Getting Stoked in Surf City, Canada
by BRIAN PAYTON
Hockey may be unchallenged as Canada's national pastime, but on the wild western coast of Vancouver Island, surfing is a way of life.
Located on the edge of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, the village of Tofino (pop. 1,300) is Canada's surfing capital, located about five hours from Victoria. The park's signature attraction, Long Beach, offers six miles of blonde, curvaceous shore, but it is just one of a series of exquisite beaches in the area, both long and short, with a variety of surfable breaks.
Surfers have been spotted in local waters since the 1960's and their numbers continue to grow. On any Saturday, as many as 35 people can be seen out in the water atop long, short and body boards. Since the region has the mildest climate in Canada, the surfing continues year-round, with the help of wetsuit protection.
Far from the Paddling Crown
Yet even with the growing numbers of surfers, Long Beach bears little resemblance to the crowded conditions often found at surf breaks south of the 49th parallel, particularly in California. While many U.S. breaks are crowded and often suffer from insurmountable tribal "localism" (the organized shunning of all outsiders), surfing at Long Beach and environs is refreshingly friendly and laid back. On big, sunny days, you might see a line up, but people are polite and there's always plenty of room to maneuver.
Like their brethren the world over, Vancouver Island surfers follow the swell. Seeing wet, neoprene-clad surfers commuting between beaches in VW microbuses or beach bikes is a common sight. When it's flat at Long Beach, it might be crankin' at Cox Bay. Being adaptable means you can take advantage of a good thing while it lasts.
Whether its riding a wave or kicking back, the surfer way of life is alive and well back home in hippie-chic Tofino. A quiver of surfboards rests against the entrance of Storm Surf Shop. Although it's sunny and warm outside, everyone is inside staring at the television set. Flaked out on futons in the bluish glow are six local surfers and myself. We're screening the latest effort of 22-year-old Allister Fernie-surfer, surf shop manager, and amateur videographer.
"Check it out," he says. "Mike's rippin' this one."
The television flashes shaky scenes of two surfers sliding up and down five-foot waves at Long Beach. They surf short boards for maximum maneuverability and speed.
Allister would have rather been out surfing than holding the camera that day, but he wasn't able to get in the water because of the new tattoo on his skinny rear end which, incidentally, they've also captured on full-color video. Everyone in the shop has seen it several times but Allister wants to screen it again for me.
Tattooing obligations aside, these guys surf twice a day. Although surfing has become an established sport on Vancouver Island, Canadian surfing is still a well-kept secret. So well-kept, in fact, that at a recent surfing trade show in San Diego, Allister had trouble getting people to take him seriously.
"People were constantly underestimating us because we're from Canada," he says. "They have no idea that we surf up here. They thought we'd come to buy surfboards to hang on the wall for decoration!"
Originally from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Allister has no plans to move back to the mainland. "I love to surf and living here lets me go any time I want," he says. "It's a good lifestyle. In the city, you look at people and you can tell they don't like what they're doing. Life's too short."
Adam Smallwood, one of the stars of Allister's surf video, has also adapted his life to the pursuit of waves. He came to Tofino from Toronto five years ago and hasn't looked back. Adam, 24, started surfing on Lake Ontario and was immediately hooked.
"In high school my English essays were about surfing, my history paper was about the first surfers in Polynesia, and I even built a surfboard in art class," he says with an easy grin. "Then I bought a one-way ticket to Vancouver. I showed up at Long Beach with nothing but the clothes on my back. I've been here ever since."
A Passion for Practice
Not the type to do anything in half measures, Adam recalls one of his first days surfing Long Beach. He was in the water for 12 hours straight before passing out from sunstroke. These days Adam has a career in surfing. He is a surf instructor, repairs surfboards, and works as a guide for a fly-in adventure company that pays him to escort groups out to a secluded beach on Nootka Island for a week of hard-core surfing. It isn't difficult to see that Adam loves his work.
Adam's friend Mike Stupka, 20, has curly white hair and looks more the "California Surfer" type, although he probably wouldn't like to hear it. Growing up on the east coast of Vancouver Island, he became addicted to surfing at an early age, thanks to numerous family camping trips to Long Beach.
"Surfing takes you away from your worries," he explains. "I love dropping in and getting barreled. . . being out in the ocean as the sun sets. Surfing is a sport that can take you around the world." And it has. Mike has surfed in California, New Zealand, Australia, Costa Rica, and Mexico. Between international "surfaris", he regularly returns to his home break at Long Beach.
All this surf talk and video footage has them stoked for the real thing. The cast and crew pack up and hit the road in search of waves.
Ten minutes later, we pull into the parking lot at Long Beach. The wide sandy shore stretches out before us beyond the limits of imagination. The lush green rainforest crowds the surrounding hills and giant Lovekin Rock, awash in blue sky and sea, is wading just off shore. And there, right out in front of us, is the rising swell. The waves are glassy and hold their shape. I'm told that this is the best it's been in weeks yet the place is almost deserted.
Just up from the spray, Allister and I watch from Incinerator Rock as Mike, Adam, and three of their friends head out into the waves to put on an all-Canadian show, the likes of which I've never seen.
Fast and aggressive, the style is full of steep drops, sharp turns and endless energy. Mike zips along the top of the wave then pulls a fast 360° turn. Adam somehow gets "tubed" in a scrappy little four-foot wave.
All the while Allister's videocam is rolling. He narrates a breathless play-by-play that will have the audience back at the surf shop on the edge of their seats. Although he's having fun, watching his friends "rip it up" is like having an itch he just can't scratch.
But it will be a few more days before he can go out and join them in the water. His brand new tattoo, a "tribute to Mother Ocean," is still a little on the fresh side.
The Tofino Visitor's Information Center is the best place to find current prices and a list of companies offering surf and kayak rental, whale watching, fishing charters, scuba diving and flight-seeing as well as information on camping, hotels, resorts, and B&Bs. Open early spring through fall, seven days a week in peak season. Tofino Visitors Information Center Box 249, 346 Campbell St., Tofino, B.C. V0R 2Z0 Phone: 250-725-3414.
Photo: Bob Herger