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How a Mother-and-Son Tour of Haida Gwaii Became the Trip of a Lifetime

Spending precious time with my son in a magical corner of Eden was soul-restoring.

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Penny and Brett enjoying coffee and treats at the Moon Over Naikoon Bakery—a converted school bus parked off the road in the woodsPhoto: Courtesy of Penny Heneke
Penny and Brett enjoying coffee and treats at the Moon Over Naikoon Bakery—a converted school bus parked off the road in the woods.

A salve for the soul

The high-pitched, piercing screeches preceded the sightings of the bald eagles constantly swooping their six-to-eight-foot wingspans over us. In the summer of 2019, my son Brett and I had come for a visit to experience the natural beauty of Haida Gwaii (Islands of the People), a rugged archipelago off British Columbia’s west coast formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. Written in the forward of a complimentary brochure, the president of the Haida Nation welcomed visitors “following your hearts” in coming to Haida Gwaii. He stated, “You are here for a reason and the truth will reveal itself.”

My motivation for coming was twofold. Floored by a stroke more than a year ago, I felt vulnerable and feared more would follow. The event itself and the foreboding for the future robbed me of my chutzpah to seek new experiences. As I recovered, however, I started to feel the urge to venture forth. I also needed to get over the nervousness of leaving home, especially as my son, Brett, and his family live quite a distance away from Ontario and I am lucky to see him once a year. Brett is a dreamer like me and shares my sense of adventure. When I mentioned Haida Gwaii, he said it was a destination he’d planned to go to one day.

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Penny "holding up" the Balance Rock in SkidegatePhoto: Courtesy of Penny Heneke
Penny “holding up” the Balance Rock in Skidegate.

A more relaxed pace

Brett agreed to escort me for a few days so that we could spend some quality time together. He stipulated that he needed a list of my medications, which I sent, and to know whether I had any health problems. I told him that my only issue was being old.

Upon our arrival in Haida Gwaii, Brett and I set off to explore the area. Everywhere we drove, friendly locals on foot, cyclists and other drivers waved welcomingly. I enjoyed the lower speed limits on the roads, the lack of traffic and the minimal number of tourists at special sites. The slower pace revealed sights such as 30 eagles squabbling over fish scraps on the water’s edge near the small fishing harbour, and deer galore along the roadside. Brett’s patience was tested when I asked him to slow down every time we spotted more deer, but he never grumbled.

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Indigenous totem pole in Haida GwaiiPhoto: Courtesy of Penny Heneke

Awe-inspiring artifacts

Haida Gwaii is also home to countless Indigenous artists, as reflected in galleries, giant totems (memorial poles) and murals. At the Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate, we acquired a cultural learning experience as we viewed artifacts dating back to the 1700s, a fascinating photo exhibit of the island’s early residents and a presentation on the harvesting of cedar trees. The ingenuity of the Indigenous people in using these resources to fulfill their daily needs was awe-inspiring.

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Penny beside the Pesuta shipwreck in Naikoon Provincial ParkPhoto: Courtesy of Penny Heneke
Penny beside the Pesuta shipwreck in Naikoon Provincial Park.

The wreck of the Pesuta

The natural, untouched environs of Haida Gwaii offered us plenty of opportunities. I warned Brett that he would not be able to stride along, but would have to adjust to my more senior pace. His caring, compassion and concern were commendable. I was obliged to listen to him and stop for breaks, water and snacks. I even succumbed to taking a less steep route that would not be as taxing. We walked along stretches of sandy or rocky beaches, some sprinkled with agate rocks and another with the wreck of the Pesuta, a 264-foot log carrier which was struck by a southeast gale on December 11, 1928. Hiking through lush temperate rainforests with gigantic trees, fern fronds and moss carpeting the forest floor was mystical.

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Brett being dwarfed by a massive tree trunkPhoto: Courtesy of Penny Heneke
Brett being dwarfed by a massive tree trunk.

An excursion to remember

Tramping through the verdant old-growth forest along the Golden Spruce Trail, we read signage posted on tree trunks under-scoring Haida philosophy. The signs explained how the canopy of the forest affords a lifeline to people and animals alike. They reiterated how the forests offer shelter, resources, food and botanical remedies. People are encouraged to show respect, to be generous, to never take more than they need and to look after one another.

When I asked Brett to share his take on our trip for others to read, this is what he wrote:

“This was a great experience. My mom was easygoing with simple needs—she just wanted to see interesting things. I was happy to spend the pre-breakfast time jumping in the car, looking for eagles or going for an adventure. I loved the two coffee shops we found—each completely unique and providing tasty treats. There was a great balance of activities including hiking, cultural sites, animal sightings and good meals. For my mom, she enjoyed having the experience, seeing something and taking a photograph of it. I had concerns in the back of my mind about my mom’s medical condition after her stroke last year. I tried to make sure we didn’t do too much or go too far. I was amazed at how well she did—even hiking 10 kilometres to see a shipwreck. I share quite a few similar traits with my mom and our two personalities worked well together. I will cherish this trip and I am so happy we experienced it together.”

Perhaps one of the truths revealed to me on our trip was the need to take every opportunity to bond with your offspring. Spending precious time with my son in a magical corner of Eden was soul-restoring. Proving to myself that I could undertake the challenges was a confidence booster. I realized that nothing is more paralyzing than fear, and that if I let it rule me, I would never achieve anything.

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Originally Published in Our Canada