Find a dream spot for surfing gals in Tofino, B.C.
The sun was just rising when we saw her — a lone woman in the distance, paddling her surfboard out to sea in the pink, painterly light of morning.
My husband and I were staying at Tofino, B.C.’s award-winning Wickaninnish Inn — perched beside the stretched-out sands of Chesterman Beach — when one day we woke to a sunrise so exquisite we had no choice but to bound out of bed and race down to the water’s edge.
And there she was, the lone surfer girl catching wave after wave — oblivious, it seemed, to the world outside her misty ocean playground.
Unforgettable for so many reasons, this image has come to symbolize Tofino in my mind.
Why? Because from what I observed during our recent visit to this rugged West Coast town, Tofino is undeniably a surfer girl’s paradise. And by that, I mean girls and women of all ages.
Take Catherine Bruhwiler, for example. We watched the 38-year-old compete in the town’s annual all-female Queen of the Peak competition last fall where she won the women’s short board division.
“And we just wrapped up a Rip Curl Pro surfing event yesterday,” the surf coach (and owner of Tofino Paddle Surf) tells me this week.
“My seven- and eight-year-old nieces were competing this weekend and they both ended up on the podium,” says Bruhwiler — a huge advocate for surfing in her community. “I think there’s been a female baby boom because there are so many girls on the water these days. The girls are surfing and so are their moms. It’s a totally normal thing in Tofino.”
Mayor Josie Osborne tells me there’s a “can-do” attitude among girls in her town. “There’s something especially remarkable about the surfer girl culture here. This weekend’s competition saw a three-to-one ratio of girls to boys in the under-16 and under-12 divisions.”
Perhaps, muses Osborne, living on the edge of Vancouver Island in a remote community has something to do with the female-friendly nature of Tofino.
“You’re surrounded 360 by raw nature, old growth forests and open ocean. You’re away from a lot of the pressures of the big city. No big buildings. Most people here don’t even have cable TV. Girls seem to be forging their own way and living out their dreams. Plus, there are so many positive role models — lots of people like Catherine Bruhwiler.”
My husband and I hooked up with Surf Sisters Surf School during our visit and got a taste of life in the whitewash. We only had a few hours of instruction, but it was enough to have us scheming up ways to return to spend some real time with the school’s seriously competent instructors.
Meanwhile, out of curiosity, I’ve been inquiring around about who that lone surfer girl might have been.
There’s a good chance, though I’ll never know for sure, that she was Swiss-born Isabel Fischbacher who works at The Wickaninnish Inn as a massage therapist in their on-site spa.
“I surf almost every day throughout the year. For probably about two hours a day. Surfing makes you strong and fit. It takes a lot of effort, but it doesn’t feel like it, not like in a gym,” says Fischbacher — who’s been a Tofino resident for three years now.
“I would say that compared to other places, Tofino is definitely girl-friendly,” she continues. “There are women here with a lot of spirit and power. They’re inspiring. For sure, we don’t get rich here. We live a simple life. But that’s the trade. To me, it’s an incredible, magical life.”
I used to think of Paris as a female-friendly city where women of all ages (lipstick freshly applied and stylish scarves floating behind them) ride their bicycles freely around the city.
These days, I think of girls in Tofino pedalling bikes alongside the highway as they head to the open ocean — sun-kissed, determined, athletic girls hugging giant surf boards tightly beneath one arm as they go.