The Perfect Storm - and maybe a Sasquatch
It’s 3 p.m. on Chesterman Beach, Tofino and I can barely hear myself think as waves the size of houses crash against a wintry coastline littered with copper-colored logs. I’ve been standing here under a gunmetal sky for 10 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 damp lips, I can’t help smiling: 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 British Columbia’s attractive Pacific shore. But in recent years, many have come back in the off-season for a quite different experience: facing down the wild west ocean, before scampering under cover for some blood-thawing pampering.
Back in my room at the rustically luxe Wickaninnish Inn, 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 the 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.
Up early the next morning, I’m soon blinking in a pool of unexpected sunlight on my balcony. Smiling dog walkers stroll across the beach under an almost cloud-free blue 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 Canada’s West Coast weather can change on a dime. Like having two vacations in one, I begin planning for an unanticipated day outdoors.
On the beach an hour later, steam rises from sun-baked rocks studded with terracotta-orange starfish and clusters of shiny mussels. The tide is out, but I can hear it rumbling in the distance, gearing up for another assault. Driftwood shards, glittery shells and rubbery tubes of seaweed 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 eco-system. 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 creature. “I believe I’ve seen a sasquatch,” says Dorst quietly, recalling a spine-tingling Christmas Day experience 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 at the funky TacoFino food truck, I drop by the longhouse-style Eagle Aerie Gallery to peruse artist Roy Henry Vickers’ richly-colored nature paintings. When I stroll the waterfront a few minutes later, I can see a real longhouse across the inlet, centerpiece of a local First Nations community.
Back at the hotel a few hours later, 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 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 some butter-baked halibut as the tempest licks across the beach outside.
If you go:
Wickaninnish Inn: www.wickinn.com.
Adrian Dorst: www.adriandorst.com.
Eagle Aerie Gallery: www.royhenryvickers.com.
Tourism Tofino: www.tourismtofino.com.
Storm watching tips:
The optimum period for storm watching in Tofino is from November to the end of February. The waves can be very unpredictable during storm season and 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.
Never turn your back on the waves and always be cognizant of where the water is by continually keeping it in your peripheral vision.
Do not climb on the rocks: it’s easy to slip, fall, get cut-off or be plucked into the water by large waves.