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Two young girls from Old Massett on the beach at
the end of the first day of Haida protests on Masset Inelt.

How many canoes are on
that black ship?

On August 1 the Haida Brave was refused passage through a body of water known as Auu or Masset Inlet. This is the story as witnessed by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas who was out on the water when the black ship came.

"Datlamen Creek, loaded," a voice crows from a lumbering truck as it leaves the valley behind. Crackling radio codes herald the fall of heaven's pillars. "5 k empty." In hungry anticipation convoys of trucks crawl into the rainforests. I can hear the battle as they overtake those distant valleys. I know the scent of wood, dragged from their living halls. The swarm of man ... gathering thousands of thousands of fallen trees.

I see spitting tires chew into earthen ruts. Metal bridges tremble. Machines groan and whine out the load in loud metallic chants until the trees are cast down onto the concrete slabs of the dryland sort. Carrion jaws snatch at the dying ancients, bruised and tossed, sorted, wrapped with cable into bundles, and rolled into the sea. Short squat snouts push floating bundles into chained pens. For weeks, the fallen and the bound are gathered. The scent here is not the sweet smell of the cool forest.
We chill when the Black ship rises out of the horizon. We shudder its shadowy passage between us and the setting light. Throbbing engines steal our sleep. Somewhere beyond us in the night, gathered 'round mercury vapor lights, screaming, grabbing, pushing the trees into clasping grapples. With a snap of cabled wrists the trees are jerked out of the water. Up. Swung into night skies. Slammed down on steel decks. Rigid. Bound. Smothered by their own weight they lie pressed together. They creak and settle into the pressing darkness of their mass. No warbled voice no swish to sing their fall. Once pillars of the sky, now slaves of the Black Ships­p;the Haida Brave and the Haida Monarch.

Both of these self propelled and self dumping barges were built in the early 1980's by Yarrow Shipyards of Victoria. The Haida Brave is 121.39 meters long, 25.35 meters wide and has a draught of 6 meters. The Haida Monarch is 129 meters long, 26 meters wide and draws 6.2 meters. Designed to travel at 12 knots they are constantly on the move transporting loads of 12,000 cubic meters of felled trees at a time. Imagine each load as 400 logging trucks, or 12,000 telephone poles -- trees taken from the forested valleys and hills of Haida Gwaii, homeland of the Haida Nation. MacMillan Bloedel Ltd has a provincially blessed claim to thousands of hectares in this archipelago. This exclusive title is called Block 6 of Tree Farm License 39. The company has also called their claim it's "Haida Tree Farm License", a choice of names strangely at odds with their position on Haida Title and Rights.
On August 1 the Haida Brave was refused passage through a body of water known as Auu or Massett Inlet. Earlier that day and some forty miles away the world's largest environmental organization had attempted a marine blockade of that same ship. Local eye witnesses watched the anger that marked that early morning confrontation. Young people had shackled themselves to the ship's lines. The senior MacMillan Bloedel representative on the Island personally directed a spray of high pressure water on them; as the 121 meter long Black ship rolled and rocked trying to whip itself free from their shackled wrists. Three hours later when the escaping Black ship, the Haida Brave, appeared in the lower reaches of Massett Inlet, it met the brave Haidas.

A radio transmission was sent to the ship by the Haida people. "Hold off, there is no passage." A single cedar canoe with eight paddlers and the National flag flying waited in mid channel. Seven small boats motored alongside. Along the shores seventy people stood and witnessed. Cars and trucks parked on the highway shoulders between Old and New Masset. Fishermen unloading the seiner at the government dock paused.

The Black ship slowed, then stopped in the middle of the channel. For two hours the ship held position six kilometers away from the cedar canoe. Too far for eye contact. Then without a radio murmur- for the first time ever in its fifteen year history the Black ship blinked. The looming hull swung round in the tide and retreated thirty-five miles to its base at the MacMillan Bloedel dryland sort, where it would hide until the next morning.

I board a small rubber boat borrowed from a Haida fisherman. "The motor is a fifteen horse and she works well, but keep your eye on the pontoons. They leak." With camera in hand and floater coat zipped against the rising wind, I set out to film the retreating Haida Brave. About five kilometers upstream the rear of the Black ship stands out against the bordering lowlands. Behind it, and between my raft is an RCMP boat returning to Masset, the other boat slices back and forth against the horizon, its path uncertain.

Travelling mid-channel following the flattened wake of the Black ship through the choppy tide, I am suddenly a target. A piercing spray turns towards me and grows into a seven meter high powered hull. A large outboard engine lifts the three occupants high, exposing the trophy hunters message along the boat's fibreglass sides, "Spring King Charters." The hull places itself directly in my path forcing me to swing away. A mere two meters away they charge again casting another wall of water into my small raft. The operator holds his gross finger high in ungracious salute and charges yet again. I move slowly with a dangerous load of water sloshing about my legs. My camera catches his third assault.

Behind us another boat from Old Massett approaches and the Spring King Charters retreats to the Black ship giving me time to bail and balance. Once behind the Black ship I manage to come alongside the Spring King Charters. The young balding operator will not give his name instead mutters, "I work for MacMillan Bloedel and I'm protecting my job." He seems perplexed that my small fourteen foot raft isn't trying to block the behemouth before us. Short sentences try to defend his attack and he refuses to talk about safety.

Through the night Haidas maintained a vigil on the shores of Auu. The morning of August 2 would bring a different day. The Canoe would let the Black ship pass through its only escape to the open waters, through the inlet, in front of the houses of Old Massett. The morning hours passed quickly and by ten o'clock the Black ship appeared as a blocky mass against the shoreline. The great trees piled on its steel decks began to take form: 11,000 cubic meters of old growth cedar trees. The Black ship pushed ahead. A westerly wind pressed into the high tide as witnesses gather on the beach.

Hands lift the strong lines of cedar above the gravel and slide it into the waters of Auu. The Canoe is ready. Our flag is rigid in the wind, flying above as eight men and women press their paddles below the surface. Some of the witnesses are loggers. "I worked for logging companies. Every log that goes out is a log I touched. I see thousands of 'em. Steady. All I get is a small piece of paper." Money. He pinched his fingers tightly together and looked at me closely, "I know where I'm from. I know what the logging companies are doing to our trees. Why didn't we do this ten years ago?" Regular folks on the beach, grandmothers, mothers, aunties, uncles, fathers and grandfathers. From so many clans: Sdast'aas, Gitans', Git'anee, T'sa.ahjanaas, Yahgujanaas/7laanaas, St'langng7laanaas, Sqidaa Kaw, Auu haadaa, Duu Guusd haada, Ravens and Eagles and Yatz haadaa. They all know why they need to be there.

I leave the beach and four kilometers upstream climb into a motorboat ­p; a father, an Aunt an Uncle and three children, together we speed away from the wooden pilings of the government dock, crowded with cars and people. Looking back towards the dimishing dock five Canadian military cadet ships sit cloned, flying maple leaf flags. We move up alongside the Black ship, the scale of its load closes my throat. The water moves fast, swollen tides and westerly wind. The Black ship strains slowly against the tide. Edging its way towards the ocean and the waiting canoe.
An ingracious voice on the radio curses, "losers" who need to "get a job." Another 'wit' is encouraged and crackles, "Kill a hippie and save a tree." Then a calm voice, a woman, cautions the Black ship, "Haida Brave, this is the Haida people, you may continue on your present course, but only at a reduced speed." The voice from the Black ship, unsure, anxious "To the people who called the Haida Brave . . . . we are proceeding midchannel. . . " Two escort boats tagged alongside the Black ship, a small RCMP boat and a MacMillan Bloedel boat. The company boat is named the Dinan Logger II. From time to time its passengers cross the crowed deck waving a video camera. I recognize the round figure of a man who claimed to be committed to these Islands called Gwaii. "I am a Gwaiian," he boasted in front of the participants at a Ministry of Forests conference on the fate of Cedar. Now his face is worried and I think he'd rather be at a desk preparing cutblock documents. I wave, he raises his hand. His boat tosses. They surge ahead, then slow down to match the uncertain speeds of the Black ship. The bow wave now subdued, the froth disappeared into the arching water that rides ahead of the 300 foot hull. Tiny figures move behind darkened wheelhouse windows. Binoculars hide their faces as they search for a sign, an opening.

Rhythm of paddles pull the cedar canoe through the water. Eight speedboats from Old Massett stand by. The water is ruffled. The wind steady. RCMP officers try to question the paddlers over their singing voices . . . haalii mo wi mi YO - haay O - haalii mo wi mi YO - haay haalii maaa wi mi yooo. . . The distance between cedar and the oncoming steel narrows. The Black ship bellows. Shining blades slice the water. The steering paddle sits low behind the helmsman's cedar hat. Suddenly the helmsman leans, the canoe turns, directly, towards the deeper waters, towards the steel bow plates of the bellowing Black ship. Red flag and taut shaped cedar with paddles flashing in and then out suddenly reaching high to the sky, a challenge, and a promise to the cedar forests.

My eyes are open. Nostrils flare. Ears twinge and fingers curl as from my perch I see a single cedar canoe rush the Black ship. The canoe cuts over the curling bow wave and passes quickly below and immediately along the high steel hull. The bloated bow of the ship is a great monstrous maw, and as if swallowed into the monster's belly a black gut wall rises behind the canoe. A canoe filled with Haida souls and a single red flag flies on a choppy swell as hundreds of ancient cedar logs hang overhead.

Then the Black ship realizes that they are free to escape the shame of the name, the sting of not belonging. Billows of exhaust pour out of the stacks, engines whine and the flagless ship heads for open water.

It is August third, three in the morning, the smokehouse fogs the starlight sky. Below the elderberry hill a barrel of canning salmon sits on an open fire. There is a sweet smell in this Massett night, it takes me to a forest. There is still a valley where Pillars hold the heavens high above us all, beyond the grasping hand of endless wanting, and never enough.

story and photos by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

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