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Storm Watch

It really was shaping up to be a dark and stormy night. Still, we had only the promise of a storm as we approached the west coast of Vancouver Island. The marine forecast on our car radio was encouraging: southeast gales 45 knots to storm force 55, with occasional gusts to hurricane force. Waves five to six metres and rising. Wicked weather you might think.

Not at all. Indeed, that's the perfect weather for the seriously relaxing spectator sport of storm-watching. And we would experience it at a premier venue, a luxurious inn built expressly to exploit the natural wonders of Pacific storms' landfall on the North American continent. After a four-hour drive from the island's southeast coast, we emerged through a tunnel of evergreens onto the access road for Long Beach. In front of us was a dramatic expanse of sand - 15 kilometres' worth - level as a stage and rippled like corduroy from the last tide.

But now the tide had turned, and thundering waves were moving toward shore. Ahead of them came sheets of water skimming across a hundred metres of flat beach, before thinning and then seeping into the sand, leaving only a line of sea foam.

For all the drama out on the water, the beach was surprisingly serene and comfortable. The tempest offshore was blocked by a shield of ridge-top trees. Under the moody, overcast sky and drifts of sea mist, my partner Maria and I entered a storm-watcher's dream.

The wild, sparsely populated Pacific Rim region of Vancouver Island is staggeringly beautiful, a clean and green stretch of coast known for its big beaches, big trees and big winter storms. In recent years, city folk have been discovering what the year-round residents have long known: A good, thrashing storm is invigorating, and life's little cares seem to melt away in the face of nature's towering rage.

While the storm seemed to be approaching all day, it in fact did not arrive until well after dark, when we had tucked in for the night at the Wickaninnish Inn, which perches on a rocky shelf right on the beach a few kilometres south of the town of Tofino. We were lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the pounding surf, which every once in a while was punctuated by a whoop, whoop and a crash, when a particularly powerful wave struck the rocks below.

Next morning was windy and wet and a relatively warm 10° C. We dressed in sweaters and rainproof jakets, and ventured out to meet with Bil McIntyre, of Long Beach Nature Tour Co., for an interpretive walk through the rain forest. McIntyre was for 23 years the chief naturalist for the Pacific Rim National Park (of which Long Beach is a part), and has a passion for the local environment and winter storms.

As we entered the dense growth of the forest, the stormy weather was left behind. Inside it was dry and still enough to hold a lit candle. Walking along, McIntyre explained the structure of the local weather: In the winter, low pressure systems out on the Pacific spin off one storm after another. "Sometimes they arrive only hours apart," he said. "You can be in the teeth of the storm at noon, and have blue skies at 4, in time for a beautiful sunset."The season for storm watchers

After a short but stunning walk to Amphitrite Point lighthouse, we said goodbye to McIntyre and returned to the Wickaninnish Inn and an afternoon of indolence.

That evening, we were reading before the fireplace in our room when the lights flickered and went out (not just here, we soon discovered, but all over Tofino). In the glow of the fire, it was only a pleasant shift in ambience, not an inconvenience. In fact, when the light came back 10 minutes later, we switched if off, letting the sounds of the surf work their somnolent magic.

When an odd silence woke me around 3 a.m., I walked out onto the balcony and was startled to see a sky full of stars above the protective eye of the Lennard Island lighthouse. The storm had passed.

The next day we drove into Tofino, about five minutes up the road. The picturesque, pocket-sized fishing village sits at the end of a peninsula that juts into the calm, clean waters of Clayoquot Sound. With forested islands everywhere, every centimetre of the town looks out upon a majestic expanse of nature.

For a place with a year-round population of just 1,100, Tofino has an impressive selection of fishing and charter boats, whale-watching Zodiacs, art galleries, gift shops, book stores, churches, working docks, coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, B&Bs and pubs (two of the latter). Between Easter and Thanksgiving, all run full tilt.

But storm season is off-season, and it was just us and the locals: fishermen, crabbers, surfers, artists, unemployed loggers and environmentalists. It was Tofino at its best, a characterful little place that sits at the end of the road, not on the way to anywhere.

On our final morning before it was time to check out, we made a last leisurely circuit of Chesterman Beach, whose sands reach nearly to the Wickaninnish Inn itself. The 2,4 -kilometre-long beach is nearly as beautiful as Long Beach itself. The stormy surf had had a day to subside, and now half a dozen surfers and two intrepid kayakers were testing the waters.

Farther along, we found the tide starting to uncover a bridge of sand reaching nearly a half kilometre out to Frank Island. Our timing couldn't have been better. As we walked out and explored the island's rocky coves and tidal pools, we kept a careful eye on the sand link behind us. The tide rises quickly here, and we didn't want to get stranded. It's one thing to watch the storms, quite another to be swept up into them.
 

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