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Winter surfers love the uncrowded beaches in Haida Gwaii's North Beach. (Bruce Kirkby for The Globe and Mail)
Winter surfers love the uncrowded beaches in Haida Gwaii's North Beach. (Bruce Kirkby for The Globe and Mail)

Sleet and snow couldn't stop our Haida Gwaii getaway Add to ...

We awoke to the howl of a cold northeaster. The small cabin, hidden amid thickets of salal and sitka above the beach, creaked and groaned. Gusts came straight through sagging walls and shaky doors. As I pulled my sleeping bag up over my head, I decided there was no way I was not going to yank on a damp wetsuit, head out in that gale and then jump into the ocean.

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My commitment and addiction to surfing run deep. I plan nearly every vacation around it. Since I don't live on the coast, whenever I am near the ocean, I go out as often as I can, and stay out for as long as I can. Rising early, I'll still be bobbing around long after sunset, paddling until my arms are cramped and useless. Sun, rain, hail, coastal storms and even snow (Tofino in February) seem immaterial. But this was different. This was full-on freaking freezing.

We arrived the night before, disbelief spreading through the rental car as we wound northward on the island, headlights revealing kilometre after kilometre of frozen roadside ponds, ready for a game of shinny.

"This is an unusually cold snap," a 60-year-old hitchhiker allowed as he shoehorned himself in the back seat, shivering beneath tattered wool sweaters. "But the sun has been out for days, which is rare here in winter." The singer-songwriter asked to be dropped at a dark, unmarked corner in the highway several kilometres later. His studio lay in the forest beyond. What type of music do you play, someone asked? Psychedelic-folk-thrash, he replied earnestly, and then was gone. These remote islands are peppered with such gems; the frontiers always are.

The next morning, we ate a large slow breakfast, staring out as trees bent before the wind and the sound of falling ice tinkled through the temperate rain forest. Three pots of tea were brewed. But eventually there was no evading the fact: If we didn't get moving, lunch would be upon us and before long the day over. It was time to surf.

Sleet stung our faces as soon as we stepped from the cabin. The wind tore right though the wetsuits. Sprinting toward the beach, seashore grasses crunched beneath our rubber booties. The tide was low, and we slipped and staggered across 50 metres of ice-crusted pebbles before finally wading out through a confused mess of foam.

My neoprene mittens were old, the wrists loose and stretched. They filled with water instantly, about as effective as stuffing my hands in two, thin plastic shopping bags and my fingers turned to wood. The joy of riding a wave could not assuage the misery. I lasted less than 10 minutes in the water.

The next day, to our horror, things got worse. It dumped snow all night. Not the damp, soggy elephant snot that is common on the coast. Dry, champagne powder blanketed the forest, the type that sends heli-skiers into conniptions.

Until recently, Gwaii Haanas - a rugged archipelago lying 130 kilometres off the northern coast of British Columbia - was known to the world as the Queen Charlotte Islands. But the Haida Nation returned that moniker to the provincial government earlier this year, in a symbolic bentwood box. Rather than marking the beginning of change on the islands, the return to the traditional name reflects a momentum that has been building for decades.

The origins of this change can be traced 25 years back, to a blockade on Lyell Island. Fed up with the relentless logging of their homeland while years of committees, negotiations and court cases led nowhere, the Haida drew a line in the sand. As tensions mounted, elders arrived at the remote camp by helicopter, resolute on being the first to be shackled. Before long, a Haida RCMP officer, in tears, was forced to arrest his own people. In all, 72 were taken away. The images that emerged from that day changed the mood, and led to the establishment of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve (jointly managed by the government of Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation) protecting the entire southern half of the archipelago. Less than six months ago, the House of Commons approved the formation of the Gwaii Haanas Marine Conservation Area encircling the southern islands, making it the only place on the planet where an ecosystem is protected right from mountaintops to the deepest seabed.

In November, the Haida held a deeply emotional ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of their blockade on Lyell Island. The names of all those arrested were read aloud. Many well-known supporters of the blockade - including David Suzuki, Bruce Cockburn and Svend Robinson - journeyed to Haida Gwaii to mark the occasion, and upon stepping from the plane at Sandspit, they encountered the same cold winter storm that descended upon our surf trip.

With each passing day, the winds died, the swell cleaned up. Before long, sets came booming in from the Pacific that reared up overhead. And either we killed some nerve endings, or it warmed up imperceptibly, but soon we were heading out in the water twice a day for several hours at a time.

A special clarity and cleansing arise from surfing. The activity requires complete immersion, allowing no room for distractions or daydreams, and in that way it is as close to meditation as I can come. Entire books have been written about the beautiful and elusory grace experienced atop a wave. Billabong leverages its entire advertising campaign on the mystical (and snobbish concept) "Only a surfer knows the feeling." But bobbing around in the cold waters of the North Pacific, I began to wonder if the intense calming influence of the sport arose simply from the mammalian diving reflex: Splash cold water on your face and your heat rate will slow by 10 to 25 per cent.

Surfing is also pure and unadulterated play. A group of men, in black wetsuits, splashing about in knee-high waves as snow falls can only be regarded as silly. All of us had been trampled down by a busy fall schedule. The seven days were meant to fix that, and they did. We surfed twice a day, every day, and never once saw another soul in the water.

On our last night, we stumbled upon a gathering of local surfers at the only restaurant in town. The emotional meeting had been called to discuss the promotion of surfing on Haida Gwaii to "off islanders." Recently, a surf party had been held, and advertisements placed in mainstream media. The result: 100 surfers descended on North Beach, four from off island. Fury over the promotion was threatening to tear the small surf community apart.

While such worries may sound trivial, there was an intense beauty to the evening. Surfers who took the floor spoke eloquently of their love of North Beach; the uncrowded waves, the friendly vibe. And the fear that such a fragile beauty could be lost. Such concerns encapsulate the beauty and the horror of living on the frontier; the unknown but ever-looming worry of discovery and development; the fear that outsiders may change what you love most about your community. It was an emotion my friends and I recognized well; coming from a quiet ski town in the interior of B.C. that both yearns for and loathes Alberta's booming economy.

As travellers, we rarely recognize the tensions we bring with us. And in a world of perpetual spin and brand, the most important thing a small tourist community can do is consider carefully what makes it unique, and then appeal to travellers with similar values.

I don't think my description of North Beach surfing will begin a stampede. I certainly hope it doesn't. But if you prefer cold waves to cold attitudes in the parking lot, if the character of those sharing the waves with you matters more than the character of your accommodation or the fame of the local chef, if you are willing to wave at every car single that passes you on the road, you may want to consider visiting Haida Gwaii during the winter. If you do, buy new neoprene mittens first.

 

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