Chef Brodie’s food is, to use the Haida word embroidered on his black ballcap, xuux—“something impressive, cool, dope.”
“There’s one,” says one of our Haida guides as the captain cuts the boat engine to a crawl. “A fat one. Look at those stubby legs—he looks like a sausage.” We move to the port side to see the bear, plopped on his haunches on the rocky shore about 400 metres away. Through my tourist’s eyes, with no binoculars, the bear doesn’t look all that big: more like a good-sized dog. In the next few minutes, we see three more bears in the area. One in particular, roaming the estuary grassland at the head of the inlet, does look impressively large. As we watch, it takes off at a run, galloping away from shore and out of view.
“He’s chasing a deer,” says Jaylene, one of our guides. “They’re vegetarians mainly, though they’ll eat fish and sometimes a fawn if they can get one. But there’s no way he’s going to get that deer. He’s just having fun.”
Two of the guides yell a traditional Haida bear chant toward the shore. This lets any bears know that you’re in the area and you aren’t looking for fun. After we disembark—following the guides onshore and into the mossy woods—I get a sense of the bears’ actual size from sidestepping platter-sized piles of scat. In Alaska I’d seen ursine poop, along with the sizable brown bears responsible, but nothing nearly as big as this. It makes me nervous. Haida Gwaii, it turns out, is home to one of the largest black bear subspecies in North America, Ursus Americanus Carlottae, which can reportedly weigh more than 300 kilograms. That’s a lot of bear to run across while tiptoeing through the spruce.
Bounty Hunters Ocean House is all about immersing its guests in the culture of the Haida, and one of the key ways of doing this is to get into the forest to start learning about the unique environment of Haida Gwaii.
To get that big, you need plenty of food. And in Haida Gwaii, in one way or another, everything comes back to food. On an outing the day before, one of our local guides—a bearish, cinnamon-bearded young man nicknamed Tuna—had led us into a forest glade. “Haida have harvested from these forests for thousands of years,” he said. “Look around you. What can you eat here?” A couple of answers sprung out of the group—salmonberry, spruce tips—and Tuna filled in the rest. Haida don’t traditionally gather wild mushrooms, he told us, but many other items were on offer: licorice fern root, stinging nettle, thimbleberry, single delight flowers, sourgrass, miner’s lettuce and, nearer the shore, sea asparagus. We were standing
in a pantry.
Mind you, the items are not all to everyone’s taste, and some require just a little preparation. I had tried licorice fern root—which is prized for tea and grows abundantly on trees in Haida Gwaii’s temperate rainforest—and it tasted like, well, tree bark. And dirt. Then I realized I needed to peel it.
Ocean Wise Island living means looking to the sea for sustenance. Here local crab is harvested just offshore using one of Ocean House’s fleet. Dinner tonight will be as local—and as delicious—as it gets.
I’ve come here to get a taste of Haida Gwaii at a new, Haida-owned luxury ecolodge called Ocean House. The name can be taken at face value: the 12-room hotel, which comes complete with sauna and spa, floats. Revamped in Delta, it was towed (very carefully) to Haida Gwaii over the course of five days last year. It’s now moored in Stads K’uns GawGa, a.k.a. Peel Inlet, about a 15-minute helicopter ride from Sandspit. (The chopper trip, by the way, is short but amazing, with scenery taken right from Jurassic Park.)
Steps Away The obvious benefit to staying on a floating lodge is that you can have your luxe digs wherever you want. Like on top of a great location to score some local uni.
Fortunately for dirt-chawing rubes like myself, the Haida who created the new resort know the value of pulling in culinary expertise. Our trip has been planned around two feature “demo and dine” dinners by chef David Robertson of the Dirty Apron cooking school in Vancouver, which complement several scene-stealing meals by the resort’s Haida chef, Brodie Swanson.
With the rest of the guests, about 14 in all, I get to cruise through two of Robertson’s inspired, multi-course meals: razor clam motoyaki, served on cockle shells with a ponzu aioli gratiné; red Thai curry and seared albacore salad; slow-roasted venison loin with maple caramelized onions and citrus sourgrass pureé; and his incredible miso-sake roasted sablefish.
Chef Brodie Swanson’s cuisine is the other draw of the week. Swanson grew up helping his Haida mother and grandmother in the kitchen; he has fond memories of eating home-baked ground octopus balls and slurping up freshly cracked guudinaay—fresh sea urchin roe—on the beaches near Masset. After taking courses in anthropology and geography, at age 26 Swanson abandoned a new career in geographic information systems in favour of the cutting board. In Vancouver, he was a chef at Salmon n' Bannock restaurant, staged at West and the Flying Pig, and later learned the foundations of his cooking from Robert Belcham at Campagnolo. Now at Ocean House, he’s brought his skills to bear on the food of his childhood.
“The cornerstone of culture on Haida Gwaii, our base and foundation, is the abundance of food here,” says Swanson. “‘The tide’s out, the table is set,’ as it’s said, and the forest is full of food. Entire summers were spent processing and preserving all types of food, and winter was celebrating all the harvest and bounty with potlatches.”
The Haida people weren’t exclusively fishermen and foragers, he says, noting that they also cultivated crabapples, berries and medicinal plants. This abundance of food in turn translated into cultural wealth: if you’re scrambling for food, you don’t have time to carve and erect 50-foot totem poles or build 3,000-square-foot post-and-beam longhouses.
“There’s no end to how much food we have. As a result, our culture, artwork, architecture and political system were highly developed,” says Swanson.
After Chef David’s throwdown of incredible meals at Ocean House, I’m not sure I can be wowed further, but Chef Brodie’s food is, to use the Haida word embroidered on his black ballcap, xuux—“something impressive, cool, dope.” On the final evening, our “Feast Night” menu starts with freshly baked, naturally leavened sourdough served with seaweed butter. Then skewered salmon bellies with gochujang glaze, followed by a butter-basted butter clam—seasoned not with added salt, but with smoked razor clam powder and cured egg yolk. Along with steamed black cod, the mains include black garlic-ginger-soy Dungeness crab legs, and venison tartare.
Four days of boat rides, laid-back forest walks and kayak paddles, all followed by elaborate five-course meals. By the time our helicopter comes to pick us up on day five, I am a bipedal version of that bear we saw on the shore: a sausage on two legs. If you do head to Ocean House, four words of advice are all you need. Eat there, diet later.