West Coast of Haida Gwaii
As I write there is an potentially disastrous story unfolding off the west coast of Haida Gwaii. A Russian container ship, the Simushir, is drifting without power within 12 miles of the rocky shores. This has inspired me to go into my archive and show some pictures from the area. It is very close to my heart as one of the most amazing wildernesses I have every been to. I have worked on Haida Gwaii on and off since 1983, and on the west coast since the early 1990’s.
To see more of my photos from my most recent trips to Haida Gwaii follow this link.
The Simushir has a cargo of mining machinery and full tanks of bunker fuel and diesel as it recently departed from the Seattle area. The latest news while writing this is that she is under tow from a small Canadian Coastguard vessel – one of two tow lines has broken but they are making way to the west at 1 to 1.5 nautical miles per hour. Heavier vessels will be on the scene at 2 am and 3 am, and a large tug is expected mid-day. The weather is forecast to get worse and the wind to swing towards the shore. This is a very tenuous situation. The towing vessel is small and working at capacity. If the tow line breaks, this ship could easily run ashore and that would be it for the vessel – it won’t stand a chance in this area in a storm.
Coastal geomorphologists have classified this shoreline as the most exposed in Canada. In this area there are no anchorages, there is not even any continental shelf to speak of. Water can be several hundred metres deep within several hundred metres of shore. There is nothing growing on the rock cliffs on the outer shores for at least 50 feet above tidal level – it just gets swept off by waves in the winter, and fall, and spring. There is no overland access to much of the area. A few logging roads in some northern sounds and inlets, none in the south and none on the outer shores.
I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of months working along the shore of Gwaii Haanas park at the south end in exceptionally calm weather. It was so calm that we could run our zodiac in the gap between the kelp beds and the base of the cliffs and did so the entire length of this shore. There are a few inlets, mostly steep sided, most with a reef in their mouth and many are not even properly charted, lacking depth soundings. There are some larger bays too, but they have narrow openings and treacherous waters inside. A ship in distress really has nowhere to go. And any mess resulting from a grounding will be very hard indeed to clean up.
Frequently when working in this area we could find nowhere to get ashore for lunch – no place that you could get out of a boat within in reasonable distance and so we would tie up to the kelp for a break. That was in perfect weather with a swell of about 1/2 metre, the least we ever saw out there. Overall, a very difficult place to be in any kind of weather even in the summer.
These pictures are a personal tour of places I have been on the west coast to give some sense of what it is like. If it was at all rough out, the camera stayed in its case, so some of the most difficult shores are missing from this series. I hope you like them, it has been good for me to work on these photos for the past few hours while tracking the news, it looked very dire when I started, but there seems to be room for optimism as I get ready to publish. This is a wonderful place that would suffer terribly from a ship wreck and the oil they must carry just to transit oceans.
The idea of oil tankers aground here doesn’t bear thinking. And this situation exposes the inability to get heavy tugs into the area quickly – it will have been well over a day to get one on scene. The small Coastguard vessel took many hours to get on scene from the central coast, and the bigger ones will have taken a day from the time the engines died on the Simushir. It is not far from here that some of the largest waves in the world have been recorded (105 feet) in Hecate Strait. The idea of shipping oil from the tar sands out along this coast seems insane. I hope this event ends up well, and I hope that it wakes up some of the sleepy headed politicians and tar sands supporters to the real dangers of this plan.
The pictures are ordered from south to north. Cape St. James is the southern tip of Haida Gwaii, just off Kunghit Island. Rennell Sound is a bit north of Skidegate Channel which separates the two largest islands, Graham and Moresby – there is much more of the west coast of Haida Gwaii north of where I have pictures from.
And, to repeat myself, to see more of my photos from my most recent trips to Haida Gwaii follow this link.
To see larger views click on any of the thumbnails below and then use the arrow keys to navigate and the escape key to return to this page.
For this post I scanned some Kodachrome slides, some small black and white prints (no negs anymore) and edited files from various generations of point and shoot digital cameras, with a few recent photos from DSLR cameras.
[Edited Oct 18th morning for typos, some paragraphs moved around for clarity, no substantial changes].