By: Grant Shilling
As we drive Highway 14 north from Victoria on the west side of Vancouver Island, toward the Jordan River and Sombrio beach, we are on the look out for roof-racks and boards. It’s Saturday morning and the rain is pelting down. I keep wiping foggy breath from the windshield. There is snow at the side of the road. We are driving deep into the shivering heart of surf country. Canadian surf country.
First stop will be Jordan River. A windy one and a half-hour drive from Victoria, Jordan River is a flat spot on a wide curve that has been logged down to dirt. To this day tug booms regularly haul rafts of logs through.
The access to the Jordan River consists of a Western Canada Forest Products stockyard full of cut trees, a restaurant, a trailer park and a roadside motel. But the most important thing about Jordan River as far as surfers are concerned is its clean waves and point break. Jordan River is the first place along Highway 14 the surfers check out. If the surf is up here and the wind is offshore, holding up the waves, most surfers will not drive the extra 20 minutes further north to Sombrio and follow its snaky logging road down to the beach.
When we arrive there are two vans parked by the side of the road, the drivers are looking out to the waves. Looking at and describing waves is an essential aspect of surfing — it’s part Zen and part physics. The surfers are looking for ‘mackers’, aka ‘ground swells’, ideal powerful waves formed over great distances — as far as the Bering Sea.
For a lot of surfers the day starts with the marine broadcast (echoing the activity of fishers). Some gale up in the Queen Charlottes becomes a mysterious force that may work its way down to us.
I chat with Mike, 21, a surfer from Victoria who feels the waves are closing out way too fast for there to be much good surfing. Mike feels that the waves aren’t “sectiony” which are long waves that have common characteristics and timing.
Mike took up surfing two years ago. He went into a store to buy a skateboarding magazine and found himself flipping through a surfing mag. He bought the surfing mag, went into a surf shop in Victoria and they told him he had two options for surfing in BC: Tofino and Ucluelet, or closer to home Jordan River and Sombrio Beach. He has been coming out regularly ever since.
In British Columbia the best surfing is in the winter, when storms make for bigger waves. In fact wintertime is really the only time you can reliably surf Sombrio or Jordan River.
Winter or summer, the water is icy cold, a shrink wrapping cold of 5-6 degrees Celsius at Sombrio or Jordan River. Tofino is a relatively balmy 8-11 degrees Celsius. Jordan River is especially cold because of the river outflow and the snowmelt from the hills above. You can freeze your butt off out there. (Please note: Dr. Peter Amschel has proven conclusively that straddling a surfboard in very cold water causes the gonadal tissue to shrivel — duh! — thereby stimulating and increasing testosterone levels. This actual scientific research may explain better than anything why male surfers continue to surf in the cold — for the testosterone dammit!)
“You don’t want to surf more than two or three hours at a time, anyway,” says one surfer. “You come in because you are hungry or tired and you don’t want to pee in your wetsuit.”
Come summer there is only a one or two degree increase in water temperature. To protect against the cold West Coast surfers use neoprene wetsuits 5 millimeters thick, gloves, booties and a devil and the deep blue sea determination. Surfers bring a religious zeal to their pursuit. A greater risk than the cold is getting ‘slammed’ by a wave, having the wind knocked out of you and getting ‘washing machined’ or ‘stuffed’ — getting driven under the water by a wave coming down on you and waiting to catch your breath. Such an experience can be ‘hiddie’, hideous, and is sure to test your ‘pucker factor’, your ability to relax while waiting to catch an intimidating wave.
A huge wave in Tofino, a real ‘macker’, would be twelve feet, though the average wave is about five feet. The surf at Tofino is a beach surf — ever changing. One of the things that makes the surfing at Tofino a real challenge is the amount of paddling you have to do, ‘duck diving’ under waves before you can actually attempt to catch a wave. Most waves at Sombrio or Jordan River are in the five to eight foot range. Today with very little wind and a small swell, there isn’t much to surf at Jordan River — so Mike and I push on to Sombrio.
There are about a dozen cars in the parking lot at Sombrio. A group of surfers, mostly in their early twenties, are in various stages of undress, slipping into or out of wetsuits or kneeling down to their boards to ‘wax’ them. The wax provides better foot and belly grip for paddling out to the waves. Surfboards can be divided into two categories: shortboards, about five to nine feet and longboards — aka ‘tankers’ — over nine feet. Most people ride shortboards, as they are easier to maneuver and carve waves with. The activity comes closer to skateboarding, it’s a bit more hot-doggy, and a younger person’s game of raw athleticism. Longboarders are traditionalists, they ride big boards for the same reason that people presumably drive big cars — because they can.
The cold-water tribe in the parking lot are jogging in their wetsuits to create some heat before they hit the water. The mood is friendly here with a real esprit-du-boards. A short walk from the parking lot through the clearcut and the thin remaining stand of ancient Western Hemlock and one arrives at the pebbly beach. There are 15 surfers bouncing up and down in the surf looking like seals amongst the heavy accumulation of bull kelp. In the distance are Cape Flattery and the Olympic Peninsula. Several fires burn on the beach, some with surfers huddled around them trying to get warm.
Joanne Fraser, 22, lived on Sombrio beach for six months when it was a squat community. Fraser moved from Victoria to Sombrio to be closer to nature and the ocean. The squat community has been dismantled, but Fraser, who has since moved to nearby Sooke, has become addicted to the surf and Sombrio. “I’m here at least once a week but sometimes three or four times a week,” she says shivering in her neoprene wetsuit while sitting on a huge beached cedar log. Fraser usually drives out to Sombrio alone, although she knows many of the surfers on the beach.
“Sometimes learning how to surf is intimidating for girls,” says Fraser. “Surfing is not something you can pick up right away. So if there are a lot of guys out there who know what they are doing, it can be scary.”
Fraser says the number of women surfing has increased even in the three years since she has started surfing and sometimes, “it’s only girls out there.” Generally, Fraser feels there isn’t much of a competitive attitude amongst surfers, just a shared camaraderie of the total body rush that catching a wave can bring. When I ask her what is it about surfing that causes her to brave freezing cold waters she pauses for some time. Her answer is almost Zen-like and reflects the crazy calm that surfing induces: “You get fresh air, wind on your face, it forces you to take deep breaths and it makes you look at the elements different. It gets you right into the rain. Other people are sitting inside when it’s raining saying ‘this is lame.’ But when you get right into it, it’s fun.”
Further down the beach is a small fire where a group of surfers, up for the day from Victoria, have gathered. The surfers have just emerged from the water and two go hustling off to their car to turn on their heaters and change into warm clothing. A surfer in a neoprene suit jogs by, trying to build up some heat before he plunges into the icy water. Two surfers have been surfing without their neoprene gloves and are pouring steaming hot water from a thermos across their hands, trying to piano flex some life back into their joints.
They have brought a picnic spread of veggie dogs, fruit and cookies and enjoy a warm camaraderie that seems characteristic of most surfers. “I don’t know what it is,” says Gord, 22. “Usually when you step out of the water you’ve had a really good time. And two hours later you’ve still got the smile. And so you know you’ve got to go out and do it again. With myself I find that if I haven’t surfed in a week or so, I get a little grouchy. I miss it and I have to get back to it.”
“With surfing you can’t know the playing field ever,” says Val Litwin, 21, a UVic English major. “It is the hardest sport I’ve ever attempted. Other than windsurfing or sailing it is the only sport where the medium moves with you. Nothing is constant about surfing: the wind, the tide, the current — you even have to watch out for sea lions.”
Another attraction of surfing is the freedom. “There’s no lift tickets, just an initiation fee, I suppose,” says Gord, referring to the roughly one thousand dollars it costs for a board and suit.
A former biker-gone-surfer puts his attraction this way: “There are no cops. No authority. It’s one of the last things in the world you don’t have to register for and you don’t need a helmet!”
While some surfers buy into the renegade attitude of surfing, that generally isn’t the case. “I think there is a lot of hype around it,” says Fraser. “Because in BC it’s a relatively new surfing scene. We are our own thing, not some California scene from the 50’s or something. I guess it’s like anything, people get the clothes, the attitude and lingo — but it really is just a case of doing the fun.”
‘Doing the fun’ for many surfers includes surfing both Tofino and Sombrio. If Sombrio is a surfing locale where one spends the day or occasionally camps out for a night or two, sleeping in their vans and pick ups or a tent on the beach, Tofino is rapidly establishing itself as a surf town, a Whistler-By-The-Sea (as much as residents will cringe at the notion). As the tourist industry has boomed in Tofino so has the need for a workforce — something the predominately young, surfing crowd supplies.
“I find that it’s much easier to go to work after a good surf,” says Eric, 29, sitting in the Weigh West Resort where he works in Tofino. “I feel like I can handle work after a day of surfing.” Eric surfs most days, but admits there are the occasionally miserable stormy days where surfing seems like a bad idea. On those days he watches surf videos with friends, “to keep us stoked.”
Sean, 27, came out to Tofino five years ago from Saskatchewan and was astonished to find that you could surf. He played and stayed. After working grunt jobs and finding it difficult to find accommodation, Sean is now ready to go the next step — invest in a business. “I’m here to stay,” he says. If there wasn’t surfing in Tofino would he be here? “Not a chance,” he says. “There wouldn’t be anything to do.”
This winter Eric and Sean plan on going to Baja to surf with several friends from Tofino, a common winter migration for many surfers in Tofino. “I have never surfed in my shorts,” says Eric in anticipation of Baja. “But you know, the other day I was in the water with a couple of surfers from California. They said they liked it here because there wasn’t arguments and attitude in the water.” Ugly localism and crowding that has characterized many California beaches, along with pollution, combined with the exchange on our fabulous northern peso, are factors beginning to attract surfers from both California, Washington and Oregon to Tofino.
This north/south surfing dialogue is a return to the early days of surfing in Tofino. Wayne Vliet, 52, came out to surf Tofino in 1965. He brought a surfboard he made from a hardware store kit. “Surfers here were always going down to Seaside [Oregon] and Northern California to surf and buy boards,” says Vliet, a carpenter who still surfs. “Of course there were even more Americans here in the late 60s and early 70s avoiding the war. I think that was Tofino’s initial surf scene. There were all these shacks on Wreck Bay with plastic over them and surfboards outside their doors.” A since demolished barn on Long Beach where Group of Seven painter Arthur Lismer painted in the forties served as a surfers hangout in the sixties.
Vliet is amongst a small group of surfers his age who have lived and surfed in Tofino for close to thirty years. Many of this group have gone on to have beach babies, kids who grew up on the beaches and get the chance to surf everyday.
In fact that institution of Canadian hockey — the hockey mom — has its parallel here in Tofino in surfer moms. Mothers who pick up their children as young as eight and nine from Wickanninish Elementary School and drive groups of kids out to the beach for a surf. “I can’t imagine a healthier way to spend time,” says one mother whose 14-year-old son is an avid surfer.
Shelley Bauer, 47, a Tofino resident and mother of two, started a surf club for kids aged 6-11 through the elementary schools in Tofino and Ucluelet. “Surfing represents a healthy way for our kids to grow up,” says Bauer.
“In Tofino in the winter time there is nothing to do,” says Jenny Hudnall who was born in Tofino and now teaches surf lessons. “It pours rain. You don’t need to sit around and drink and smoke pot, you can go surfing. And then drink and smoke later,” she says laughing.
Waiting for the perfect wave are a group of surfers gathered at The Pod in Tofino. The Pod is a busy coffee shop just across the street from Storm, the in-town surf shop. Congregating at The Pod are surfers, geoduckers, a retired wharfinger, real estate agents, whale-watching guides and bush daddies, who mingle and provide a visual cross-section of the changes that have taken place in Tofino. “Ten years ago,” says a former crab fisherman, “if there was one pretty girl in town, it was a miracle. With surfing, this town has become the home of surfer babes.”
Bodacious babes and hunky guys (Playgirl did a photo shoot here) beat angst anytime. Ten years ago, Tofino watched its fishing industry die. But with its forests protected by urban invaders, land values begin to skyrocket. Cedar shacks were replaced by suburbs straight out of Surrey. Whales became a tourist destination. The surfers in Tofino provide cheap labour for the tourist industry, which in turn allows them to live a happy, uncomplicated life. Live to play, live to surf — days of friends, parties, pay-cheques, regular physical activity and carnality.
I watch as three surfers stride into the gaping expanse of the ocean and liquid blue sky, they are grinning, ‘stoked’. The white streamers of frothing foam acts like vines dragging them in. Their footsteps in the sand disappear with an oncoming wave. They look tiny, almost foolish as they cast themselves against the very physical, ever-shifting landscape. But they are laughing. They walk out as far as possible through the waves crumbling into the shoreline, before paddling out, belly down on their boards.
(to be published this fall by New Star Books, Vancouver)
Grant Shilling edits and publishes ‘The GIG’-Gulf Islands Gazette, a rural alternative. Shilling surfs a 9’6″ longboard.