Storm watching in Tofino
Original Article by Emma Yardley for the Toronto Star
TOFINO, B.C.-A rugged beach town on the west coast of Vancouver Island may seem like a strange place to visit in mid-winter, but locals have been sitting on a secret for awhile — when the rainstorms roll in, the real Tofino comes alive.
“It’s the best time of year to witness the fury and strength of nature,” says Mayor Josie Osborne, who came here in 1998 to work as a fisheries biologist for the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and never left. “Even on calm days, you can see the effect of the strong winter winds in the windblown shapes of the trees and salal bushes at the water’s edge.”
Tofino owes its wild, wet ways to its unique location — it’s the first point of contact for the marauding weather systems blowing in off the Pacific Ocean. It’s also crowned by the Vancouver Island mountains, which act like a giant raincloud catcher and force up to four metres of annual rainfall onto the sponge-like coastal rainforest.
“Winters are long, wet and dark so if you’ve got the wherewithal to make it through a winter, you can consider yourself inducted into the local community,” says Osborne. “We’re not called Tough City (Tofino’s local nickname) for nothing.”
During summertime, the area’s renowned beaches are packed with newbie surfers and sun-seeking tourists. From October until February, the town toughs its way through hard-blowing winds, thick-billowing clouds and increasingly powerful waves, some swelling to nearly eight metres in height. But what’s bleak to some is bliss to others.
“There is nothing that can replace the feeling of rain pelting on your face and salty air filling your lungs,” says Osborne, who loves watching her dog chase the waves. “If it’s really, really windy, I might grab a friend, stand up on a rock, and go for a Kate Winslet Titanic moment.”
Enter storm watching, which can mean different things to different people. For some, it’s a three-hour hike through the rain-soaked red-cedar forests of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve; for others, it’s settling in front of a fireplace with a hot toddy, watching the waves roll into Cox Bay beach. Both are very much encouraged.
“In the city, bad weather is a bad hair day, slush in your shoes, your papers getting wet or your car not starting,” says Charles McDiarmid, managing director of the Wickaninnish Inn. “Here, rather than it being a distraction to your day, it’s something to be embraced and enjoyed.”
McDiarmid grew up in Tofino and later left for school, but regularly returned for winter holidays at the family cabin. During those visits, everyone hoped a big storm would roll in, giving them the perfect excuse to stay put and enjoy each other’s company.
So when McDiarmid began to plan out “the Wick” in the early 1990s, winter storm watching had been an integral part of the identity he hoped to create at this luxury 75-room Relais & Châteaux property.
“It wasn’t an aftermarket, ‘Oh geez, it’s kinda quiet in the winter, what are we going to do?’ ” says McDiarmid. “When it came to thinking about the Wickaninnish Inn, we thought, ‘You know, we (as a family) like this — there’s probably other people out there who, if we gave them half a chance, would enjoy it, too.’ ”
To that end, every room has a fireplace, a balcony and a soaker tub with either a view of the ocean or Chesterman Beach, so guests can enjoy storm watching in comfort. For those heading into the wild, every closet comes stocked with brand new Helly Hansen rain slickers, and guests can order up waterproof boots in their own size upon arrival.
There’s even a designated drying closet at the inn’s Driftwood Café, where a converted electric ski-boot drying rack will make everything toasty while guests munch on a tasty post-beach-walk snack. (Of course, a hot-stone massage at its Ancient Cedars Spa would go down a treat after braving the elements, too.)
Storm season also brings the all-female Queen of the Peak surf competition every October, when surfers from around the continent converge on Cox Bay just as the waves begin to get gnarly.
“I was drawn to Tofino because of the beaches,” says Krissy Montgomery, co-founder of Queen of the Peak and owner of Surf Sister Surf School. “I made it my home because of the community.”
It’s that sense of community that helps bind the people of Tofino together, whatever Mother Nature throws at them.
“Wet winters were long viewed as a weakness for this area to develop year-round visitation,” says Osborne. “(But it’s) a wonderful contrast to the warm and lazy beach days of summer. Yin and yang!”
As it turns out, there’s plenty to do in the eye of the storm in Tough City.