Aug 15, 2009

The Great Pacific Northwest Odyssey Part II

Where one journeys to a destination, one must return. And in this case, the trip back from Vancouver Island becomes a whole new adventure. Or rather, once again, an odyssey.

The journey home started with a backtrack through Vancouver Island. And for the first time, we found ourselves utterly and completely bored. It then occurred to us that driving on the same road lacks the luster that comes with experiencing new roads. It also didn't help that unlike our original adventure, where we had some sweet ganja to help wonderfully pass the time, I was plagued with acute bronchitis. Lung butter galore. Meaning smoking wasn't an option. Brutal.

Fortunately, a delightful family we befriended during our stay on Vancouver Island recommendeded a slight detour to a small town on Vancouver Island called Coombs. They told us that there would be a gift shop there that, in addition to having great ideas for souvenirs, featured goats on the roof of the building. No joke. And sure enough, when we arrived in Coombs, there they were: Goats on a roof.

We decided to continue the theme of the original odyssey: Drive far each day, but not to the point where we would burn out. And after our last experience crossing a border, we wanted to give ourselves ample time to make sure that the transition back to the U.S. of A. would go a lot smoother. So the plan was to stay the night in the capital of British Columbia, Victoria.

The town was surprisingly a treat. A lot of the architecture is similar in style and theme to Great Britain, which is apparently what the town was going for. And while I still don't understand why countries like Canada and Australia pay homage to the Queen, Victoria is a pretty rocking town. Beautiful scenery, great vibe, even the dining was well above par. We were stoked to stay here for a night. We were even more stoked to find out that, after initially fearing that we would have to wait possibly all day for a space to open up on the ferry back to the States, a couple of spots had amazingly opened up on the ferry the next morning, as a phone call I made to the ferry company that evening resulted in us avoiding hours of waiting for an open spot to come home.

The next morning started with a stop at Blenz, which is one of Canada's coffee shop chains. It was here that I bid adieu to our weed stash, and my old pipe. An old and dear friend of mine gave me the pipe over a decade ago as a Christmas gift, and to this day it served its purpose wonderfully. The guy who served us coffee didn't want neither the pipe nor the stash, but as we left Blenz, one of his friends raced outside and took the gifts. AdiĆ³s old friend.

With coffee and breakfast in hand, we headed for the border ferry where, unlike our previous experience going through customs into Canada, was unexpectedly easy. They asked us a few questions, and we were on our way. Simple as that. The way it should be when a couple of normal people like ourselves want to go back home (even if I am sporting a beard that makes me look like a terrorist). We had dumped our stash so that the trip back would be stress free, but found out after getting on the ferry that A) KerryLynn had a nug stuck on her shirt in plain sight, and B) I forgot about a bag of ganja that was in my backpack. Fortunately, because we (relatively) looked and acted like normal Americans, they let us through with ease. Whew!

The ferry took us to Port Angeles, a city that seems to exist simply to send and return ferries. From there we hit the road to Bainbridge Island, which has a ferry that takes passengers and vehicles directly to the heart of Seattle. I've been to Seattle countless times. My mom lived there for five years, so I would visit her at least once a year during her time there. And in all my visits, I never realized that the best view of the Seattle skyline was right on that ferry from Bainbridge Island. The views were stunning.

My sister, who moved up to Seattle with my mom, still lives there. And because we had dumped all of our recreational vices (at least most of them) prior to crossing the border, we needed to be replenished. My sister came to the rescue. Her roommate made a call, and we were quickly on our way to what my sister told me was the shadiest neighborhood in Seattle. Compared to the ghettos of Oakland and San Francisco, this place was like Shangri-La. Unlike most major cities, violent crime doesn't seem to be a major affliction in Seattle.

We picked up some goodies, then headed to the U district, home of the University of Washington. We were pretty tired since we had to get up early that morning to catch the ferry, so my sister decided to take us to a coffee shop that she claimed had the best coffee in all of Seattle. It wasn't bad. We also made a quick stop in a smoke shop, where new utensils were purchased, in addition to nice stogies that KerryLynn picked up for her dad and brother.

The visit to the University district wasn't the end of my sister's fun tour guide. I remember hearing rumors years back about some troll living under one of Seattle's bridges, and it turned out that the troll does exist, in the form of concrete artistic expression. Part of the body of the troll is made out of a Volkswagen beetle, with the body formed out of concrete. A nice little gem within the city limits of Seattle.

Before we said farewell to my sister, she mentioned that she's neighbors with what she claimed was Seattle's only surf shop, Wave Hounds. So we decided to make a quick stop to check the place out. Fun little store. I picked up a souvenier, a rug shaped like a surfboard.

We spent the night on the other side of town, at my old friend Dave's house in West Seattle. I had never been to this part of town before, and it's a cool spot, perfect for Dave and his beautiful young family. We didn't get much sleep however, since we stopped at a nearby bar to drink cocktails, then downed two bottles of wine back at his house. The next day hurt. Bad.

With just hours of sleep, a bad hangover, and the lung butter back in full effect, we embarked on a journey to the coast. We stopped in Tacoma to check out Stadium High School, a national landmark probably known more for being the high school in the movie 10 Things I Hate About You.

The drive through Tacoma and Olympia is pure congestion. Think of the drive from San Francisco to Sacramento. Especially the nasty Fairfield and Vacaville section. That's Tacoma and Olympia. Getting through there was rough, but we finally cracked through the traffic and eventually hit the coast. The first city you encounter is called Aberdeen, which blatantly expresses its pride for being Kurt Cobain's hometown.

The drive south along the coast that day was nice. Nothing extraordinary, but traffic was minimal and the weather was pleasant. We stopped for the night in a town called Tokeland (no joke), staying in a nice suite with a sweet ocean view. This was the night that I introduced KL to National Lampoon's Vacation. The perfect movie to watch during a road trip (forgot to mention, Netflix stupidly doesn't work in Canada - another reason we were glad to be back in the States).

This is where the trip took a rather ugly turn. From Long Beach, WA (where we took a break and four-wheeled on the beach, pretty cool experience) all the way south to Port Orford, OR is just one major clusterfuck of traffic, annoying tourists, and rare glimpses of the ocean. In other words, I absolutely advise people to never drive this section of the coast. I had no idea the coast would be this congested with towns and cities. You can never drive faster than 40 mph (mainly because you're either stuck behind a train of cars or you're constantly entering new towns that lack any appeal and force you to drive unbelievably slow) and quite often you're inland. The towns reminded me of shitholes like Modesto and Willits. Astoria didn't remind me at all of The Goonies. You can rarely use cruise control, and the people - the people! Argh! Oregon really is a dump of a state. I've always thought Portland was vastly overrated, and now I know that the Oregon coast sucks too.

We spent the night in a nice hotel in Newport, OR that provided a deck with a view of the ocean. That was pretty cool. Beyond that, the drive all the way to Port Orford fucking blew ass.

Once we passed Port Orford, the hype surrounding the Oregon Coast finally lived up. The Southern Oregon coast is absolutely beautiful. Stunning views of amazing rocks jutting out from the ocean, with beautiful beaches everywhere you look. The wind is crazy. I've never experienced gusts of wind so strong. KerryLynn was freaking out at one point when I got out of the car and went close to a cliff's edge to take some pictures. The wind was that dangerous. I can't imagine surfing here. KerryLynn and I decided at one point to go for a hike. Breathtaking scenery. Some of the places up north seemed to offer some decent surf, but for various reasons it had zero appeal.

Worth noting as well that the Oregon Coast as a whole has a plethora of sand dunes. Even saw a sign at one point advertising sand board rentals. A trip.

After passing through Gold Coast, OR, we entered California and spent the night in Crescent City. Despite spending nearly two years of my life in Arcata, I never drove this far north on the California coast. Nothing special, although our hotel room did have a jacuzzi in the room. That was pretty cool. And we had yet another ocean view.

The next day was the last of the odyssey. And we received a blessing. Throughout the entire journey, KerryLynn and I encountered bald eagles, bison, pronghorn, numerous deer, humpback whales, a vast variety of seals, a sea otter, and bears. We both noted how the only thing we thought was missing was elk. There were numerous signs on the highway warning drivers of elk crossings, yet we never saw one. Until, shortly before reaching the town of Trinidad, there on the side of the road, laying in the shade, was an elk.

KerryLynn spotted it in the same fashion as when we spotted the bears: With her uncanny vision. It was a beautiful site, and a beautiful way to end The Pacific Northwest Odyssey.

Total distance driven in The Pacific Northwest Odyssey: Approximately 5,300 miles.

Jul 31, 2009

Surfing Vancouver Island

After nearly two months of surfing all the significant breaks, it's safe to say that if you're up to dealing with occasional drizzle, a lot of overcast days, and the usual summer lulls which could last a week, Vancouver Island is thriving with surf. Both Tofino and Ucluelet have more than enough surf shops to help you out, and the surf itself can be amazingly good with sparse crowds. I've compiled a brief description of each break, in the event you decide to visit the area for both its pristine wilderness and great surf.

Florencia Bay

Probably the most beautiful of all the beaches between Tofino and Ucluelet. You won't see Florencia Bay (the locals call it "Flo") listed in most surf travel guides, and if a local didn't tell me about this special spot on my first night in town, it probably would have taken me weeks to find the place.

Truth be told, it isn't hard to find. You head north towards Wickaninnish Beach and turn left at the sign that says, "Florencia Bay". Simple as that. Yet, with the exception of an unusually warm summer day where temperatures were in the upper 80's and bomb sets measuring close to 10 feet were pounding the beach, it's relatively empty. On small days a decent set will come through every 5-10 minutes. The beach faces directly south, so when a great south swell comes in, this place goes off the hook. Probably caught the biggest wave of my life here. And the best part? The way it's topographically set up, it blocks out most wind so the water stays calm.

One day I surfed Flo for two hours with not another soul in sight. Probably the only time this has ever happened to me. Talk about a peaceful experience. It isn't always going off, but when it does, I highly recommend spending a couple of hours in this little slice of paradise.

Wickaninnish Beach

The best way to describe Wickaninnish Beach is to compare it to Ocean Beach, San Francisco. It can get choppy and windy in a hurry, with heavy fog preventing vision past 15 feet and currents pulling you down the beach in a flash. But when it's small nearly everywhere else, Wick will have something, and most of the time that "something" will be a pretty good ride. I caught a few lefts here that turned out to be some of the rides of my life.

"Wick" is extremely popular amongst locals and tourists staying in Ucluelet, since it's only a 15 minute drive away. The convenience factor is a plus, but from my short time here I've found that if it's good at Wick, it's great at Cox Bay. Problem is, Cox Bay is another 20 minutes away from Ukee (Ucluelet). It's a love/hate relationship with the Wick: Some days it's great, others can be flat-out nasty. You'll never get the same day twice at Wick.

Long Beach

Near the mid-way point between Ukee and Tofino lies the most well-known break in the area: Long Beach. Parking lots here are packed regularly with tourists and beginners during the summer, but unless it's firing, the break doesn't provide much of a swell during the summer season. When a good swell does come in though, Long Beach can provide some epic rides.

There's a rock that splits Long Beach into a north and south side, and this rock sets up one of the few peaks in the area. During a recent strong south swell that hit the Pacific Coast, I managed to grab an incredible left courtesy of said rock. A local surf instructor I hung out with a few times told me that twice he got barreled at Long Beach. Long Beach definitely has some great days.

Cox Bay

Overall, Cox Bay has the best surf in the area. The way Cox Bay is situated, swells tend to squeeze their way through the bay's entrance, giving it an extra push that you won't find at other local breaks. When it's flat everywhere else, a longboard can provide decent rides at Cox Bay. When it's firing at a place like Wick (both breaks face similar directions), Cox Bay provides nice peaks with the occasional a-frame, providing ample room for surfers to go right or left. You'll find more beginners at Cox Bay than at any other break in the region, mainly due to its reputation and location (it's located 15 minutes from the heart of Tofino). As a result of this, at times some of the beginners become delusional and think they're ready to go past the whitewash and attempt to catch the bigger outside waves. It's wise to be cautious of the beginner herd when they get adventurous, for they can drop-in on you and ding your board (or head). I was lucky to avoid any unpleasantness with beginner kooks, but I could see this being a problem, and it'll become a major dilemma in the near-future, as Vancouver Island continues to explode in popularity.

There is a downside to Cox Bay: It can't handle swells that go above 6+ feet. With larger swells, Cox Bay turns into Closeout City.

Chesterman Beach

During my time spent on Vancouver Island, I interviewed Canada's top surfer, Pete Devries. During the interview, Devries mentioned that he started learning at Chesterman Beach, located just a few minutes outside of Tofino. This was the only major break I didn't have a chance to surf, and for good reason: A major swell is needed for this place to go off. Every time I would drive to Chesterman, thinking that there was a sufficient swell, all I would see was Lake Pacific. Flat. I'm guessing that Chesterman Beach (which is actually two separate beaches called North Chesterman and South Chesterman) fires during the winter, because I didn't see a thing during the summer months.


There are a few other breaks in the region whose knowledge is kept relatively quiet to avoid the word getting out to tourists and potential residents. One of them is north of Tofino and accessible only by boat. There are also a couple of breaks located near Mussel Beach; one of them supposedly reaches near-perfection when most other breaks are too wild and nasty during the winter months. And during a whale watching trip in Barkley Sound, our guide showed us a reef break just outside the Broken Group Islands that he said provides a beautiful right that peels forever.

Vancouver Island is a hidden gem with countless options to catch waves. While the winter conditions can be downright nasty, there can be something for everyone if you look hard enough, and none of the ego and congestion that surfers are used to in places like my home state of Cali-For-Nye-A.

Jul 1, 2009

A Letter from Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island

The conclusion of The Great Pacific Northwest Odyssey Part I took me to a little Canadian town on the west coast of Vancouver Island called Ucluelet. It shares a few beach breaks with its neighbor Tofino, which shortly after my visit held Canada's first major surf contest, the O’Neill Cold Water Classic Canada.

People would ask me why I chose to take a break in this part of the world. It's a good question. After all, this isn’t exactly the tropics, and the surf, while available, is far from world-class. So before I share the letter I sent detailing the schematics of the two towns, Ucluelet and Tofino, I’ll explain the decision to take some time off and hideout in this little enclave.

I met a woman named Naomi a few years back while on a surf vacation in Mexico. Cool chick, she was spunky with a fun attitude. We were both surfing one day when I asked her where she was from. “Tofino,” was her response. “T-what?” I replied. “Tofino. It’s a small town on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Actually, I’m not really from Tofino. I’m from a town next to it called Ucluelet.” “U-what?” was my response. “Ucluelet,” said Naomi. “It’s a beautiful little town next to the ocean.

Naomi went on to tell me about the surf there, how it wasn’t the greatest but that there were always waves. What she said next drew my attention greatly. “Even when the waves are good, you rarely have to deal with crowds.” Hook, line and sinker. No crowds. The bane of surfing (and my life in general): People. You’re paddling for a great wave when some asshole who paddles faster than you has gone around you, put himself in better position, and has subsequently snaked the ride of your life. Crowds fucking suck. People, for the most part, fucking suck. Especially Americans (my faith in the U.S. of A. was restored tremendously since the election of President Obama, but it doesn’t make me like my fellow countrymen that much more).

My experience with Canadians has always been different. I’ve encountered a lot of them during my travels, and for the most part found them to be extremely friendly people. The type who actually go out of their way to say, “Hello!” when walking by. So between the prospect of not having to deal with crowds, Americans, and being surrounded by amazing natural beauty, Ucluelet/Tofino was calling out to me. Here is the letter I sent a few weeks after taking a break from life and hiding out on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island.

Vancouver Island is amazingly beautiful. We have bald eagles (ironic that the first ones I’ve seen outside a zoo are in Canada and not the U.S.) living in trees right next to our bedroom. We have a gorgeous view of an ocean harbor right outside our bedroom which we wake up to. The hiking trails provide some of the greatest views I’ve ever witnessed. The air is refreshingly clean. Green everywhere. And the surf, while hit-and-miss in terms of conditions, is awesome in that the water is remarkably clear (it helps not having mass pollutants being dumped into the ocean) and the majority of bodies in the water are beginners who stick close to the whitewash near shore.

In short, the place is amazing. So why do I feel like something’s a little off here? This is the question I ask myself nearly two weeks into my stay here. It boils down to a few things.

For starters, the weather can suck. It rains quite frequently, and when the wind kicks up it can get outright cold in the middle of July. Not exactly summer conditions. I’ve lived through a cold summer before (many years back in Arcata, CA) and was expecting the weather to be colder-than-usual. However the conditions coupled with a cold going around town has given me a small illness. Nothing crazy, but I simply cannot handle man colds. When they hit me, I get grumpy, easily irritated, and just have a hard time enjoying life.

The cost of things is a major bitch as well. Ucluelet and Tofino are separated by a single road distancing approximately 25 miles, with beaches all along the road. Their differences though go much deeper. Tofino has far-better dining and better options overall for eating, but it’s a tourist trap of the worse kind. Families with loud, annoying kids. Fat people. Poseurs. And they’re all over the place.

Ucluelet is a mix of tourists and locals who work real jobs. The town is spread out more too. Resulting in a more authentic feel. However, it’s nearly impossible to spend less than $10 on a small meal, and the local grocery store is pretty ghetto. Not a lot of options for a spoiled prick like myself who needs his produce to be organic. A cup of coffee at the local coffee house is two dollars and fucking fifty cents! For coffee! It’s pretty good coffee though.

What I think is creeping me out overall though is the fact that the vast majority of the area’s inhabitants and visitors are white. Straight fucking vanilla. I’m not talking gelato vanilla either. This is Baskin Robbins we’re talking about. You’ll get a sprinkling here and there of a race of tanned individuals whom I believe are local inhabitants called the Yu-cluth-aht (they look kind of like Eskimos), and the occasional Asian tourist. Yesterday I saw the first black person (what do you call an African-American in Canada? African-Canadian?) in this entire area. I almost wanted to hug him.

I understand that whites dominate areas of cold. It’s their natural turf. I get that. However, I’ve also been to Toronto and Vancouver, and these are multi-cultural cities with a vast diversity of races. This is not the case in Ucluelet and Tofino.

Furthermore, because I’ve been sporting the beard for my entire stay here, hence making me look like the surfing terrorist, I’ve been getting looks. No bullshit. Not glances mind you, but looks. Like, “What the fuck is this terrorist doing here?” kind of looks. The kind blacks used to receive in the south (they probably still do). The Devil’s Advocate might say that I’m delusional, that I’m only seeing these things because of how white the diverse makeup is. Fuck that, I know what the look is, and a lot of these folks are giving it to me.

I think that’s why I love San Francisco so much. You can look like the biggest freak, and be completely normal.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of good people here. Very friendly people with big hearts. But damn does this place needs some spice! If I had to guess what the ethnic makeup was of Ucluelet/Tofino, I would say 99.5% white, .4% Yu-cluth-aht, and .1% miscellaneous. Creamy, pasty white.

Ucluelet is an incredibly beautiful town though, and day by day I’m getting more assimilated. We’ll see how it plays out. I also want to quickly mention why I decided to name the town(s) I’m staying in. I usually hold off on naming special places I’ve traveled to because I don’t want a shitload of annoying tourists ruining the place. I’ve come to realize over the years that tourists, especially Americans and surfers, love going to places that are easily accessible, aren’t too crowded, have a beach, and are warm. I’ve seen my special, magical Mexican getaway go to shit because the word got out and now it’s overrun with Americans who have driven up real estate prices and have eliminated what was once an authentic Mexican town while overcrowding a fun break. Ucluelet and Tofino fortunately are too cold and too isolated for Americans to destroy. Hence the towns have nothing to seriously worry about.

I have a special summer radio series that’s going to broadcast on the town’s only radio station (99.5 FM – Long Beach Radio) called Board Talk. I’ll try my best to podcast the shows.

Appreciate diversity when it’s around; you’ll never know when you’re suddenly drowning in a huge bowl of vanilla ice cream (at least it’s tasty here).

P.S. It's been a couple of weeks now, and since I have yet to send of this letter, I've had a chance to reflect a bit. In hindsight, my commentary regarding the diversity of Ucluelet seems a bit harsh. Yes, it's extreme vanilla here, but as I'm getting to know the locals and a lot of the people visiting, I'm realizing that they're even nicer than I originally thought. Ucluelet really is a special place. Maybe it's the fact that the sun's been shining for a few days now, and there was even a little swell today, that's brightening the mood.

P.P.S. Bears. Finally saw bears. Twice, to be precise. The first encounter was while we were driving around, exploring the other side of Ucluelet's harbor. Turned out Mama Bear wasn't alone. The second sighting occured literally the next day, just outside our summer home. We didn't take any good pictures of the second encounter, did take a good photo of Mama Bear and her cub though.

Jun 22, 2009

The Great Pacific Northwest Odyssey Part I

I must preface this travel story by saying that prior to embarking on The Great Pacific Northwest Odyssey, I planned on three things being of vital importance: A GPS device (Google Maps within my blackberry), cruise control, and a half ounce of the chronic (which almost got us into huge trouble). In hindsight, all three have been absolutely crucial in making our long drives tolerable. It blows my mind that eight years ago, when I first became a travel junky, I had no clue what a GPS device was. And kids today have no perspective into the world that was once was, where you had to match a street sign to a point on a map. How times have changed.

The Odyssey started on June 22nd, 2009. We left early in the morning from Placerville, CA and embarked on a 12 hour trek across the state of Nevada. It turned out to be a beautiful drive. I didn’t realize that the northern half of Nevada was so elevated. Yes, you’re driving in a desert. However, all along your sides there are peaks and hills, and you can tell that you are well above sea level. Highway 80 is very desolate in the middle of the state, although you do come across more little towns than I thought.

After crossing the state line into Utah, you immediately notice a change in topography. Gone are the peaks and desert. Instead, out of nowhere are the infamous salt flats of Bonneville. I can see how racers like the Indian set speed records here. There are nothing but miles and miles of flat salt lands all around you. We took a pit stop to see how the earth felt. The ground is firm yet soft at the same time. It’s like a hard-packed beach. As the sun sets, a purple hue surrounds us, with the earth white from all the excess salt. It really is a breathtaking scene.

Our journey the first day ended in Mormon country: Salt Lake City, Utah. We were very exhausted the first night, and realized that there are not a lot of places open in this surprisingly big city. The consignor recommended the Red Lion Hotel across the street, as the place had a lounge that served drinks and food late night.

This is where we met a trio of gay men who would make the folks in the Castro proud. As flaming as they get. Very friendly too. They told us how the city’s tolerance towards gays and other minorities has improved drastically over the years, although there is still a high level of conservatism in the city. We ate a good meal consisting of turkey with mashed potatoes, gravy and vegetables along with corn chowder. Crashed hard that night.

The next day we checked out the Mormon Temple, and while we knew the city had a strong Mormon presence, it still can catch you a little off guard. They’re very friendly, but also different in a way that’s hard to explain. We toured the Temple’s square, and then got on the road, heading north.

After getting a little lost, we found the place we were looking for: Antelope Island State Park. The hotel concierge recommended the place for hiking. It’s an island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake. At first we had decided on camping there, since from a distance it looked beautiful. However, upon reaching the island (via a seven-mile causeway), you get a rather creepy feeling. The marina is practically empty, and so is the campground. Not to mention the island itself has a very isolated, desert-feel to it, and we noticed an infestation of bugs. After driving around for a while and checking out come of the island’s local inhabitants, including bison and antelopes, we cancelled our camping plans and decided to head back north. On to Idaho it was.

The second we crossed state lines into Idaho, everything suddenly turned green. The state looked beautiful. Lush hills all along us, really a beautiful site. After being tempted to check out a place called Lava Hot Springs (which was 11 miles off Highway 15), we settled on a small city called Pocatello. There isn’t a whole lot to see there, but we got a pretty good room at the Holiday Inn to crash for the night. We went to Sandpiper Restaurant, where they serve this really good bread with a delicious garlic, parmesan cheese and olive oil sauce. Really good prime rib. Not the best, but really good.

On to day three. We took the long, scenic route to Jackson, Wyoming. First we drove through some Idaho farmlands, taking in the remote beauty, then drove alongside the Palisades Reservoir, which starts with the biggest dam we’ve ever seen. You know, the type that, if it erupted, would cause some serious, serious damage. After driving for a few hours, we ended up in Jackson Hole.