Surfing Vancouver Island  

Notes from the Road - Canadian surfers abroad  

Notes from the Road
Canadian surfers abroad [or even at home apparently]

Going Nowhere - Malcolm Johnson Aug - 2004 Going Nowhere - Malcolm Johnson Aug - 2004

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from the beginning

"sometimes I wonder / what I’m a-gonna do / cause there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues" – Eddie Cochran, "Summertime Blues," 1958

We all get lost sometimes, and sometimes some of us get lost at home. That’s how it was seeming through the summer – lost in limbo. Things were routine, the surf was slack, and I was thinking that the pearl I’d been promised had yet to be handed to me. I’d be out guiding trips in the Sound, and the clients would be saying things like "what a great life you guys have," "so, this must be your dream job, huh?" and "I wish I would’ve done this when I was your age." And I’d usually nod and assent, but I wasn’t quite feeling it or believing it. I was running in the ruts, and none too stoked about it. Peter, off in Indo, was posting "Notes from the Road" for coastalbc, so I figured that if I posted my own notes from home, if I wrote down the things that were happening to me each day for a week, maybe I’d pull out of that August ennui that I seemed to be stuck in. Because the truth is that life is real, real good in rural Vancouver Island; my life consists of kayaking, surfing, swimming, exploring, typing on my typewriter and little else. I’m not getting rich, but my life is an enviable one, and I know that. I decided I’d write dispatches each day for a week, and see what came out. Because if your life isn’t worth writing about – if nothing can be said about it that’s interesting to others – then it’s not really a life worth living, and who wants to live a life like that?

Sunday, August 15

The night before, biking home with Erin, had been one of those rare times that Tofino felt like the tropics: thick warm mist hanging in the air, bright blue incendiary flashes of lightning, bare spires of cedar and malformed hemlock hands in shown stark in two dimensions against the sky. The next morning was to dawn one fine morning indeed; a sunshiny Sabbath, a real reggae day of a day. At the beaches the ocean was azure and table-flat to the horizon, still stuck in the longest flat spell of the year, with tiny, perfect one-foot peelers at North and South Chesterman’s. I surfed at noon at [spot] – unsurfable on a shortboard, but a super fun longboard session, the kind of day where you knee paddle and then stand straight up and ride in to the beach like they used to do in the Hot Curl days. Many a happy hodad in the water, myself included. Usually, when the water goes flat for more than a day, everyone here gets noticeably testy and temperamental, the nic fits and the d.t.’s for waves, but it had seemed like everyone was alright with this one. Everyone seemed to be stoked on having a bit of a break. There’d been time to give sore shoulders a rest, time to get errands done, time to go trolling and to head up into the mountains, time to build houses and to scrape barnacles off boats, time to lie on the littoral beaches at night and watch the UFO trails of the Perseid meteor shower streak overhead. Everyone seemed to be enjoying it, enjoying the small sample of what it would be like to be free from the compulsive need to go surfing whenever there was even the smallest shift of swell. Still, there were rumours around – "yeah, Monday something might be coming," "next Thursday maybe, if the models hold." Nobody believed the rumours, but on the other hand, nobody seemed too worried. The waves always come back; they’ll come back this time too, and it’s not long now until those glorious, sexy surf days of the Indian Summer. The waves will come back, and until then, who knows, maybe a few little pulses will hit here and there; anything we get is just a little more strawberry sauce on the summer’s sundae. "Storm season in the tropics, dude, long period, twelve feet for sure by next week, maybe a North day, better get those days off work…" Where would we be without wishful thinking, and it gives us simple-minded surfers something to talk about. In the evening I was given a copy of the new Surfer Magazine, with more mind candy from Jeremy Koreski: Peter buried in the barrel on a sub-sea level winter wave, jet pilot Raph Bruhwiler leaning hard into a bottom turn on a remote coast right. The kind of pictures that remind us why we’re here and why we do it. Later, at sunset, surfing small closeouts at (spot x), fog floating past Frank Island, the silvers and metallic oranges of sunset; then home to the house to finish "Beowulf" and to switch my computer wallpaper to a beautifully bizarre Marcel Dzama line drawing of western bandits shooting at bats. So, to sum up, maybe the surf will come up and maybe it won’t, but whether it does or not, the Island in summer is still one hell of a place. Life is grand, enit?

You can check out Marcel Dzama’s weird, wondersome bandit drawing here:

Monday, August 16

In the last year I’ve discovered that there’s a whole class of people out there who have a habit of watching live-action webcams. And I don’t mean the adults-only variety with teenagers in dim dorm rooms slipping a bit of nip for all the lonesome loners of Interland; I mean the regular, run-of-the-mill webcams that turn their electronic eyes out into the world. My roommate’s dad, who lives in Ontario, is always checking the Cox Bay Cam. "Where are all the people," he asked me one day, "I always look at it, and there’s never people on the beach." "I don’t know sir, maybe they move too fast." My friend Marc, who I guide kayak trips with, likes checking the city traffic cams, the Lions Gate Bridge in particular. "I like watching the cars come and go," he says, "and there’s a view of the water and the mountains. It’s nice, I like looking at it in the morning. I can see what the weather’s like in Vancouver." In some ways I can understand the appeal, but sometimes the cams get stuck, and it messes with your mind if you let it – every ten seconds, the same image regenerates itself, the same cars in the same positions in the same lanes, the same people walking down the beach, the same wave breaking in the same spot time after time. It’s one of those quirks of the Internet; it’s supposed to be all about real-time, the latest, the up-to-the-second. There’s no permanence in the digital world, but suddenly the cam’s stuck and the same moment plays itself out over and over before your eyes. This is a long way around to get to today, and the point I had to make, which is that August in Tofino is not dissimilar from a stuck webcam. Day after day, the days end up looking the same. Thick fog in the morning, (what Environment Canada calls "fog banks reducing visibility to near zero,") lifting and dissipating at midday, northwest sea breezes building through the afternoon, then the after dinner glass-off and the appearance of the early evening stars, with a low southwest swell rolling through all of it. Today was one of those days. The buoys were still stuck at 0.5 metres, period in the single digits, the ocean flat-calm. Jonny Jenkins and Kelly Koreski had been on the morning mission and were coming out of the water when I was heading in. They had a pretty routine report, "yeah…uh, kinda the same as last night, there’s a peak here and there, long waits though. No one’s out." I paddled over to the spot we’ve been surfing for the last few days, and it was spooky, somber, socked in with fog. And really, really flat, but there was no one out to compete for the few waves that came through, and I locked into a few fast, fun knee- to waist- high waves. I really like surfing in fog; some people don’t, but there’s suspense to it, you never quite know what’s coming, and because you can’t see you get way more tuned in to what the water’s doing underneath you. Monday mornings are always super mellow after the packed lineups of the weekends; for half an hour I had it to myself, until a happy couple on longboards paddled over, so stoked to be out there. It’s good to have people like that around, people from elsewhere who can remind us how good we’ve got it even on days we don’t think are good. Talked to them for a bit, but it went even flatter, and I paddled home. I’ve been on a bit of a fitness kick lately, so later in the day I swam from South to Sunset Point and back; I’ll never be one hell of a surfer but at least I can be one hell of a swimmer. Maybe not on the level of surfers like Aaron Piersol and Natalie Coghlin, who’ve been winning medals at the Athens Olympics, but still one hell of a swimmer. And besides, any water time is good water time. By the evening, the ocean was showing more motion – nothing lined-up or propulsive, but some visible lumps were moving in from the south. The late session was a handful of locals, everyone stoked on the slight increase in size; whale boat driver Alex MacWilliam got the wave of the day, a peak-to-wall from the rocks to the beach on his yellow and blue longboard. It was, from start to finish, a typical August day; nothing special, but nothing too bad either. The webcam got stuck on "decent."

Tuesday, August 17th

I was one of those rare children of the ‘80s who grew up without television. My parents weren’t wierdos or religious types or new agers – my dad is a physics PdD, my mom a prim and proper piano teacher – but they thought that if my sister and I watched TV it would affect our brains, and not for the better. I’ve come to think that no TV was a good idea; I get left out of some of those “remember that guy on Family Ties” or “dude, that was so awesome, that time on Transformers when they had that battle in the blizzard in the mountains” conversations, but I get left out of a lot of conversations anyway, so it hasn’t affected me much. I grew up reading books instead, and it seemed like all my favourites had to do with adventures on boats. There was Swallows and Amazons, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Timmy the Tug, Dove, Paddle to the Sea, Last of the Mohicans. The list goes on, my between books and my dad’s dedication to sailing and paddling, I was pretty much predestined to live a life that centered around the water. I like the feeling of freedom in it, being by the open ocean and looking out and knowing that you could disappear over the horizon and have adventures anywhere in the world. For now, I’m guiding kayak tours around Clayoquot Sound. It’s not the most glamorous job nor the most lucrative, but being paid to paddle around and educate people about one of the earth’s most incredible environments is a pretty darn good gig. Kayaking has a bit of a bad reputation – sea kayaking is stereotyped as a sport for self-righteous, purple-fleece-pant-wearing, SUV-driving eco-yuppies from the city, and surf kayaking, well, I’ve seen a couple of guys do some really rad, really hard-charging things in play boats and on surf skis, but surf kayaking in general is silly, and it’s recklessly dangerous when there are board surfers in the water. But kayaks are great boats when they’re used right, and if people knew their potential (think of Paul Theroux paddling through Polynesia, Inuit hunters spear-sealing in the ice floes, Dan Lewis in winter on the open coast, or Ed Gillet’s 2200-mile paddle from Monterey to Maui) they’d probably hold kayaks in higher esteem. Kayaks are fast, quiet and super sea worthy, and in coastal B.C. you can kayak into tremendous territories where no one else can go. The standard day trip out of Tofino is the Clayoquot Explorer, a short route across Duffin Passage and through the harbour islands, and then a hike through some gnarly cedar and salal forest on the Big Tree Trail. It’s a good little trip, but like everything else in this town in August, it’s way too swamped by the tourist tide. So I’ve been taking my groups further afield, and today was a loop through the Arakun group, an archipelago of little islets in Lemmens Inlet. At higher high water, the Arakuns are an awesome maze to paddle through, with tons of secret spots and hideaways. It’s a totally secluded spot, protected from the wind and from the traffic of Tofino, and when you weave through the Arakuns’ channels and snags and overhanging canopies of temperate jungle, you’re convinced that you’re really out there, that you’re a real guide and a real paddler instead of just another low-paid, local-colour cog in the wheel of the Tofino tourist trade. It was so sick in there this afternoon: the mirrored water, the ‘could be Tahiti if you didn’t know better’ mountains of Meares Island sweeping up to a super-saturated blue sky, the pairs of eagles surfing the thermals overhead, the spires and glaciers of Mt. Mariner soaring in the distance, all of it all around, all of it so 3-D, so Imax, so f’ing good. I was cruising along with my clients, so stoked to be out there, telling them “you guys are getting it as good as it gets.” That’s the rad thing about Tofino – the fact that you can go twenty minutes out of town into soul-restoring solitude and the bruised-but-not-broke wilderness that is Clayoquot Sound. This journal thing is working out well; even if no one other than my mom and my girl ever read it, it’s reminding me that I have one good job and one good life. None of us are getting rich here, but every day clients tell me that it doesn’t matter, that those of us who live out here have it better than we know. “Oh, don’t worry,” I told them today, “I know.” And the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to believe it. There might be an editorial job coming up for me in the city, and if I get it I’ll have to leave, but it won’t be easy to let go of the days like this.

Wednesday, August 18

This past spring started out with three strong swells, and it was looking like it was going to be a banner summer. It looked like Antarctica and the Roaring Forties were going to go absolutely mental and send endless pulses of overhead waves up to our Hemisphere and our south-facing breaks; it was looking like we’d be so satiated with perfect waves by the end of July that we’d all load up our cars and our girlfriends and go on holiday in the Interior for the rest of the summer. The season started with a whole lot of promise, but, as usual on the Canadian coast, it didn’t quite happen; there were long flat stretches, then swells that didn’t break quite right, swells with contrary winds, and a few awaited swells that seemed to vanish without a trace like the freighters that go silent and disappear in those unnamed storms on transoceanic Seoul to Vancouver run. To sum up, till now there’d been hardly any days on which the Parks Canada slider made it past ‘Moderate,’ but today more waves finally showed up. A lot of the lokes, the lucky ones at least, were out of town surfing the remote reefs, but those of us with obligations were graced by some good Long Beach. I always like the drive down there from Tofino; the bog between Radar and Schooner is a nice change from the omnipresent rainforest, and you get some time to get stoked after your day at work. When the surf’s up and you’re speeding past Esowista towards the turnoff, you get these tantalizing little flashes of whitewater and cresting waves through the trees, and that gets you even more stoked,"oh my gosh, there’s waves, there’s waves out there for sure!" If I ever get to make a surf movie, it’s going to have an intro like that; the soundtrack will be"Relative Ways" by …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, it’ll be at speed from a car looking towards the ocean with trees ripping by in the foreground and fast cuts to guys pulling in and ripping top turns at the same spot. That’d be one seriously stoke-inducing scene.

The waves were looking genuinely good when we pulled into the Long Beach lot; there were big closeouts down in front of the reserve, showing that the south had hit, and fun, fast peaks all over the place in the middle. For some reason it hasn’t been good in front of Incinerators this summer, so most of the pack was on the mushy, triangular lefts that were rebounding off the Lovekin Rock bar. We paddled straight out from the parking lot, with some choice and creative curse words yelled out at the first duckdive, and then drifted down the beach with the rip, picking off waves along the way. It wasn’t an amazing session, but it was a solid one; there were lots of waves to be had, and I was feeling less hodaddy than usual, feeling really smooth and settled on my board. On the inside, there were shoulder-high lefts fully barreling on the sandbar; they were way too fast to make, but they were sick to look at from the shoulder. The water had that translucent green-gold summer sunset colour, that kind of light that you can’t write about, you just have to see.

Jeff Hasse and Dallas were out, as usual, and those guys are always good fun to be out with. Jeff is a little on the strange side – he’s always biking around town, even in the worst weather, with his hand-painted Mona Lisa board bungy-corded to his bike, and he doesn’t have a phone or an email account, and he’s always so stoked about everything that it seems either childish or fake if you don’t know better – but he’s become one of my favourite people in Tofino, and which ones of us aren’t on the strange side anyway? Jeff is a fantastic surfer, not really a ripper but a really accomplished wave rider; he goes fast in straight lines, he doesn’t blow waves, and a lot of his rides are straight to the sand. Jeff used to surf standing waves on the Ottawa River, and he’s perma-stoked in the way that some of the dope dudes here get perma-fried. "Surfing’s a hobby; it’s not work and it’s not life," someone once told me, but Jeff seems to be one of those people who has managed to transcend those self-improvement, Protestant work ethic platitudes. He’s definitely got his antennae tuned to a different frequency than the rest of us. The Jeff is ‘in the world but not of the world’ as the Bible says. The day before he’d come by my house to visit his sister (my roommate), and had a deep, half-healed cut on his palm from a skateboard fall. "Yeah, I’m out of the water for a few days for sure, probably at least another four or five days to let it seal up," he’d said, but today he was out there anyway. When the surf finally arrives after a sloppy summer, I guess we’re all out there, no matter how bruised or broke. We rode probably twenty waves each, some really good and some forgettable, and then belly rode in. The surf was a solid one, well worth the drive; and besides, Long Beach is always a peerless place to watch the sun go down and the sky go all purple and starry above the Island’s mountains. After that, it was a standard end: the drive home, the stop at Beaches Grocery for 75-cent cookies, the emails sent to the girl far away, and the end of another day well done.

You can listen to"Relative Ways" at

Thursday, August 19th

There are a lot of opposites in the world. I understand that that statement is a pretty obvious one, and I guess it’s always been that way; there’s matter and antimatter, male and female, good and evil, black and white, city and country, east and west, night and day, yin and yang. One of the dichotomies that’s hard to miss in Tofino right now is the distinction between tourists and travelers. Travelers are always welcomed; tourists less so, though they leave a lot of money behind. Anyone who’s driven on the Pacific Rim Highway lately can’t have helped but notice that it’s impossible to not get stuck behind a rented RV lumbering its white, gas-guzzling way along the road. RV’s are driven by tourists; travelers thumb rides or take the bus or drive VW vans and beater cars and pickups packed with camp gear. RV’ing has never made much sense to me; you have the supposed freedom of having a house on wheels, but you can only park in designated RV parks, which are usually ugly, and that seems to somewhat defeat the purpose of being able to sleep in your vehicle. RVs are also shit on secondary roads, which are where the most interesting spots to see are. But to carry on, travelers are a lot more pleasant to be around than tourists, and for the last few years I’ve been trying to figure out the difference between the two, because it’s not as simple as set lines of age or income. I think what it comes down to is that tourists expect to be catered to and to be given an experience that doesn’t deviate from their demands and expectations, whereas travelers are more interested in going out into the world, seeing what’s out there, and reveling in what’s found, however strange or uncomfortable or unexpected it might be. Travelers have a genuine interest in the character of places and their peoples; the interests of tourists don’t go beyond how they themselves are affected by their holiday. In Tofino you run into both kinds. I met an Aussie in the surf today who was definitely a traveler; he was a guy from Adelaide who had been working his way across Canada all summer, from Quebec to the West. He hadn’t surfed in seven months, and was stoked beyond stoked to be out there. Travelers are inquisitive types, and the Aussie wanted to know everything there was to know about the Island’s surf and culture: when the best months are, what the water and wind are like in winter, where you can get barreled, what wildlife we see out here, what we do at night, whether there are local shapers, when surfing got started here, everything. The guy was one of those wide-eyed people who are a pleasure to be around, and he was a good surfer as well, blowing his fins out the back on a couple of backside waves. It’s definitely a privilege to live somewhere that people pay thousands of dollars to get to, and it’s good to be reminded of that. On kayak trips, the tourists are entirely predictable; most of the time the tourists seem a bit bored and distracted and displeased, as if they’re only interested in finishing the trip and getting a photo of themselves in their boat with the mountains of Flores Island in the background. The traveler trips are the rad ones; travelers don’t tip, but they’re infinitely more enjoyable to work with, because there’s a give-and-take exchange of story and experience, and everyone comes out the better for it. The lives that we get to lead here are pretty unique, and it’s a neat thing to watch people get totally blown away and totally uplifted by the things we get to see and do on a daily basis. In a few years, Tofino’s tourist boom will bust; everyone who wanted to come here will have come here already, and there’s not much beyond surfing to bring them all back. Things will bottom out here and the truth is that the town will probably be the better for it. But it’s a glorious, beautiful and singular corner of the world, and it’s one of the few sane places left; and so I rest assured that even when the tourists have all come and gone and gone for good, there will still be a steady stream of stoked travelers finding their way to the surf-strewn shorelines of Clayoquot Sound.

Friday, August 20th

Another small surf day and another enjoyable, uncrowded evening session at one of town’s lesser-known spots. People are pack animals, and thank goodness for it; it’s a tendency that means that even in the height of tourist season in one of the most over-hyped towns on the coast, where every second car is stacked with soft-top surfboards four deep, you can still slide yourself into a spot where there’s no-one around, or even better, no-one but a couple of friendly and familiar faces sneaking into a few fun little lefts at the evening’s end. It’s become clear to me this summer that the quality of the waves and the quantity of the crowd are completely unrelated; all the best sessions I’ve had have been with only a handful of other surfers in the water. And it’s an invaluable thing to escape from people for a while, to get into your own thoughts and your own actions away from the influence or control of the mentalities of the massed masses around you. Robinson Jeffers, the Californian poet, said it best: “Humanity is the start of the race; I say humanity is the mould to break away from…” So it was another routine day on the Occidental Coast of Canada, a casualty-free kayak trip and then a surf, with a few signs starting to show that summer is approaching its conclusions. At some point during the last week, it seems as if our collective subconscious started acknowledging that fall’s coming fast; the surf small-talk has changed from “lord have mercy it’s flat, it wasn’t this bad last summer” to “well, it’s almost over, the waves are almost here.” At the nerve centers of town talk – the Co-op, Sobo, the bike path and the beach parking lots – the standard question has changed from “how’s your summer going” to “yeah, so what’re you up to this fall, you sticking around or what?” People’s answers all vary, and mine seem to vary daily, from Indo to England to a career in California to staying here, taking a real run at a novel and taking off on hopeless, freezing-cold Chesterman’s closeouts all winter. Within my core group, a few are heading back to the city and a few back down to the South Island, but the real common cause these days seems to be the scheming for and solidifying of surf trips – Oz, Indo, Morocco, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Scotland, Nova Scotia, Hawaii, anywhere where the waves do what they don’t do here, which is go hollow and peel and barrel. Whether wishful thinking or not, people’s projected wanderings are taking them all over the place, which is one of the great many great things about this town. Tofino’s small, but it doesn’t have the isolated, inward focus that some rural areas do. It’s getting a global character, through tourism and through our connections to surfing subcultures all over the Earth. It’s an enriching influence, and it keeps things interesting here. Tofino residents are by-and-large a well-traveled bunch, which means there’s always a surfeit of good stories to be told, but our interests, of course are largely limited to surf-swept coastlines. If you think back to those old maps that betrayed their people’s prejudices – British mapmakers would draw England bigger than America, and the Chinese would draw the inhabitants of the West as gruesome, lumbering gargoyle-type creatures – the surfer’s map of the world would be devoid of inlands and open oceans. It would be nothing but coastlines, convergences, littoral strands, seamounts and intertidal zones, and it would be beautifully and thankfully free of capital cities, borders and delineations between nation-states. In a week here, you’ll hear ‘Indo’ a dozen times, ‘the Broken Group’ two dozen and ‘Oz’ a hundred, but you won’t hear ‘Calgary,’ ‘Toronto,’ ‘D.C.’ or ‘Baghdad’ once. And that’s a good thing, because those places get too much focus and far too much press. So, to get back on topic, another day with more waking hours spent on the water than on land, another day with no noise but the hull-hiss of water past kayak waterlines and the rush of the breaking whitewater against the rocks. The town is still waiting with baited breath for the departure of the dreaded hordes and the rearrival of the west-swell waves. By evening, when a few friends from Vancouver arrived for the weekend, a steady rain was starting to fall; the North Pacific high is breaking down. There’s low pressure out there again, which means rain and wind and a few long fetches if we’re lucky. Fall’s out there somewhere, and thank the Gods it’s on its way.

Robinson Jeffers’ quote comes his poem “Roan Stallion.’ You can read about Jeffers at

Saturday, August 21st

A monsoon morning; a steady, soaking, skookum rain, the colour of the matte gunmetal grey that the Canadian Armed Forces at Comox paint their planes. We got a 7 a.m. start to avoid the Saturday crowds, and ending up having an all-to-ourselves surf at Cox Bay. It was myself and my friend Laurie, who’s one of MEC’s Hardgoods Developers and one of those weekend warriors dedicated enough to deal with the 12-hour round trip from the city each and every weekend. She surfs a 7’0" banana board, a blunted yellow fun shape; "don’t call it a banana board," she always says, "Glen hates it when it gets called that." Glen being the board’s shaper, another surf-stoked MEC designer who builds boards under his "gmd" label. Laurie is a pixyish sort, with brown eyes and pigtails. She’s new to surfing, but she’s an accomplished mountain biker and approaches surfing with the same sort of damn-the-torpedoes / give’er abandon that you need to be a respected rider on the North Shore. She just goes for it, and that’s something to be admired. The waves were tiny, just barely surfable, but had that sine-curve perfection of strong east-southeast winds. The waves weren’t impressive, but the rain was, which is often the state of the state in Tofino; the Chamber of Commerce version, dear readers, of blazing, molten sunsets and magazine-green barreling waves, is far from being the case, lest you think otherwise.

On the way back up the access trail, its surface turned by deluge to mud and muck mixed with dog shit, we passed two tourists making their way down to the beach, holding an air mattress over their heads for cover. Tip time: if you come here, for the gods’ sake, bring a raincoat, okeh?

By mid-afternoon the surf had built a bit, double in size to waist-high sets in front of the Long Beach Lodge, an establishment that has one really, really good view, not that any of surfers would know, since we’re not allowed to walk through there anymore. The surfers, who are mostly unshaven sorts and occupiers of low-level income brackets, must be bad for business. Let’s have some local colour, but not too much, eh? It’s the same thing with art, and it’d be almost funny if it wasn’t so damned depressing; you can have thousand-dollar Nuu-chah-nulth carvings on your walls, but if an actual Native walks in, better keep a close eye out that nothing disappears, that seems to be the mentality. At one point there were security guards posted by the road to keep anyone from checking the surf there, as there are now in one of the ocean-side developments. Security guards and gated communities…is that the way we really want our town to be going? "I guess this place is almost done, eh," I said to one of the born-and-raised lokes a while back; "it was done a while ago, dude," which is the truth, the place those guys had in childhood certainly isn’t what it once was. The only constant is change; Kyuquot, here we come. There’s a line in a Counting Crows song about how "you can never escape, you can only move south down the coast." Forget that. It’s all about the northing now.

Back to topic; the peak out in front of the lodge was a peak without an e; a pak. A pak of thirty surfers scrambling for the handful of good sets, crisp, fast-peeling shorepound on a super shallow sandbar. Everyone pretty much stoked, lots of small talk, save for one guy grumbling about the decline of Canadian surfing civilization. Ah yes, the good old days of the late ‘90s, when it was always solid and offshore, there were no creeps or kooks in the lineup, well-endowed women threw themselves at surfers every night and the Albion sailed at dawn. Where would we be without wishful thinking? My session ended with a face-plant into the sand that scraped a good deal of skin off my nose. Fun to not fun.

A lazy afternoon, and an evening session at twilight at Long Beach with Lisa, Laurie, Steve Milum and a few others, small, short period, foggy and heavily atmospheric, all us stoked to be out there and snagging the few waves that rolled through. The long walk back to the parking lot was full mystical, one hundred percent humidity hanging in the air, mist drifting at treeline, the beach empty and feeling very much like reclaimed wilderness, like the edge of the world that it is; infinitely more enjoyable than midday with its throngs of tourists. In Mark Haddon’s "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time," the protagonist is a 15-year old autistic boy who likes it when "I am still awake at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. in the morning and I can walk up and down the street and pretend that I am the only person in the whole world," and it’s always a blessing when the beaches are like that, you feel like the aliens took everyone and you’re the last one left, or that it’s 1773, the last year before Juan Perez showed up here and everything started to change for real. We went home to a real glorious meal, a luau that Ashly had cooked up while we were out, halibut tacos with dill sauce, strawberry and almond salad, and bananas with brown sugar sauce for dessert and the Olympics on TV. And that was Saturday, a ‘Super Good Day’ as Mark Haddon would call it, another Sabbath come and gone.

Haddon’s book is fabulous. You can check it out here:

Sunday, August 22nd

The Government of Canada claims that if you include the perimeters of major and minor islands, the province of British Columbia has 22, 894 kilometers of coastline. Obviously it’s not all surfable; you can discount the east sides of Vancouver Island (most days of the year) and Haida Gwaii, as well as the Gulf Islands, the Sunshine Coast and the Lower Mainland; but that still leaves a heck of a lot of swell-exposed coast. Out of the eight breaks on the Island that are well known and easily accessible, only two have a road in sight of the surf; and out of the dozens, hundreds and thousands of other spots, only two I can think of are within sight of concrete. And that is one of the things that’s so unique and so valuable about the Canadian surf experience. At the best spots, there’s no evidence at all of settlement or civilization; the coastlines, save for the clearcuts and landslides on the inland ranges, look the same as they did when the only people here were the Nuu-chah-nulth pulling yew paddles through the water and Spanish sailors beating into the wind, beseeching Saint Christopher to somehow keep them from wrecking on the rocks of the lee shores. Surfing isn’t a civilized or even a democratic activity, so it seems appropriate that it should be in surroundings that are as primal as possible. Surfing here is a high and holy pursuit, and keeping our culture and community unique and functional involves more than yelling at kooks to stay off the peak or complaining about the cursed university surf clubs, though both of those certainly have their time and place. The real threats to surfing here are more insidious – oil and PCBs in the water, and our Crown Land coastlines being bought, privatized, fenced in and security guarded by big money from the cities and the United States. Ralph is right; to keep things the way we want them, we’re going to have to put up a bit of fight. But nothing worth having ever comes without putting in some work, and when you have one of the magic days, like today, you realize how worth it preserving this place is.

It was lazy Sunday today; the Saturday rains had passed over, and by noon it would be sunshine with the nor’westers blowing again. Woke up early, ate and watched the Olympics on TV; being able to get the CBC has been the one plus that has come out of our household’s Cable Controversy. (The controversy: our landlords promised free cable when we moved in, and then promptly presented us with a cable bill the next month.) As always during the Olympic broadcasts, everyone stopped in their tracks when the VW Touareg commercial, the one with Richard Buckner’s “Ariel Ramirez” as the soundtrack, came on; I guess everyone just senses that song is way too good to be distracted when it’s playing. In the afternoon, the harbour and most of the beaches were whitecapped by twenty-knot winds, so Steve and I drove down to one of the spots that’s sheltered even when the northwests are gale force or higher. We walked down the trail and checked it from the cliff; it looked decent and there were only four people out, so we suited up and climbed down the roots on the cliff face to the beach. The spot we were at is one of the prettiest on our stretch of coast; I don’t surf there much, but it’s a breath-shortening spot for sure. It’s a long, curving white sand beach bisected by a river and backed by cliffs, fronting a big bay that’s enclosed by two arching points of land that reach out into the ocean like giant crab claws. The surf wasn’t epic, but it was doable – waist high on the sets, waves that would crumble on the outside, a slow take off and then a few pumps and s-turns down the line until they walled up on the inside and got fast before closing out right onto the sand. There were tons of waves to be had, and it was classic summer conditions, warm air, luminous green water like stained glass, silvery salmon jumping in the late-afternoon lineup. There was a kid from Sooke out, getting lots of waves on a gorgeous self-shaped wooden fish, and a couple named Hans and Cochele from Seattle. I’d met them the day before at Cox, super friendly sorts who travel in a huge green Ford camper van. Between sets I got some good stories and had some good small talk from Cochele, who’s a musician and a coffee shop worker; like everyone who’s here in the summer she wanted to know what it was like here in the winter (three-quarters glorious, one-quarter despair-inducing), and kept coming back to how beautiful she thought it was here. And she was right. “You’re so lucky to have grown up on this island, so lucky to get to live here,” Cochele was saying. Isn’t that the truth. Steve and I drifted down the beach, surfed for three hours until the sky started to streak violet, and cruised back home to Tofino and dinner and more TV, the surf movie “Radio Waves” with psychotic surfers getting absolutely slaughtered in North Shore closeouts. At dusk, I wandered down to the beach outside my house and had a think; last summer I’d worked way too much, and this year I’d decided that Sundays and Mondays would be mine and mine alone, and it was so I could have days like this, really lazy do-nothing summer days. There was an email waiting for me that night from the girl in England, saying that she missed it heaps here and missed me and that she was kicking herself for not coming back – not much consolation that she hadn’t, but everyone who comes here gets affected, and everyone who stays here gets transformed. I used to be a Christian, and I’m not entirely sure what I believe these days, but one thing I still believe is that all things, and especially Clayoquot Sound in summer, all things speak of the glory of God, or the gods, or Mother Ocean, or whoever it is to whom we owe these ridiculously good and glory-drenched lives. That’s one thing I can still believe.

Malcolm Johnson @ capescott Malcolm Johnson lives in Tofino, B.C., where he writes and works as a kayak guide. He can be reached at

Jeremy Koreski Photography  

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