Foul Weather Fun
TOFINO, British Columbia - To old-timers who've weathered decades of winter tempests along the wild side of Canada's Vancouver Island, the weekend squall is barely worth hauling out the oilskins and duck boots: a bout of light snow, mixed with hail. Spitting rain, punctuated by implausibly blue skies. Ten-foot seas with heavy southwest swells, and wind gusts topping 70 mph.
But it's enough for Jan and Dave Rudd, who've made the five-hour journey from Vancouver with waterproof hats in their trunk and visions of storm clouds dancing in their heads.
"We toyed with the idea of flying down to San Diego for some sun," says Jan Rudd, gazing intently at a befuddled fellow storm seeker who has clambered onto a rock during a rising tide and just realized he'll need to get wet to get back on dry land.
"But this place has a rawness and a sense of spirituality," she says. "It reminds you that nature is in charge."
Storm clouds. Rising tides. Are these people crazy?
Indeed, the mountainous waves, screaming winds and Noah's Ark-like rains that can pummel the outer reaches of the Pacific Northwest from November to March are hardly the stuff of traditional tourist brochures. Yet a growing number of winter storm watchers, lured by fireplaces, hot toddies, off-season discounts at romantic inns and a sense of drama the Weather Channel can't duplicate, are turning up on driftwood-laced beaches from Vancouver Island to southern Oregon.
"We get a lot of people from Montana and Idaho. They have some pretty severe winters out there, and I guess they just want to come someplace where there isn't snow," says Mike Vickrey. The retired computer analyst posts frequent storm updates on his Web site in Bandon, an Oregon hamlet that calls itself the Storm Watching Capital of the World. Bandon's claim notwithstanding (and Vickrey concedes this season has been a "snoozer" in southern Oregon), some of the biggest Pacific systems make landfall on the evergreen-choked, sparsely populated southwest coast of Vancouver Island, where winter accounts for about 75% of the region's annual 120 inches of rainfall.
That uncompromising weather plays a starring role in Vancouver Island's Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, a 78-mile-long network of offshore islands, beaches and old-growth forests of red cedar and western hemlock. Nearly 250 ships have foundered in the "Graveyard of the Pacific" over the past two centuries, and the park's rugged West Coast Trail was originally built as a last-ditch escape route for shipwreck victims.
Most of the 800,000 visitors who make their way to this edge of the continent each year come during the benign months of July and August, when it can be tough to find a breakfast table and when throngs of kayakers skittle across the wildlife-rich waters of nearby Clayoquot and Barkley sounds.
But thanks in part to the efforts of oceanfront lodgings such as A Snug Harbour Inn - whose Web site features sound bites of foghorns in a howling storm, and whose affable owner gives guests a bottle of champagne every time the winds exceed full gale force - the small coastal towns of Tofino and Ucluelet have seen winter tourism increase by more than 20% in the past few years.
The change is most noticeable in the end-of-the-road outpost of Tofino (population 1,100). Once a haven for American draft dodgers and live-off-the-land hippies, the village exudes an eclectic, environmentally conscious appeal that isn't dampened by unsettled weather.
At Wildside Booksellers, owner Michael Mullen dispenses steaming lattes, well-chosen novels and spectacular views of heavily forested Meares Island. It may be too early for boat operators' trips to see the gray whales that swarm here each spring, but winter's rough seas and leaden skies aren't a deterrent to his storm-seeking customers: "I had two people in here before Christmas who were in serious psychological conflict because it happened to be a sunny day," Mullen recalls.
They were probably staying at Tofino's Wickaninnish Inn, a 46-room Relais & Chateaux lodge that was built three years ago with storm watching in mind. All rooms come with floor-to-ceiling windows, gas fireplaces and private balconies - not to mention yellow slickers and a Hudson's Bay blanket. Owner Charles McDiarmid, a Four Seasons veteran whose parents moved to Tofino when transport was limited to boat or plane, even pipes the sound of a crashing high tide into the dining room.
The appeal of storm watching escapes many residents, who still dream of Maui or Mazatlan when beachfront Sitka spruces start to shiver and clouds turn the color of steel wool.
"It wouldn't be my thing to spend money to sit in the rain. But people are intrigued by something they don't have," shrugs Bonnie Gurney, who peddles ponchos and leaded cod hooks at Pioneer Boatworks in Ucluelet.
The one-time logging and fishing center (population 1,800) has seen better times. Tight government regulations, including a ban on coho salmon, have led many of the town's sport-fishing operations to shut down. Despite a recent push to attract more tourist development, it's the kind of place that could seem dreary on a sun-dappled summer afternoon, let alone a drizzly January evening.
But a five-minute drive past Ucluelet's shuttered gift shops, Bill McIntyre leads "storm seekers' hikes" on the recently opened Wild Pacific Trail, a passage that encompasses both foam-flecked coves and junglelike thickets of twisted tree trunks, roots and fluorescent green ferns.
"Most people come to this area when it's smiling. But to really understand the forces that create the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, you have to experience this kind of weather," argues McIntyre.
Just don't expect to line up a tour for the next few weeks.
"I'll be in Hawaii," says McIntyre, with just a hint of sheepishness in his voice. "But you have to go somewhere to make you homesick."