Tofino an outdoor adventure paradise
It came screaming out of the Aleutian Islands, gathering force and fury as it swept down through the Gulf of Alaska. Now, as the winter storm made landfall, it was smacking violently into the very first obstacle in its path: the hurricane-glass window 18 inches from my nose. Outside, ancient cedars creaked and groaned in the gale-force wind as waves the size of three-story buildings crashed onto the beach, tossing driftwood like Pick Up Stix. Inside, though, I was dry, warm and snug as I lounged next to a fire with a glass of Okanagan Syrah and exalted in the invigorating yet delightfully passive spectator sport called "storm watching."
Well, that's how it was supposed to have happened. In reality, I hit a spell of horrible weather for this particular pastime on my November visit to Tofino: no dark and stormy nights, not even an imperfect storm or a teacup-size tempest - just four days of cheerful sunshine and brilliant blue skies.
When life fails to give you lemons, there's no point in worrying about lemonade. When the sun comes out, Tofino, a onetime fishing and logging village perched on Vancouver Island's wild west coast, is a paradise for outdoor adventure.
The rocky inlets of nearby Pacific Rim National Park and the sheltered waters of Clayoquot Sound are among the world's most celebrated venues for sea kayaking.
On whale-watching excursions, you can sometimes see wolves along the shoreline. And - this thought takes some getting used to - Tofino was named the No. 1 surfing town in North America by Outside Magazine.
It's cold-weather surfing, to be sure, but surfing nonetheless. In my four days there, I met only one Tofitian, as they're called, who didn't surf.
Nobody ends up here by accident. Perched at the terminus of Canada's writhing Pacific Rim Highway, a four- to five-hour drive from Victoria, Tofino wasn't even connected to the outside world by paved road until 1972.
Its isolation attracted American draft dodgers and back-to-earth hippies - among them the town's current mayor - and an influx of environmentalists who soon butted heads with the logging industry.
Teaming up with local First Nations tribes (the Canadian term for Indians), the newcomers undertook what has been called the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history to prevent clear-cutting on nearby Meares Island.
Today, Tofino exudes an artsy, laid-back, surf-town buzz, and its 1,700 year-round residents are frequently joined by celebrities: Jazz pianist Diana Krall, who grew up nearby in Nanaimo, has a house here, so does singer Sarah McLachlan.
Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson were recently in town filming a movie, and scores of other actors - including Uma Thurman and Susan Sarandon - have popped in for getaways from Vancouver sound stages.
Tofino's metamorphosis from hippie haven to Aspen-with-orcas is epitomized by a rabidly popular cafe called SoBo, short for sophisticated Bohemian.
It began life as a psychedelic purple catering truck on the outskirts of town, but attracted such a following - one magazine even named it one of the top 10 restaurants in Canada - that three years ago it moved into a chic, modern building in what passes for downtown Tofino. Tofitians and tourists now sit down to such fare as seared halibut in carrot-orange sauce, Salt Spring Island organic smoked tofu and polenta fries.
Still no clouds on the horizon. My wife, Jeri, and I ambled down to the waterfront, where we met Trevor Cootes, a First Nations kayaking guide from the Ucluelet and Huuayaht tribes.
"What's so great about kayaking here is the easy access," he said, gesturing at Clayoquot Sound. "In other places, you have to paddle a long way to reach anything interesting. Here, it's right out your back door."
Our kayaks cut like knives through the glassy water as snow-capped peaks glistened above us in the sunlight. We passed a crabbing boat, hard at work. In less than an hour, we were scampering up onto the rocks of Meares Island, where a rickety boardwalk led into a deep, dark, mossy forest of cedar, spruce and hemlock.
Cootes showed me where First Nations gatherers had peeled long, thin strips of bark from a cedar tree. "We use it mostly for ceremonial purposes these days," he said. "It's great for clothing. It's water resistant, it breathes better than Gore-Tex, and it's softer than cotton."
Until we got close, it was hard to conceive of how enormous these old cedars were. One, its center hollowed out by fire, once held 14 people inside. Another took 15 people holding hands to encircle it. Several were higher than 20-story buildings.
Civil disobedience doesn't come naturally to Canadians, but after spending a little time in this primeval forest, I'm grateful they did what it took to preserve it.
The weather forecast held nothing but sunshine, alas. We drove a short distance to the docks and boarded a whale-watching cruise. Humpbacks, grays and orcas feed in the nutrient-rich waters of Clayoquot Sound on their migrations along the West Coast of North America.
Things can be slow in winter, but there are a number of resident whales who've given up their nomadic existences and settled down here.
Wildlife viewing is like Forest Gump's box of chocolates: You never know what you're gonna get. On this day, the resident humpbacks and orcas were nowhere to be seen, but, as we cruised past the shore of Vargas Island - this is where tours occasionally spot wolves on the beach; we didn't see any - we noticed that the water was full of little bobbing brown objects that binoculars confirmed to be sea otters.
There were at least 40 bunched up in what biologists call a "raft," floating on their backs. It was more sea otters than I'd ever seen in one place, by several orders of magnitude.
At the mouth of Clayoquot Sound, where big swells rolled in from the Pacific, we passed an island where virtually every available square foot was covered in sea lions. We got downwind of it, and the smell was familiar to anyone who's ever visited San Francisco's Pier 39, minus the baking waffle cones.
Later, we found a pair of resident gray whales and spent half an hour watching them surface, spout and dive before it was time to head home. As it turned out, I'd see these same whales the next day, from a most unusual vantage point.
Next day: more blue skies and a fresh dusting of brilliant white snow on the mountains rising out of Clayoquot Sound.
I'd always shied away from "flightseeing" tours, because I assumed they were egregiously expensive, but this turned out not to be the case.
The outfitter we used in Tofino, Atleo Air, charges per plane, not per person, so if you can round up three or four people, as we did, the cost per person isn't much more than you'd pay for a whale-watching or kayaking tour.
The air tour was the highlight of our trip. We squeezed into a Cessna 185 float plane, which circled several of the jagged peaks rising out of the sound, passing so close, it felt as if we could reach out and drag our fingers through the snow. Pilot Josh Bradford landed us on a remote alpine lake for a brief leg-stretch and bathroom beak, then we were airborne again and out over Clayoquot Sound, where we spotted a pair of spouts where Jeri and I had seen the gray whales the day before.
Circling low enough to get a good look, but not to disturb the whales, we watched the pair spout and dive, over and over. From tour boats, you can only glimpse part of a gray's back when it surfaces but, from above, you can see the entire whale. From nose to tail, they're the size of a Greyhound bus.
A moderate storm forecast for our last night in Tofino never materialized. I never got to do any storm watching, but, from my research, I can report this: The whole endeavor sounds like a marketing ploy to make the best of a bad weather situation, but the opposite is true. The premier hotel in Tofino, the Wickaninnish Inn, was built especially for winter-storm thrills.
It's the creation of Charles McDiarmid, a former Four Season executive and son of what was, at the time, Tofino's only doctor.
"My family had a cabin out on the point, near where we built the hotel, and I have so many wonderful memories of going out there as a kid to listen to the wind howl and shriek in the driving rain," he said.
"I remember one strange sound: a low bass-type vibration. Turns out it was made by 30-foot logs being rammed into the rocks and vibrating like tuning forks."
He built the Wickaninnish with floor-to-ceiling windows made out of extra-thick, high-impact hurricane glass and stocked every room with rain slickers and boots.
The Pointe Restaurant, perched at the end of a rocky peninsula, right next to the crashing surf, was modeled on McDiarmid's family cabin, with one refinement: Outside microphones broadcast the sound of storms to diners inside.
"When you're in the city," he said, "you tend to think of nature as an inconvenience in your day-to-day routine. You shield yourself from it. But here, it's part of what you come for - to hear the wind howling and the surf pounding, and to feel the salt on your tongue. I've been doing it since I was a boy, and I never get tired of it."
Sounds wonderful. Maybe next time I'll have better luck with the weather.