The first thing surf-instructor Allan Pearson taught me was how little I knew.
From what I merely considered an unorthodox paddling style (“incorrect and inefficient”) to my drunken stagger pop-up, I was being broken-down and built-up from the basics on the shores of North Chesterman Beach, in Tofino, British Columbia. The second thing Pearson imparted—most important of all—was the sheer joy of off-season surfing on Vancouver Island’s West Coast.
Only a few patches of Canada’s 10 million square-kilometres remain snow-free over winter. Tofino, which rarely sees even an ephemeral whisper of the white stuff, is one of those places. Average daily temperatures deviate less than 10 degrees Celsius between July and December and water temperatures change even less than that. Precipitation sharply increases; however, as Pearson explains, it’s reasonably common to see bluebird mid-winter days with temps in the low teens. In short, outdoor recreation scarcely differs throughout the year—with sea kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, surfing and hiking options plentiful right through winter.
Today, we’re surfing. Pacific Surf School has taught tourists to ride waves since 1998—back when tourism was still a nascent industry in this end-of-the-road town. As Pacific Surf School’s surf camp administrator and assistant manager, Pearson has been coaching since 2011 in programs that range from group lessons to multi-day camps, every month of the year—including the chilly days of winter.
“Once we put these wetsuits on, we’re kind-of in a superhero suit,” he explains. “People think they’re going to be cold. They won’t be.”
He’s right. Inside a 5/4-millimetre wetsuit matched with booties, gloves and a hood, it’s downright toasty, even when I hit the 10-degree Pacific. (In fact, I later remove my bulky gloves and find it more refreshing than freezing.)
Though I’ve surfed before, I had always just made it up on the fly. Any success could be better attributed to mathematical theory than skill: paddle into enough waves, find a way to wobble to your feet and eventually you’ll catch a few. Congratulations, you’re a surfer.
Not really, explains Pearson. Today, we’re starting from the bottom. Face down on hard-packed sand, Pearson illustrates proper body position, arm position and pop-up. (All of which is much easier when a surface is stationary.) Forearms flexed, hands cupped like I’m digging in the sand, we run through paddle technique. And since I can’t learn to ride waves without getting wet, we wander into the whitewash as the swell at North Chesterman grows larger by the minute.
“Tofino’s weather changes all the time. Wait 10 minutes and you’ll get the weather you want,” continues Pearson.
Wave selection is next—vital to uncovering which roller is rideable versus which one will pound you into the sand below. This part comes easiest; I consider my success a genuine coup.
And so I slowly progress from a pathetic face-plant, to semi-successful pop-ups, to standing on my board for enough seconds to qualify, in my mind, as “surfing.”
“Come out here for three days, every three months, you’ll get good,” encourages Pearson. Three must be the magic number—after a three-hour lesson, my confidence is high and my skills vastly improved. And I’m still comfy and warm in my rental wetsuit.
“I teach year-round—family lessons, private lessons and advanced... People who have never even been in the ocean and can’t even swim come out here,” he says. Last winter, Pacific Surf School cancelled lessons only “once or twice,” due to high wind.
“We do get some days where it’s just cool to leave the boards at home and come here to watch these enormous waves,” he continues. “The northern hemisphere sometimes cranks out storms and swells that our beaches can’t really hold… it’s so cool to see that power.”
He refers to storm watching. Wickaninnish Inn founder Charles McDiarmid—proprietor of Tofino’s most famous hotel—first promoted this experience in 1996. Initially considered oddball, nowadays storm watching has become the town’s signature winter activity.
In line with Pearson’s weather generalization, our pleasant morning soon degrades into an ominous afternoon. Under a sky darkened by stormclouds, my wife and I comb the shoreline of North and South Chesterman beaches. Swells echo like thunder as they pound the sand; rooster tails peel off as the waves break past an outlying reef. We’ve traded shoes for gumboots on our two-hour meander past misty redcedar and Sitka spruce on one side, violent Pacific on the other. In the intertidal zone, we explore weather-beaten rocks crusted with gooseneck barnacles, fist-sized mussels and gooey sea anemones as large as grapefruit.
Beyond the beach, rainforest trails span the area—some are boardwalked interpretive strolls within Pacific Rim National Park, others are sweaty uphill grinds, like popular Radar Hill. Winter brings drama to soft exploration. It’s just so much more dynamic than a sunny summer day.
The best part of a getaway to Tofino, though, is the edge-of-the-world feel. This is a place where daily stress drifts like spray from a wave; where workday problems are left behind in the serpentine corners of Highway 4, a road that carves across Vancouver Island as efficiently as a toddler on his first steps. And it is from the air that we truly uncover the remoteness of this Pacific biosphere.
That’s where pilot Jason Bertin and Atleo River Air Service come in. Atleo’s helicopter sightseeing tours offer a phenomenal way to not only gaze over the trackless wilds, but they include touchdowns in remote areas for active immersion in the coastal environs.
From the Tofino Airport, we jump in a Bell 206 and set out on the Rainforest & River Package, Bertin’s personal favourite tour for the rich wildlife experiences therein. A fixed-wing flyer for 15 years before discovering helicopters, Bertin saw how much fun chopper pilots were having and the hook was set. Flightseeing was a natural second step.
“To show people something that’s out of their normal element is why I do it, but then I get to join in and have some fun as well,” he laughs.
We buzz over Tofino Inlet and weave eye-popping turns atop Tranquil Creek. We spot half-a-dozen black bears combing for the final remnants of salmon, hover just outside a waterfall’s spray-zone and then touch down near a remote riverbank. The surrounding rainforest is pristine, save telltale tentacles of aspen trees that have overgrown the logging roads that once carved through this area before protesters stopped the trucks in their tracks during the ’90s. A short exploration of Tranquil Creek leads to stage two—a bird’s-eye view of Tofino, followed by Ahousaht, one of the oldest First Nations communities on the coast, and, before we return, a flight overtop the remnants of a crashed Second World War-era Canso Bomber that sits in decay near Radar Hill.
Above Clayoquot Sound, we spot two gray whales feeding near Flores Island before we land on meager Bartlett Island. Abalone shells, dried kelp fronds and even a sea lion scapula speckle the ground. Our small helicopter sits unobtrusive. Rollers break against a nearby reef. Salty mist filters through the air. We feel 100 miles from nowhere. And in fact, with tiny Tofino hidden behind Vargas Island and boundless tracts of wilderness in every other direction, that’s exactly where we are.