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Tofino, B.C.: Surfing on Canada’s Far Side

Photos by Kari Medig

When you pull into the Pacific coast town of Tofino, you leave behind the Canada you thought you knew.

I was still two hours from my destination when I spotted the first sign, handpainted on the side of the highway: surf shop. The words seemed jarring and out of place. They were words I’d seen in Australia, in Barbados, in California and Hawaii. But as I drove the winding two-lane road through old-growth forest, late afternoon sun filtering gamely down through the cover of giant firs and spruce trees, I tried to remember if I’d ever seen a surf shop, or anyone surfing for that matter, in Canada before. Despite its three ocean coastlines—Atlantic, Pacific, and a long, jigsaw-puzzle stretch of mainland and island shoreline in the Arctic Ocean—there are very few places in my home country where you’ll see the words surf and shop together.

Eighty miles later along the Trans-Canada Highway, I had passed through the wild, mountainous interior of Vancouver Island, and the road made one last climb before dropping steeply down to the Pacific coast, where the signs started popping up again. surf shop. surf lessons. surfboard rentals. I drove through a gauntlet of surf-themed businesses and into the heart of a small town just after sunset, the darkness thickened by the fog off the water. I had arrived in Tofino.

I had never been to the west coast of Vancouver Island before. I grew up thousands of miles away, in Ontario, the wellspring of so many Canadian stereotypes. I raked crackling red maple leaves into giant piles in the fall and shoveled heaping drifts of snow in the winter. I lived in Ottawa, the nation’s capital, on the border with Quebec, and took French immersion classes from age five on. We played hockey in gym class, in the school yard, and on frozen outdoor rinks, and my classmates cheered for the rival Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs in a roughly even split. Every spring, we visited the cabane à sucre on a school field trip and learned all over again about tapping maple trees for their thin, sweet sap, then boiling it down into syrup. We dipped lollipops of hot maple taffy into fresh snow and then licked the cold snowflakes off as they melted.

Tofino_Kari_Medig-2989Then, five years ago, I moved to the Yukon, where I now live what may be an even more stereotypical Canadian life. I socialize with dog mushers and gold miners, live a day’s drive from the Arctic Circle, and watch the northern lights spread across the sky at -40°F. I have a $600 parka, a freezer full of moose meat, and a car that I plug in at night to keep the engine from freezing solid. My experiences left me with a set of firm assumptions about what Canadian-ness looks like—about what life in Canada really is.

It was not this. On every street in Tofino’s compact downtown, aging hippie vans and a motley collection of trucks and SUVs—Delicas and Westfalias, Subarus and Jeeps and old Toyotas—were parked with surfboards strapped on top, their bumpers plastered with stickers: SAVE COX BAY and I’D RATHER BE SURFING. The town’s bike racks were built in the shape of curling waves, and wave patterns were painted into the white lines of the crosswalk on the main drag. Even the pharmacy had a stack of boogie boards sitting out front and wet suits on clothes hangers swaying in the wind.

I had always been fascinated, from afar, by surfing and surf culture: its music, the communion with water, the odd mixture of a stereotypical surfer’s laid-back vibe on land and aggressive, risk-taking athleticism in the waves. Overseas I had flirted with surfing, trying, on holidays in Barbados and Hawaii, to learn how to stand up on a board and ride a wave. Then I’d heard about Tofino. The water was cold, friends told me, but the surfing was good. I had come to try to surf in my own “home” waters. And I had found a place that was nothing like what I thought of as home.

When I woke up in the morning, Tofino was hidden in a dense fog. Cox Bay, the beach just outside town where I headed for my first surf lesson, could have been anywhere in the world. All I could see was a narrow strip of sand and empty waves breaking just off the beach. The fog had swallowed up every identifying marker. The mountains and the forest behind me had all vanished.

I had signed up for three half-day lessons with Surf Sister, a local outfit run entirely by women. I had five classmates, all Canadian: two sisters from Saskatoon, a couple from Victoria, and a lone man from Calgary, whose wife had recently given him a surfboard as a gift. On the first day, our instructors were Hanna, who had grown up on Vancouver Island and had won a major women’s surfing competition in Tofino a week earlier, and Kate, a Brit who had been living in Tofino for years.

SurfSister_Afar-2185We squirmed into full-body wet suits and booties—a reminder, despite the eerie anonymity of the fog-covered coastline, that we were a long way from the equator—and sprawled on the beach while Hanna and Kate went over the principles of surfing, sketching lines of swells in the sand as they explained how to catch and ride a wave. Next we drew the outlines of surfboards and practiced lying prone and then popping up to our feet. Finally, we were ready to hit the water.

Cox Bay’s sandy, flat bottom was shallow and sloped away gently, and Kate explained that we’d only be going out waist deep to start. I waded out, awkwardly towing my board. It was a wide nine-and-a-half-footer, covered in foam, perfect for a beginner because it was light and buoyant. I felt the cold North Pacific trickling into my wet suit.

I soon realized that this lesson would be different from my earlier attempts, and not just because I wasn’t splashing around a bathwater-warm ocean in a bikini this time. My previous instructors had been less like coaches and more like the operators of an amusement park ride, strapping me in for a minute-long thrill. Their sole aim, it seemed, had been to get me standing up and riding a wave. They stood behind me, telling me when to paddle and when to pop up, and had always given me a hard shove to make sure I had the speed to catch a ride. I’d come away with fond memories but no real knowledge of how to surf.

Instead of doing everything for me, Hanna and Kate coached from a couple of feet away. They watched my form during each of my attempts to pop up, and as I waded back out to them they let me know what they’d seen: My hands were too far forward, my elbows sprawling out wide instead of tucked in tight. I was looking down at my feet instead of up at the beach. And so on.

Through that lesson and another the next day, I missed waves entirely. I paddled too slowly. I staggered to my feet only to keel over into the water and hit the hard sand below. Salt water ran out my nose, and my hair tangled into a tight bramble. I was working too hard to ever get cold. But I could also tell that I was learning. I was beginning to understand the purpose of my actions, not just blindly following instructions. I was starting to build muscle memory, a habit. My instructor on the second day, Steph, told me later that my experience was a deliberate choice on Surf Sister’s part. “We assume that, for the most part, people are coming here because they want to learn to do a new sport, not just to say they did it,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you want to be able to continue to do it on your own?”

Continue to surf. On my own. In Canada.  I had to admit, that possibility had not crossed my mind when I’d taken my previous bikini-clad photo-op surf lessons. Now, as I stood there in my wet suit, it was very real.

Alan Hall works in the woodshop at his home in Tofino, BC.After my second lesson, I headed into downtown Tofino and settled in on the sunny patio of a coffee shop staffed and frequented by young people with the tanned, straw-haired look of surfers. “You going for a surf ?” They asked each other, sometimes without any other greeting. The answer almost always seemed to be yes. Later, I drove 20 minutes out of town into Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, which covers much of the peninsula where Tofino sits, perched on the very tip. The park is broken up into three separate sections by the rocky Vancouver Island coastline, and it draws a mixture of hikers, paddlers, birders, storm watchers, and campers year-round.

Driving out of the heart of Tofino, away from the surfers and their board-topped, bumper-stickered vans, reminded me that I was on home turf here, not foreign soil. Black asphalt, a yellow painted line down the middle, and a tunnel of trees: That was something I’d seen all over the country. And now that I looked again, I realized the road was lined with signs for more than just surf shops and surf lessons. There were grizzly-watching tours, too, and hot springs excursions, and fishing charters. Tofino might be steeped in a surfing culture that was born elsewhere, but the wilderness that surrounds the town is pure, unfiltered Canada.

The section of Pacific Rim closest to Tofino is called the Long Beach Unit, embracing a string of beaches and trails for short hikes through the coastal rain forest that shadows the highway. I parked and went for a long, aimless walk down an endless, empty beach. It was mid-October, but the sun was hot enough that I wore only jeans and a T-shirt, and eventually I lay down on a driftwood log and turned my face to the sky to soak up the warmth. I realized that I had come to think of this feeling of warm sun on your bare skin as something foreign. I had been living inside the parka-clad, maple-flavored stereotype I had of my own country for so long that I had forgotten, or never really known, that Canada comes in more than one flavor.

A Tsunami evacuation route sign on Pacific Rim Highway outside of Tofino, BC.My last lesson, on the third morning, was a one-on-one with Sherrie, an Australian who’d grown up surfing practically from birth. It was Friday, and a storm was set to blow in over the weekend. I could already feel that the waves were getting heavier, and I took a pretty good beating as I popped up on my board as best I could, over and over. The beach was socked in with fog and clouds again, and a steady rain fell. But as the morning went on, the weather cleared just enough that I could see the rocky points jutting out into the ocean at either end of Cox Bay, and the faintest outlines of the mountains above us. The tall evergreen trees that lined the beach appeared in ghostly silhouette, and as I lay on my stomach on my board, I took a break from my frantic paddling to look up from the anonymous waves at the land around me. This wasn’t California or Hawaii. There was no mistaking where I was.

Where to eat, sleep, and surf in Tofino.