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Embracing the Elements
The storm waves that pound Tofino’s beaches make the earth shake. Windows flex and rattle, and red cedar buildings groan as they bend against 80-mile-per-hour winds.
Enormous driftwood logs – normally anchored in sand – are tossed in the waves like toys. Step outside, and rain blows sideways, driven by wind that roars and howls. This is winter on Vancouver Island: a place where relentless storms smash full-frontal into coastline that sticks out from British Columbia like an extended thumb.
When the days grow dark and ominous, storm watching becomes the premier activity of choice in the isolated village of Tofino, whose location is perfect encountered top-flight tempests.
Clinging to a narrow peninsula along the Island’s Pacific coast, the surroundings are impressive by any measure, highlighted by dripping rainforests of the Pacific Rim National Park and snowcapped mountains. To the west, there is nothing but ocean for 3,000 miles. And with more than 10 feet of rain per year, it’s wet, to say the least.
In the summer, the quirky settlement crawls with tourists, fishermen, environmentalists, surfers, hippies, urban burnouts, artists, kayakers and First Nations people. But in the winter, Tofino takes on a whole new personality.
Life slows down. Crowds thin, black bears hibernate, and from November to February, storm watchers blow into town for pilgrimages in honor of the blustery conditions.
Storm-watching success on Vancouver Island has a lot to do with location. With no landmasses between Tofino and Japan, Pacific cyclones sometimes achieve hurricane-force winds before they batter the coast. “Vancouver Island is particularly favoured since it protrudes westward, thus it’s often hit by storms on their usual track from the southwest”, says University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass.
Storm watching (as opposed to storm chasing, which usually involves tornadoes and cornfields) might be a novel concept for city dwellers who tend to hide from winter weather, but residents of Tofino have been embracing the idea for decades.
Charles McDiarmid’s father scouted the location of the Wickaninnish Inn before the town had paved roads. The family walked game trails and crisscrossed the rocky outcrops during storms to see how high the waves ventured. Then they built their four Diamond hotel with rooms featuring balconies and soaking tubs overlooking nature’s wrath.
The Wickaninnish became Tofino’s first luxury hotel and immediately began promoting storm watching as a destination activity. Other high-end hotels and B&Bs quickly followed suit, and now Tofino’s rustic lodges offer some of the finest locations to witness storms on the West Coast – without leaving comfort behind. The Middle Beach Lodge even offers storm-watching wedding packages, where bride and groom ignore obvious “stormy relationship” metaphors in favor of performing nuptials in front of wraparound windows – just a stone’s throw from thundering surf.
As long as you follow safety precautions such as staying on accessible high ground – or in your room – when the surf is high, never turning your back to the ocean, keeping an eye out for sneaker waves at all times and checking forecasts and tidal conditions ahead of time, storm watching is a blast.
“In most places, Mother Nature is an inconvenience. It’s something to be beaten back. But here, it’s something to be embraced”, McDiarmid says. “If you get drenched, you have a soaker tub to come back to. Go out again, get wet, then come home to hot toddies and a fireplace.”
IN YEARS PAST, JAPANESE FISHERMEN TIED COLOURFUL HAND-BLOWN GLASS BALLS TO THEIR NETS TO KEEP THEM AFLOAT. Some broke free or washed overboard, left adrift to float in ocean eddies for decades. Under the right conditions, storms will blow them onto Tofino`s sandy beaches, allowing for the ultimate beachcombers` souvenir.
Serious float hunters plan their time in Tofino during full moons when the tidal surges are the strongest. Bundled in rain slickers, and armed with flashlights, they rove the beaches in gales (sometimes at three or four in the morning), searching for their holy grails. The fishing floats, which range in size from a fist to a basketball, are usually stamped with the blower`s signature, so collectors can research the artist and history of these prized catches.