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The Beach

In western Canada there is really only one spot to build a home on the open surf. Welcome to Chesterman Beach , home of the world's weirdest land rush.

CHESTERMAN BEACH is breathtaking. Two vast crescents of sand, backed by ancient rain forest, with a tumble of driftwood logs bleached white as dinosaur bones along the tide line, divided into north and south by a sandspit that runs half a mile out to the wind-swept contours of Frank Island . In 1986 I lived rent-free in the eye of all this beauty, in what locals called the Astronomer's Cabin, a wooden shack built on pilings that stuck up out of the salal, front row centre for the biggest show on Earth.

All that ravishing beauty made me keenly aware that I was filled with despair. The roar of the surf was driving me mad. I wanted to be a thousand miles from Chesterman's, but I was trapped there. How does one become a prisoner in paradise?

It began innocently enough. Three years earlier I had been studying science at the University of Victoria when I met a girl named Gwen Davies. We were very different. I studied astronomy; she studied astrology. But she laughed at all my jokes. And I mean laughed. Sometimes she laughed till her milk shot down her nose. I was smitten. She said her parents lived in Tofino, and we should drive up there for a visit.

John and Moira Davies were stocky Welsh expats who owned a deluxe two-storey house on North Chesterman 's. John had worked his way up from the mail room to the boardroom of an Edmonton company that made forestry equipment. When retirement loomed, Moira travelled to Victoria to visit their son and just kept going until she reached the end of the road. She walked-through the trees down to Chesterman Beach , and zing! went the strings of her heart.

They sold everything to finance their dream house. Work went slowly because every time the surf built up the carpenters ran down to the water with their boards. Moira designed the house herself. She said, "The trick is to start with a box." This box comprised a living area centred around a massive chimney made from beach stones and a bedroom at each end. John had a library in his bedroom; Moira had a piano in hers. All this was on the second floor so they could see over the salal to the waves that crashed around a great rock in the middle of the bay. Beyond the rock lay a forested island where the Lennard Island lighthouse swung its cycloid gaze, and beyond that, Japan.

They put the TV downstairs so they wouldn't be torn between it and the view. But the TV won. They spent their days downstairs in a mud room rendered extra gloomy by the shadow of the second-floor sundeck, watching HBO, drinking gallons of tea and eating cookies in bundles of three which they called "sets" while rain dripped between the deck planks and furrowed the front yard, and the foghorn at the Lennard lighthouse boomed Bo-ring! Bo-ring! Be careful what you wish for.

But when the sun shone, Gwen and I wheelbarrowed a load of bedding and food along the sandspit to Frank Island and waited for the rising tide to strand us. She told me that 200 years ago a Spanish schooner anchored off the island and traded sea otter pelts with the natives until they all had syphilis, at which point they vowed revenge. One moonless night, two Nuu-Cha-Nulth maidens seduced the sentries and slit their throats. The braves slaughtered the sleeping crew, and the girls ate mussels tainted with red tide and expired rather than die of crotch rot. Some nights you could still hear the clash and cry as the two nations battled it out.

I married Gwen, and for the next three years our visits to Chesterman's grew longer and more frequent. In summer we caught crabs in the eel grass at Frank Island with a bucket and a rake. In winter monstrous gunmetal waves crashed over the big rock and raced toward the house as though to sweep us all away.

John had been ill for some time. Still, it came as a terrible shock when he died. Gwen and Moira rattled around that big empty house, heartbroken. They had no one to blame but me. My marriage was all that kept me hanging on. I couldn't lose Gwen, but I had to get out of the line of fire.

The Astronomer's Cabin stood right next door. By chance the astronomer in question turned out to be Anne Gower, my astrophysics prof at UVic. I explained the situation, and she gave me the cabin free of charge. She said she couldn't take rent because the place was so rustic. It was built from scrap, with snapshots thumbtacked to the bare walls and an ancient cooking range that filled the place with wood smoke.

I waited for the storm next door to pass. I slept all day and read all night, poring over strange books from John's library, which all seemed to be about physics or religion or mysterious cults that had flourished in the last century. Then I would walk down to the water and stare into the ink and curse the plot twist that had shipwrecked me on this raw edge of everything.

The pounding of the surf ground me down like sandpaper. It stripped away my defences until I thought I was going mad. Then one morning my soul seemed to turn on some inner hinge, and the sheer beauty of the place came crashing in and filled my heart until it overflowed, like the rain bucket on the deck. I hadn't felt such bliss since childhood. It was like a religious conversion without a face. No Bible. No Buddha. Just beach.

For days I wandered the tide line, stunned by joy, ravished by beauty. I had lived on the beach off and on for three years yet didn't know any of my neighbours. Now Chesterman's seemed to open itself like a book, and I met the locals all at once.

The first was a beachbill called Ratso, who had pierced nipples and no front teeth. He drove a sports car whose hood was held shut by two posts fastened with metal hoops, oddly reminiscent of his nipple rings. When we hit a rough patch one day, the chassis scraped tarmac. Ratso shouted "Piece of CRAP!" and accelerated over the next patch, as though to punish the car, smashing the dash with his fist. Up ahead he spotted a sign that had been knocked over. He veered onto the shoulder hit it, and it caught under the rear axle and sent sparks spraying into the tinder-dry forest. An hour later we thundered up a dirt road at the south end of Chesterman's, where Ratso had bought eight acres. His place was surrounded by wrecked cars stuffed with garbage. He said he had spent $10,000 buying fast rides and smashing them into things. It was his passion.

At the other end of the beach, a carver named Henry Nolla lived in a handmade A-frame nestled among giant spruce trees. He looked like Father Time in a Blake engraving and didn't seem to own any clothes. Among the driftwood logs gleamed the brown limbs of young hippie goddesses who came to sunbathe and whittle cedar and alder under Henry's tutelage, and swim in the tidal pools below the rocky point. Locals called the spot Henry's End. Nolla had emigrated from Spain in 1958 and got a job welding at the Draw Creek iron mine above Kennedy Lake . He'd planned to work his way down the coast to the jungles of South America . He never reached the jungle, but that didn't cramp his wild-man style.

I thought Nolla had it made. Then I heard that the land where the A-frame stood was owned by a rich California doctor named Howard McDiarmid, who planned to tear it down and build a 10-storey hotel named the Wickaninnish Inn. Henry's End, the naked sylphs and Chesterman Beach itself would soon be history.

But all that seemed unreal. The summer at the Astronomer's Cabin was a magical time. I hung out at Henry's End with Crystal and Tony Heald, whose parents, Peta and Derek, had a house on the north beach. Derek was a bus driver and Peta was a potter. In 1974 they had come up from Victoria to visit their friend Jeff Reeves, who lived in a cedar-shaked pyramid halfway down North Chesterman 's. Smitten with the place, they drank a bottle of Irish Mist and bought the lot across the street before they sobered up. It cost $17,000, and they didn't even see the property for years. Finally they macheted down to the salal and gazed at the view they'd bough. Wow: They built the house themselves, piece by piece, weekend by weekend.

Next to them, Laser Dave lived in a round house that had been put up in a week by a group of engineering students. We called him Laser because he liked to set out lines of candles on the beach to show you where the planets would rise, then at sunset he would sit at the end of the line on Frank Island and pretend to drive the planet round the ecliptic.

Halfway between Henry and Ratso, on the spit that ran out to Frank Island , lived an affable Englishman named Robin Fells. From him I learned with some surprise that our unique beach community, complete with the proposed Wickaninnish Inn, was a copy of an older one that once lay 10 miles south in what is now the Pacific Rim National Park. The original Wickaninnish was an old Georgian-style building run by the local magistrate, Joe Webb. Fells had come out from England after the war and worked at the Wick until Webb made him a generous offer: he could have the Inn for just the interest payments for 10 years.

In 1964 Fells tore down the old Inn and built a new one, with help from Ralph DeVries, who, like Henry Nolla, had come west to work at the Draw Creek mine. The Wickaninnish was a hit. It had a bar where you could watch the breakers. Fells ran the place for a decade. In all those years he only had to kick two people out, and one of them was Howard McDiarmid, the wealthy California heart specialist who planned to destroy Henry's End.

Only it turned out McDiarmid wasn't a heart specialist or a Californian. He had lived in Tofino since 1954, before the road pushed through, and this was how he measured town: if you were here before the road, you were real Tofino. If not, you should go back to where you came from.

McDiarmid worked his way through medical school bell-hopping at the Banff Springs Hotel. In 1954, while interning at the Vancouver General, he saw a note on the bulletin board seeking a doctor for a new hospital in Zebalos. That operation turned out to be a gong show, but he liked the coast so he took a job at the Tofino hospital. He and his new wife bought a $4,000 house at the end of Main Street and moved in with a mattress, two bottles of Demerara rum and a bucket of swizzle sticks.

One spring afternoon he was climbing on the rocky point at the north end of Chesterman's when he had a vision of a hotel standing there, just as grand as Banff Springs. He had no money, but he figured he could finance his dream by speculating on the beach. In 1962 he bought 1,600 feet of waterfront on the south beach, plus an option to buy another 1,800 feet. He cut the parcel into six $2,000 chunks, but the only person who bit was a trucker from Ucluelet. Tofino was mostly fishermen who wanted to stay close to their boats. The beach was miles from the harbour. And what if you ran out of smokes?

Sales were so slow that in 1965 he lost the option on the second parcel. The next summer he got his three sons to hack trails through the salal to the log line so people could see what they were getting. Finally he sold the lot on the spit across from Frank Island to a nurse named Mary Oliver. She paid him a dollar down and promised him another $11,000. He and the boys had worked all summer for a dollar. But McDiarmid was determined. The next summer he sold a second lot to Neil Buckle, a local logger, for $12,000. This time he said he'd make it $10,000 if Buckle built right away. Perhaps a house on the beach would lure others.

In 1966 he ran for MLA on the Social Credit ticket, promising to establish a national park at Long Beach , which he figured would bring more people to the area. The plan worked. Even Pierre Trudeau came out. Robin Fells threw a banquet at the Wickaninnish Inn to welcome him. McDiarmid wasn't invited, but he showed up anyway, in a wet suit. He tried to catch Trudeau's attention, and Fells, horrified, asked his MLA to leave.

Fells never found out why McDiarmid wore that wet suit, and McDiarmid remembers it differently. He's pretty sure it was Trudeau who wore the wet suit. But it's fair to say that from that day, Fells and McDiarmid were rivals. So it might not be a coincidence that when the community at Long Beach was ousted in 1974 to make way for the Pacific Rim park, McDiarmid recreated it down at Chesterman's, except with himself in charge. He's a determined character. Fells later heard that even the name "Wickaninnish Inn," which he owned, was snapped up by McDiarmid the day it lapsed.

Ralph DeVries, on the other hand, considered McDiarmid a stand-up guy, ever since he pulled DeVries's abscessed molar. The doctor had all the tools but warned DeVries up front he'd never pulled a tooth before. DeVries appreciated his honesty. When the park was established and DeVries's cabin was expropriated, he bought one of McDiarmid's Chesterman's lots. He paid $12,000, built a house and sold it four years later for $50,000. By then the asking price on the beach was $22,000. But DeVries loved the place. He bought the property closest to Henry's End, and he and Henry Nolla salvaged enough lumber from dismantling the Wickaninnish Inn to build each of them a house.

By this time lots were selling left and right. Even Robin Fells bought one, right on the point, so he could check the surf on both beaches from his front room. But the parcel McDiarmid really wanted was John Chesterman's original 20 acres, which included the rocky headland where he'd had his hotel epiphany.

Lot 132 was owned by George Pownall, who had been trying to sell for years but at the outlandish price of $60,000. Every year he raised the bar 10 grand. By 1969 he wanted 90. McDiarmid told him, "It's not selling for 60. Why ask 90?" Pownall said he might as well not sell for 90 as 60. But McDiarmid found some partners from Seattle and bought Pownall's land.

In 1972 Henry Noll and Don McGinnis built McDiarmid a cabin on the point. When they locked the building, McGinnis said, "Aren't you worried about vandals?" McDiarmid hadn't even thought about it. "Why don't you get Henry to build a cabin at the end of the beach so he can keep an eye on things?" Nolla built his A-frame for $1,200, which included the chain saw he bought to mill the boards.

Until 1978 prices rose steadily, then nothing for 10 years. McDiarmid had to move to California and work for American dollars just so he could pay the taxes on the beach property. I guess that's how the California heart surgeon rumour got started. By 1986 - my summer of bliss at the Astronomer's Cabin - prices began inching upward again, and McDiarmid bought out his American partners and got back to work on his dream.

But would any of it ever happen? In those days Chesterman's was still at the ends of the Earth. It wasn't even part of Tofino. Robin Fells's neighbour, Jim Schwartz, had just finished the cabinets in his house when a Vancouverite walked down the beach and offered him a million dollars for it so he could build an ashram. Schwartz sold, the Vancouverite burned down the old house and built another that looked identical. But it turned out the magnetic energy flowing under the beach was all wrong, so he gave up on the ashram and flipped the property for $1.9 million. Sunrype Juice magnate Ralph Bodine bought John Haley's big house, burned it down and brought in a crew to build a third house. I just shook my head. It was sad when shacks like the Astronomer's Cabin had been replaced by real houses. Now that those real houses were being torched and flattened by a third wave of monster homes, it seemed sad in a whole new way.

In 1997 the owner of the Monster House offered Ralph DeVries $400,000, but he was in the middle of a divorce, and his wife didn't want to sell. They argued for a year. By the end of it the property was worth $560,000. DeVries had made $160,000 just by arguing with his wife.

The house was bought by Sarah McLachlan. For some, the indie songstress sounded the final trumpet - only those who could afford to spend it like Beckham would be able to live on the beach. I wasn't convinced. McLachlan has been hanging out on Chesterman's since the late '80s because her best friend is Crystal Heald, Peta and Derek's daughter. The first time I met her, she was in the line-up at the Alleyway Café, waiting for a veggie burrito with everyone else. Better the rock star you know.

My daughter Pasheabel, is now 17. We moved down to Victoria in 2000, but last spring she moved back to Tough City to work and surf. She bought a camper and hid it in a nook on a friend's property, and I used this as an excuse to blow off work and spend weeks visiting her, surfing and hanging out just like in the old days. At night I slept under the stars in front of Peta and Derek's house, which is now worth two million. Not bad for a bus driver and a potter.

Everyone told me that Chesterman's was different now, that a security patrol would run me out, but the whole time I slept undisturbed. From the surf break, Chesterman's seemed remarkably unchanged, though rumours abound: Shania Twain bought a house; John Travolta bought a house. But the beach has always been like this - an earthly paradise, with the hounds of hell approaching from all sides and never seeming to reach it.

On the last day of my visit, I tried to find the place where the Astronomer's Cabin once stood so I could say a silent thank you to the spot that turned my life around. Anne Gower, my old astronomy prof, had long since retired from her university post. I heard they named a planet after her.

To my amazement I found the shack itself. It had been taken down off its pilings and dragged back into the forest, where it sat off-kilter between two big new houses. Inside, the same faded snapshots and maps were thumbtacked to the plywood walls, and the same rusted kerosene lamp still hung on its nail. It was like finding a summer from my youth pressed inside a book.

I sat there and thought about all the battles the beach has seen. Chesterman's is like the prettiest girl at the party. Everyone has a plan for her; everyone has a prior claim. McDiarmid arrived before the road, and that's his cutoff. I arrived before the road down to the beach was paved, and that's mine. But the only folks with a genuine prior claim are the Nuu-Cha-Nulth, who, ironically, considered the beach some of the worst real estate in the Clayoquot. A real dump. No salmon creek, no place to beach a canoe and, worst of all, the pounding roar of surf all winter. "It'll drive you mad," they said.

Which it did. Mad with greed. Mad with love. 

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