Follow a storm-chaser's odyssey on canada's west coast
I’ve finally lost my mind. In the back of my head I can hear my Southern mom saying, “My boy’s misplaced all the good sense God gave him.”
It’s January. Middle of winter. As I exit the car ferry in Nanaimo — about a quarter of the way up the east coast of 286-mile-long Vancouver Island, British Columbia — a light dusting of snow swirls down from a gray sky. The sight of it sends a ripple of thrill through my veins. It’s manna: a sign. I’m actually, in an open act of defiance to reason, hoping the skies get even darker and the wind fiercer. I’m looking for weather black and predatory, a full-on tempest.
Under a late-afternoon sky I drive north on Highway 19 along the protected and populated eastern shore of the island to Highway 4, which shoots west into a thick, green temperate rainforest towards bucolic Port Alberni and then onward, for a couple more hours, through the uninhabited and untamed mountains that crease the center of the island in massive thrusts to the sky. I’m headed to the far edge, the wild side — the Pacific Rim and literally the end of the road: the village of Tofino, home to about 1,500 year-round residents. You can’t get to Tofino by accident. If you come, it’s usually for a good reason.
Saner motivations bring sea kayakers during the relative calm of summer; hikers, beachcombers, whale watchers and surfers follow. I encounter few cars on my winter quest. I’ve suppressed all reason and am, as the songwriter Jim Croce said, getting ready to tug on Superman’s cape, spit into the wind and mess around with Jim all at the same time. I follow the path my headlights cut through the now pitch-dark of night along a wildly twisting road straight into harm’s way and the realm of a curious breed of traveler: storm watchers. And it’s prime storm-watching season.
A week before my arrival — in fact, a month before, and almost the entire 60 days leading up to my arrival — the Pacific coastline of Vancouver Island had been pummeled by one of the most relentless storm seasons on record: Wind speeds surpassed 100 miles per hour. I was headed to the Wickaninnish Inn, which gave birth to the storm-watching experience in 1996. I imagined the storm watchers there, reveling in the drama while a soft fire crackled and music borne of love and warm summer evenings played. Vintage B.C. wines would be raised to their lips to toast a particularly brutal wave.
During my drive, however, the last wisps and gasps of a storm dissipated. Clouds melted from the heat of the moon, and snow continued to fall, which almost never happens along this coast due to the warm Pacific currents that travel uninterrupted from Japan. When I stepped from the car, massive snowflakes dropped from a windless night, tumbling crazily all around me.
When I checked in at the rustically elegant “Wick” — a Relais & Châteaux-rated resort owned by a local Tofino family, the McDiarmids, whose arrival in 1955 predated even the road — I was greeted with the weather report.
“You missed some good storms,” announced the desk clerk, “but it looks like you might get lucky and see some blue sky during your stay.”
“You sure? No storms?”
“Not right now, eh?” he replied. “But we’ve had some good ones this year, you know.”
All those tremendous, wonderful, untamed, delicious storms, and it seemed I’d missed the lot of them. But this happens, I tell myself as I turn on the fireplace in my room. For the first time in all the years I have traveled, I was hoping to get stomped by a storm, forced indoors by wind and rain and fury, made to sit by the fire and stare out through a picture window, sipping a lazy coffee. I clasp my hands and peer out the windows that only last week strained with the force of the wind upon them. Sure enough, a nearly full moon illuminates a quieting sea. I can see stars blinking awake as the clouds part further.
I’m up early the next morning, still hopeful that the weather report will change. I follow a path that leads to the wide expanse of Chesterman Beach, which the Wick overlooks from its perch on a rocky outcropping, affording a 270-degree view of the sound and beach. A few surfers scamper into the 48-degree water, which seems a little insane, but I soon learn there’s a huge community of surfers in nearby Tofino, which has more surf shops than coffee shops. A couple out walking their dog passes me along the beach. “Great luck, this,” opines the man. “Never see it like this in winter. Usually big storms and rain. All drama. But this, this is a rare touch of gold. Great bit of luck, eh?”
“And the snow,” says the woman. “Never snows here. It’s lovely, eh? Just lovely.”
About that time, the sun lifts completely over the horizon in a grand gesture of pink and orange. The sky is rich and blue and cloudless. Seeing that the prospects of having my clothes blown off by a Pacific gale have changed, I decide the absence of storms means I can explore without the crowds. Feeling buoyant now about that prospect, I decide to take full advantage of the sun and arrange to take a Tofino Air floatplane charter to Hot Springs Cove, 23 miles up the coast. I could kayak my way along this spectacular coast or even take a boat to the hot springs, but the sky has opened for me.
I drive the 10 minutes north to the little downtown of Tofino, which is truly the end of the road. I pick up a freshly made, pesto-egg-and-salmon breakfast sandwich and coffee at the Common Loaf Bake Shop, which is packed with locals — families, fishermen, surfers and adventure guides. The menu reflects the local vibe: organic, natural and youthful. Then I head down the hill to Tofino Air. Their floatplanes connect travelers to the remote corners of this isolated and roadless coast — and me to my morning bath adventure.
“Keep an eye out for black bears on the shore,” says the pilot. “And I usually see sea lions and sometimes whales.”
From the sky, the rocky coastline glows under the sun’s light. Beyond the beach, thick shades of green undulate over the horizon. We pass over a haul-out for sea lions just stirring. They all stare up at us briefly and then roll their heads back to sunbathe. We land on the water and pull up to a dock in the Maquinna Marine Provincial Park about 10 minutes later.
“You picked the perfect time to come,” says the pilot as he drops me off.
“It’s winter. No crowds. You’re probably going to have the place to yourself. Come here in summer, and you’ll be rubbing up against fifty people.”
From the dock I follow a boardwalk through the rainforest. It’s crowded with every known brand of green, as well as thick stands of ancient western red cedar, Sitka spruce and hemlock. It’s like walking through the earth’s first forest.
About 30 minutes later, I see the vapor of hot springs wafting through the trees like a warm fog. The geothermal water wanders and winds through the forest in a small stream, pours over a waterfall at the shore and idles through several small pools on its path toward the much chillier Pacific. I change into my board shorts and find one of the happiest places on this globe under the superheated waters of the waterfall. And I am alone. Any storm-watching disappointment floats away on the steam that lifts off my body in the cool air. Just as I sink into one of the small pools, a few other displaced storm watchers arrive. Soon all five of us are immersed in the heat and vapor, and my dreams of tempests dissipate in the clouds of mist swirling around our heads, up through the hushed forest and into the deep blue sheltering sky. An eagle flies overhead and lands in a nearby tree. The unruly beast of the winter sea has been soothed, almost enchanted, as if by some unheard lullaby.