North Coast

Natural Treasures on Haida Gwaii

Dutes Dutheil's passion for rock collecting and jewellery-making has made a lasting impression on the community of Tlell-and beyond.

by Tim Johnson

Agate Collecting in Haida Gwaii, Photo courtesy of Crystal Cabin

In a place where the landscapes are legendary—where mist rolls in from the Pacific and wraps mountains in a mysterious shroud, where salmon run up clear streams and ancient totems stand tall and proud—not everyone takes much time to gaze down at the ground beneath them. But for a gentleman named Dutes Dutheil, looking downward to search the shores of Haida Gwaii for agate stones—a flash of orange, or maybe a swirl of blue—was a cherished pastime.

Dutes Dutheil. Photo courtesy of Tallulah

In February 2018, Dutheil passed away of pancreatic cancer, but, through his knowledge of local geology, his passion for jewellery-making and his deep affection for the place he called home, he has left a lasting legacy on Haida Gwaii.

Growing up in Northern Ontario, Dutheil spent a great deal of time collecting rocks and minerals on weekends, scouring the rough Canadian Shield for finds. As early as the age of 12, he got into the lapidary art of cutting and polishing stones, and then designing stone jewellery.

“In the years that followed, I discovered the healing properties of crystals and gems,” Dutheil told onBoard magazine. “And that only furthered my interest in the earth’s geology.”

Interior of Crystal Cabin today. Photo courtesy of Patrick Shannon

Inspired by a Franz Boas book on northwest coast Indigenous art, Dutheil headed to BC’s coast as a young adult, and when he experienced the warmth and kindness of the Haida people, he knew he’d found his home on Haida Gwaii. He lived for a time on North Beach, then on the far-flung west coast of Langara, before finally buying a piece of land in the village of Tlell. There, he opened Crystal Cabin, an art gallery and gift shop that has since become a local institution. “I worked vigorously to develop my [business], and in my spare time I still went rock collecting,” he said.

A Star Spirit Thunder Egg. Photo courtesy of Crystal Cabin

A man of many talents, Dutheil spent years working with various stones and gems, as well as crystals, silver and gold, creating his unique, handmade jewellery. In business for more than a quarter century, the Crystal Cabin displays and sells his work, which incorporates exquisite local specimens like Star Spirit Thunder Eggs (stones with bubbly exteriors and delicate star-shaped interiors) and Serenity Stone (a polished stone with creamy, warming tones). The Crystal Cabin also displays and sells local Haida artwork. “The artistic talent in Haida Gwaii is amazing,” Dutheil said. “It’s a real honour to showcase art where it’s from.”

As a natural extension of his jewellery making and his reverence for coastal art, Dutheil also created the locally loved Tlell Stone Circle in 2002. Located just outside the Crystal Cabin, this work grew out of a passion to tell Haida Gwaii’s geological story, all in one place. It’s comprised of eight stone samples, arranged in an energy circle format, each mounted inside a steel casing that can be rotated 360 degrees, and each impressive in its own way. Among the stones, collected on Haida Gwaii over a 15-year span, is a 3.6-foot-long piece of petrified wood formed more than 60 million years ago, an ammonite dating to the Cretaceous period of the dinosaurs, and a slab of rock that contains a monotis fossil believed to be more than 200 million years old.

Tlell Stone Circle Drusy Quartz. Photo courtesy of Crystal Cabin

According to Dutheil, the circle, which is centered around a basalt rock, marks the intersection of two harmonic ley lines (ancient paths believed to hold spiritual powers) and it allows visitors to connect with what he called the “higher vibrations of these islands.”

“It’s sacred space,” he said.

Agate Pocket Guide. Photo courtesy of Gordon Tolman

Dutheil had a deep pride and fascination with the geological treasures of his home, and he strove, always, to share his knowledge of these treasures. With Haida Gwaii standing as one of just a few places in Canada where you can find agate stones right on the beach (translucent and banded, you can find them in white, grey, orange, yellow, red, black, and blue), Dutheil decided to write a guide to collecting these colourful specimens. Simply called Agate Collecting with Dutes and published last year, the book encourages visitors to Haida Gwaii to cast their eyes downward for a while, in search of their own geological keepsake.

Although Dutheil has passed away, his daughters plan on continuing to run the Crystal Cabin so that his community, and those who come from near and far to visit Tlell, can continue to feel the magic of Haida Gwaii.