A few weeks ago, I met a friend of a friend who was visiting Southeast Alaska for the first time to meet some of his fellow Haida.
He lives in the Haida Gwaii Islands off the coast of British Columbia, which has been their home for thousands of years. They were also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands for a time until the name was officially changed back a few years ago.
My friend asked the man to tell us a specific story that he had heard pieces of over time but never the whole thing. It was the story of Kiidk’yaas, the Golden Sitka Spruce tree sacred to the Haida people.
The man agreed and began to tell the story with profound sadness in his eyes. As for the mythology, I can only paraphrase what I was told, as the story belongs to several of the Haida clans and requires their permission to retell in full.
The Legend of the Golden Tree
As the Haida legend goes, several hundred years ago, there was a young boy on the island who had no respect for nature. After one particularly bad action, a snowstorm struck the island, laying most of it to waste.
Only two survivors were able to escape nature’s wrath: the little boy himself and his grandfather.
The older man told his grandson not to look back at the destruction or something terrible would happen, similar to the Biblical story of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The child disobeyed again and, as he looked behind him, was immediately transformed into the Golden Spruce, which became a sacred symbol of the Haida people, making sure they would always respect nature and thereby avoid its wrath.
The tree’s name in Haida is Kiidk’yaas, which roughly translates as “The Ancient Tree” or “The Old Tree” and was believed to be at least 300 years old.
The Golden Spruce Itself
The tree itself had an interesting genetic mutation that caused its needles to be a golden color instead of the usual green. This theory was first mentioned by Jim Kinghorn, the reforesting expert who took the original clippings in the 1960s.
Some sources say that it lacked a necessary protein and couldn’t use photosynthesis, which causes the typical green coloration. Others say that the tree’s unique genetic structure caused it to be so good at photosynthesis that its needles were gold.
I don’t know which one is true because I’m not an ecologist. I know basic facts about trees and I like looking at them but that’s about it.
The tree was a little over 320 feet (or 16 stories) tall and its trunk measured about 20 feet in circumference. It was about the same size and height as other trees near it, although it was the only one with its distinctive color.
The Death of Kiidk’yaas
Sadly, you may have noticed that I have been using “was” and other past tense verbs to describe the Golden Spruce.
On January 19th, 1997, a former logging engineer named Grant Hadwin came to Haida Gwaii, where he purchased materials designed to fell trees, including a chainsaw.
Early the next morning, he took his equipment and swam through the freezing cold waters of the Yakoun River to where the Golden Spruce stood. Using his years of experience in the timber industry, he made a series of perfectly-placed cuts in the trunk.
Knowing that the sound of a falling tree would attract attention, he made the incisions in such a way that the next strong wind would cause the tree to fall after he had left the islands.
Two days later, on January 22nd, the mighty tree fell, much to the shock and horror of not only the Haida but the rest of the world as well.
Hadwin sent a fax to various media outlets and to the Haida Nation itself, explaining that he did not want to cut down the tree, but decided it was necessary as a symbol to show his hatred of the logging industry, of which he used to be part.
His manifesto was very similar to and hit a lot of the same points as the one issued by Ted Kaczynski (also known as The Unabomber). Both railed against industrialization and wanted to protect the environment.
Hadwin’s Journey to His Trial
Shortly thereafter, Hadwin was arrested for his crimes and, after being released on bail, was ordered to return to Haida Gwaii for his trial, which was set for February 18th.
He claimed that he was afraid for his life and would likely be murdered on his way to the islands if he tried to take a plane or passenger boat to the courtroom, which was located in the village of Masset.
Instead, he decided that he would row out in his personal canoe from Prince Rupert across the violent and tempestuous Hecate Strait. He left on February 11th, one week before his trial, although a storm forced him to return to shore.
On the 13th, he set out again for Masset, but he never arrived at the village. He was last spotted on February 14th about 25 miles north of his starting point but has not been seen since.
Several months later, the wreckage of his canoe and some of the belongings he had brought with him on the journey were washed shore on Mary Island, an uninhabited piece of land between his origin and his destination.
What Happened to Grant Hadwin?
No one knows for sure, although there are three main theories about Grant Hadwin’s fate and why he mysteriously disappeared.
The first is that the Hecate Strait proved to be too much for his small canoe and, unable to escape one of the many storms, he drowned.
The second is that he was found by a person or group of people who recognized him and was murdered for his crimes.
Finally, some believe that Hadwin escaped and faked his own death. He was a known survivalist, capable of living away from human civilization if so he desired. He was also capable of withstanding extreme cold, as was shown by his previous swim.
He may have set up the solo journey as a way of avoiding punishment by the Haida. There was media speculation after his arrest about a potential murder, which he may have used to his advantage.
Nobody knows the truth of what happened that day or at least anyone who does know has not chosen to share that information with the general public.
There have been scattered cases throughout history of people faking their own deaths and living in secret under an assumed name for decades before the truth was revealed. Even though it’s unlikely, it is an interesting possibility.
The Golden Tree’s Legacy
After the tree was felled, only one piece of wood was known to be saved. It was used as part of Six String Station, a guitar made of various materials that symbolize parts of the different regions and cultures of Canada.
Other materials used in the guitar include a piece of a Wayne Gretzky hockey stick, a walrus tusk, and a piece of silver from Ontario’s Beaver Mine, among many others.
20 years before the tree fell, a group of researchers from the University of British Columbia had cut off two pieces of Kiidk’yaas, which were then grafted onto a regular Sitka Spruce, resulting in two golden saplings.
In late 1997, the university tried to return one of the saplings to Haida Gwaii in hopes of growing a new tree, but unfortunately, it died while in storage.
The other remained on the UBC campus until 2017 when it was moved to the gardens at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific in Victoria.
With the permission of the Haida people, 80 tree cuttings were made from the fallen tree, in hopes that one of them could survive and allow a new Golden Spruce to grow.
This is the story of Kiidk’yaas, the sacred Golden Sitka Spruce tree that stood for over 300 years in the Haida Gwaii Islands off the coast of British Columbia.
Although the tree itself was destroyed by a former logger turned ecoterrorist activist named Grant Hadwin, its spirit lives on as a symbol of the importance of natural beauty and respect for the environment.
In a sense, Hadwin’s plan to raise awareness of the importance of environmental conservation actually worked. However, nearly everyone agrees that the loss of the sacred tree was not worth it and the message should have been conveyed in a better way.
Whether you choose to visit Haida Gwaii and see the spot where the tree once stood or the sapling descended from it at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific in Victoria, you won’t want to miss this chance to see an amazing and unique piece of nature!