It’s a blustery mid-March morning at Chesterman Beach in Tofino, B.C., and my wife and teenaged daughters are getting walloped by head-high waves and swallowing mouthfuls of seawater.
Today’s adventure was my suggestion: a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) surfing lesson in this end-of-the-highway haven on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Neither Lisa nor the girls have ever surfed in the ocean before, although they’re experienced flatwater paddlers back home in Ottawa (and have gamely rappelled down waterfalls and mountain-biked down ski hills on previous vacations).
One of the most difficult parts of surfing is getting past the breaking waves, which is where I am, bobbing around on my board and wondering whether this was a good idea. In fact, as Emre Bosut, the owner of Swell Tofino, encourages my family to nose their SUPs over the waves, I’m wondering whether this trip was the right plan for the last March break before our twins finish high school.
Lisa and I wanted to do something exotic with Maggie and Daisy while remaining within Canada, and I wanted to share my love of surfing and soak up the therapeutic power of “blue space” in the, hopefully, waning weeks of the pandemic. But despite the growing body of research that speaks to the physiological and psychological benefits of spending time in, on and around water, getting swamped by cold waves is probably not their dream holiday.
Our arrival in Tofino was also less than idyllic: It rained heavily throughout our drive on the roller-coaster mountain road across Vancouver Island. But then we settled into a comfortable vacation rental owned by a woman who had grown up in the house and greeted us bearing an armful of wood for the fireplace. And after a delicious late dinner at Shelter, one of many excellent restaurants on the town’s small grid of streets, we were ready for the ebb and flow of the next few days.
To orient ourselves with the waters of Clayoquot Sound, a UNESCO Biosphere Region, we embark on a wildlife boat tour with Jamie’s Whaling Station. Tofino’s harbour is at the tip of a peninsula, shielded from the open Pacific by a sprinkling of islands. Conditions are too rough to motor offshore in search of the grey whales that migrate through in the spring, so our captain instead plots a course circumnavigating the misty green slopes of Meares Island.
Within minutes, one of the crew points out a pair of sea otters swimming on their backs, feet poking into the air. The otters sometimes tuck stones under their arms and use them to crack open shellfish, she explained, reminding me of my daughters when they were toddlers collecting treasures on the beach.
While Lisa and Maggie sit inside the cozy cabin, I try to engage Daisy in a chat about the cusp of adulthood and the significant changes ahead.
“This is such a good time for that conversation, Dad,” she replies with pitch-perfect sarcasm. “I’m trying to enjoy the scenery.”
I stand back and shut up. We pass a bald eagle perched atop a cedar and a black bear foraging on the shore, then approach a colony of California sea lions lounging and galumphing on a rocky outcrop. Their bark sounds different than a Steller sea lion’s, the captain says over the loudspeaker. “You’ll hear them soon and smell them, too,” he adds.
Kind of like teenagers.
The sun is out when we return, so I take a short walk through the rain forest to Tonquin Beach. A trailside interpretive sign, adorned with the insignia of the local Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, counsels people to listen carefully to the animals and plants. “This is how to learn,” it reads, “and how to begin to know and understand what it is that needs to be done.”
As if on cue, a raven clucks in the tree canopy above.
The next morning, we get up early, squeeze into wetsuits and carry our SUPs to the beach. While Bosut gave a lesson and a safety briefing on the sand – rule No. 1 when you fall off your board: protect your head – I paddled out and rode a couple of waves. At one point, a sea lion played in the swell just a dozen metres away; I didn’t hear its bark, but it was surely a California, too.
Once Lisa and the girls were in the water, I glided over and tried to help by offering tips, then tried to help some more by staying out of their way. There’s no better teacher than getting knocked down a few times. “You don’t want to fight the ocean,” Bosut had told me. “You’re not going to win that battle. Work with the water. That’s always a lot more fun.”
Eventually, everybody makes it through the break, and then, one by one – with varying degrees of balance and poise, although all far superior to my first attempts at surfing a few years ago – they each catch a wave. A teaser, perhaps, for surf trips to come.
On our final full day in town, we return to the water, this time for a calm postscript to the surfing. At the Tofino Resort + Marina, we meet Dylan Dick, who ushers us aboard a Boston Whaler for a half-hour boat ride.
Dick pulls into a small, mirror-flat cove near the tip of tidal Tofino Inlet, where the resort moored a floating sauna this past winter. He lights the woodstove inside the sauna, one side of which is all window, looking out at old-growth forest on snow-capped mountains cascading to the horizon.
After starting another fire in the raised pit on the dock, Dick motors away to pull prawn and crab traps for tonight’s dinner. I go for a short paddle on one of the SUPs kept at the dock, then strip down to my bathing suit and join Lisa and the girls in the sauna.
The dry heat and rich smell of cedar are transportive, instantly eradicating the dampness we’ve been feeling. Amid the pings of the woodstove and the wash of water beneath our feet, we sit quietly for a few minutes – a rare occurrence in our family.
When it gets too hot, I jump off the dock into the frigid Pacific, popping up like a cork and making a beeline back inside. Maggie, Daisy and Lisa lower themselves into the water for a graceful dunk instead.
Too soon, although three hours have passed, it’s time to head back, albeit with a cooler of Dungeness crabs and spot prawns on tap for dinner at the resort’s harbourside 1909 Kitchen.
Our girls will be out of the house and moving onward soon. But for now, whether dawdling over a meal under a crimson sky, soaking up the serenity of an awe-inspiring sauna or navigating through challenging waves, we still find moments to listen to nature and one another.
The author and his family were guests of the Tofino Resort + Marina, Jamie’s Whaling Station and Tofino Tourism, none of whom reviewed or approved this article prior to publication.
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