6 February, 2022 6 February, 2022
Zigzag 45.4

The Other West Coast

Words by Doug Browne
Photography by Marcus Palladino

I remember looking out of the window on the flight out of Durban. I could see Umdloti as we banked east, and the waves didn’t look bad at all. I didn’t surf it that often, but I would have swapped anything for one more session there.

Warm water (wouldn’t be getting that anymore). Baggies (packed away). Sunblock (no need).

I was Canada-bound; and as I saw another set rolling through, I literally felt like shedding a tear.

Don’t worry bru, I consoled myself. You’re going to get a good wetsuit; you’ll find an ou with a boat; you’re going to find a wave that’s never been surfed… Plus, no sharks in Canada! You gotta embrace that. Then I looked out the window again.

“Jeez, babe, Umdloti’s going off,” I said to my wife.

“Yeah, it is – but you hardly ever surfed Umdloti,” she replied, then looked at me. “Are you crying?”

“No… just got something in my eye.”

Five flights, one sleepover in Seattle and 42 hours of travelling later, and we finally make it to Vancouver, on the west coast of Canada. My wife feels at home immediately. I feel completely out of place, with my sunburnt nose and a 5’11 tucked under my arm. We strike out to Vancouver Island, a short ferry ride away; the last leg of the journey to our new home.

Vancouver Island, and its capital city Victoria, is a first-world oasis, and about as far removed from Durban as you can get. Everything works. It’s efficient and pretty and safe. But it isn’t South Africa, and I immediately miss home. I knew this day would come, though. Cath, my wife, is Canadian, and the move to be closer to her family was always on the cards. The bathtub-warm waters of the Indian Ocean suddenly feel very far away.

“If you see a bear, you play dead, and pretty much pray you don’t get eaten. Don’t even think about running. These creatures are the unlikely Usain Bolt of the animal world.”

Fast forward: three months later.

Drew has become my connection on the island, as well as my connection to the island. He always has a full tank of petrol and an alarm set for 4.30am. He usually knows the best place to find waves during those limited windows of opportunity that make up the Canadian surfing experience – before the weather kicks in, or the waves go flat, or the storms become too intense. On this morning he’d given me strict orders to be at the junction where we usually meet at 5am sharp.

“Howzit, bru,” I say to Drew, who has by now grown used to my South Africanisms, as I get into his van.

“Great, ready to surf, eh?” he replies, adding, “Giddy-up, eh!”

“What’s the plan?” I ask, hoping we’re not going horse-riding instead.

Drew tells me the plan is to drive two and a half hours across the guts of the island and over a mountain pass to a spot he reckons will be good. “Swell reports say three to four foot, and cooking,” he says. “I’ve been watching this one for a few days… this is the one, eh!”

“A pass?” I ask.

“Yeah, Sutton Pass,” says Drew. “It’s been snowing a bit… but no worries, eh?”

I brace myself for the journey ahead, but I’m not completely surprised. I’d become somewhat accustomed to the fact that going surfing in Canada is rarely easy, but it is always an adventure.

We roll onto Highway 4, the only road connecting the east coast of the island, where most of the population lives, to the west coast. The west coast is where all the action happens. Well… if you surf, that is. When the highway was paved in 1971, it made access to the west coast easier. Over the years the region has become an unlikely surf destination, attracting hardy cold-water surfers from all over Canada – and, if you can believe it, all over the world.

There are a few small logging and fishing towns in the south-west. Over the years a few tourist-cum-surf towns have popped up too; but otherwise, there’s pretty much nothing but rugged wilderness from the south-west corner to the north-western edge of Vancouver Island.

The island itself is 460km long and 100km wide, with a significant mountain range down the middle. Access to a large chunk of the west coast is very difficult. Unless you have a robust boat and some serious survival skills, you can forget about off-the-grid surf exploration along these remote shores.

“West Coast swell arrives with rowdy force in the winter months, spinning off from the gulf of Alaska which curls around just to the North.”

The small town of Tofino offers a soft landing for the Canadian surfing experience. Located in the south-west, it’s become home to a thriving surf scene, and is the spiritual hub of Canuck surfing. There are multiple surf shops and surf schools in the area, along with a number of beach breaks nearby, offering relatively consistent waves suited to all levels.

Further to the south lies Jordan River. They call it Canada’s own miniature version of J-Bay – sort of/kind of/not really – but it’s a pretty good right-hand point when it’s on. What was once a bustling logging camp has since become a popular surfing destination with three distinct breaks, including the enticingly named Sewers.

Just north of Jordan River lies Sombrio Beach, which is reached by navigating a narrow logging road deep into the sticks. Massive primary forest towers over the shoreline here, framed by jagged mountain peaks. The area has a few excellent beachies and reef breaks, and I’d quickly learnt that it’s home to some of the best waves you’ll find on Vancouver Island without needing a boat.

Sombrio is only a couple of hours away from Victoria, the capital, but there’s zero cell reception or accommodation. Camping out here is amazing, but you’d best hang your food in a tree overnight. Otherwise, you may wake up to a gigantic furry nose pressed against your ear through the tarp – or worse, claws tearing your tent down. Bears are no joke around here.

It’s estimated that there are over 7 000 black bears on Vancouver Island, making it home to one of the densest populations of the species in the world. And these aren’t the fluffy, give-your-kid-a-cuddle kind of bear; they’re big, bru, with monster teeth and massive claws.

If you see a bear, you play dead, and pretty much pray you don’t get eaten. Don’t even think of running. These creatures are the unlikely Usain Bolt of the animal world. You’ll never get away, especially in five mills of rubber.

Other than the bears, the island is also home to one of the highest concentrations in the world of cougars. Encounters are rare, and most Canadians consider themselves extremely lucky if they see one of these majestic cats in the wild. But if one gets too close, apparently the best strategy is the direct opposite of that for a bear encounter: make a hell of a noise, to try ward it off. You have about a 50-50 chance. Oh, and did I mention the wolves?

You’ll encounter few hazards in the water, however, besides the frigid temperatures. West coast swell arrives with rowdy force in winter, spinning off from the Gulf of Alaska, which curls around just to the north. If you think you’ve seen storms before, consider that ‘storm-watching holidays’ are an actual thing around here. And it rains, like, all the time, except for a few months in summer.

It’s bitterly cold too, of course, but wetsuit technology has made surfing around these parts somewhat bearable if you’re committed enough.

The car journey with Drew goes faster than expected. We end up rocking out to The Tragically Hip, several cups of strong coffee, and half a Canadian cigarette. Time flies as we negotiate a few snowflakes and a couple of ‘semis’ – cargo trucks that make the South African variety look like toy cars in comparison.

Eventually we pull up in a grove of tall pine trees. Drew puts the car in ‘park’, then turns to me and says, “Okay, we’re here – suit up.” “Aren’t we going to check it out first?” I ask.

“Nah – suit up, dude!” he replies. “We’re getting in, no matter what.” I mumble something about the waves in the distance looking kak, but Drew isn’t biting; he reckons you can’t tell from the beach. “Let’s go, eh!” he says, with unrelenting Canadian cheeriness.

After the rigmarole of putting on wetsuits, booties, hoodies and gloves, we trudge down to the shoreline. As we hit the water, my mind and body immediately go into spasm. I never get used to this part.

Holy balls, it’s cold! the voice inside my head screams. Just keep paddling, don’t stop moving, paddle-paddle-paddle! Fark, I had it good in Durban… it was so warm… so warm!

Gradually the layer of insulated water between my skin and the thick neoprene I’m wearing warms me up. The three cups of coffee I’d had earlier help the process.

When I stop shivering, I realise Drew was right – the waves are much better than they looked from afar. The wind is puffing light offshore, and the punchy swell is producing left and right peaks that shift between a series of sandbars. A forest of tall redwoods lines the shore. There’s snow on the mountain peaks in the distance, and a storm is predicted to come in soon.

But for now, the sun is shining in Canada.

2 Comments

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  2. Doug VN
    23 March, 2022 at 5:56 am · Reply

    Great article Doug! Really enjoyed the read and humour within (eh!). Take a look at Aussie style-king Torren Martyn and his cold water surf-ventures. That’ll help ignite the stoke of hunting and surfing cold line ups. All the best from another Doug

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