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.