I first catch sight of the beach through a break in the trees. White sand giving way to perfectly-shaped peaks, breaking right and left. No people. If you asked google image for a picture of paradise, it would look like this, albeit with a few subtle differences. The coast is fringed with pine not palm trees, and the sun is low in the sky even though it’s mid-morning.
But the clearest sign I’m not somewhere tropical, for don’t we always imagine paradise as hot, is the crunch I feel under my feet as I step onto the frosted boardwalk in my neoprene-boots. The thick hood attached to a 5/4mm wetsuit is another clue, as the water I’m about to dive into is around eight degrees.
“Tsunami Evacuation Plan. Grab beer. Run like hell”
It’s December, but when I flew into Vancouver in British Columbia instead of heading to the snowy mountains of Whistler as you might expect at this time of year, I took a prop plane west to Vancouver Island. A small peninsula, it’s a place of wild and rugged beauty, where ancient forests run right up to the ocean’s edge, and brutal megastorms batter the coast each winter. Though fortunately not today where I’m surfing at Long Beach, which as its name suggests is a ‘long beach’, located in between the towns of Tofino and Ucluelet.
The sun is shining but the air is fresh enough to see your breath. I’ve surfed on cold days in England before but never in winter or in temperatures as low as this. Yet, amazingly, the wetsuit does its job. I’m in for two hours and when I get out it’s because my arms feel heavy, like they’re filled with wet sand, rather than because I’m freezing.
Cold water surfing has grown massively in popularity over the past decade thanks to improvements in wetsuit technology, the lure of less crowded breaks and no doubt also the appeal of putting a photo of surfing at a snowy beach on Instagram.
Yet even before the latest wetsuits made cold water surfing more pleasant the beaches around Tofino were beloved of surfers. The First Nations, the indigenous people who’ve lived here for the last 10,000 years, fashioned the local cedar trees into giant canoes which they surfed on - albeit as part of their everyday survival rather than for pleasure as we do now.
"Justin Trudeau even comes here sometimes"
One of the first modern surfers was Charles McDiarmid, now the owner-manager of the swanky beachfront hotel the Wickannish Inn. He’s been surfing at Chesterman Beach, one of British Columbia’s standout spots, since the 1960s, his doctor father having brought the family to live here a decade before. He stills surfs every weekend. Charles tells me: “My parents had travelled the world but concluded this beach was as pretty as any they’d ever seen, even though it wasn’t warm.” As I walk along the beach that evening at sunset, seeing colours I’ve only ever seen in Photoshopped pictures, the waves framed by rocky outcrops and forest, it’s hard to disagree.
More surfers joined Charles in the late 1960s, when Tofino’s awesome nature and wildlife, combined with an edge of civilisation vibe attracted hippies in camper vans from all across Canada. Tofino’s first road was only built in 1959 and looking west there is nothing but ocean from here to Japan. The Canadian free-spirits were joined by conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War from the US, and many of these new arrivals either surfed already or took it up pretty quickly.
In 1971, the area’s unique coastal temperate rainforest, a product of heavy rainfall but relatively moderate year-round temperatures, was afforded important environmental protection status when it was designated the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
But before the countercultural wave had arrived the main industry around Tofino had been logging so it’s perhaps not surprising that there were some ideological clashes between the eco-friendly surfers, the First Nations people and the lumberjacks. This resulted in the largest act of civil disobedience in Canada in the early 1990s, known as the Clayoquot protests, during which 900 people were arrested protecting the forests from logging.
Their efforts worked though, and since the 1990s tourism has replaced tree felling as the dominant industry in and around Tofino. “Surf tourism in particular has exploded since 2000,” says Charles. “But we also get a lot of people coming for the wildlife and the nature. And in winter, our big growth has been in storm watching.”
Charles remembers how exciting he found Tofino’s big winter storms as a kid. “The power would go, you’d hear the forests creak amidst the howling wind. We’d gather in our cabin hoping to see mother nature perform,” he says.
Charles wondered if his guests at the Wickannish Inn would feel the same. The hotel, which opened in 1996, was designed to show off the coast and its wild storms. He provided macs and wet weather gear in all the rooms and encourage visitors, many of whom were city people, to come and embrace the weather; to celebrate the natural environment instead of hiding from it indoors as urban dwellers so often do.
“It wasn’t an established market, and people thought I was crazy,” he laughs. But his guests loved it so much that first winter he had to call in extra staff to meet the demand.
During my trip, we didn’t witness a megastorm, though we did get some stormy days where the ocean had the most phenomenal roar and power to it. We went on a few hikes and it felt like watching the most amazing natural show as we alternated between the deep dark forest, with its storm-warped towering trees, and the wild fizzing ocean. I loved how closely the trails hugged the coastline.
We see signs for Tsunami Evacuation Routes and vehicles with bumper stickers reading: “Tsunami Evacuation Plan. 1) Grab beer 2) Run like hell” which remind us how fragile life in this kind of setting is. A month after our visit a monster storm came in with waves so big they had to close some of the beaches, with property and some stretches of the coastal trail badly damaged.
"There is nothing but ocean from here to Japan"
I ask Cath Bruhwiler, a lifelong local and former pro surfer who is now a surf instructor, whether she ever gets scared in the storms. “A few times in storms on the boat when we were young, but not really. I’ve never really been scared out there. I am way more scared driving down a freeway or walking on the streets at night in the city.”
We were lucky on our trip to get some calm days in the mix. The day we went surfing and another day when we went out in a boat from Tofino Marina. Vancouver Island is often known as the Galapagos of the north such is its unique marine life, helped by the rich kelp forests at sea and the fact the First Nations people lived so sustainably, never taking more from the earth than they needed. On our ride we see eagles, puffins, sea lions, porpoises, sea otters lying on their backs as if posing for David Attenborough, and then, when I think it can’t get any better, we spot a grey whale breeching. I’m so excited I yelp.
The only thing that would have improved the boat trip was if we’d seen the elusive sea wolves our guide kept telling us about. An amazing breed of wolf which has evolved to swim for miles at a time when hunting prey, they swim to the outer islands to eat deer and sea lions and have even been known to sleep on a dead whale for weeks while eating it.
Cath Bruhwiler grew up in a big house on Chesterman Beach that her father built. She says: “I grew up in small hippy community of families who lived on the beach, back in the days when the lots and houses weren’t worth anything. A bunch of families with a bunch of kids who all home-schooled and ran around on the beach and forest all day.” It sounds idyllic, though like a lot of local residents Cath has since moved inland.
The beachfront properties here are now worth millions, mirroring the pattern that seems to consume all the beautiful adventure hotspots in the world eventually, especially those with good surfing or snowboarding.
Tofino is no longer a sleepy hippy surf town. It has smart hotels and some of the best restaurants in Canada, Justin Trudeau even comes here sometimes. But it’s still an amazing place to visit, and months after my trip I still think about it most days.
Winter was the perfect time to hit the beaches here too. No crowds, ridiculous light, evergreen forests carpeting the coast and mountains all around; the chance of seeing storms. Paradise, the cold temperate version.
Do It Yourself
For more information on Tofino, please visit Destination British Columbia.
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