This essay is part of a series on “happy places”—destinations we return to, again and again, even if it’s just in our mind. You can read the other stories here and here.
I first visited Ucluelet, British Columbia, nearly a decade ago when my wife and I escaped the 2010 Winter Olympics that had descended upon our home in Vancouver. A fishing and logging village of fewer than 2,000 people, Ucluelet requires a two-hour ferry ride from our city. It’s followed by a three-hour drive along former logging roads that switchback across Vancouver Island, until you arrive in a paradise of old growth cedar forests, salmon fishing, and surfing for the brave. Even the Olympics won’t find you here. Gold.
That year, the sandy beach breaks of Ucluelet and its neighboring Village, Tofino, are where I took up long boarding for the first time, an experience that brought me back with increasing frequency over the years that followed. Though I’m blind, in surfing I found a sport in which I can drop my cane and move. I’m driven from deep inside to feel for the character and balance of each wave, while my other senses are full of saltwater and the distant calls of hungry eagles.
Each summer, the village holds a small festival, Ukee Days, in which axes are thrown at targets and logs are competitively sawed by the men and women who call this primordial wilderness home. (I’ve heard many a pop tune trumpeted on seashells at the talent show.) When she was five, my daughter won the Jell-O eating contest. By my reaction, you’d think she had won a scholarship to Harvard. That same day, I overheard a woman tell her friend how an eagle had grabbed her cat and taken it into the sky.
Ucluelet can display such extremes of the natural world. Ten feet of rain fall on it per year. In winter, waves break so large that, from the rough road above any given beach, you might feel a clap in your chest.
In town, even the few businesses feel specific and respectful of their unique place. A marvelous little tourist aquarium opens every spring, the tanks filled with local catches from octopus to sea urchin, from geoducks to sea stars. Come autumn, the displays are released back into the wild until next year’s need. At Pluvio, possibly my favorite restaurant in the world, a dish of homemade chocolates arrives at the end of your meal, tiny desserts hidden among bits of driftwood and sea glass and clam shell as if you are foraging on a slice of local northern beach for buried treasure.
My love for this place runs deep. It is a village of small pleasures where life is to be lived specifically. Two years ago, my wife and I found a half acre of cedar forest for sale above a rocky cove and decided to take the plunge. I am writing this from the house we built in those woods, a week into my first stay. Outside, I can smell the ocean, and at night, I can hear the buoys moan. When it storms, the waves toss logs against the rocks and sound like the wind chimes of the gods. Above all, I remember the day we cut our way into the heart of the brush where we would eventually build our house. Here, among undisturbed hummocks of moss, each a century in the making, we found an old, decaying alarm clock. Just sitting there. It was covered in barnacles that told their own time.
I think I know how it got there. But perhaps the magic of a place is better left unexplained.