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Peer to Pier Interview: Charles McDairmid of Vancouver Island's Wickaninnish Inn

In part two of her series of interviews with eco-lodge owners, Meg Pier chats with Charles McDiarmid of the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, Vancouver Island, about growing up on the rugged island, and the ties that brought him back to the community.

Meg Pier: I understand that you grew up in Tofino, after your family moved here when your father assumed responsibility for the Tofino General Hospital. What was it like growing up on the west coast of Vancouver Island?

Charles McDiarmid: Really a kid’s adventure paradise. With very few outside visitors in those early days, kids were allowed to roam freely in the community and so my buddy and I were most often at the beach, fishing off the rocks below our house or the docks in town, exploring the forest or roaming about Tofino with our Chesapeake Bay retriever in tow. When we got to be a little older we were able to take our small boats out on the water - we had a 12-foot aluminium boat with a 9.5 horsepower motor which was great for wave jumping and exploring in and around Tofino Harbour. It was kind of like a Huck Finn-meets-the-West-Coast-of-Vancouver-Island kind of childhood.

MP: Can you single out an early experience in which you felt awe at Mother Nature’s power?

CM: Probably the scariest time was one of many adventures instigated by my father. He and Mom loaded up us three boys, and our dog in our 12-foot aluminium boat and we headed off on a sunny summer day to the Radar Hill beaches, located on the exposed outer coast roughly 8 to 10 miles from Tofino harbour. What we did not know when we set off was that a surprising summer storm was about to blow in - back in those days forecasting was not the best.

After a lunch at the beach, the wind started to pick up rather ominously. We headed for the boat, shoved off and the swells had picked up and with our loaded boat we had to go much slower in these bigger waves. Water was coming over the bow of the open boat, soaking my youngest brother up front in cold seawater. Soon my middle brother was puking over the side, the dog was cowered on the bottom of the boat and my mother and I were bailing steadily as several waves broke over the bow in regular succession. My father at the stern grimaced into the weather, jaw jutting out as only his could, concentrating furiously on each oncoming wave. We were all scared and no one spoke.

The situation was grim and our progress was very slow. If the boat motor had ever failed, even for an instant, I would not be here to tell this story. After perhaps two to three hours, we eventually limped into the harbour. Still no one said a word but the relief on my parents’ faces was obvious, along with the realization we had had a very close call.

MP: I understand your father was instrumental in the creation of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve in 1971. That is quite a legacy. How has that shaped your views about the area, and the environment in general?

CM: Growing up here, in combination with my father’s love of and appreciation for the natural environment, does naturally provide one with admiration and respect for the natural world that constantly surrounds you. It comes naturally over time and you realize things over time just by living in this environment, almost by osmosis. Things like the cycle of the tides and the wildlife that follows it, being able to tell when a storm is pending long before the clouds and wind arrive or what to expect with each season and the ebb and flow of the corresponding flora and fauna. To me this was just the way it was, it seemed normal and I kind of thought all kids grew up this way. Having grown up here and having lived and worked in many large cities since I now fully understand how special this area is, why my father wanted to protect it and why it needed protection.

MP: I believe that when the park was created, the old Wickaninnish Inn was closed to make room for the park’s interpretive centre and the current property opened in 1996 by the McDiarmid family and a group of long-time Tofino residents. C an you describe those early days and that partnership?

CM: The Park was created in 1971 and the original Wickaninnish Inn was given a lease to operate until they were essentially forced to close by the park in 1977. When the park was created, my father had a handshake deal with the Federal Minister of Parks of the day that the original Wickaninnish Inn would be allowed to stay and operate and that all permanent residents within the park would have the option of living out their days in their existing homes within the park.

Unfortunately there was a change of ministers and the park bureaucrats of the day were tired of attending to the basic requirements of these park residents and so convinced the new minister to close down the Inn and remove the residents from the park. It was this closure of the original Inn that promoted the vision of my father Howard - a vision which he then subsequently infected the rest of the family with - to recreate a new Inn in a modern context, even going so far as to acquire the rights to the corporate name.

The early days of the partnership were wonderful. I was fortunate enough to end up co-managing the construction with my former Little League coach and we had an excellent construction committee consisting of many other experienced locals. We all got on well and everyone contributed greatly to the success of the construction.

MP: Having moved away from Tofino for a period and then returned, can you summarize your experience of “spreading your wings” and then coming home, the pull of both?

CM: Going out of town and seeing the city was always exciting and while I never felt glad to leave Tofino, I certainly looked forward to having the opportunity to see the city. Going away to Cornell and meeting people from all over the world was a big eye opener.

Challenging myself against the best of the best was at times intimidating yet enjoyable even though I did not always fit the mold. For example at Cornell I spent much more time with my rugby buddies playing and drinking beer than with fellow hoteliers learning the intricacies of the hotel industry.

My summer jobs would have me working in the bush, logging, cutting trails or splitting cedar planks for the national park, ironically. My later experience with Four Seasons was of course much more boots on the ground learning, and working in Washington, D.C. made me realize I much preferred the West Coast. While big cities were interesting, I also preferred smaller cities and towns like Victoria and Tofino. Having worked in both operations and sales at Four Seasons, I also realized I enjoyed smaller hotels where service was personalized and individual and there was very little political infighting. Being able to put my Cornell training in finance and accounting together with my practical Four Seasons experience and combine this with my entrepreneurial spirit was a magical opportunity. That occurred when we committed to building the Wickaninnish Inn based on the business plan I had written while working at the Four Seasons Olympic in Seattle (now a Fairmont Hotel) over many late nights once my two boys were in bed.

Moving back to Tofino in June of 1995 with my young family to make the dream and the business plan a reality was so positive and challenging -- in a good way. Though an exhausting endeavour, it was the ultimate test of all I had learned and knew.

MP: What was area tourism like at that time, and how does it compare to today?

CM: There was already a decent level of seasonal tourism at the time we opened, with several longstanding operations on MacKenzie Beach and Cox Bay Beach plus the fairly new Best Western and the very new first Middle Beach Lodge. All these operations drew their customer base principally from Vancouver Island with a smattering of Vancouver guests and a few even from Seattle and Alberta. It was quite seasonal with the vast majority of visitors arriving from June through September and many places closing or going into slow mode over the fall, winter and early spring periods.

When we opened the Wickaninnish Inn in 1996 we really worked very hard to boost the fledgling whale watching industry which starts up in early March and brings quite a few more people to Tofino much earlier in the season than they had been typical. We also packaged with an airline to promote people flying to Tofino as an alternative to driving.

We also launched “storm watching” as Canada’s original storm-watching destination and this brought an ever-increasing curious group of individuals showing up from November through February. Although most were too polite to say so, I am sure many locals thought we had gone off the deep end, as in, “I wonder if they have forgotten what exactly it is like here in November when a big Sou’ Easter comes a-calling.”

By far the greatest impact, however, was the visibility we brought to Tofino as an international destination. By attracting people from around the world we brought customers to our area with a significant disposable income who could well afford to participate in the myriad number of activities the area has to offer. This increased employment and sparked a very entrepreneurial culture of small business owners. Today we having a thriving culinary scene, wonderful artists and artisans and a huge variety of available activities and we are still a small town of 1,700. While this is much bigger than the 400-person town I grew up in, the spirit of Tofino and feel of the town has not really changed all that much over the years - even though it is busier and we actually do have visitors in the winter not just shipwrecked sailors.

MP: What would you say have been the primary lessons life in Tofino has taught you?

CM: Everyone puts their gumboots on one at a time. Also when you live in a small town you have to get along with everyone and even though there are those you may favour more than others, everyone has something to contribute, even if at times you have to look a little harder to find it in some than others.

MP: When visiting Tofino, I became acquainted with the First Nation philosophy of “hishuk ish ts’ awalk” or “everything is one.” What does that mean to you personally?

CM: This is a universal truth isn’t it, we are all on this small planet together in the outer third of a very big galaxy - much like what Tofino is to the outside world in a way - and everything is connected. This also works not only in nature but also in business too. I believe recommending many other small businesses in Tofino to our guests, rather than trying to keep all the business to ourselves. They will have a deeper and richer experience that will encourage them to recommend our destination to others and other local businesses that benefit from our referrals will appreciate our support and they in turn will recommend us to others.

MP: Do you think being true to one’s self is somehow inherent in the notion of “everything being one?”

CM: I would agree in general but perhaps I would add that we should at the same time always be seeking to do the right thing as that is not always universal in every person’s actions. Otherwise it can be an excuse for those that would seek to do less than they should or could.

By Meg Pier. Meg Pier is a travel writer for the Boston Globe and other publications. Visit her on the Web at www.viewfromthepier.com.

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