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The surfers of Vancouver Island enjoy riding waves with one of the most dramatic backdrops in the world whilst appreciating the unique qualities of this spectacular surfing arena.
Adam and I had been walking through the verdant Vancouver Island rain forest just inland from the Pacific coast for about forty minutes when we eventually came to the remains of the aircraft. The Canso floatplane came down in the forest in February 1945 when one of the engines failed just after take off from Tofino air strip – all twelve of the crew survived and the plane remains where it is to this day.
The aircraft got there purely by accident and will no doubt remain in situ until it’s eventually absorbed by the island’s voracious vegetation. It was no one’s fault this small blot on the landscape occurred on what is surely one of the world’s most wild and beautiful coastlines and no one can ever really considered what impact it may have – much as no one really considered a century and more ago what impact logging, roads and new settlements would have on this pristine landscape and the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations community who have lived here for untold generations.
The ‘discovery’ of the downed plane came about whilst I was exploring the coastal forests with Aussie expat Adam Houlahan, who works as a surf instructor at Pacific Surf Company in Tofino. I was a tad surprised to find a lad from the balmy Gold Coast choosing to surf in waters that never get above 16°C – then again the first surfer I’d met in Tofino was Estuardo Ventura, originally from Guatemala but who now “Wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world but Vancouver Island”.
Estuardo spoke with an enthusiasm for his adopted home that was common amongst every surfer I met here. “I love the remoteness and wilderness of this area; the line-ups are mellow and super friendly as the surf scene is new here so everyone is super stoked to be out there – sure, the conditions are challenging but that makes you a better surfer!”
His thoughts on living in the town also seemed to be widely held. “There’s a definite sense of community here. People look out for each other – when problems arise, people stand up and work together to find a solution”. He described the tragic case of a young autistic boy who had gone missing the previous summer when the entire town came out to search for him for two days (unfortunately it turned out that the boy had fallen off a cliff and been swept out to sea).
In some ways Tofino is Canada’s answer to Newquay, Huntingdon, Hossegor – but in a very low key way, a kind of surf central that consists of one main street and a handful of surf businesses, restaurants and gift shops. The relatively large concentration of surf shops and surf schools in such a small community are evidence that in recent years surfing has become a way of life for many people, from the famed local Bruhwiler clan who have led the way in exploring and opening up the coastline north and south of Tofino to a healthy population of young women surfers taking on the cold waters and powerful Pacific swells.
My visit coincided with the reading of John Vaillant’s thought-provoking and eminently readable book ‘The Golden Spruce’, which amongst other subjects provides a remarkable examination of the exploitation of BC’s forests by both First Nation peoples and westerners, and as I lay on my bed in Long Beach Lodge Resort with the roar of a late winter swell pushing through the open windows and the book in my hand I couldn’t help but wonder how much and how quickly this coastline would have been opened up in the first place without the rush for its natural resources, from otter pelts to timber? And, I mused, is surfing just a more modern and benign form of exploitation of the region?
This thought occurred to me again the a couple of days later as I spoke to Joe Martin, (known in his native tongue as Kwa-kwa-ees) a well known and respected member of the Tla-o-qui-aht tribe who was born and brought up in the area like generations of his ancestors before him.
Joe’s father was a tribal chief and amongst other things taught him the skills of working with wood – magnificent examples of his carved canoes and totem poles can be seen in his workshops adjacent to the Wickaninnish Inn at Chesterman’s Beach (which can have a good wave – but not on the day I was there).
Joe had been good enough to meet me and explain some of the basics of First Nation culture, in particular the concept of respect for oneself and for others, and as we spoke I couldn’t help but notice the occasional understandably aggrieved comments he made about the exploitation of his people and the Vancouver Island landscape by western culture and industry.
Just one example – sitting in the sunshine above the beach Joe pointed to the stacks of cedar logs piled high above the strand line “They’ve all been logged and come adrift from the booms on the way to the pulp mills,” said Joe. “It’s too much time and money for the logging companies to move them, so the entire coastline is strewn with logs and when there are enough of them piled up above the strand line it changes the ecosystem”.
He went on to describe a small inlet further along the coast that is now so choked with cut timber that you can no longer access it, and this of course this has affected all the wildlife that depends upon said inlet for food and shelter (and from a more practical human point of view you certainly don’t want to get a limb trapped between these timber behemoths when they’re being pushed around on a big storm swell).
As Joe spoke I could see a group of beginner surfers floundering around in the sloppy onshore waves further down the beach, enjoying their first surf lesson. I had the rather smug thought that at least these novice surfers were not impacting negatively on Vancouver Island’s natural environment – and then the idea came up sharp in mid flow.
“Yeah, up to a point,” I considered. “But when Joe was growing up here there would have been no surfers, nor the surf shops, surf schools, bars, restaurants, hotels and all the rest that’s needed to cater for them, so as surfers we’ve actually had a bloody huge impact on the area”.
Cars full of surfers regularly make the four-hour journey from the city of Vancouver over the forested spine of the island through forests and alongside steel blue lakes on the only paved road in BC to access the Pacific coast – which is quite a thing when you consider that BC has around 27,000 km of coastline.
However you look at it, surfing and surfers have impacted on Vancouver Island, and as I write plans are underway for the O’Neill Cold Water Classic Surf Contest to be held at Long Beach in the autumn of 2009, ensuring that yet another ‘backwater’ has succumbed to humanity’s endless quest to push back boundaries. It’s not too far stretched to compare surfers to the trappers, hunters and loggers opening up western Canada in the previous two centuries, it’s just that in this case nothing is being taken – just ridden.
So does that mean that as surfers we’re less exploitative than men in check shirts wielding chain saws? Well, yes, of course it does – surfing’s impact is but a pin prick compared to these activities; but on the other hand if, like Joe, you had grown up without anyone riding the local waves and without the associated influx of businesses and visitors, might you have a different opinion?
I asked Joe – “Do you think surfing is a positive contribution to local culture?”. Whether it was diplomacy or a studied disregard for a what he considered a facile question when compared to bigger issues such as land rights (with which Joe has been much involved) I don’t know, for he chose to ignore my question and I didn’t feel inclined to push it – I felt in danger of allowing my own specific interests to overshadow more fundamental issues.
But in many ways the lack of response says a lot. For a man like Joe Martin surfing isn’t that important in the overall scheme of human rights, despite the fact that in the past he has paddled huge stretches of the surrounding coastline in a canoe, and perhaps we do indeed take our own sport – which in many cases has become an addiction – too seriously.
Fortunately that seriousness is invariably tempered with enthusiasm and humour in most cases, such as that I’d encountered the day before when meeting up with Sean Jensen, the owner of Ukee Surf School in Ucluelet, some thirty kilometres south of Tofino.
‘Ukee’ is the blue collar sitting beneath Tofino’s attractive, tourist-friendly visage. It’s a utilitarian settlement where fishing boats come and go from the harbour above which Sean shares accommodation with surfer buddies Jess and Chewie Hutchinson, and from where you can watch bald eagles nesting in a tree beside the deck and sea lions and orcas bobbing and slicing through the water.
Sean is cut from the mould of the old style surfer/surf business owner that those of us who’ve been in this game for long enough sometimes miss when confronted by 21st century surf boutiques, Internet surf reports and the like. He runs his ‘mobile surf school’ from a converted post office van and exudes so much enthusiasm for the sport that as we walked into the surf at Cox Bay (or ‘Shaa-hai-ees’ to use the original name – it means, appropriately, ‘rough landing’) he was whooping enthusiastically as an overhead set boomed in – which would be understandable, of course, had it not been snowing heavily at the same time.
You might think that this being Canada snow is inevitable in winter, but not in this part of the country. In fact the climate is only a tad colder than that of my home in Pembrokeshire, Wales and this was the first time in thirty years of surfing that I’d had my nose tickled by snowflakes as I paddled out. I think surfing in tough conditions like this brings out a sense of unity and camaraderie amongst those who do it that you don’t always find in warmer, busier surf zones.
Anyone who has ridden waves in locations such as Oregon, Ireland or the remoter corners of the British Isles will know what I mean – people chat much more readily in the water, on the beach and in the bars, partly because as a surfer in a cold climate you’re invariably in the minority wherever you happen to rock up at the beach, and partly through an oft unspoken but shared sense of harsh conditions experienced and enjoyed together.
It’s what allowed Sean and I to get on with each other instantly, to enjoy an après surf coffee and friendly chat with two of his mates in Long Beach Lodge and to see me invited for beer and smoked black cod at Sean’s place as the snow turned to sheets of rain and the entire coastline now felt bathed a mix of salt and fresh water – even the air between the raindrops seemed to hold more moisture than oxygen.
And it’s this experience of cold immersion in a challenging environment that differentiates the ‘exploitation’ of yet another of Vancouver Island’s magnificent natural treasures from the exploitation of previous generations. Surfing will of course never have the impact on the landscape and environment that logging has had, and continues to have, however many surf shops, bars and hotels are built in Tofino, Ucluelet and points in between.
But when you’re as close to Nature as you are in the vortex of a Cox Bay barrel I think it helps you to take time out once back on dry land to look around at the awesome panorama of craggy coastline, deep green forests and snow capped mountains and realise that all this is something special and very much worth protecting.
The surfers I met on Vancouver Island appreciated and revelled in their surroundings more than any I’ve encountered in thirty years of surf travel across the globe, and the minimal impact the developments associated with their sport have had on the area sits, I think, pretty well with the way the Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nations people who lived here centuries ago led their lives.
All of us must inevitably impact on the environment around us but keeping it as minimal as is practical is surely the way to go. Cut down the trees you need for homes, for canoes and for fire, trap and kill the animals you need to eat and survive, and enjoy the simple pleasures of a walk on the beach, a canoe trip up the coast – or a two-hundred-yard ride on a glassy, overhead peak.
Maybe Joe Martin’s ancestors would have understood that particular aspect of surfing too…
The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant (Arrow Books)
Joe Martin, Master Canoe Carver www.tlaook.com
Pacific Surf Co., 430 Campbell St., Tofino, BC V0R 2Z0 www.pacificsurfschool.com
Ukee Surf School, PO Box 453, Ucluelet, BC V0R 3A0 www.ukeesurfschool.com