Vargas Island
Credit: Zak Cross

By Zak Cross

They say one of the great things about stand-up paddleboarding is that it is a full-body workout.

But right now, I'd swear it's all legs. My quads are jelly. Tiny muscles in my feet — ones I didn't know I had — ache. Don't even get me started on my calves.

It’s the wind's fault. Blowing one-foot chop out of the southwest, it's hitting me broadside. This would be bad enough in sheltered waters, but now it's mixing with a two-metre swell rolling in from the west. The combo sloshes the surface, bucking my board. Every muscle in my legs compensates, trying to keep me standing. Every part of me fears the nine-degree Celsius water.

Adding to my woes, I'm trying to keep up to Canada's top SUP paddlers. Catherine Bruhwiler (also a Canadian surf champion) and Norm Hann (expedition pioneer) are already way ahead of me. I search the waters of Ahous Bay, but find no answers to my problems. And so, I regress to my kayaking roots and drop to my knees. Paddling from here is definitely slower, but I feel more balanced.

I always knew a trip with Cath and Norm would be an endurance test, and so far it's living up to that expectation. It's early May and we're midway through an exploratory circumnavigation of Vargas Island, off the west coast of Vancouver Island. Intricate coves, long sandy beaches, plentiful wildlife, intact rainforest and its proximity to Tofino have made Vargas a classic four- or five-day sea kayak trip, and now an obvious choice for a SUP tour.

Cath and Norm are testing the waters, literally, to see if it's feasible to run guided, multi-day stand-up paddleboard trips into Clayoquot Sound. Pascale Froment (long time Tofino local and yoga instructor) and I have joined this scouting adventure. We are attempting this somewhat out of season, but given the sunny forecast and the paddling background of our team, it's a great time for a reconnaissance mission.

We leave Tofino in pea-soup fog, dry bags full of gear and food lashed to the decks of our 14-foot touring boards. Within 20 strokes, the docks disappear behind us. In a world of white, we stay close together, following a compass-bearing across the busy channel between town and Vargas's southeast shore. Blind, I strain my ears listening for a motor or the splash of waves on a hull. Beyond the paddle grabbing dark waters, all is silent.

A half-hour later, the sky starts to brighten and then we burst out of the fog, like a plane clearing the clouds. Vargas Island's forested shore is in front of us. To the north and west, Vancouver Island’s Beaufort Range rises out of the water in one great heave — first green, then white with snow.

With Norm setting the pace, we make good time reaching the north coast of the island. At Dick and Jane's Beach, we coast ashore riding small waves. Among the driftwood logs, which mark the border between the tide and rainforest, we find places to pitch our tents and eventually fall asleep under a sky creamy with stars.

The next day, we're in no rush to leave. The consensus is that we may pay for it later with the forecasted southwest winds, but we decide to stay and play. Pascale and Cath do yoga on the beach, while Norm burns off breakfast surfing knee-high waves. Later, he and I explore the beach.

It's mid-afternoon before we're on our way. We push into a headwind, each stroke offering up meager momentum. Cath and Norm would never push like this with a guided group. They'd follow the usual guiding philosophy of on the water early and shorter days, to avoid the wind that often picks up in the afternoons. But being friends and experienced paddlers, a little challenge is part of the journey.

Soon, we round the northwest corner of the island and start to notice the swell rolling in from the open Pacific. Staying balanced becomes harder. As my legs tire, Norm and Cath start pulling away before I swallow my ego and drop to my knees. Once we round the south end of Ahous Bay, the wind shifts to our backs and I'm up on my feet, sailing towards Medallion Beach at Vargas's south end.

It's late when we land. With the tide exposing thousands of mussels, we scramble to harvest a feast and set up camp before it gets dark. We build a fire below the high tide line and boil the shellfish with Cath's special blend of herbs and spices. Fully stuffed and spent from a long hard day, we nod off easily.

The wolf appears before my first coffee. We'd seen tracks of the wary canines throughout the trip; Vargas is home to a longstanding pack that spends a lot of time scavenging the beaches. This loner briefly searches the far end of our small beach before Cath and I make loud noises in an effort to scare it away. Unfortunately, the wolves on Vargas have become habituated to humans. Scaring them is the best way of keeping them wild.

After it disappears into the forest, we get the show on the go. While Cath and Norm figure they'll slow down a guided trip, spending four or five days for the circumnavigation to allow for some surfing, exploring and more downtime, we all have commitments waiting at home. Day three will be our last.

From Medallion, we follow the south shore a little further and just as we turn to make the crossing to Tofino, we see a grey whale 20 metres from our boards. Common throughout the summer, it's one of the first we've seen this spring and we greet it like an old friend, enjoying its company in silence, watching it breathe on the surface and dive out of site and return to the surface again. A half-hour disappears in its company.

Finally, we pull ourselves away and dip our paddles on our route again. We meander through a few small islands that soon bring us to a final crossing into Tofino Harbour. The wind is picking up again, rocking the board. But now my legs feel strong.

Trip Planner

Getting There

While Orca Air flies between Vancouver and Tofino, most people arrive on the west coast of Vancouver Island by car. Tofino is a 200-km (three-hour) drive from Nanaimo (Departure Bay Ferry Terminal).

Tofino Paddle Surf offers a range of guided adventures, lessons and rentals. tofinopaddlesurf.com

Norm Hahn's Mountain Surf Adventures runs a range of multi-day paddling trips and clinics. normhahn.com

Where to Stay

Accommodation options in Tofino cover the spectrum from campgrounds to five-star hotels. For lux living, try Long Beach Lodge (longbeachlodgeresort.com). Right on the park’s best surfing beach, its great-room and restaurant enjoy one of the best sunset views around; a perfect accompaniment to the fantastic food. Middle of the road: try recently renovated Jamie's Rainforest Inn (tofinorainforestinn.com). And from the range of campgrounds in the area, my favourite is Bella Pacifica — with its forested sites just a few steps from family friendly Mackenzie Beach (bellapacifica.com).

A provincial park protects a good chunk of Vargas Island. Wardens maintain several wilderness campgrounds with outhouses and food caches (bcparks.com). Otherwise tenting is allowed just about anywhere; follow no trace camping ethics: camp on the sand, fires below the high tide line, hang food, etc. For a dose of mid-trip pampering, plan your itinerary around a night at the Vargas Island Inn, a cozy-but-rustic hotel on Vargas's southeast shore (vargasislandinn.com).

For More Info

Tourism Tofino: tourismtofino.com

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2014 issue.