Video: @natelav / @redbull_surfing
Mathea Olin and Paige Alms venture far North and tour the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, guided by local legend Gwaliga Hart. A trip full of culture, adventure, and surfing one of the most fickle corners of the coast. Scroll down for the full story from our summer issue.
Standing in the middle of a large, dimly-lit shed, Mathea Olin and Paige Alms, two of Canada’s top female surfers find themselves surrounded by totem poles, masks, and canoes. The walls are covered with flags and posters from the past, and every desk and shelf stacked with a plethora of carving tools new and old, including adzes, chisels, hand planers, and axes all coated in sawdust from the years of work they had undertaken. As Mathea and Paige move slowly through the room, admiring all of the art and different mediums of wood, they step up a small ladder and find themselves atop of a 50-plus foot old-growth cedar tree that is drawn out to become a traditional Haida Canoe. The log still raw and de-barked on each side, yet with a milled flat top where they stand.
Whilst they are perched on top of the cedar admiring the sheer size of the soon-to-be canoe, Christian White (Kihlguulaans), the carving shed owner and legendary Haida carver, chips away at one end of the enormous cedar with his adze, (a well known first nation carving tool) etching out what will be the bow of the canoe. As Christian works, he shares stories of ocean travel, and educates Paige and Mathea on his years of perfecting the art of canoe carving. He describes the different shapes and techniques the Haida’s developed, and explains how those methods and traditions are being passed on for future generations to continue. Christian’s carving apprentice Captain Stewart-Burton (Skilaaw) begins to show Mathea the proper form of an efficient adze strike on the starboard stern. While Captain perfects Mathea’s rhythm, Paige, the world champion big wave surfer, is learning from the master himself about the logic behind the height and flared shape of the canoe’s bow, designed to break through the waves and the stern end shaped a certain way to ride swells in a following sea, all aspects made for their extended and arduous ocean travel that the Haida’s are so well known for. After several hours of questions and stories, Christian finishes sharing his wealth of knowledge by giving the girls a full tour of his longhouse nextdoor that mirrored a museum, full of his collection of a lifetime of carvings, memories, and history of his family and of Haida Gwaii’s past.
The previous morning away from the carving shed, our guide, educator, and all around Legend, Gwaliga Hart, son of James Hart, Haida hereditary Chief 7idansuu (Edenshaw), one of Haida’s most acclaimed carvers, packed his small Toyota to the brim with the girls and gear and head in search of surf. Driving East out of Masset, the pavement gives way to gravel, and the road curves and winds through a thick, moss covered forest with a canopy of trees creating a natural tunnel. Gwaliga, who grew up between Vancouver and Masset, has been surfing the local beaches here for the better part of his life, and is well educated in the specific conditions that make each beach come to life. On this day, Gwaliga drove to the end of the road where the gravel turns to sand, and set his course for Naay Kun, a dramatic story filled point of the island, accessible only by a 4X4 along the beach at low tide. It was just after the earliest glimmer of morning light, and the crew had just had their first glance of the ocean. The group’s morale began to sink as they stared at soft, knee-high waves lapping at the shoreline. But, in Gwaliga’s stoic tone, he assured the team that we were in for good fortune. “Don’t even worry about it,” said Gwaliga “there will be plenty of swell.” We continued to drive along the flat, sprawling beach, swerving around logs, cobblestone patches and aging decrepit shipwrecks. Gwaliga kept pointing to the surf with confidence. When we approached the end of the tree line towards our destination, sure enough, large clean lines came marching into sight. With it being the first day, youthful Mathea was “stoked” as always, quickly pulling her wetsuit on almost before the truck came to a halt. Paige, who has been residing on the tropical shores of Maui since a young age, took a little longer to warm up to the cold 6mm of rubber on the chilly winter morning. The swell was solid, and we watched overhead faces churn and spit their guts out on many of the various peaks across our line of sight. Mathea’s excitement was instantly apparent, and she started the session immediately on a roll, finding a couple gems and unleashing her patented and vicious forehand gouges in the sparkling mid-winter sun. Paige took a moment to find her groove with it being the first time in many months that she was forced to don a thick, hooded winter wetsuit. But around the halfway mark of the session, she made the adjustment and her confidence spiked, and now it was her turn to execute a series of searing turns on the picturesque, oil-glass walls.
After about two hours filled with many turns, and even a few visions, there was a feeling of anxiety creeping in that the session was going to come to a close, especially knowing from past experience this could be the best day we saw all trip or even the best day of the entire year. As many know, the weather systems and tides are much more significant in the north, especially here in Haida Gwaii. Nestled far off the mainland, just to the south and still within view of Alaska. Numerous storm systems begin offshore of Haida Gwaii, and with tides ranging over 24’ mark, conditions will oft provide a short window of excellence before shutting down, or in our case, shutting down our path home. Gwaliga came in last, exhausted, yet with a huge grin on his face. After putting his board away and changing out of his wetsuit, he gazed at the continued perfection in front of him, and claimed, “that was in the top five best days I have ever seen out here.” Which is something to be said for the girl’s first session on the opening day of the trip. And this is coming from a local who surfs at every chance he gets. But, all good things come to an end, and the crew loads into the truck and races the creeping tide back to the Long House at Hl’yaalan ‘Lngee for the night.
The proceeding days were full of constant wave checks up and down the beaches, novelty long boarding at the river mouth out front of Hl’yaalan ‘Lngee, and although no sessions could compete with that glorious first day, their suits still never stayed dry for long, which is always a welcome occurrence in this fickle region of the north. Outside of the surf, Gwaliga provided the girls with a rich experience, sharing many stories about the history and culture of the Haida and how surfing, being a new water activity on Haida Gwaii, is such a wonderful addition to their seafaring legacy. He explained how their language, Xaad Kil, is full of terminology directly applicable to surfing today because of their long history on the water. They have words and phrases for all the weather conditions, swells, currents, tides, and for riding waves. On one of the excursions he brought them to a forested area further inland around an inlet called Juus Kaahlii to see an old canoe. He explained how there area many more like them scattered throughout the islands and that they are both great examples of canoe making, with insights to the process of creating these wondrous watercrafts, but also stand as reminders of a darker time in recent history. After contact during the 1860’s smallpox swept across Haida Gwaii so fast killing roughly 95% of their population, here the canoe carvers would have dropped their tools to flee leaving their unfinished work behind.
Later Gwaliga introduced them to John Bennett (Daa.a.Xiigang), who is a canoe carver and boat builder, who’s skill and knowledge was past down from his father and grandfather’s knowledge of ocean-going canoes, rowboats, and commercial fishing vessels. John welcomed them into his shed, a workshop and boatshed. It was full of an array of canoe and modern hull designs, charts, tools, to-scale model boats he made, and a rowboat in progress in the center of the room. He explained how his dad first started building seine boats by hand. “He gathered all the materials for the first boat himself, before band saws and plainers, it was a lot of work.” Said John, ‘’The designs originated from the long history of the Haida’s big ocean going canoes which were used to terrorize the hole coast for many years.” As his stories continued Paige found many similarities and correlation to the canoe designs with rockers, concaves, and bow flares similar to the big wave surfboards she rides. She explained “I grew up around surf board builders and it is a very similar process in the curvature and the design. When you mentioned about displacement hulls that push water aside, as its very comparable to big wave boards I use, that are built paddlers before a surfboards, and are designed so that when you are on large waves and the nose goes underwater, it pushes the water to the sides, although boats and canoes are much more extreme than on a surfboard there are very similar characteristics with rockers towards turning correlates with how the surfboard would handle.” John continued through his shop showing the girls the shapes and different wood that was used for certain areas, but like the first day of surfing the amazing stories came to an end and after saying Haaw’a (thank you in Haida) the trip was soon coming to an end.
Before Mathea and Paige left the island, they wanted to both express their immense gratitude to the people for the experience they were afforded, as well as leave a lasting and positive footprint from their time spent in Haida territory. At a local Elementary School’s community event they gifted three new surfboards to the youth in hopes to one day bestow their same love of the ocean through surfing that Haida Gwaii has to offer.