coast, and even took us through some “unsurveyed” waters. Exciting. We also knew that there was at least one pole at the village site. In the afternoon we went for a hike to the wreck of the Pseuta, then to dinner with Green Coast Kayaking Owner/Operator Bryce (Nathan’s Boss) and his 3 lovely dogs; and Nathan’s coworker and his partner. It’s well known that the Pesuta hike is subject to the tides, as people do get stuck at the shipwreck. Based on our timing, we realised we weren’t going to even make the shipwreck. Our first tide mistake of the trip, oops. Green Coast is one of only a few locally owned/operated kayak tour companies in Haida Gwaii, and Bryce really lives it… super warm and welcoming. He even operates a paddle club for locals to get out on the water in kayaks at a heavy discount. Community minded and actively looking for ways to leverage his business to help out. Cool dude.

We screwed up the tides and were unable to access the Pseuta. Whoops. We can’t afford to make such mistakes on our kayak trips, especially when we know better.

Tuesday at noon, the first paddle begins. We had two goals in mind for this trip: 3 knot travelling speed and a daily distance of 20 nautical miles. We went for it. I was definitely slower than Nathan, no surprise. I’ve also been having shoulder pain – I pinched a nerve climbing in June, so I was a little nervous that I’d aggravate the injury. Something I haven’t touched on yet is just how beautiful Haida Gwaii is. And the cloud cover makes it feel mystical. As soon as I got off the plane, and while I was on the ferry, and even while walking in town, the natural beauty just takes your breath away. Paddling through Skidegate Channel for the first time was awesome. It’s both breathtakingly beautiful and absolutely humbling. Here I am in a fibreglass kayak, Orange Canoe Drysuit for when the weather turns, a VHF radio, a liquid fuel stove, and even food from a grocery store. The Haida have paddled this route for thousands of years with far simpler gear, and far more knowledge. And yet others traverse this channel to fish the abundant west coast waters. The Skidegate Channel, as much natural beauty as there is, is not wild. Today it’s a local’s commute for work and food, as it has been for generations of Haida.

We timed the tides perfectly, catching the flood through Skidegate Narrows and hitting the high through Chaatl Narrows. Chaatl Narrows are very narrow and shallow. We got lots of mixed information on the passability and were nervous we weren’t going to make it through them. Let it be known, on a 4m tide (measured from Hunger Harbour station) we had 2m (a full paddle length) below us. Entirely passable at high and a little before and after.

Through Chaatl Narrows, no problem. Fog hanging low on the herringbone of mountain ridges feeding into the sea. It’s an inspiring place to be

At this point it was getting late, we were starting to get hungry. We were pushing to get to Chaatl village, but with the cloud cover and darkness we called it. Chaatl Inlet, when you’re in it heading westward in the fog, looks like you’re in a herringbone pattern where you can’t see the next ridge. Every ridge hits the water and looks like the Pacific Ocean is just around the corner. The chart, due to the unsurveyed nature of the area, was not supremely helpful either. We set up camp in a little bit of rain and took a look at the Inreach. We had paddled 16 NM and were nowhere near Chaatl Village. Chaatl is a BIG island.

The next morning, cloudy but precipitation free, we donned our drysuits and paddled off. The risk was considerably higher today. We were in a radio dead zone so had no sense of the weather or sea state ahead. The region was unsurveyed. We were fully ready to end up having to turn around at any point. I was a little panicked, Nathan was cool as a cucumber.

Geared up, ready to Paddle westward into the Pacific. Orange Canoe Drysuits keeping us comfortable and dry

The location of Chaatl Village wasn’t immediately clear to us, so we were on the lookout for it. We knew it was on the island (on our right), but that’s it. After a few hours of paddling Nathan said “that beach looks really good, if I were to put a village somewhere it would be there.” We paddled on. And then he saw a crabapple tree, which I then learned is a good sign of a previous or current human presence in Haida Gwaii. We landed on the nearest beach, and immediately saw the trail markers. We’d found the village! Thanks to Nathan. I personally would have paddled right past. After seeing the pole, we walked along the trail and ended up back on the beach Nathan had spotted earlier.

A pole in Chaatl returning to the earth. One of the highlights of this trip was seeing Poles at all their life stages, from being raised all the way to just seeing the pits left behind after they’ve fallen

We pushed on to the west coast. We finally caught word of the weather and sea state. 3-4m seas, fun! The seas were pretty big, there were lots of boomers and cliffs and caves, so we stayed far from shore as we exited the channel into the Pacific, rounded Chaatl Island, and entered Skidegate Inlet. The seas combined with the poor visibility meant we had to be careful. As we pushed forward we kept our eyes out for any warning signs of boomers, and steered clear of breaking waves, staying offshore into the swell. As we rounded the northwest corner of Chaatl Island, we saw a tiny, but beautifully protected beach. There was a large kelp bed, and you could see the swell stacking up against and dissipating through the kelp before lightly touching the beach. A west facing beach, with no surf in 4m seas was an oasis. By the time we got into the protected kelp bed we’d been paddling for about 2.5 hours. Both of us were having fun, but also ready for a break.

Nathan, just after we rounded the west coast of Chaatl, before we landed. The skies were clear on this side of the island, and the sea state was much calmer. What a beautiful place.

After a quick stop, we paddled onward into the channel and to Government Creek. The area was full of fishing boats. What had been an adventure for us, was routine for these folks. A good reminder to be humble. I’m still proud of our achievement, but for others this is just another day in the office. The weather cleared at this time, so we had largely blue skies. We landed in Government Creek, setup camp, and went for a walk in the beautiful old growth.

Watching this fella search for food in Government Creek was a real privilege, and a reminder to do all we can to protect these beautiful creatures

The 3rd day of this trip was a slog. We caught the wrong current in Skidegate Narrows so we were fighting a bit. And then paddling back across to Daajing Giids was gruelling. You could see where you were going the whole time and it never seemed to get closer. It’s a 4 nautical mile or so crossing that we did. What was beautiful on the first day made for an endlessly frustrating return trip in the heat. I also really needed to pee for most of the crossing, so I started feeling nauseous in flat seas with no wind. Never making that mistake again.

Our first little paddle around Chaatl was a fun trip. It was pretty short, and we were in big boats, so packing was easy. We even brought a jar of pickles, and I had a whole bag of warm weather clothing that I never dipped into. Nathan’s “chill out and let it happen” started to rub off on me. He’s a very experienced and skilled kayaker, so even in the moments when the weather and sea state is unknown in unsurveyed waters, he was very calm with a “we’ll figure it out when we get there” attitude. Not in a flippant way, in a “we have the skills and knowledge to get ourselves out of a hairy situation” kind of way. We achieved the pace we wanted to, and we got into some Class IV waters. Awesome.

Our first 3-day outing took place in the inlet between Moresby Island (South) and Graham Island (North)
Day 1: Red. Day 2: Orange. Day 3: Yellow

After unloading the boats, we made our way back to Galaxy at City Center, the Hostel we used as our base camp, to prepare for the next adventure, the pole raising. We made some new friends that night, and I learned a lot, but they aren’t my histories to share. If that’s piqued your interest, I strongly recommend you go to Haida Gwaii and learn first hand.

The morning after our first kayak trip in Haida Gwaii, we loaded into Nathan’s van to head up to the pole raising in Massett. Google Maps says it’s a 1.5h drive, Nathan assured me in his old, wooden-stove-laden van, it would be closer to 2.5h. Still on paddle time, we were able to get going pretty early and arrived in Massett around 10am. We stopped in town for a coffee and a muffin and prepared ourselves for a full day adventure!

Pole Raising & Potlatch Bound

To be continued...

To hear about our experience at the pole raising and potlatch, and our second prep trip; read-on for parts 2 and 3! Please consider subscribing to be notified by email when the next post is published.

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