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son of the beach

First I was a beach bum, then a proud father watching my kids splash in the waves. Now I am back. Long Beach keeps calling me home.
The sun shone, the birds flew, the boys splashed, the microbrews disappeared, and just like that a difficult decision was made.
Time changes everything.
The driftwood-strewn sand wouldn’t have featured a single stick in the days before Europeans arrived to start cutting down trees.

STROLLING THE ENDLESS PERFECTION of Long Beach, Canada’s most spectacular strand, it’s easy to become lost in sun, sand and surf, the holy trinity of summer vacations. To the west, crashing waves. To the east, emerald-green hillocks bordering snow-capped peaks.

But, instead, I am lost in reverie. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, no gathering of the tribes was more blessed than the one that took place here on Vancouver Island’s remote west coast. Every summer, thousands of young people turned these 16 kilometres of rippling brown sand into a glorious tent city, running naked through the waves during endless sunny days, gathering round bonfires on starry, starry nights.

Several months earlier during those same years, a few dozen others - fresh from Saskatchewan and not entirely clear on the concept - straggled onto the same beach, huddling inside leaky, tottering shelters of driftwood and polyethylene as winter’s fearsome winds and torrential rains gradually ebbed, or perhaps didn’t.

Sadly, I was among the latter group, and while you might think the experience would have soured me on the area, you’d be wrong. Indeed, after leaving Long Beach, I headed on a summerlong circumnavigation of the continent: stranded in northern Ontario, baling hay on a farm in Prince Edward Island, ripped off in New York City ... on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue - the standard 1973 long, strange trip. But I returned to Long Beach just in time for winter.

It doesn’t really snow on Vancouver Island’s west coast. Rarely does the thermometer even dip below freezing, a fact that helps account for the giant conifers. All of this makes December the perfect time to find work as a tree planter, and that is what I did. A buddy had secured a place to live that figured to be marginally more comfortable than the beachside accommodation I had previously experienced. My new digs were an old one-room schoolhouse across the harbour from Ucluelet, which, along with Tofino, bookends Long Beach. Located in the hardscrabble settlement of Port Albion, the school featured a roughly partitioned kitchen heated by a barely functional wood stove. The boys’ and girls’ cloakrooms made for two bedrooms, with another makeshift sleeping area adjacent to the kitchen.

Does it seem peculiar that life lived at a near constant 9°C nevertheless struck me as heaven? Indeed, I still can’t figure out why I cashed in my earnings on a 1966 MGB with rusty rocker panels in May, just as winter’s pitch-dark skies and ceaseless torrents gave way to summer’s exquisite perfection, and drove back to Saskatchewan.

My attraction to Long Beach did not end there. One summer some 20 years later, I made a homecoming excursion with my family while contemplating a move from Saskatchewan to Vancouver. Our young boys played in the surf, and my wife Jessie and I carefully watched them from a strategic spot within the visitors centre in what was by then Pacific Rim National Park Reserve — the strategic spot being a bar. The sun shone, the birds flew, the boys splashed, the microbrews disappeared, and just like that, a difficult decision was made simple.

And now we are back. As it happens, Jessie and I are about to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, and on this trip, we will be summering not in 1974’s superannuated schoolhouse or 1990’s musty motel but at the Wickaninnish Inn, a renowned luxury seaside resort. In revisiting my past and this now famous beach, I’m hoping to learn what sparked the transformation from local secret to global hot spot. And something even more important: can a place that is now so thoroughly discovered still possess the soul that endeared it to us in the first place?

THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY THING about a Clayoquot Sound beach vacation is not the sand and surf, though they are stunning, indeed. The most extraordinary thing is what surrounds the beach. One day in 1974 when I was tree planting on a mountainside behind Ucluelet, I happened upon a cedar stump that I paced off at six metres across, about the length of a 1950s station wagon. Were that tree still standing, it might rival Canada’s largest, a title now held by a red cedar near Bamfield, just across Barkley Sound.

Often, these ancient cedars look like massive candelabras, a condition caused when the leader trunk dies and successive side branches take over. As pure Gothic set dressing, the cedars are rivalled only by shore pine, a nutrient-starved relative of Jack and lodgepole pine that arrives with a Latin name — Pinus contorta var. contorta — that describes it perfectly.

Much like its tropical equivalent, the temperate rain forest of Vancouver Island’s west coast is impossibly lush, with fat mattresses of moss strewn across the ground and trees growing on trees growing on trees. To this out-of-control science experiment can be added an all-world collection of ferns, which are of sufficiently prehistoric appearance that one expects at any moment to see a stegosaurus crashing through the trees.

To be clear, there are no dinosaurs in the area, but there are some pretty big mammals. Back in the 1970s, when attempts at late-night ride-catching or boat-borrowing failed, I had to hike the 10 kilometres around the harbour from Ucluelet to our schoolhouse home, and on a couple of occasions, I found myself sharing the deserted Port Albion stretch with black bears, which graciously ambled off into the woods so that I could pass. This time around, as Jessie and I drive up the main highway, a mother bear and two cubs don’t even pay us the courtesy, scarcely looking up as car after car swerves to give them a wide berth or screeches to a halt for a closer look. The bears are drawn to ditches and roadsides, especially in the spring, where they munch on the brilliant new growth of grass and other plants, much to the delight of camera-toting tourists who come expecting to capture whales and leave with a bonus catch.

In the 1970s, I, too, spent many hours by the side of the highway, though the cars driving by tended to take considerably less interest. Sometimes, however, the hitchhiker’s fantasy ride did materialize - not the shag-lined van filled with beautiful girls, regrettably, but occasionally a slick driving machine piloted by an impossibly cool peer.

I relate the story of one such ride the morning Jessie and I share breakfast with Charles McDiarmid, managing director of the Wickaninnish Inn. The tale seems appropriate because one dashing young fellow who picked me up had reached into the back of his sports car and pulled out two frosty German lagers (this was the ’70s, remember), then, as we were chatting, mentioned he was a manager at the original Wickaninnish, now the park visitors centre. McDiarmid doesn’t seem shocked, allowing that he still does things like that (without benefit of beer). It is a good way to recruit staff.

World-wise in the way that hoteliers generally are, McDiarmid still strikes me as someone who fits in well in easygoing Tofino, now the kind of place where surfers outnumber fishermen and there’s no point in requesting a shade-grown fair-trade coffee because that’s all that’s available. It shouldn’t surprise me, because McDiarmid grew up here. His father Howard served as the town doctor and area MLA in the 1960s, earning the intriguing moniker of “the drinking man’s friend,” probably not a criticism in a locale that, at the time, made its living from resource industries. Among the first to spot the area’s tourism potential, Howard McDiarmid was instrumental in upgrading the highway and long harboured the desire to open a seaside retreat.

The creation of a national park infrastructure during the mid-1970s was a mixed blessing in that regard. On one hand, it helped heighten awareness and attract tourists (though not the kind who liked to camp on the beach, a practice that was soon banned by park authorities). On the other, it stopped development on two of the most appealing beaches - Long Beach and nearby Florencia Bay - and ultimately led to the closing of the original Wickaninnish, the one hotel with resort aspirations. On Chesterman Beach to the north, the McDiarmids finally built their inn in 1996, soon achieving the prestigious Relais & Châteaux designation and, within a few years, regular inclusion on Top 100 lists of the world’s best hotels. From our room with a view (and there is no other kind), we can understand why.

But was the Wick a cause or an effect? Do almost a million visitors a year now make the winding three-hour journey over Vancouver Island’s rugged spine because there are plenty of great places to stay? Or is it the other way around? As a person with lots of questions, I am grateful to discover a person with lots of answers. Bill McIntyre arrived in the area around the same time I did and possessed the same intrepid spirit, while lacking the complete aimlessness. An employee of Parks Canada, he helped get the new national park off the ground, then from 1975 till his retirement in 1998, he served as chief naturalist. Now he operates a walking-tour business, Long Beach Nature Tours.

As I am about to find out, McIntyre is equally comfortable interpreting the recent rapid evolution of the human ecology. He suggests we meet at the park visitors centre, the original Wickaninnish. This, he tells us, had been quite the party place back in the 1970s - a time when, really, there wasn’t much to do beyond drinking and cavorting. The ocean was considered too cold for swimming and too rough for pleasure boating, while the kind of eco-adoration that’s common today hadn’t really been conceived.

I relate the story of one such ride the morning Jessie and I share breakfast with Charles McDiarmid, managing director of the Wickaninnish Inn. The tale seems appropriate because one dashing young fellow who picked me up had reached into the back of his sports car and pulled out two frosty German lagers (this was the ’70s, remember), then, as we were chatting, mentioned he was a manager at the original Wickaninnish, now the park visitors centre. McDiarmid doesn’t seem shocked, allowing that he still does things like that (without benefit of beer). It is a good way to recruit staff.

World-wise in the way that hoteliers generally are, McDiarmid still strikes me as someone who fits in well in easygoing Tofino, now the kind of place where surfers outnumber fishermen and there’s no point in requesting a shade-grown fair-trade coffee because that’s all that’s available. It shouldn’t surprise me, because McDiarmid grew up here. His father Howard served as the town doctor and area MLA in the 1960s, earning the intriguing moniker of “the drinking man’s friend,” probably not a criticism in a locale that, at the time, made its living from resource industries. Among the first to spot the area’s tourism potential, Howard McDiarmid was instrumental in upgrading the highway and long harboured the desire to open a seaside retreat.

The creation of a national park infrastructure during the mid-1970s was a mixed blessing in that regard. On one hand, it helped heighten awareness and attract tourists (though not the kind who liked to camp on the beach, a practice that was soon banned by park authorities). On the other, it stopped development on two of the most appealing beaches - Long Beach and nearby Florencia Bay - and ultimately led to the closing of the original Wickaninnish, the one hotel with resort aspirations. On Chesterman Beach to the north, the McDiarmids finally built their inn in 1996, soon achieving the prestigious Relais & Château designation and, within a few years, regular inclusion on Top 100 lists of the world’s best hotels. From our room with a view (and there is no other kind), we can understand why.

All that was beginning to change, however, thanks in part to idealists like me. Many disappeared to nearby uninhabited islands, where they formed communes, built cedar homes and started families. Meanwhile, the whale-watching business was beginning to develop, followed in time by an upgrade in accommodation, better suited to the older, more affluent visitors who were beginning to arrive.

Still, as late as the early 1990s, few Canadians outside of the province had heard of the area, let alone visited it. That’s when the Clayoquot Sound controversy reached a boil, and anti-logging protests resulted in the arrests of more than 1,000 people amid wall-to-wall media coverage. Among the fruits of the compromise eventually reached was the creation of a World Biosphere Reserve, which didn’t hurt the area’s profile either.

But tourism remained stymied by the seasonal nature of the industry. Who would visit in January, when the winds rage and the waves threaten to wash away anything not tied down?

Behold the 1990s innovation of storm watching, a winter activity which evened out visitation so handily that inns are now booked months in advance during every season.

Soon the children of the original beach bums — surf babies all their lives — grew up to become surf adults just as another new generation, this one of technologically advanced dry suits, rendered the frigid water a mere annoyance instead of a life-threatening hazard, thus sparking a runaway surfing craze. Finally, says McIntyre, the national park and anti-development sentiment in Tofino have made this one of the least blighted spots a person can visit.

But does this place still possess the soul of the Long Beach I once knew? Well, time changes everything. The driftwood-strewn sand wouldn’t have featured a single stick in the days before Europeans arrived to start cutting down trees. If I desperately wanted to, I could hitchhike back during the rainy season and, somewhere on this craggy coast, build a lean-to in which to huddle. Instead, I chose to arrive in style. Either way, Long Beach always finds a way to knock me out.

WICK IN THE WIND

Getting there Long Beach is a majestic three-hour drive from Victoria, past Nanaimo and Port Alberni and through old-growth forests and Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. A handful of airlines fly to Tofino-Ucluelet Airport from Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle, and Tofino Bus runs from Vancouver and Victoria, among other, smaller, B.C. cities.

Staying there The Wickaninnish Inn’s 75 guest rooms and suites each offer panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean or Chesterman Beach. The hotel also boasts a full-service spa and gourmet restaurant. Pets are welcome — and pampered too, with in-room bed and blanket and a beachside shower for sandy paws.
www.wickinn.com

Playing there Long Beach is the most accessible and, at 16 kilometres, the longest of a 22-kilometre string of beaches lining Vancouver Island’s west coast between Tofino and Ucluelet. It is perhaps most famous as a surfing destination. Surf guards are on duty during July and August and the beach is home to Canada’s only all-women surf school, Surf Sister. Each year, more than a million people visit the region’s several popular beaches, including MacKenzie and Combers. But be warned: Even in summer, the ocean temperature hovers around 9°C — the same as the air temperature. Visit www.hellobc.com or call (800)435-5622 for information.

Jim Sutherland is an award-winning writer and editor based in Vancouver. Photographer Ilja Herb has been published in Outside and Toro magazines. He lives in Victoria.

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