Exploring the Cold Coast: Surfing Tofino – Dispatch #7

It has been raining on and off all day, and will continue all week. Or year round for that matter. We find ourselves constantly camping in these conditions, and I’m slowly learning why. When water particles add up between camera and subject, the light diffuses into something soft and delicate. This is a contrast to the landscapes and people with whom I connect. The fog sits heavily, muting the colors into black, white, and greens like a watercolor painting from my grandparents’ house. These dreary, isolated elements of the Pacific Northwest are where I draw inspiration for my work.

Photograph by Alex Guiry
Photograph by Alex Guiry

Arriving before sunset we collected fresh mussels from the rock formation that trips one of our favorite waves into hollow surf. We chop western red cedar and light a fire. We listen to the fire crackling, the leaves rustling in the wind, but it is the waves crashing that resets our bodies and keeps us connected.

The first time I surfed was seven years ago. It was here in Tofino with four strangers, one of whom was Eliel Hindert. A small, bouncy, and enthusiastic professional skier, Eliel welcomed me into his car to ride the ferry, where I fell asleep under a row of seats with a newspaper as a pillow. The old, beat up car was parked below us, packed like a Tetris game. Looping through each door several times was one single piece of rope that secured the four pink and yellow sponge-top surfboards. When we arrived just outside of town, we set up camp and ate canned beans beside the local dump. The next morning, we bobbed on our rental surfboards like wet rats floating on driftwood. We were hooked.

Sepp circles the orange and white buoy with the boat, yelling orders in a humorous East Coast fisherman’s accent. A native and professional surfer, Sepp is known around town as a fiery, passionate outdoorsman and father of three with quirky humor. As the engine cuts to an idle, I find my footing on deck. Sepps yells, “Vince, quick grab the orange and white one!” All of Sepps friends are named Vince, so today, I am fortunate to be one of the ones called Vince. I put my camera down on the wet surface of the dashboard and scurry to the bow. There are about 50 orange and white buoys surrounding us. I lean over the railing and see the letters “BRUH” on one side of the buoy and “WILER” on the other. The letters carved with a knife just like I would have gashed  my name in the side of a tree. Hand over hand, I pull the wet rope into the boat as it coils on deck. Heaving the crab pot aboard, I lean on the railing, exhausted. Sepp is singing, “We’re crabbing, we’re crabbing, we’re crabbing….” Wishing we had hydraulic winch, I’m happy we have dinner.

Photograph by Alex Guiry
Photograph by Alex Guiry

In town, we hear that there was a pod of killer whales moving around in Clayoquot Sound. We boat over to Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society to see if lead researcher, Rod Palm, had any good news for us. As we tie up, Sepp mentions he accidentally sunk Rod’s boat when he was 17. We all laugh and don’t doubt him for a minute.

There are three docks tied into one. Rope and metal is scattered on top and two black labs circle us as we enter uninvited. When Rod arrives the smile in his eyes shows a life lived full of stories. He is drenched with salt water. His seasoned rain gear is less than waterproof. He bears a great white beard and is covered in grease and dirt from head to toe. He says he hasn’t seen the whales today, but offers to take our number down. We can’t find a pen and none of us know how to work his flip phone, and he can’t remember his number. He curses technology and jokingly rants about everyone’s digital camera. I mention I am holding an old Leica from 1958. Its previous owner, Victor Englebert, used it on assignment for nine National Geographic articles. I pass the camera over and he falls silent, and I imagine him picturing the past.

That’s when he warms up to us and tells us about the races the whales have. How human-like their personalities are. How once he watched them throw a piece of kelp back and forth and then into his boat for him to join their play. “I threw it back and another one picked it up and on they went. They included me for some reason or another; I had been following them for about seven or so hours from a reasonable distance. “They were all so verbal, yet at the same time, you couldn’t pick out any individual calls. When we lowered the hydrophone in the water it was just a cacophony. Pretty spectacular. You don’t see that very often.” he said. His eyes were starting to water, and his voice trailed off. “Alright, I have to get back to my daughters.” We thank him for his time. With no whales in sight we were still thrilled to meet Rod.

There is a lot of down time on the road, a lot of being in limbo while we wait on all the elements to line up for the perfect wave. The isolation out here provokes thoughtful dialogue with the things, people, and places we encounter. I look for synchronicities—visual relationships with the landscapes and people that reveal themselves through this coast. The weather that turns people away from inhabiting this area is what truly makes this place so wild. These elements that drive us to our edge, and make us vulnerable are what give us introspection. Whether you are an athlete, a fisherman or a scientist, the ocean brings us closer together. We seek out this cold, rugged landscape for recreation, resources, and research. Ironically, it is precisely this hardened exterior that softens us. But don’t come here. It only rains.

Read all the “Exploring the Cold Coast” dispatches.

The Adventurists blog series “Exploring the Cold Coast” is sponsored by Sperry, which provided footwear and apparel for this adventure.

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