Paddling to the Chaatl village site
Chaatl is an ancient Haida village site situated on the south-western shore of Chaatl Island. Chaatl Island is a fairly long and narrow island accessible from Skidegate inlet via the two sets of “narrows” between Moresby Island and Graham Island, and leading to the west coast of Haida Gwaii. It is a fairly remote place. The village site is famous now for its very impressive “Mosquito Pole”: a massive, finely carved House Frontal Pole that is still standing in the forest.
One of the many 'animals' represented on this pole is a mosquito, hence the name.
Still standing house frontal poles are now very rare as they are usually much taller and narrower than mortuary poles, and sometimes hollowed out in the back, similar in look to the impressive "Legacy Pole" raised in 2013 in Windy Bay.
The Mosquito Pole is on the cover of the excellent book “Boat camping Haida Gwaii” by Neil Frazer, and I would recommend this resource to any person wanting to plan a trip to Haida Gwaii on a small craft or a kayak.
Chaatl is not a village that is much visited, as is not easy to get to due to some very shallow waters in the Armentieres Channel between Chaatl Island and Moresby island. There is also a very small landing site at the village site itself. However, this makes for a very good paddling destination.
In my first year on the islands, we had some terrific weather, and I headed through the Narrows to go and visit the village site on my kayak.
On the Moresby Island side, it is possible to launch very close to the entrance of the Narrows at a place locally known as "Jake’s Landing", using the logging road system starting at the Alliford Bay ferry landing, going to South Bay, and then taking the Deena Main. It is advisable to ask locals about directions and road conditions before going to the launching site. This reduces paddling time significantly if you have already explored much of Skidegate Inlet.
The Narrows themselves are a very interesting area to paddle as the currents are strong and some areas as wide as a small river. The tides there act very strangely and once again, it is advisable to talk to locals to get an estimate of when is a good time to paddle through. If you time it right, you wont need to paddle much. If not, you're in for a long gruelling fight against some very strong currents. Because we are dealing with two almost separate masses of water on either side of the narrows, the flows are not easy to predict just by reading charts. For instance, the tidal range is much bigger on the east side of the islands than on the west side. This has to do mainly with a very big difference in the depths on both sides of the islands and the very different sizes of the bodies of water. Also, there can be a very big difference in the times of raising and falling tides between east and west. When the water starts rising on the west of the narrows, it is still falling in the east . To add to this, there is Trounce Inlet, between the two sets of narrows, that creates some even more interesting and confusing flowing patterns. The rising tide will at some point flow in opposite directions until it fills Trounce inlet and it will then flow in one direction.
Paddling in the first time, I was lucky to go through the narrows without having to paddle much. The current is strong and in some areas creates some very impressive whirlpools that can easily destabilise your craft. It is better to have some kayaking experience before you head through the narrows.
Also, the winds can be going against the flow and create some messy waves that can be hard to navigate. I guess I was lucky this one time. September can be a truly wonderful time of year on the islands, and the weather was with me.
Flat seas, blue skies: a wonderful outing
Once the narrows passed, there is some paddling to do to get to Armentieres Channel. The channel can dry up on a low tide, so even with a kayak, you might have to wait a little to pass, or scrape the bottom a little.
This time, I flowed right through, passing a bear as I went down with the flow, and who was apparently attempting a crossing of the channel on foot (on paw?), but a little too early to keep dry all the way.
Clearing the channel, I also came across an explosion of jelly fish in the waters below. Thousands of jellyfish “dancing” in the waters around my kayak. I captured this on video.
After the channel, there is, on the southern Chaatl shore, a small cabin known locally as Zeller’s Cabin. It is open and can be used by visitors. If you plan to use it, please leave the place cleaner than when you arrived to keep the cabin usable by all for years to come.
I went on and paddled down Buck Channel, where I came across a few sharks, or dogfish, apparently feasting on some salmon remains at the mouth of a small creek. Dogfish are usually not alarmed by vessels, and you can get very close to them. I do not believe they are very dangerous, though they are technically sharks, and since they are usually a slow moving fish, you can follow them in a kayak to observe them.
Closer to the end of Buck Channel, is the village site of Chaatl. Landing is not too difficult but the beach is small and fairly steep. It is possible to see some of the few standing poles of the village from the water.
The few poles close to the water are interesting but not as intrically carved as the famous Mosquito Pole. The Mosquito Pole is not that easy to find and is located to the east of the village site. Walking through the woods, it is a few minutes away. I actually thought I would not find it at first, or that I had passed it.
I went on, farther than I imagined it could be and there it was: a tall, beautifully carved pole in the middle of the forest.
Just like you would for any other Ancient Haida Village site, please be respectful of the place. There is still a hereditary chief for the village, and some families can trace back their ancestry to this particular village. The usual applies: take pictures, leave footprints only. If you wish to visit this site, it is a good idea to contact the Skidegate Band council to identify who is the best person to ask for permission to visit the site. You should not camp at the village site, there are other beaches that are suitable for camping.
On this particular visit I managed to find a camping spot on a very tiny beach opposite the village site. I was lucky to enjoy a sunset from my campsite.
The following day, because the seas were so calm, I even decided to round up Chaatl Island. This should not be attempted with little experience and if the conditions are not adequate. The swells are impressive, reverberate on the cliffs of the west coast and create some crests that can be a little challenging to navigate through. There are also no places to land and rest on the west side of the island.
I was blessed with the perfect day. To the west, is the pacific: the next land is Japan, thousands and thousands of miles away.
I headed back to the narrows, circumnavigating Chaatl Island, powered through a facing flow in the first set of narrows, and was lucky to be transported down the second set of narrows without having to paddle.
Two very full days of paddling! This same trip is usually done in a few more days (4 to 6, departing from Alliford Bay or Queen Charlotte city), to give a little more time for exploration, and in case you are weathered in for a day or two.
There is much to see and explore on the islands. Get out there!