wild wood: how a canadian village kept the loggers at bay
In the 1960s the village of Tofino, on Canada’s Vancouver Island, attracted draft dodgers, surfers and wilderness freaks. It’s easy to see why, says our writer, as he explores the infinite forests.
It is early morning at Chesterman Beach and the Pacific Ocean is in full cry: great roaring chargers smashing on to the rocks, clouds of spray in the air and debris all over the sands. We pick our way between the bodies of yard-long giant squid spat out by the storm. Here and there rocks, marooned by the falling tide, are encrusted with blue mussels and fat-fingered purple and orange starfish. When I ask Charles McDiarmid, who runs the solitary hotel on the beach, if anyone eats the mussels, he looks surprised, "No, I don't think so. I mean we don't need to - there's so much else."
This is Tofino, on the far western shore of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, a place of wild riches: salmon runs that can choke rivers, bears and whales by the thousand, surfing and walking galore and most of all, apparently most infinite of all, forests of cedars and spruce. In the early 1970s, before roads arrived, Tofino welcomed an eclectic mix of surfer dudes, draft dodgers and wilderness freaks. By the 1990s it had gathered the reputation of being a special traveller place, a secret spot where nature and man had reached an epiphany. When I had mentioned Tofino to people who knew Canada, they became misty-eyed: "Paradise!" "Just brilliant" - tempered with some reservations - "But we were there long ago - it can't be as good as it was." So I've come to see what has become of the star-spangled hangout that fought off the loggers, quite literally, in the 1980s and 1990s to establish itself as the New Age/New World wildlife and lifestyle paradise.
Charles certainly knows the area: his father was the town's only doctor here in the 1950s, when Tofino was nothing but a fishing and hunting base. I ask him about the hippy-heaven reputation. How did that happen?
"Look," he says, "let me show you something."
We turn up the beach and walk to a single-storey clapboard building at the treeline: a woodcarver's shed. Inside there are some workbenches laden with half-finished carvings, and on one side a cupboard that opens to reveal something like an altar laid with cloth and lit by a red bulb. But instead of religious artefacts, there are tools - special tools. I pick up a gouge that has a broad splayed blade and a white curving handle.
"The blade is from a bit of car chassis," Charles tells me. "The handle is a sperm whale tooth. It was made by a guy called Henry Nolla who came to live on this beach in the early 1960s, then never left. Henry was Tofino's first hippy."
Tofino's first hippy … the late Henry Nolla carving a totem pole.
The story begins to emerge. Back in the early 1960s Charles's father bought some land and built a beach hut on Chesterman. Soon afterwards Henry drifted into town, a bohemian woodcarver sage who needed a home. He ended up as the McDiarmids' beach hut caretaker, chiselling out totem poles and canoes on the sand with Joe Martin and Roy Henry Vickers, First Nation people with a gift for woodcarving. It was a time when Vietnam war draft dodgers were starting to arrive, drawn by stories of a backwoods hideaway beyond the reach of lawmen and roads. Some took to wandering around naked, swearing they were going to live "at one with nature", and Henry became a guru for them, a benevolent presence, gentle and wise and highly entertaining.
"In the late 1970s," says Charles, "the loggers were getting closer, and people realised they would have to do something or Tofino would change."
In 1984 a local spotted the tell-tale loggers' tape - used to mark future cuts - on Meares Island, a pristine 30-square-mile patch of land sitting right in the middle of Clayoquot Sound, the jewel in Tofino's crown, vital for clean water and fish stocks. Over the following decade pitched battles and face-offs eventually halted the loggers. They had already ripped through 90% of Vancouver Island's ancient forests, but at least that final tenth had a chance of survival. Meares Island survived.
Next morning I wander into town in search of a boat to take me out into the sound. It doesn't look like development is wreaking havoc here. There are only three streets: a few decent cafes, a supermarket, a bottle store, a great bakery-cum-cafe called the Common Loaf, Roy Vickers' superb gallery of First Nation art (royhenryvickers.com), and various boat trip offices. There are a few Quebecois kids hanging around with guitars, looking like they are doing the full hobo. A couple of local youths in wetsuits cycle past carrying surfboards; others are drinking lattes on cafe verandas - no Starbucks here.
I set off with Mike White, who runs bear-watching trips up Fortune Channel, one of the many arms of Clayoquot Sound. There are plenty of snazzy modern boats on offer at the pier, but I like Mike's approach: his boat is an old wooden motor cruiser, there's a coffee pot bubbling away in the galley, and a stack of binoculars next to the sea charts. As we chug out into a thick mist, I ask about Meares Island and Mike points out a few vague glimpses of tree tops. "It's over there - we'll see it better when the mist rises."
The idea of looking at bears, rather than shooting them, is still quite a new one in British Columbia. Mike tells me he was a crab fisherman when he was younger and in those days, hunters would arrive, get fitted out, then sail up the sound to shoot bears. If there was a growing awareness of the money to be made from conservation, it was a notion peddled by hippies, and so viewed with suspicion by Tofino's other half - the frontiersmen.
Mike, I sense, is a man who straddles the two sides of Tofino. When I ask about the hippy era, he chuckles. "They were all right - left a load of mess on the beaches, that's all."
When we pass a salmon farm, I ask if they have trouble with parasites and the sea being poisoned. He grunts non-committally: "We need the jobs."
Slowly the mist clears a little and we spot sea otters playing in the shallows of Meares Island. The fur of the otter has 6,000 times more follicles per square inch than a human head, making it the softest and warmest pelt on earth.
When the remnants of Captain Cook's third voyage reached China from the Pacific North-West, Cook's officers faced mutiny when most of the crew realised what a bonanza had slipped under their noses. One seaman had bought a fur with a broken belt buckle on Vancouver Island; now it fetched a small fortune. A full-scale furry goldrush soon developed and the otter was hunted to the very brink of extinction.
Barely five minutes after seeing the otters we spot our first black bear, a large male rootling out crabs from under boulders. Mike lets the boat drift in and we get close enough to hear the shells cracking in his jaws. The forest behind the bear has clearly been logged in recent years, but Mike assures me that the clear-felling is not as bad as it used to be. Not so long ago loggers would raze entire valleys without a care for the damage. Now the cuts are smaller and less aggressive. Nevertheless, Meares looks like a proper forest to me, whereas much of the main island has that uniform aspect of a plantation.
All told we see three bears, several bald eagles and a clutch of seals. Mike tells me that Meares can be visited by traditional canoe, so back in town I look up Giselle and Simka, daughters of woodcarver Joe Martin. On our paddle out next morning, in yet more mist, Giselle tells me how her father mobilised tribal war canoes to head off the loggers back in 1984.
"Meares is our ancestral land, but they thought they could just take it - like they took everything else before."
The history of many First Nation peoples is a sorry one. Until the 1970s misguided governments were deliberately dismantling their way of life, often aided by missionaries: longhouses were destroyed, languages untaught and children sent to boarding schools. Only now is some rediscovery and rebuilding taking place. The sisters are trying to learn the language of their tribe, the Tla-o-qui-aht, but it is a struggle. "Not many people actually know how to speak it."
After half an hour we reach Meares and tie up under some trees. The path through the forest is a handmade narrow boardwalk that curves and curls through a vast cathedral of trees. This is what I wanted to see: trees as broad as small houses, trees with cavernous interiors, trees growing on trees, trees with streams running under them where tiny salmon hang. This was what all the coastal valleys were once like: covered in cedar forest with specimens so vast that cutting one down was a mammoth task, rarely undertaken. With the arrival of the circular saw in North America in 1814, however, the days of such leafy leviathans were numbered.
We linger for two hours, then struggle to leave as the children in the group cannot be persuaded to stop playing inside the hollow giants.
Although most of that ancestral forest is gone, there are still marvellous landscapes around Tofino. South of the town the Pacific Rim national park hides many great walks through impressive forest to wild empty beaches. And at Ucluelet, 25 miles away, there is a gem of a coastal stroll, with sudden glimpses of wild coves and mist-shrouded islets.
For me, Tofino still has the magic that built its reputation, even if the struggle to maintain such a heritage continues. To this day, Meares Island has no legal protection beyond an injunction granted to the protesters in 1984.
Back at Chesterman, Charles shows me around his hotel, the Wickaninnish Inn. It's full of Henry Nolla's carvings, and though Henry died in 2004, his benign presence still warms the place. There cannot be many places where a hippy beachcomber turns his hand to building a Relais & Chateaux-standard hotel on the site of his own beach hut. The result, however, is one of the world's great hotels.
The Wickaninnish, I decide, is somehow a microcosm of Tofino itself: despite all the luxuries, the backwoods idiosyncrasies come poking through, and wild nature is never far away. In the restaurant one of the waitresses grabs my arm. "Quick! Look!" And out there, where the dark ocean changes to a paler distant line on the horizon, I see a flurry of black-and-white bodies launching themselves from the swell.
"Killer whales," she whispers, and for a few seconds the whole restaurant falls silent and every face turns towards the roaring ocean.
Way to go
Frontier Travel (020-8776 8709, frontier-travel.co.uk) has a seven-night Vancouver Island trip, including flights, accommodation and car hire for £995pp based on a May departure.
Where to stay
Doubles at Wickaninnish Inn (+1 250 725 3100, wickinn.com) cost from £190.
What to do
Bear and wildlife watching cruises on Clayoquot Sound with Mike White (+1 250 725 3435, browningpass.com) are £55. A canoe trip to Meares Island costs £45 with Tla-ook Cultural Adventures (+1 250 725 2656, tlaook.com).