Trip Report: Tofino, BC
Despite living in California until I was 9 years old, I’m always been much more of a “mountain” girl than an “ocean” girl. Before committing to moving to Idaho when I was 9, my family and I would visit a cabin we had there for summer and Christmas, instilling a love of skiing, hiking, and backpacking in us. Maybe this is why, for my first week-long intensive surf camp, I chose to surf in a locale that my friends found crazy when I told them: the rainy, Pacific northwest destination of Tofino, British Columbia in mid-September.
I had surfed a few times before over my lifetime in the typical vacation spots most people do; California, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Mexico. But those surf ventures had always been an afternoon folly at most and no skills were ever built up. But my love of adventure sports had begun to pile up and now that I had rock climbing, mountain biking, slacklining, skateboarding, soccer, and snowboarding under my belt, it seemed like surfing might be something I could have a knack and a passion for if given the right circumstances. Thus, my inertia to find a surf camp.
I looked at various surf camps around the world from Portugal to California, but none seemed right. Simultaneously, Tofino began to pop up on my periphery in various forms. An article in Outside convinced me that the town was an up-and-coming hip spot and it was added to my travel list. As my interest in surfing grew, I checked various surf books out of the library, one of which, by a female author, talked of her learning to surf in Tofino with the female-run Surf Sister surf camp. Once I looked into the camp, I knew this was the spot and place for me. All the pieces fell into place after I quit my job as Deputy Editor at a magazine at the beginning of summer 2018 and was freelancing, free to travel and work at my leisure. I booked the camp for September 10-14 and hit the road three days before it started.
In addition to thinking me crazy for doing a surf camp in freezing waters in a freezing local during a rainy and cold time of year, the fact that I was going to drive all the way from Sun Valley, Idaho to Tofino confirmed it. But as a rock climber, I’m pretty used to driving far distances to reach climbing destinations—Smith Rock, Bishop, Red Rocks—and didn’t bat an eye at the concept. I also had plans to visit various areas of the Pacific northwest after the camp and car seemed to be the easiest way to do it.
So over the course of three days, I drove; I drove A LOT. I spent a night in Pendleton, Oregon; then slept at a hostel and enjoyed vegan food in Vancouver; then took a ferry and drove the winding roads of Vancouver Island until I reached Tofino, the HI-Tofino/Whaler’s Point Guesthouse specifically. Despite driving all day and taking an hour-and-a-half long ferry, I was excited to explore the small town and immediately headed out on foot to see all Tofino had to offer. The seemingly “off-the-beaten-path” town has the feel of a hippie surf town but with an extremely hip (if not expensive) vibe; there are tons of gift shops and galleries and restaurants and bars serving up local, sustainable fare. I stopped at trendy restaurant Shed and ordered a vodka/soda from their hip bar staff as well as a tofu appetizer that ended up being possibly the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. After perusing town and looking at the menus of places I added to a mental list to come back to this week, I went back to my hostel to eat dinner and catch some zzzs before my first day of camp.
I woke up the morning of camp to rain and couldn’t have been more pumped to get in
the water. I met a fellow surfer and Rocky Mountain dweller in the kitchen as a guy from Aspen noticed my “Idahome” sweatshirt and we talked about ski resorts, the housing crisis in our respectful towns, skis passes, and more. We parted ways to both hit the surf.
Surf Sister instructed us to meet them at North Chesterman’s beach where surfers were aplenty, but the beach and ocean were more. Locals drove by the parking lots with surfboard and Thule racks on top of their cars, giving the lot a discerning look as they determined that perhaps, due to the full parking lot of beginners being taught, they should head to a different beach. Those there to learn to surf milled around nervously in the parking lot, looking for the van full of gear that corresponded to the company they had booked with. We were all handed wet suits, booties, and pink “Surf Sister” rash guards to keep all us yuppies easily visible and headed to the beach.
At the beach, we spent a while going over ocean safety and the concept of surfing, but there’s only so much to be said before you really just have to get in the water and learn. We spent the next several hours flopping around like a really slow movie montage of people learning to surf except that at the end of the montage, we all still sucked pretty bad. I had one successful ride all the way to shore which made me think I had nailed it and all my rides after would be like it but alas, that was naïve and optimistic. I finished the day on a fall but with a grin on my face as I knew I had more days to get the hang of it.
After camp and feeling exhausted, I took a hot shower, made lunch, and passed out for a several hour long nap. Despite the amazing feeling of being in my bed and napping, I knew that I had to put in some work hours (life of a freelancer baby!) so I dragged myself to Common Loaf Bake Shop, just a few blocks from my hostel (well, everything in this town is really just a few blocks) and got an iced almond milk latte with a vegan peanut butter chocolate bar. It seemed everywhere in this town had vegan options which is awesome for a vegan like me and pretty progressive for such a small town. I stopped at the “liquor store” which is pretty much beer and wine and about 10 bottles of actual liquor. I got a bottle of red wine and two Jack Daniels and cokes in a can to see if drinking those will let me skirt the hostel’s “no liquor” policy. I made dinner at the hostel and then stayed up too late talking and playing guitar with my Dutch roommate.
I was awoken fairly early the next morning by the sound of rain truly torrentially downpouring and hoped that it would clear up by the time I had to surf. Lucky for me, it did, and we headed to Cox Bay to surf instead. The path to the beach is like that at North Chesterman’s; a forested path that suddenly opens out onto a beautiful beach. This one was, similarly to the day before, almost empty and we had our pick of waves. The weather was miraculously sunny the entire time we were out there and waves were less tumultuous than they were in the bad weather of yesterday. After making a few minor adjustments to my practice based on some tips from both instructors, something finally clicked in me and I began standing up on every wave I caught. With a sense of pride, I finished off camp’s second day feeling like I was truly progressing. I crashed for the afternoon after a shower and lunch, did some work with a coffee and a vegan cookie I picked up from The Tofitian Coffee Shop and headed into town to peruse shops and get some dinner. I popped in and out of stores but stopped at The Factory Tofino, a workshop for a leatherworker, jeweler, and photographer where they also sell their goods. I bought a beautiful silver bracelet from the jeweler and a small photo print from the photographer. From there I headed to Surf Sister’s shop and ended up buying a couple stickers, a mug, a Surf Sister t-shirt, and a Sex Wax air freshener that made my car smell very beachy-keen.
For dinner, I visited vegetarian/vegan restaurant Bravacados. I ordered panko-crusted avocado wedges with vegan aioli and scrambled tofu breakfast tacos. The meal and service were so-so and I ended up wishing I had just cooked dinner at the hostel. I got back to the hostel and read for a bit before crashing with the tiredness that surfing instills in me daily.
I woke on morning three and the weather gods had blessed us with no rain! We met at Cox Bay again, and this time I brought some water and watermelon juice to the beach, a real game-changer. This day is even better than the one before and I stood for almost every ride, even doing some turns. Things certainly had progressed! A headache and pain in my eyes kept me from truly enjoying myself as much as I did the day before, and I was glad when it was time to head back to the cars. I followed my daily ritual of shower, lunch, and a long nap at the hostel before heading to Rhino Coffee on Campbell Street (the main street in Tofino) and enjoyed an iced Americano while I worked. I finished up work at the hostel and ate dinner with my roommate Yannika who convinced me to play some guitar for a girl who asked and as I’m playing, two boys (one very drunk) started dancing along and plopped down their 30-rack of Coors and started peppering us with questions, mostly regarding whether we’re going to karaoke tonight. As much as my love for karaoke was calling me, I knew that if I stayed out late, I’d regret it in the morning, and since I only had one day of surf camp left, I wanted to make it count. So instead, I headed to bed.
My last day of surf camp, we headed out of the white water to catch some green waves. The weather and the ocean were in a funny mood and we didn’t end up catching much, mostly because the green waves weren’t even big enough to catch. The same ended up being true of the white water waves but overall, it was a good camp and I definitely learned a lot.