Raven Walks Around the World: Life of a Wandering Activist

by Thom Henley

Vancouver: Harbour Publishing, 2017

$32.95 / 9781550178074

Reviewed by Philip Van Huizen


Autobiographies by environmentalists are nothing new, especially in B.C. Greenpeace alone is its own cottage industry, with practically all of its founders producing their own work, some of them multiple times over, including Robert Hunter, Rex Weyler, Paul Watson, and the ?confessions? of the contentious Patrick Moore.

Then there are the works of Canadian luminaries like David Suzuki, Elizabeth May, and Sheila Watt-Cloutier, whose memoirs serve equally as reflective journeys and as additional works of activism. Even within this increasingly crowded field, though, Thom Henley sets himself apart with his addition by the sheer breadth of his experiences.

Like Forrest Gump or Huckleberry Finn, Henley (whom many refer to as ?Huck? or ?Huckleberry,? in fact) has had a knack for being in the right historical place at the right historical time.†Indeed, the title of the book, Raven Walks Around the World is the name the Haida gave Henley ? Yaahl Hlaagaay Gwii Kaas ? after he was adopted by Mary Yeltatzie Swanson into the Yagu Laanas Clan for collaborating with the Haida for decades, capturing both his ?wanderlust? and his penchant, like the curious and trickster Raven of their nation?s stories, for ?making fortunate discoveries by accident? (p. 187).

Bill Reid. Thom Henley photo

Indeed, examples of serendipity and of Raven?s ?mysterious ways? run throughout the book, connecting the many stories of Henley?s life.

These experiences include escaping Michigan and Alaska as a draft dodger to settle in Haida Gwaii, where Henley would find himself a founding member, along with many Haida and non-Haida alike, of the decades-long campaign to save South Moresby Island and create Gwaii Haanas National Park.

Henley would also become wrapped up in other environmental and human rights causes, including campaigns against supertankers off the coast of Kitimat and for rainforest preservation in Borneo; he would cofound Rediscovery, the global wilderness education program for Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth; and he would publish multiple well-received works on Haida Gwaii, wilderness education, and the Penan of the Borneo Rainforest, among other subjects.

Henley would also travel (often by kayak) to more than 130 countries and every continent, both as an activist and an educator, and the stories of his travels lend a degree of adventure and excitement that is also rather different from run-of-the-mill activist memoirs that can focus too much on political ins-and-outs.

David Suzuki, Thom Henley, Wade Davis. Thom Henley photo

What really draws the reader in, though, are the stories of the eclectic group of people that Henley met and worked with throughout his life of activism.

These include impressive celebrity encounters with the likes of Pierre and Justin Trudeau, Al Gore, James Cameron, and Jane Goodall, and friendships with others like Bill Reid, David Suzuki, and Wade Davis. The most engaging characters are those with whom Henley worked for most of his life.

This list is long, including such fascinating people as Haida Chief Percy Williams; activist John Broadhead; ?master abstractor? David Phillips; Haida elders Ethel Jones, Ada Yovanovich, Watson Pryce, and Grace Dewitt; and Penan activist Mutang Tu?o.

Thom Henley and Guujaaw

But none figure more prominently than Guujaaw. Now a Haida chief, we are introduced to Guujaaw, along with Henley, as a young Gary Edenshaw in the early 1970s, when the Save South Moresby campaign was first concocted by both of them, and he remains a fixture for much of the rest of Henley?s narrative.

Guujaaw?s recurrences include helping Henley host Pierre Trudeau and family at Henley?s remote cabin in Lepas Bay, leading the Lyell Island blockade that saw Haida elders infamously arrested by the RCMP in 1985, guiding the Bill Reid-crafted Lootaas from Vancouver to Haida Gwaii, and apprenticing with Bill Reid, amongst many other fascinating and often powerful stories.

There is a journey that the reader takes with Henley in this book, in other words, one that makes it clear that he never acted alone in any of his many accomplishments, and indeed leaned heavily on the knowledge and experience of others, collaborating with friends and acquaintances every step of the way.

Henley?s friend and environmental colleague, the young Haida carver Gary Edenshaw (Guujaaw). Thom Henley photo

Ultimately, the reader is left struck by a few things in this gem of a memoir: the evocative power of Henley?s direct and eloquent prose, the potential to effect great change through friendship and collaboration, and, above all, that serendipity and a sense of adventure are just as important in successful environmental activism as serious dedication.


Phillip Van Huizen

Based in Vancouver, Philip Van Huizen is a visiting assistant professor in the History Department at Western Washington University in Bellingham. His research focuses on energy and the environment in the North American West and has appeared in BC Studies, The Pacific Historical Review, and in the McGill-Queen?s University Press collection edited by Ruth Sandwell, Powering Up Canada (reviewed by Daniel Gallacher in The Ormsby Review #197, November 7, 2017). He has also co-edited, with Asa McKercher, a book on Canadian international history, Undiplomatic History: The New Study of Canada and the World (McGill-Queen?s University Press, 2019). Philip is completing a book manuscript on the Canadian-U.S. High Ross Dam controversy.


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Publisher/Writer: Alan Twigg

Thom Henley, John Broadhead (cartographer), Ann Haig-Brown (conservationist), John Fraser (Minister of Fisheries and Oceans). Thom Henley photo



The first European who wrote about the southern Queen Charlotte Islands and their people in detail was James Colnett in the late 1700s. The American lawyer Newton Chittenden was the first white man to explore the interior of those islands, as described in Settlers, Prospectors and Tourists Guide or Travels Through British Columbia (1882). Irish-born William Henry Collison was reputedly the first missionary to preach to the Haida, Nisga'a and Tsimshian in their own languages, as described in his often condescending memoir In the Wake of the War Canoe (1915). Kathleen Dalzell self-published The Queen Charlotte Islands, Volume 1: 1774-1966 (1968) and The Queen Charlotte Islands, Volume 2 (1973), both popular for decades. After an article in the New Yorker, John Vaillant skillfully wove together Haida Gwaii-related material for a prize-winning bestseller, The Golden Spruce (2005).

The turning point for recognition of Haida Gwaii as a separate culture-the book that, more than any other, made it acceptable and even preferable to refer to the place as Haida Gwaii-was Islands at the Edge: Preserving the Queen Charlotte Islands Wilderness (1984), a co-operative project largely engineered and written by Thom Henley.

In 1970, twenty-two-year-old Thom Henley had left Michigan and drifted around the northwest coast, getting by on odd jobs and advice from even odder characters. He rode the rails, built a squatter shack on a beach, came to be known as "Huckleberry" and embarked on adventures along the West Coast and abroad that, just like his Mark Twain namesake, situated him in all the right and wrong places at all the right and wrong times. Eventually, a hippie named Stormy directed him to Haida Gwaii where, upon arrival, a Haida Elder affirmed to the perplexed Huckleberry that she had been expecting him. From that point onward, Henley's life unfolded as if destiny were at work--perhaps with a little help from Raven, the legendary trickster. While kayaking the remote area around South Moresby Island, Henley was struck by the clear-cut logging and desecration of ancient Haida village sites. Henley collaborated with the Haida for the next fourteen years to spearhead the largest environmental campaign in Canadian history and the creation of Gwaii Haanas National Park. (Later, he became a co-founder of Rediscovery--a wilderness program for First Nations and non-aboriginal youth that would become a global model for reconciliation.)

Later renamed Islands at the Edge: Preserving the Queen Charlotte Archipelago, this political milestone was accorded the first Bill Duthie Booksellers' Choice Award in 1985. At the gala event on Granville Island, Henley asked artist Bill Reid to give an acceptance speech. Reid's riveting denunciation of modern B.C. society was not only the highlight of an evening that marked the coming-of-age of B.C. writing and publishing with the creation of the B.C. Book Prizes, it signalled to the mainland that Haida culture would henceforth aggressively seek self-definition. Quivering with Parkinson's disease, Reid reminded the audience of the ravages of white civilization, calling it "the worst plague of locusts."; Islands at the Edge was a powerful ambassadorial force in the successful preservation of South Moresby Island as a park. Its success begat a string of well-researched coffee table books to protect the environment, notably Stein: The Way of the River (1988) by Michael M'Gonigle and Wendy Wickwire, and Carmanah: Artistic Visions of an Ancient Rainforest (1989), spearheaded by Paul George, who had produced a similar book about Meares Island in 1985.


In 1978, with the cooperation of Haida elders, Thom Henley founded the Rediscovery Program on the Queen Charlotte Islands to assist Native and non-Native youth in crisis by teaching them about nature and themselves through outdoor experiences. He was the director of that program for its first seven years until he became Executive Director of the Rediscovery International Foundation. Since 1978, Henley has seen the growth of more than forty Rediscovery camps in North American and around the world. He served on the board of directors for the Canadian Nature Federation and has published a guidebook to outdoor education, Rediscovery: Ancient Pathways, New Directions (Western Canada Wilderness Committee, 1990).

As the organizer and co-author of Islands at the Edge: Preserving the Queen Charlotte Islands Wilderness (D&M), he was co-recipient of the first Bill Duthie Booksellers' Choice Award in 1985. The book was a major factor in the successful preservation of South Moresby Island (also known as Gwaiihaannaas) as a park and it kick-started a steady string of well-researched coffee table books about British Columbia from an environmental perspective in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1988 Henley smuggled videos out of Borneo for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee's first international project, the protection of rainforest in Sarawak, on Borneo. "I expected things to be bad," he said, "but I wasn't prepared for what I saw." He made five trips to Malaysia in an effort to stop logging on behalf of the nomadic Penan people. His coffee table book, Penan: Voice of the Borneo Rainforest (Western Canada Wilderness Committee, 1990), co-written with Wade Davis, with a foreword by Prince Charles, details the plight of the Penan people in Sarawak.

He has travelled to more than 100 countries and lectured in more than one-quarter of them, having received numerous international conservation awards. In the 1990s Henley was based primarily in Thailand. Ten years of leading eco-tours in Thailand led to Reefs to Rainforests, Mangroves to Mountains (Asia Books). He has also published Waterfalls and Gibbon Calls, a guide to Thailand's Khao Soke National Park.

Thom Henley first visited the Skeena River region in 1971. In 2009 he was working to establish an International Rediscovery Centre on the banks of the Skeena River "as a living legacy for youth from all over the world." In doing so, he wrote, and took many photographs for, River of Mist, Journey of Dreams (Rediscovery International Foundation, 2009), with a foreword by Roy Henry Vickers. The project was encouraged by Linda Lafleur, publisher of The Daily News in Prince Rupert, and received financial support from the Kispiox Band Council, Gitanmaax Band Council and Kitselas Band Council.

Ksan or Ksien, the Gitksan or Tsimshian name for the Skeena, translates as "juice from the clouds" though it is more commonly called "the river of mists." Hence novelist Hubert Evans entitled his classic British Columbia novel about the struggles of First Nations people in the Hazelton and Prince Rupert area Mist on the River, published in 1954.

One of the largest, free-flowing (undammed) rivers on the planet, the Skeena River is second in size only to the Fraser River in terms of rivers whose watersheds lie completely within B.C.'s boundaries. Approximately 670 kilometres in length, it drains an area of 54,400 sq. km. in a region that remains one of the least populated on the planet. An estimated five million salmon, representing all five species, spawn in Skeena waterways, making it one of the foremost salmon fisheries on the planet.

In 2003, Henley and the First Nations along the Skeena joined to encourage youth from around the world for a summer paddling expedition to "Retrace the Ancestral Highway" of the Skeena. The second part of River of Mist, Journey of Dreams, recalls that journey through photos and the words of youth who participated.

[For other authors pertaining to Haida Gwaii / Queen Charlotte Islands, see abcbookworld entries for Adams, Dawn; Bancroft, J. Austen; Barbeau, Marius; Blackman, Margaret; Bodega y Quadra, Juan Francisco; Boelscher, Marianne; Bolton, Herbert E.; Bowditch, Dan; Burling, Samuel; Caama√°o, Jacinto; Calder, J.A.; Cameron, June; Carey, Neil; Carter, Anthony; Crespi, Juan; Curtis, Edward S.; Davidson, Robert; Dawson, George M.; Deans, James; Dixon, George; Douglas, Sheila; Drew, Leslie; Duff, Wilson; Dunn, John; Ellis, David W.; Enrico, John; Ernst, Maria; Fedje, Daryl; Fischer, George; Fleurieu, Charles; Foster, J.B.; Garner, Joe; Gazetas, Mary; Gessler, Trisha; Gill, Ian; Gray, Robert; Hale, Amanda; Harrison, Charles; Hart, Jim; Haswell, Robert; Hatt, D.E.; Hearne, Margo; Henderson, Fern; Henderson, R.W.; Hoover, Allan; Horwood, Dennis; Houston, James; Ingraham, Joseph; Johnson, Ebenezer; Karstad, Aleta; Lasser, Peggy; Lillard, Charles; Long, Bob; MacDonald, George F.; MacDonald, Joanne; Macnair, Peter; Marchand, Etienne; Mayol, Lurline Bowles; Musgrave, Susan; Newton, Norman; Oliviero, Jamie; Osgood, Wilfred; Patterson, Samuel; Pena, Tomas de la; Peron, Francois; Perouse, Jean-Francois de la; Poole, Francis; Razzell, Mary; Reid, Martine; Reynolds, Stephen; Ricketts, Ed; Ross, Michael Lee; Scudder, G.G.E.; Sheehan, Carol; Simpson, S.L.; Siska, Heather; Smith, Robin Percival; Smyly, John; Spilsbury, Jim; Steltzer, Ulli; Stuart, Wendy Bross; Swan, James G.; Swanton, John; Taylor, Andrew Bracey; Taylor, Roy; Turner, Nancy; Turner, William O.; Van den Brink, J.H.; Ward, David; Westergaard, Ross; White, April; Wright, Robin K.; Wyatt, Victoria; Yates, J. Michael.] @2010.


Islands at the Edge: Preserving the Queen Charlotte Islands Wilderness (D&M, 1985). Co-author. Renamed Islands at the Edge: Preserving the Queen Charlotte Archipelago

Rediscovery: Ancient Pathways, New Directions (Western Canada Wilderness Committee, 1990).

Penan: Voice of the Borneo Rainforest (Western Canada Wilderness Committee, 1990), co-written with Wade Davis

Waterfalls and Gibbon Calls: A guide to Thailand's Khao Soke National Park.

Reefs to Rainforests, Mangroves to Mountains (Asia Books)

Reefs to Rainforests: A Guide to South Thailand's Natural Wonders

Living Legend of the Mentawai

A Seed of Hope

Krabi: Caught in the Spell

As if the Earth Matters: Recommitting to Environmental Education

River of Mist, Journey of Dreams (Rediscovery International Foundation, 2009)

Raven Walks Around the World: Life of a Wandering Activist (Harbour 2018) $32.95 978-1-55017-807-4

[BCBW 2018] "QCI"