Tow Hill

On our trip to Haida Gwaii we went to Tow Hill, as do most visitors to the area. It is located well east of Massett along North Beach at the mouth of the Hiellen River and within Naikoon Provincial Park. In geological terms Tow Hill is a volcanic plug comprised of columnar basalts that are visible on its ocean face. Tow Hill is also the location of important stories in Haida oral history, and the signage at this location reflects that; more on one story below. To see this location on a map, go to this link – Tow Hill in centre.

First, a bit of an explanation about the photos, since this is first and foremost a photo-blog. It so happened that the only rain we experienced on our visit was this day. And it rained steadily, the kind of rain that is hard to see, but necessitates fast wiper speeds. The kind of rain that coats mud all over the (white) car, thrown up from the dirt road, but the kind of rain which washes it all off once you hit pavement again. It was like being in a cloud, in fact we were in a cloud, and we both got soaked, though it was warm and not uncomfortable. And that goes some way to explaining why my pictures look like they were taken in a cloud. The rest of the explanation is that I got a fog on the inside surface of the lens filter, which I thought was rain on the outside and kept on trying to wipe off (there was lots of rain on the filter too). But, not wanting to point the filter upwards for a closer look (to keep it as dry as possible), I did not notice the inner fog for a long time. Thus, the foggy feel is very much enhanced in these photos and it threw off the colour necessitating a black and white treatment, and higher contrast too, to cut through some of the fog.

Enough about the photography. The Haida story of Tow Hill is very interesting, and has some small parallels with Sahsima, a transformer stone located in my neighbourhood in Victoria, and which my regular viewers will have seen a lot of.

The beach in front of Tow Hill is accessed along a boardwalk, following the sign posts for the blowhole, which is also in this beach. The walk is level, the boardwalk brand new and it is pleasant and easy with lots of benches. We first went up to the top of Tow Hill (more on that in another post) and then on our way down, once we could see the beach, short cut over a path and thus missed the sign that is set up to greet visitors (those that follow the proper, ecosystem friendly, route anyway). The text from the sign is transcribed below the picture of it. If you have been hanging around this blog for any length of time you will be used to my occasional presentation of these signs and monuments and the wording on them. My photos were not good enough to make legible crops, hence the transcription below. A slightly different version of this text and orthography, charmingly illustrated, can be found here (Ryan, I recommend it to you especially). Some photos follow, which I think illustrate places on this beach that are mentioned in the addendum to the story (“The Feud Continued”) as mentioned on the sign.


Taaw and his Elder Brother

The Story of Tow Hill

Taaw isgyaan ’l kwáay isin Juus káahlii gaa náa.aagan. Waagyaan k’aad giidii ’l aw ’laa ga isdaawgaangan.

Taaw and his elder brother lived at Juus káahlii  (Juskatla), they say. And their mother gave them young dogfish.

Waagyaan gam Taaw ga ’l aw k’aad giidii isdaa.angangaan. Taaw hin ’l sdangwaan kya.aawaayaan.

And then their mothere didn’t give Taaw any young dogfish. The two of them, so they say, were named “Taaw.”

’Waagyaan gam k’aadee giidii ’laa ga tl’ isdaansii ’l kinsdluu ’l kiidanáan.

And when he saw that he wasn’t getting any dogfish, he walked away in disgust.

’Waagyaan ’l gut’iidan. ’Waagyaan Yat’áahl káahlii guud ’l gudaalsgyaan.

And he started off, pulling himself along on his bum, And next he went down through Kumdis passage.

’Waagyaan ajii gawee káahlguud ’l gudaalaan. ’Waagyaan K’aayang ’l geihlsdluu, Yaahl ’l kinggaadaagaan.

And from there he went down through gaw (Masset) Inlet. And when he got to Kayung, Raven ran out of the house talking angrily to him.

’Waagyaankwaa ing.guu ’l gyáa.aangaan. ’Waagyaan kwaayee ’l t’axusdáayaan.

Then Raven stood upon a stone. And he broke the stone by jumping up and down.

Hlgat’at’áas hin.uu kwaayee kya.aang, Yaahl t’axusdáayaan gahlaa.

That rock is called Hlgat’at’áas (“Stone broken by foot”) because Raven shattered it with his feet.

’Waagyaan sda ’l gut’iidaan. ’Waagyaan Tsaawan Kun gu ’l káatl’aagaan.

And Taaw went on. And he was going to stay at Tsaawan Kun (Chown Point).

’Waagyaan guu gagan ’l king.gan. ’Waagyaan gam gaa ’l gaa ’l guu’laa.angaan.

And there he looked at himself. And he didn’t like it there.

’Waagyaan haw isin sda ’l gut’iidaan. ’Waagyaan Yaagan guu ‘l káatl’aagaan.

And then he went away again. And then he arrived at Yaagan (Yakan).

’Waagyaan guu  isin ’l guu’laa.angaan. ’Waagyaan haw isin sda l’gut’iidaan.

And again, he didn’t like it there. And again he moved from there.

’Waagyaan Hl’yaalang gandlee jings ’l k’aawaan.

And then he sat for a long time at Hl’yaalang gandlee (Hiellen River).

‘Waaygyaan  gee guu “áatl’an dii ‘laagaa, aaltn’an hl isisgaa,”hin ‘l saawaan.

And in this place he said, so they tell us “I’m good here. Here I will stay.”

Tsaawun kun kwaayee t’iij lanagaa xuyaayan. Yaagan kun kwaayee  t’iij ‘laangaa xuyaayaan.

They say some of the rocks at Chown Point were his doing. They say rocks at Yagan Point, that was also his doing.

Story teller – Isaac from Those-Born-at-Hlyaalan (1901)

The Feud Continued

Taaw’s elder brother sent a whale and a large bird against him. The whale slammed against Taaw, making rocks fall from his body. In anger, Taaw turned both the whale and the bird into stone. They still sit on the beach facing Taaw; the bird in front of the stone blowhole.

Artwork: Jaalen Edenshaw




Even though the blowhole must be associated with a stone whale, I can’t but think that this ridge next to that area is the rest of the whale that was turned to stone:


And from the description, this must be the large bird that Taaw also turned to stone – it sits between Tow Hill on the left and the blowhole off picture to the right:


To open the gallery view below for larger pictures, click on any thumbnail below, navigate with the arrows and escape to return to this page.


Canon 5Dii with soaking wet Nikkor-N (pre-AI) 24mm/2.8m lens, ISO320 except first picture which is ISO1250 (we had just stepped out of the dark forest) – various exposures.

18 thoughts on “Tow Hill

  1. Pingback: Write on, dude… | Quieter Elephant

    • Hi Q.E. Thanks for coming by and coming. I am glad you find these shots evoke Tow Hill memories for you. It is a special place, and was fun to visit, even in the rain! And, thanks for the link on your blog post – I like your short piece of writing about the place. It is evocative as well.


  2. Pingback: Tow Hill Flat « burnt embers

  3. Pingback: Tow Hill Climb « burnt embers

    • Thanks a lot David. I am fascinated by these kinds of places and the stories they accumulate around them. I often wonder, when looking at your photos, what stories may still remain from ancient times about Oman – some of the mountains and so on. Maybe the history has been too dynamic, and population shifts too recent or frequent for time depth in the stories, but it seems like such an ancient landscape that it must have some ancient stories if one just knew who to ask. Maybe written history has diluted that knowledge.


      • That is one big problem with history in this part of the world; there has always been a positive resistance when it comes to anything before day 1 of the Hijri calendar. Fortunately in recent years, that has change; but this has presented another problem of what should be looked at first…..
        The other difficulty for the layman is that most published information is through academic papers, although I am lucky in that a publication called the ‘Journal of Oman Studies’ is available at a very competitive price and I have them all. One or two a year from 1974 thanks to the Ministry of Heritage who checked their archives when they found out I really was interested.
        The other source is word of mouth “go and talk to …..” I only wish my Arabic was better (Typical Brit) but I get by and considering our involvement here, older people do seem to have a positive response after the initial question: are you English?



      • Well, your experience as a Brit in a place with that kind of history would probably parallel my own – I trained as an anthropologist with an archaeology specialty (that is the way most north american archaeology is taught). Anthropologists and archaeologists to a nearly equal degree have a very poor reputation with First Nations due to a variety of unethical conduct by some early professionals – mostly a hundred years ago, but continuing up into the 70’s or so. Disentangling the historical politics can be a big part of the job if one wants to work with these communities. The good thing here is that they are finding their own voices and expressing their own histories through collaboration with the authorities, such as the Parks planners in this case. And, at least you have enough Arabic to get bye. I have no Haida, or Nuu-chah-nulth, or Makah, or Tsimshian and so on down the list of First Nations that I worked with at one time, though many of my crew members from these communities did not have much knowledge either, something that is changing in many places which is very heartening.


  4. Pingback: Tow Hill Texture « burnt embers

  5. Amazing little story (and photos). A very nice tribute. I like to see these stories carried on, especially publicly such as this.


    • Hi Ken – I really like it. These are the histories of these places, often with thousands of years of time depth. This is a geography with a human identity and layer that is largely hidden these days.
      For instance, Haida Gwaii was separated from the mainland at the end of the last ice again by rising sea levels. Since then, the distance to the mainland has been great enough to isolate the Haida, though they intermarried and traded and so on with mainlanders, they were never pushed out of their territory, or taken over, or extinguished and replaced as happened in so many places. The linguistic, genetic and archaeological data all point to a continuous occupation by the Haida and their ancestral culture for more than 12,000 years.
      The cool thing is that the Haida have many stories, often mixing the fantastical with events known to happen (which can also seem fantastic) such as stories of the first tree (it was once 12-14,000 years ago a tundra landscape without trees); or of walking from one place to another, now under hundreds of feet of ocean but which was dry and walkable 12,000 years ago, or stories of islands rising from the sea, some of which have done so as sea level has fallen in the past 6,000 years. These ancient events are buried in stories about ancient times are truly amazing to learn about, and to my western ears, raised in a family of scientists, are evidence that the more fantastical parts of the histories, the myths as they are sometimes called, should be listened to very carefully for the truths they are also contain. And not only with Haida, but in all societies. It seems that truly ancient knowledge can survive enormous amounts of time in oral histories.


    • Hi Toad – its pretty amazing bedrock – some strange volcanic effects. I retroactively wished I had tried out the polarising filter which can do wonderful things to the reflection on wet rocks. But, it was in the car…


    • Thank you Karen! I am quite used to rainy photography, but had not bothered to use the rainsleeve, thinking that if I kept my camera under my coat except when snapping away, I would be fine. But, my coat wasn’t heavy enough, I was snapping more than planned, and we were walking for longer than I expected. So many factors. And, the rain sleeve is a bit of a nuiscance.


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