Vancouver Island’s most popular beach resort town attracts tourists and surfers in summer. But in recent years, many have come back in the off-season for a very different experience: facing down the Pacific’s storms!
It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon on Tofino’s wintery Chesterman Beach and I can barely hear myself think as waves the size of houses crash against a shoreline littered with seaweed and copper-coloured logs. I’ve been standing here under a grey, brooding sky for ten minutes, and while a thick yellow raincoat protects my straining body, my ice-cold face feels like it’s in a wind tunnel. Licking sea salt from my damp lips, I can’t help smiling, though: this is what raw nature is all about.
Vancouver Island’s most popular resort town swells with tourists in summer, when the wide beaches and soft-eco operators attract surfers and families to hang out on the edge of the Pacific. But in recent years, many have come back in the off-season for a very different experience: facing down the wild West Coast ocean.
“I love it here in November,” says Charles McDiarmid over coffee in the rustically luxe Wickaninnish Inn. “That’s when the first storms of the year take place, and it’s always exciting after a mellow summer.” The resort’s managing director, his family used to visit the beach just to watch the raging waves, which is why they chose to build their hotel here.
Back in my room, I peer through the picture windows as light drains from the sky for the day. The energetic tempest looks like it’s gearing up for a busy night: the mountainous waves are now jet black, driving rain is bulleting the windows, and nearby trees are swaying and creaking as if they might uproot and scamper away. It feels like a good time to run a hot bath and observe from a warm distance.
Early the next morning, I’m soon blinking in a pool of unexpected sunlight on my balcony. Smiling dog walkers are strolling across the beach under an almost cloudless sky, and I can make out a couple of small, ghostly islands shimmering in the distant haze. It’s chilly but it looks like the height of summer - a reminder that West Coast weather can change in the blink of an eye.
On the beach later, steam rises from sun-baked rocks studded with terracotta-orange starfish and pewter-coloured clusters of shiny mussels. The tide is out, but I can hear it rumbling in the distance, gearing up for another shoreline assault. Driftwood shards, rubbery tubes of seaweed, and glittery shell fragments stud the damp sand as I stroll over to shake hands with nature guide Adrian Dorst. “After a storm is always the best time for beachcombing,” he says with a smile as we wander inland.
Weaving between dense trees on a spongy carpet of moss, Dorst tells me that storms are an integral part of this area’s rich ecosystem. He also points out a multitude of flora and fauna that I would easily have missed, including a bald eagle perched on a high branch, a 600-year-old Sitka spruce with ferns furring its broad trunk, and some tiny salmonberry flowers that are tasty treats for local hummingbirds. He also lists the larger wildlife that call the area home - including deer, cougars, and black bears - before telling me about his surprising encounter with one rather unexpected West Coast creature.
“I believe I’ve seen a sasquatch,” says Dorst quietly, recalling a spine-tingling Christmas Day encounter on nearby Meares Island. “It was jet black from head to toe, but it was far away. I went back the next day and looked again but there were no tracks.”
We chat animatedly about this for the rest of the walk, then I head into town to take advantage of the sun. After some tasty pulled pork gringas and a sharp lime-mint drink at the funky TacoFino food truck, I drop by the longhouse-style Eagle Aerie Gallery to peruse artist Roy Henry Vickers’ richly coloured nature paintings. When I stroll the waterfront a few minutes later, I can see a real longhouse across the inlet, centrepiece of a local First Nations community.
Back at the hotel, thoughts of sunlight are banished when a blanket of thick, rolling cloud inks the sky. Standing on my balcony, the trees begin to groan, the air chills dramatically and the roiling sea starts to whip and thrash. Glancing at my raincoat, I consider a brisk beach walk, but instead opt for a much cozier storm-watching experience. Snagging a window seat in the hotel’s woodsy, hearth-warmed Pointe Restaurant, I tuck into butter-baked local halibut as the tempest licks across the beach and rages fiercely outside.
The best period for storm watching in Tofino is from November to the end of February. The waves can be very unpredictable during storm season, so there are some vital safety rules to keep in mind: when you’re on the beach, check where the debris line is so you know how far the water is coming.