Sunday, July 27, 2014

Guest Blogger: R.J. Harlick--The Mystical Islands of the Haida

Every other Sunday is our day for Guest Author Postings by mystery writers who base their stories in non-US settings.  We think it a great way of introducing our readership to new experiences and places.  We’re pleased to have with us today RJ Harlick, author of the popular wilderness-based Meg Harris mystery series set in the wilds of Quebec. RJ divides her time between her home in Ottawa and her log cabin in Quebec. And like her heroine Meg Harris, RJ loves nothing better than to roam the forests surrounding her wilderness cabin or paddle the endless lakes and rivers. There are 6 books in the series. The 4th, Arctic Blue Death was a finalist for the 2010 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. In the latest release, Silver Totem of Shame, Meg travels to Canada’s west coast, to Haida Gwaii, the mystical islands of the Haida, where she unravels a story of shame and betrayal that reaches back to when the Haida ruled the seas. She is a past president of Crime Writers of Canada. For more, see her website,

Welcome, R.J.

I love being in the great outdoors. So when I was deciding on a setting for my Meg Harris mystery series, it took me less than a second to choose the Quebec wilderness surrounding my log cabin, where I like to say trees outnumber people a million to one and lakes a thousand to one.  This photo is taken during a canoe trip in La Verendrye Park.

While the first three books were set in this northern paradise, when it came time to write the fourth Meg Harris mystery, Arctic Blue Death, I decided Meg would travel to Canada’s far north, a place I had always wanted to visit. So Meg and I flew up to Baffin Island and spent a week exploring the exotic barren tundra of Iqaluit and Pangnirtung and getting to know the people who call it home.  I enjoyed researching and writing Arctic Blue Death so much I decided that I would have Meg travel to a different Canadian wilderness in every other book. Though this blog is not about the Arctic, I thought I would sneak in this spectacular view of Pangnirtung Fjord.  

For Silver Totem of Shame, my latest book, I once again chose a place I had always wanted to visit, the Queen Charlotte Islands or as they are now officially called Haida Gwaii, meaning ‘islands of the Haida’. They are an archipelago of sunken mountain tops lying on the edge of the continent about 80 kilometres from the mainland of British Columbia.  And as the name suggests they are the home of the Haida, a people who have lived on these islands for thousands of years

As part of my research for Silver Totem of Shame, I spent a fabulous week exploring the many islands of the archipelago and getting to know its people. The majority live on Graham Island, the northern and largest island, which because of its size and less mountainous topography is the most inhabitable. There are two main Haida communities, Skidegate and Old Masset and several small towns, with Queen Charlotte (photo) being the centre for most government services.  There is also a military base on the northern end of Graham Island.

For me the most intriguing part of the archipelago was the southern half, which comprises the mountainous and largely uninhabited Moresby Island and hundreds of smaller islands.  In 1993, much of this area became Gwaii Haanas National Park in order to conserve and protect not only the natural wonders of the islands and the surrounding seas, but also the ancient heritage sites of the Haida. These include four ancient villages and a sacred hot spring, which was soothingly hot when we visited. Today, however, these springs are barely warm after a powerful earthquake in 2012 turned off the hot water tap.

Since the only way to explore these islands is via boat, I and Meg along with my husband took a four day adventure tour in a zodiac down to the southern islands.  

The surrounding cold Pacific waters support an abundance of sea life, including salmon, halibut and spot prawns, along with many colourful varieties of starfish and sea anemone and larger sea mammals such as orcas and seals. These curious seals watched us as we floated past the kelp bed providing their breakfast.

The islands are also home to the world’s largest black bears. This bear was walking along the beach flipping rocks in search of crabs. I watched one unfortunate crab’s legs wriggle as it slowly disappeared down the bear’s gullet.

With an annual rainfall of over 150 inches, the trees grow large. Unfortunately much of the ancient forest covering the islands has been logged out, but it is still possible to come across thousand year old grandmother trees that rise hundreds of feet off the forest floor.

I must not forget to mention the all pervasive moss that covers everything including this wagon that had been left behind when this logging operation was closed down in the 1920s or 30s.

The highlight of the trip was visiting the ancient village sites. A hundred and fifty years ago, a person arriving at a village’s beach would have been greeted by a line of totem poles, sometimes two and three deep standing in front of fifteen to thirty longhouses, each of which would’ve housed an extended family and its slaves of twenty or more people.  The photo of Old Masset is courtesy of the Canadian Museum of History.

Today little remains other than a few badly eroded totem poles and rotting longhouse beams. The villages were abandoned in the late 1800s after European diseases decimated the Haida population. But I swear as I walked where the ancestors had once walked that I could hear their whispers in the forest canopy above my head.  

After learning from one of the Haida watchman who watch over the ancient villages, that totem poles are meant to tell stories, I decided to interweave the carving of a pole into Silver Totem of Shame. It would tell the story that reached back to when the Haida ruled the seas.

As for murder. I learned from a local RCMP constable that the last time there had been a murder on Haida Gwaii was in the 1970s.  I told him I was now going to raise the statistic exponentially. The fun of being a mystery writer.

Guest Blogger R.J. Harlich--Sunday


  1. Thanks, R.J.! I'd never heard of the Haida. I'm curious about who became their slaves. From villages they raided, I assume, when they "ruled the seas." It always amazes me that humans live in such widely spread environments, from the frigid north where very few plants even grow, to the sweltering tropical forests where you can't STOP things from growing, to the blistering desert where water doesn't even 'grow,' in swamps and on mountain tops... I've got my cup of tea, so I guess everyone else is welcome to their cup, too.

  2. Lovely blog RJ. I've not been to that side of Canada - plan to do so next year but the genuine concern to retain history and conserve the natural beauty seems to be something the Canadians do well. Tourism is welcomed but never allowed to interfere with the ecology.
    The problem with these guest blogs is the 'books I must read pile' just gets taller.

  3. RJ, You make it sound so beautiful that I wish I liked cold weather. My Sicilian genes prefer heat. That said, I fully concur with what the wilderness does to one's soul. It is what I find in the warmer climes of Africa.

  4. Everett, the slaves were either members of other tribes or other Haida clans captured during raids. The Haida were apparently quite a warlike people at one time.

  5. Thanks for the wonderful post, R.J. It's been a pleasure working with you!

  6. Thanks, Jeff, for inviting me. I had fun doing it.