Trip Reports: Paddling Graham Island

August-September 1996

This is an article from WaveLength Magazine, available in print in North America and globally on the web.

by Markus Kellerhals
Splay of sea and cliff on the west coast of the Charlottes

Graham Island is the northern and larger of two major islands that make up the Queen Charlotte Islands. Most kayakers who visit the Charlottes paddle the well known and deservedly popular waters around the national park on South Moresby Island. As we found last summer, the west coast of Graham Island provides a very uncrowded and somewhat wilder alternative destination.

From the town of Masset, Chris and I paddled west along the north coast of Graham. One highlight along this coast is Pillar Rock, an improbable looking sea stack rising 30 metres out of shallow water. Three days of hard paddling against head winds brought us to the northwest corner of Graham Island, where we turned south along the outer coast.

We shared the north coast with quite a few sport fishing boats from nearby lodges. On our second day of paddling we "rescued" two fishermen who had drifted ashore after their engine quit. We radioed a nearby lodge, and soon another boat came to take them under tow. Chris and I were amazed by these fishermen's cavalier attitude to safety along such an exposed coast. They had neither a spare motor nor a radio with them. They did, however, have lots of good food that they shared with us as a token of their gratitude. We parted company in high spirits.

Our final night on the north coast was spent camped near the old Haida village of Kiusta. Rotting totem poles and longhouse beams lay scattered on the forest floor, a haunting reminder of the many generations of Haida who paddled these waters before us.

The following day we rounded Cape Knox and were suddenly exposed to Pacific swell. The current around the cape ran straight into the swell and set up very steep and confused waves extending some distance seaward. The sun, low in the eastern sky, illuminated the breaking crests perfectly. I would have loved to capture a few pictures of Chris being tossed around in his Seafarer, but at no point did I consider the idea of removing even one hand from my paddle to reach for my camera. A few minutes of very concentrated paddling brought us through to smoother swells beyond.

That evening we camped at Sialun Bay, a curving bight of golden sand, with not a single human footprint along its length. This area is wilderness in the truest sense of the word; untrampled shores divide unlogged hillsides from seemingly empty seas.

We continued south along the most exposed section of coast. Long deserted stretches of sand alternated with rugged headlands. In many places the headlands were incised with sea caves. Near Ingraham Bay and also just north of Tian we paddled into some excellent caves. One had a very constricted entrance that opened into a huge gallery illuminated by green light filtering through several submerged entrances. One of us would wait outside on lookout for large waves, while the other floated inside enjoying the combined ambience of light and mysterious gurgling noises from the darker corners of the cave. Another cave continued a great distance into total darkness and produced frightful booming noises seemingly out of all proportion to the moderate swells that entered the cave.

At Tian we waited out a day of miserable drizzle and fog. Wandering around the rocky beaches near camp I found fragments of about 20 glass floats, but unfortunately not a single intact one. Other flotsam on the beaches, especially the ubiquitous plastic containers, were less welcome reminders of civilization.

We set off again next day, under slightly brighter skies. South of Tian the coast becomes steadily more mountainous. Sand beaches were fewer and smaller, sections of cliffs steeper and more frequent.

On Hippa Island we stopped to look at the wreck of the "Clarksdale Victory", a US Army transport ship that ran aground there in 1947. The bow section of the ship still remains, tilted at a crazy angle and rammed far above the normal shoreline, a mute testimony to the powerful winter storms that batter this coast.

We crossed Rennell Sound near its outer entrance. There was not a breath of wind. We glided across the seven mile crossing on glassy swells that reflected grey skies above. That night we camped at our first spot where we found signs of other people. We landed at a gravel beach in Carew Bay during a sudden downpour. A huge fire-pit there was filled with half burned garbage. We cleaned up as best we could before leaving the following day.

Surge-cut cave just north of Tian

Our final camp on the west coast was at Gudal Bay. This was in every sense of the word the perfect camp spot. The beach was a half mile of golden sand, backed by windswept spruce trees, and with a warm stream breaking out through the middle. The bay was overlooked by the rugged snowcapped peak of Mount La Perouse (named after the peripatetic French explorer). We stayed three days, relaxing and exploring the surrounding area.

One day we hiked and scrambled up Mount La Perouse. From the beach we walked back through moss-covered old growth forests of Sitka spruce and hemlock. Travel was slow and difficult because of the amount of windfall on the forest floor. At times we walked along rotten old logs, suspended three or four metres above the ground. On occasions when the logs gave way, the resulting tumbles were more spectacular than painful since the forest floor below was so soft and moss-covered.

We reached treeline at around 2500'. Above that we continued through meadows, talus and snowfields to reach the 3800' summit. The view from the summit was outstanding. We could see right across Graham Island and far down the spine of Moresby Island. To the west, we saw a couple of tiny fishing boats far out to sea.

We returned to camp totally exhausted, having conclusively proved that sitting in a kayak is poor training for hiking up mountains. The following day we rested and did some fishing around nearby Marble Island.

Normally, when I buy a fishing license, it can be considered a charitable donation to government, since I am a notoriously poor fisherman. That day, however, my luck was unusually good. We could barely get lines overboard before hooking another fine rockfish. In a few minutes we had enough for breakfast and dinner.

From Gudal Bay we paddled east through Skidegate Channel towards Queen Charlotte City. Along several parts of the channel one can get a free ride with the tidal current that flows between Graham and Moresby Islands. Skidegate Channel though still very pretty, was suffering from industrial forestry. Fresh clearcuts were visible on slopes all around us.

On our seventeenth day since leaving Masset we pulled our boats ashore in front of a seaside bed and breakfast in Queen Charlotte City. The idea of refilling our food bags and continuing around Moresby Island was rather tempting, but the responsibilities of our city lives were calling us home.


The distance from Masset to Queen Charlotte City is roughly 150 nautical miles, mostly along exposed coast. Paddling the outer coast is quite committing - the only practical egress is via roads that reach the head of Rennell Sound, two thirds of the way down the coast. Though there are many protected spots to land, surf landings are necessary along some stretches.

Expect the usual West Coast weather, an unpredictable mix of sun, wind, rain and fog. The winds blow with roughly equal frequency from the northwest and southwest at nearby Langara Island lighthouse. The usual swell height in summer is 1-2 metres according to Environment Canada.

The main charts for the trip (numbers 3868 and 3869) were surveyed in the 1930's. Many areas are left blank, with no soundings, or are filled in with words like "Breakers" and "Foul Ground". The areas left blank are generally the areas closest to shore that are of most interest to kayakers. Expect to do a fair bit of "seat of the pants" navigation. One of the more useful sources of information about the west coast is the guide to the Charlottes written by Neil Carey.

If you plan to stop at the old village sites of Kiusta and Tian (and it would be a shame not to), permission should be asked at the band office in Masset. There are no Haida watchmen at these sites, so it is up to the visitor to treat them with care.

Crowds are not yet a problem. We saw only one other kayaker in seventeen days! There were quite a few fishing boats around the northwest corner of Graham Island and also around Rennell Sound. But on many days, we saw no boats at all.

The west coast of Graham Island is an incredible wilderness, almost completely untouched by logging (so far). The northwest corner of Graham Island has been proposed as a wilderness area by the Haida and by several environmental groups. The area around Gudal Bay also clearly deserves to be set aside as a protected area. Paddle it and help preserve it!!

Markus Kellerhals is a PhD student in the UBC Department of Geography