The plan was fairly straightforward. Drive as far as I could west in Canada, touch the Pacific Ocean to prove I did it, turn around and drive as far as I could east, touch the Atlantic Ocean to prove I did it, and find as many interesting people with great food stories that I could along the way.
To my surprise, finding and convincing people that I wasn’t some starving criminal hoping to gain access to their personal kitchen turned out to be more challenging than I had expected. Often though, great people and great creations seemed to suddenly appear. Or in this case, appear on a basement washing machine with my name on it.
“Kix. Try some of our creation tea! Tell me what you think. VB”
I booked an island Airbnb, noting to the host I was arriving on a motorbike and was hoping to meet a local who could teach me about Haida food harvesting. The host replied instantly, he seemed excited I was coming on a motorbike and shocked I was coming on a motorbike in April! Apparently, not everyone rides through five days of snow storms to arrive out of season at one of the most beautiful hiking destinations on the west coast when all the trails are still closed on account of mud and snow.
Vernon, the host, replied he had an old food gathering friend with an art studio named Wilfred he’d take me to meet after he got his motorbike insured so he could first take me on a two-wheel tour.
I still hadn’t met this guy and he already had me lined up for a personal motorbike tour and an afternoon with one of his good friends. Good to his word, I arrived at his walkout suite perched on a grassy hilltop overlooking the waters of the Masset Inlet and he laid out the plan.
Vernon's personable like that favorite uncle everyone has who’s great at throwing parties. It was basically whatever I needed Vernon either had it lined up or knew where to get it.
Are you thirsty? There are a few drinks in the fridge in the suite.
Do you want to see some sights? I put a map downstairs you can use and noted all of the best places to go to in this area.
Do you want a personal tour of this end of the island? I got my bike insured, took it for a test ride, and picked out places to go and people to see.
Wow, I’m not this nice to my own company and Vernon only knew me from an Airbnb profile photo where I’m fishing someplace in Patagonia.
I unpack and meet Vern at the bottom of the hill next to his Vulcan Nomad cruiser bike dawning a pair of bright orange overalls with yellow reflective stripes and an open-faced motorcycle helmet and a pair of leather work gloves. I like this look. Usually I see $20,000 motorbikes and riders wrapped in shiny leathers all lined up outside of Tim Hortons hoping to win the looks and loud pipes contest. Vern's actually ready for adventure with nothing to prove.
An x-woodworking teacher on an island of trees, inhabited by a culture of pole carvers, it feels like the previous life work was well suited for both teacher and students. Supposedly retired, Vern had more than a dozen or so projects on the go when I showed up. Next to us is a one-man lumber mill, where he turns out ready-to-use wood from the local cedars and had a few clients waiting on construction beams.
In front of this was a logging truck he was doing maintenance on for a project that was seeing some paperwork delays with the government. Beside that was an old Dodge dually on ramps with a camper on the back that was getting outfitted to be a mobile Airbnb for those who wanted to camp but didn’t have the equipment. His plan; you book the camping site on the island and he’ll deliver a fully functional truck and camper to the spot for you to be waiting on arrival. What service!
Don't stop the project there. Up at the house was some machinery that was part way through expansion work on his property where he was also considering building a little guest cabin. To top it off, his bike was previously used as a commuter bike when he was doing some work driving a boat for a local logging company running crews up and down the Masset Inlet. How he had time to entertain me for the day I had no idea, but I wasn’t about to talk him out of it.
We hop on the bikes and Vernon takes me down a side road into a small subdivision of Masset, not far from his place. He wanted to show me some of the logs he prepped for a friend whose building a house. The trunks are massive and I ask him how old he thinks the tree was. He counts the rings of the tree in a one inch section, then multiples it by the width of the tree from the middle. By rough estimate, he figures this one was is over 300 years old! I can’t believe what I’m seeing. In my lifetime assuming I live to be 100 (I’m surprised I saw 40), I would barely witness a third of the growth of this tree.
Next is a brief town tour, then we are off to Wilfred's. Well, we are sort of off to Wilfred's. I think Vernon has the same internal sense of direction as I do and it turned out he hadn’t been to Wilfred's in a while. So we made a few wrong turns, cut through someone's yard where he managed to get his bike hung up on a hill in the grass. I push him out and we leave the resident a nice black track through their green grass. Eventually Vern spots another friend, that would also mark the road into Wilfred's place. The friend was working in his yard and shows me an old V10 van he had converted into a kind of deluxe quad cab truck. He noted he was proudly burning all the fuel everyone else was trying to conserve. We all laughed.
There is a treed path down to Wilfred's where we are eventually greeted by a wall of towering cedars and two large carved faces marking the entrance that have been positioned to keep watch of the property.
Through the garden sits a weathered hand-built log home marked with a totem pole, accented by carved trim and exterior carved art as a light plume of smoke rolls out from the mossy cedar rooftop. Around the corner tucked under a tree next to the cabin is elderly man straddling a log that's covered with an old deerskin. He greets us while chiseling away at his next project.
Wilfred's been on the island since the 60’s and was hovering around eighty years old at the time. He has a long white wizard's beard, is thin, but looks healthy and he’s dawning rolled down rubber boots and a durable attire of what looked like thick wool pants and a long knitted sweater. He appears quite steady as he tears away at the log in front of him with a large chisel and wood mallet. He says hello through a strong Austrian accent while Vern and him began to reminisce.
Of all the stories they shared the one I found most entertaining was of a hike they were on years ago to the local Sleeping Beauty Peak in early spring. They had hiked to the top and were planning to ski out. Wilfred had been wearing a deerskin for warmth that was cleaned up except for two of the hoofs. Once they arrived at the top, Wilfred took off the deerskin laid it on the snow, grabbed onto the hoofs, and rode it down the hillside in a mad flash of skin and snow faster then anyone could ski it. We burst out laughing at the site of old Wilfred ripping down the mountainside hoofs in hand.
Vern explains that Wilfred grows a lot of his own food, generally harvests the rest and has a wealth of local knowledge. He tells Wilfred I’m looking to learn about the harvesting of local foods in the area and living off the land and pitches him the idea of an on-camera interview about it. Wilfred explains that anything anyone had ever wanted to know about harvesting wild foods has already been written and he wasn’t interested in talking to a camera about it. However, he’d serve us a light lunch he’d prepared of local goods. Food over film, I liked his negotiation style.
Shifting to some benches in the yard he’d whittled at some other point in his carving career, Wilfred made his way inside the cabin returning with a hand-carved dish of smoked sockeye he’d caught and smoked last year as well as three bowls of a sort of sweet rhubarb slurry with no specific name. The rhubarb came from his yard and he’d poached it with cloves and a bit of sugar. The sockeye had been dried then cut into little strips proportionate to those atop a slice of sushi. No salt, no seasoning, and somehow still slightly moist. Both items were delicious and relatively nutritious. The offering outdid any potential interview. Before the afternoon ended he let me poke around his workshop of whittled goods and deerskins he uses for trade before setting off to Vernons.
Back at the Airbnb, looking at my limited luggage and knowing what it was like to live out of a duffle bag, Vernon offered me the use of his laundry machine. In the morning when I went to gather my goods from the dryer, not only had Vern folded all 3 of my shirts, 4 pairs of socks, 4 underwear, and one handkerchief, but he’d also left me a gift on the washer with a note. It was a repurposed pasta jar with the words “Pear Black Tea” written on the side in black felt marker where a label once was. The note beside it; “Kix. Try some of our creation tea! Tell me what you think. VB”
Apparently, he has time to make tea too :)
Do I want to try the creation awaiting me on the washer next to the 5-star laundry service? Are easter bunnies made of chocolate…
On goes the kettle while I rummage through Vernons drawers for a tea infuser and cram as much of the creation into the infuser as possible. The boiling water gives off the light scent of smoked cedar, just enough of a scent to let you know the moment is sponsored by Haida Gwaii and not Evian.
On the island municipal services don’t reach everywhere and Vern, like a lot of other locals, catch some of the 4-5 feet of yearly rainfall for household use. To compare, where I live sees an average yearly rainfall closer to 1.5 feet. He also primarily heats his home with cedar logs. Out from the chimney, a steady stream of cedar smoke and little bits of wood and ash will occasionally collect on the tin roof. Next comes the steady flow of rain and washes some of that into the cistern. The water is then filtered for consumption and the cycle goes on. Despite the filtration, there is still the light flavor of cedar smoke, and when the water boils it gives off the aroma of a cedar sauna.
I’ve been waking up to discount hotel room Red Rose for three weeks now and the cedar smoked pear black tea hits me like one of those chocolate bunny ears after forty days of Lent. It’s sweet like pear sap, and the rest of the mystery fruits round out the flavor like a well-aged red wine. The elixir of fragrant scents wanders through my mouth and out my nose like the white plumes of smoke wafting out from Wilfred's chimney in the damp woods.
I pack up that day to take the muddy logging roads through the woods to catch the midnight ferry. On the way out I stop at Vernons' mill to say goodbye and ask what was in the tea, thinking it was some mystical creation he’s been testing for years. Vernon chuckles and says; "It’s tea, you put whatever you want in it." Ok, but what’s in this tea I ask?
Vernon picks up the jar, and shakes it a little. Well, he says, "There is some Huckleberry, Salmonberry, a bunch of wildflowers, and basically whatever we found while out harvesting berries." What about the pear I ask? He says the pear was on the counter when they were making the tea, so they dried it out and added it to the mix along with some black tea they’d bought online from a store that was closing. He pauses then notes there was one special ingredient that his other teas had that this one was missing. Some of the islands' little red strawberries. They are about the size of a pinky nail and incredibly sweet.
Vern explains that if you want to find a good strawberry hunter to figure out where their secret strawberry patch is, they are easy to spot. They’ll have grass-stained knees from rooting around in the ditches for berries and their neck will be covered in bites from little black flies and noseeums, but for both the hunter and the hunted, it’s worth every bite.
We laugh and I try to take some seductive tea photos of Vernon in his reflective orange overalls at the mill before thanking him for the over-the-top hospitality while he tries to give me the whole jar of tea to take on the road with me.
If you're looking for characters and creations brought to life from the foods and folklore that surrounds them, Haida Gwaii is the place you've been seeking. It felt like you could sit down and have a little chat with anyone or just reach into the woods and pull out lunch. It's that sort of slow steady island life everyone dreams of and that untainted garden of Eden that's been lost to the history books.
If you're going, check out Vernons' place and tell him I said hello :)
Vernons Wildberry & Pear Black Tea With Cedar Smoked Rainwater
-Huckleberries. 2-3 palm fulls or whatever you are lucky enough to find.
-Salmonberries. Same as the Huckleberries.
-Strawberries. 1 palm full or whatever actually makes it back to the house and not in your mouth. You will need the tiny wild ones packed with sweetness found on the island or elsewhere. Using a giant commercial strawberry that tastes like “Red Dye No.3” isn’t going to do your tea any favors or flavors.
-Wild Flowers. 1 palm full. Roses (pink), Burnets (purple), Cinquefoils (yellow), Thimbleberry (white). Whatever you can find that's fragrant.
-1/2 Cup dried black tea. Something like an Assam from India to give off more of a red color. Keemun from China for a more fruity flavor. Or a nice Darjeeling if you are looking to name-drop for tea snobs.
-Jar. One 500ml repurposed glass pasta jar or if you are feeling fancy, a new ½ quart Mason jar.
-Cedar smoked hot water, regular hot water, or smoke some water with cedar chips in a cocktail smoker if you’re looking to impress those same tea snobs.
Dry the fruits and flowers in a food dehydrator or in the sun if you don’t have a lot of critters and birds in the area.
Put the tea in the jar, and label with a felt pen. Wait a week or two with the lid on to allow the flavours to mingle. Then steep your tea and enjoy!