Dark spruce and cedar forest swayed, leaning over the narrow highway, hissing gently to the subtle changes of breeze and persistent heavy rain. The road itself, a mere thread through the darkness, hemmed in by miles of wet, cold and wild forest. I stepped from the car tired and arctophobic*. My only comfort, a Radio One mix blasting out of the oversized jeep we’d hired; surely Carl Cox would keep bears, cougars and wolves at bay, long enough for me to empty my bladder? This was no joke either, I have a fascination for going to places where things are properly wild, where things can and do go wrong, but Canada is turning it up a notch. Not only is Vancouver Island 75% wilderness, but also that wilderness is full of creatures, which will eat you, and do.
To think, fourteen hours ago I was sat in a London airport terminal, the last ten were spent on a super comfy Air Canada flight and now I was ten feet away from being bear food – brilliant. We were en-route to Tofino, a small fishing and holiday town nestled mid way up the west coast of the island. It sits on a peninsula of dense forest, to the west numerous sandy coves and the Pacific, to the east sheltered waterways and to the north virgin surf frontier. In town were our companions for the next three weeks, a bunch of guys, adventurers on a crowded planet, all looking for some coldwater solitude. Timmy Turner had hooked us up. The classic explorer/filmmaker was keen to get us into the wilds of Canada having spent some time together in Iceland and Ireland. He’d paved the way for us to join him and legends of Canadian surfing: Raph and Sepp Bruhwiler. Being a lover of the cold and wild places for waves, I’d always looked at the two Canadians as two surfing frontiersmen and the chance to go exploring in their backyard with them as hosts, was one not to be passed up.
Timmy is pretty light when it comes to e-mail. All we’d got in a few weeks of correspondence was a Tofino telephone number and two lines basically saying, see you there. We’d booked tickets on this basis and hit the road. Only problem was the number was wrong, instead of it being Sepp Bruhwilers’, we had the number of a random Tofino resident who was none-too-pleased to hear from us on the third attempt. We trucked on regardless, rain pelting down as we hit the flat coast road, still hemmed in by trees, not so worried about bears now, but the tsunami warning signs opened up a whole new avenue of fear. It was gone midnight by the time we showed up in Tofino, a place which had been described to me before my departure as a more hippy version of Newquay. All I can say is that the only similarity between the two towns is their proximity to the ocean, there on in they couldn’t be more different. We found Raphs’ house straightaway, his surf school nestled alongside, but having only ever corresponded through a third party we decided it would be rude to wake him. Therefore, as we had done on many a past expedition, we found a place out of the rain and bedded down. This time it was a semi trailer, that’s a lorry in English, which offered shelter from the drizzle for the night.
With the light seeping into the murk of a Canadian November morning we got a first glimpse of Tofino. Wooden houses lined the docks and a low mist hung over the densely forested inlet. A few fishing boats motored in and out but apart from these it was eerily still. A cup of coffee, and a respectful wait till nine am, and we knocked on Raphs’ door. Raph welcomed us and got us out of the drizzle and into his kitchen as he tried to explain where the cabin was in which Timmy was holed up. He gave up explaining after a second attempt and just drove us down the road to his folks’ place. There was the cabin, along with Timmy, an insane view and a curious fellow called Jet Ski Joe. Pancakes, coffee a lot of catch up talk and we were warmly welcomed to North America.
The next couple of days were typically Canadian winter. A bit windy, wet on and off but not too cold, the surf was unruly but we had a go at a few local spots with little in the way of reward. We found out that Tofino has an excellent selection of health food style eateries. Everything from breakfast burritos to awesome muffins were devoured at a number of establishments. I had been forewarned about the quality of the local ale though, despite the fact that British Columbia prides its self on its microbreweries. Its lager is on par with the worst Australia has to offer and its ales, well…….. I spotted an ale proclaiming to be a winter warmer, naturally I assumed it would be a strong dark bitter, unfortunately I got a dark coloured lager flavoured with vanilla – more foul a brew I had not tasted outside Belgium. But that aside Tofino is a town of incredible beauty. Its beaches are clean and lined with pine forests; all facing different directions they deal with all angles of swell. On the landward side the inland waters are calm and perfect for fishing or just simply exploring in a canoe.
We had eased into life, steadily getting fatter for three days before the weather broke and the first mission was on. It was like a warm up, of fairly serious proportions. Two hours away by boat was a ripable lefthander, only way in is by water, and when you get there you have to swim all your gear in through the surf. Fine, this is what we were here for. Four guys were on a boat on the way in and the other four were on skis. I had never been on a ski in my life and Battrick had only been towed into a couple of bombs at Aileen’s, so our sum experience was a little better than zero. We now had a two hour open ocean ski ride in six feet of choppy swell. Not only that, it was freezing; wetties, gloves, hood and then a bright orange survival suit, were donned for the ride. The only issue was turning the thing on as the rest of the crew left the harbour laughing. The ride in was spectacular, once we’d mastered the initial trauma of how a Jet Ski actually works it was pretty straightforward.
The journey was split into three parts, the first a quick dash through rocky islets with a fair bit of swell running, no biggie though. Then you’re onto the inside passage, a narrow calm waterway behind several islands, it’s easy going here, unless you were the ESPN reporter on the back of Jet Ski Joe’s PWC. He needed to deal with some stunt driving which led to him being dismounted more than once, thus finding out why Jet Ski Joe got his name. The final leg is a half hour dash through solid swell to the wave. On arrival it’s a simple case of anchor in the channel and get dropped in the shorebreak by the other ski and swim in with every bit of camera gear I owned. The swell was about three foot straight onto the beach, a beach of cobbles not sand. Timmy had gone in on the first run, he made it to the beach but his peli case, full of video gear, was heading out to sea. Now I was in the sea but going nowhere, with just a dry bag between every piece of equipment I owned and the North Pacific. Sepp eventually slung me right into the shorebreak where I promptly lost the bag and could only watch as it was pitched onto the cobblestones, closely followed by myself. I sat with Timmy on the edge of the forest, both of us having almost lost all of our gear. We now had to cross a medium sized river to get into a position to shoot; and this is an easy wave to reach. The wave itself was fun, a cobblestone reef, hollow in sections and pretty whack-able. It was nothing amazing, except for the fact that we were in the middle of nowhere, with the only access by sea.
Josh Mulcoy soon came in, this wasn’t what he’d come up from Santa Cruz for, and we sat by the river mouth as he told me about past bear encounters. He then got up and went surfing, leaving me on the beach, backed by dense rainforest with another severe case of arctophobia kicking in. Every breaking stick in the forest, every bird that disturbed a branch made me jump, and I spent the next hour planning escape routes. Would it be better to run into the ocean leaving my camera gear, or protect my gear and risk a mauling? Fortunately I never had to choose. The journey back was easier, I managed to claim photographer’s rights and sit on the boat, and it meant a chance to genuinely appreciate the surroundings.
As the watery sun sank into the Pacific Ocean, it lit up the layers of mountain ranges on the island. From rolling forested hills right through to snow capped weathered peaks. Vancouver Island rises quickly from sea level, a sign of a tortured geological past and future. The deepwater trench just offshore makes for severe earthquake risk, but it also makes for powerful surf, as swells pour out of the North Pacific and barely slow down before hitting Vancouver Island’s reefs.
Back in Tofino and it’s one of these waves that our attention turns to, it’s why we were desperate to come here. A right hand slab, made famous by the Bruhwiler boys and another local Pete Devries. Charts were studied for hours, and our worst fears were confirmed, the swell of the year was on the way. I know usually on a surf trip you’d be jumping for joy but for this wave you didn’t really want that much swell, and the swell that was coming would be big enough to light up Mavericks at a size and perfection that hadn’t been seen for a decade. Frustrated we were soon comforted by Sepp and Raph who had another wave up their sleeves.
The Bruhwilers On face value Sepp and Raph Bruhwiler have grown up in a cold-water paradise, in and around Tofino. This would appear to be idyllic, but as with any existence in places like this things have been tumultuous at times. They come from a hard working background, their father Vern is a Swiss born lumberjack, who came to British Columbia for trees, met his wife Gisele and settled for good. The boys, their brother Francis and sister Cath, grew up on Chesterman’s Beach, one of the more sheltered coves in the area, but it was at neighbouring Mackenzie Beach that Raph first saw an old timer surfing. Inspired, he got his old man to make him a board from plywood, which he attempted to surf on. Eventually him and his mates got to share a longboard and between that and a half pipe in his backyard, board riding became an obsession. This was the catalyst that has led to both brothers not only becoming Canada’s most recognised pros but also two of North America’s, which is no mean feat.
The two brothers are quite different though, Raph the elder has a smooth, refined style, is solid in any waves especially the big hollow variety. Sepp is stocky and powerful, a little more raw but has a modern aerial and backhand attack which is no less impressive. The two have grown up through tough times in Tofino. They spent years helping their father in the trees and have therefore become great woodsmen in their own right, and if social upheaval hadn’t left the logging industry in the area in tatters their paths may have been very different. The town has gone through two big changes during their lifetime. First the town’s longest standing industry, fishing, collapsed. The closure of the town’s fish processing plant as fish stocks had to be protected to preserve them, was a major economic blow.
However it was the environmental lobby of the early nineties to halt large scale logging in the area that drove the biggest wedge into this peaceful community. The 1993 Clayoquot protests saw an invasion of hippies and environmentalists to the small town; an invasion which was none too welcome amongst the traditional residents. The logging industry was severely curbed, and the town started to develop more intensively into the holiday town it is now. The local population has dwindled due to the declining industry and the young have had to turn to things like surf schools, game fishing and whale watching tours to survive and continue living in Tofino. Both brothers have made a success of this and they both have surf schools in the town, allowing them to live on in the area despite rising property prices and the influx of big money from the nearby cities. The seasonality of the surf school business does mean they have the prime autumn months to surf some epic waves, often alone, and to explore, so its not surprising the two of them have become world class surfers.
The Caesar, Canada’s favourite Cocktail Clamato juice? At first I thought it was a joke, as I pulled on a Canadian, a palatable but unremarkable lager. Then Canadian photographer, Jeremy Koreski, included Ian and me in the next round. We’d been driving for seven hours or so in torrential rain and were ready to drink anything to be honest, but what the hell was Clamato juice? Raph explained: it’s a mix of tomato juice and clam broth, and is part of Canada’s most popular cocktail, The Caesar, to which vodka adds the alcohol. I almost puked after the first – no wonder Americans think the Canadians are a strange bunch. Five rounds later I had to give in, and admit that I didn’t really like tomato or clam juice, and definitely not the two combined, but when in Rome etc. We were in a bar that was about to close, in a town on the edge of nowhere, and in the morning we were taking a two-hour boat ride to nowhere itself. The Canadians had booked the last room in the motel by the port, Ian had found an open laundry block and had his sleeping arrangements sorted amongst the dryers. Timmy and myself opted for the old fashioned front seat of our respective vehicles in the parking lot. It rained all night, and the clamato based cocktails repeated horrendously.
At around seven am we were all dockside, somewhat the worse for wear, launching skis and loading up our water taxi. The dock felt like we were on the very tip of modern civilisation. Rugged fishing boats stood dormant alongside the dock, a light mist lay between them as the previous night’s moisture still filled the air. A weak winter sun rose over the pine forests in the distance. The deal was, we’d be ferried in to a river mouth, left for five days, and on the fifth day the boat would come back on high tide and pick us up. In between times we were on our own. By on our own I mean two hours by water or eight hours on foot, bring everything in we needed, sort of on our own.
We brought enough to feed a small army: shit loads of fish, every sort of snack food, a few veggies and a lot of alcohol. After all it was Timmy’s birthday, and then it was Thanksgiving the next day plus it gets dark at five. When you are sandwiched between a huge dark wilderness full of large animals and the freezing North Pacific there is little else to do but drink, so by six thirty all bear worries are gone and you’re tucked up in bed for the night. We also had a generator. I think Timmy managed to blag it from Huntington Beach city council or something; he wanted it to charge his H-Bomb batteries. Rip Curl’s newest search team member, and hardest core, was very well prepared.
Night one involved a lot of weapon firing; did I mention we had to take a gun? Well we did, and not for a laugh either, last time Raph and Jeremy had been here they had to scare bears off whilst Koreski tried to take photos. Ryan our resident hunting licence owner was the man with the small arsenal, and after a few wildlife related horror stories around the fire more than a few rounds of Buckshot were unleashed into the wilderness, just to give the local fur clad population a little friendly advice. None turned up to investigate thank God and by morning a small swell was unloading on the river mouth sandbar.
The setup was pretty sick. A tree lined river mouth held a shingle bank in place, which as the tide dropped shaped a fast, sucky little left, a mini Mundaka if you like, which in the next couple of days was to receive one of the biggest swells of the Pacific winter. The boys surfed through the tide, Canadian photog Jeremy shot from the Ski leaving Jet Ski Joe and me alone on a beach well known for its bears. All I wanted to do was get a good angle from down the bay, but with every step away from camp a voice in the back of my head was just screaming BEAR! Every movement of undergrowth made me a little nervous. Of course nothing came of it and the session ended bear-free. We were all soon around the fire, Raph had brought in a huge chainsaw with us so the fire was as good as fires get. He then pulled out a freshly smoked salmon fillet, placed it on a freshly hewn chopping board, mixed up a bit of Wasabi, and we all feasted on Sashimi. Raph is not only a very accomplished back-woods man but also a very civilised one. It then started to rain, and didn’t really stop for the next 48 hours. Thanksgiving passed in a blur of beer, rain, honey glazed salmon and Jet Ski Joe setting fire to himself. It also left both Timmy’s and our tent waterlogged due to the continuous downpours. Sitting around the fire the weather radio was about all we could get hold of and it told of an impending monstrous swell, an 18 plus second period – not to be laughed at.
It was around this time that Sepp’s resolve broke and he had to get out, mainly because his other half was just a week from expecting their second child, so the next morning he and Ryan made a dash for port on one of the two skis. The conditions were not great with a howling headwind; we all listened to the radio intently for the following few hours. A Mayday came out and the coastguard was called, but after a nervous wait it wasn’t for Sepp and Ryan, they had made it back to safety on what sounded like vapours alone, and were probably already sipping on Caesars whilst we stressed.
The following day and the swell built and as the tide dropped out in the evening the sandbar was absolutely grinding, head to double overhead waves were churning down the river mouth. Unfortunately the combination of rain and light meant that most went undocumented. Grom Noah got an absolute bomb, as did Ian. Raph was the standout though, getting slotted and destroying the long walls. That night we drank and ate pretty much everything that was left and listened to the swell build; it was a restless night, a combination of swell and rain made it hard to sleep.
At first light the river mouth was maxed out as the tide pushed, offshore bombies broke everywhere. The boys took on the left and were rewarded with some serious beatings; barrels were few and far between as the tide pushed and swell built. This was all great, but we had to ski everything out through the closed out river mouth to the water taxi as it waited offshore. Raph was designated driver and he made the first run with grom Noah riding pillion, no biggie he made it but it did little to calm nerves. The next run was with most of our camera gear and Jeremy holding onto it hopefully. The boys charged it racing a solid six footer across the bar, it was out running them when the ski started to cavitate (sucking up air, not water). Raph and Jeremy barely made it over the wave in the shorebreak, but the landing knocked everything off the ski’s sled, at this point my 600mm lens (actually Selway’s), was hanging off the back of the sled by just a bungee cord. Jeremy, realising the importance of this, made a grab for it, and held on tight, the eight grand lens survived. A good job, as I don’t have insurance. The next few runs were all pretty sketchy and we were eventually all loaded on the boat. But it didn’t end there, we were motoring back avoiding a series of bombies, all capping in the 10 feet plus range on huge gravel banks. I just happened to look at Raph whose eyes suddenly went wide and he was hurriedly putting his wetsuit gloves back on. Over my shoulder a solid twenty foot face wave was feathering, our skipper faced up to it gunning the engines and we were in our version of the Andrea Gail in The Perfect Storm. We made it airing off the back, closely followed by Timmy on the Ski. We were all nervously laughing, slightly ashen faced, Timmy on the other hand was yelling, “did anyone film that?” He was visibly pissed off that we hadn’t, it would have been a classic moment.
The Right We’d been waiting for the go on this; two missions had been aborted due to adverse weather, not in Tofino, but on the stretch of coast where the wave is found. The reef you see is exposed, and whilst on a lot of days it is possible to get there, it would be very easy to get stuck there for weeks on end, not something you’d want to do at the beginning of December. The ride in was pretty straightforward, past sea lion colonies and miles of virgin rainforest, part of the largest tract of temperate rainforest left on Earth. The setup at the spot is perfect, a gap in the reef allows for a safe mooring and landing, a natural clearing in the trees provides a camp ground and out front is a sick little right slab, with what can only be described as the most awesome backdrop in the surfing world, comprised of pine forests and snow capped peaks. After erecting camp, getting a mediocre fire going and preparing food for later, Timmy, along with his bro Ryan (who had joined us for a few days) and Battrick hit the water intending to tow the unruly swell. The direction was wrong and the wind was little better, oh and the tide was too low. Still the three of them whipped into some double overhead peaks with little in the way of success, Timmy ended up with one pit whilst Battrick pulled into an absolute mutant with no escape route. A little disappointed we gathered around the fire. Whisky and beers did the rounds, freshly caught trout were cooked on the open fire as the sky cleared and stars twinkled between the towering fronds of the spruce forest around us. We were in a truly privileged position, in virgin wilderness with a sick wave out front, good food and good company, and no sign of a bear.
The morning was freezing, wetsuits lay rigid with frost and boards had an icy coating, and there was a bear on the beach. The surf looked a little confused still, bigger than we’d hoped and from a slightly bad direction. The camp was a little down, so coffee was brewed and the tide slowly began to flood. Raph and Ryan came in from a sleepless night on Ryan’s boat, unhappy with the conditions, but we all decided to give it a bash. From the side angle it looked doable. Pete Devries was first out. One of the next generation of Vancouver Island pros he knows this place as well as anyone and as he was joined by Raph he slipped into the first decent wave of the day getting spat out into the channel. It was apparent from side on that wave selection was everything. Timmy, Ian and Ryan Turner had all taken serious beatings when Pete turned again underneath a bomb and proceeded to drop into the wave of the day. He rode the length of the reef before the angle of the swell shut the end section down leaving him just a metre or so away from making a sick barrel. This as it turned out would be par for the course, the swell direction just wasn’t quite right and whilst Raph, Pete and Ryan found a couple more barrels it was far from epic. We came back to camp a little disappointed, but we also had a race to get out of there.
The next day the weather was to turn and we couldn’t risk travelling at night due to logs in the water, so everything was loaded and we were out of there before you could say Drop Box. One of the things we had learnt was you had to know when to get out of the wilderness, stay beyond your welcome and shit will go wrong. The ride back in the boat was spectacular, it was going to be our last little adventure after three weeks and the clouds broke and treated us to an incredible Pacific sunset as we dodged through islets.
Back in the pub in Tofino we sat sipping a couple of cold ones whilst we waited for Timmy and his brother to arrive on their skis. They had ben forced to stop and get fuel at an Indian Reservation on the way back and it was a relief to see them a couple of hours after dark. The next couple of days were wet and stormy, and we left Timmy and our new friends in Tofino and headed back to reality and the homogenous ‘civilised’ world.
Three weeks in or around the Canadian wilderness left me feeling disappointed to be back in full on civilization, but I slipped back into it all too easily. It wasn’t long before I was getting annoyed that I had seen one of the films on our flight home before, what a stress eh? Then to top it all off back in London I got pickpocketed, £40 gone, jeez I’d survived everything the North Pacific winter could throw at us: bears, wolves, cougars and a lot of Canadian liquor only to be robbed back in civilization, where allegedly nothing can go wrong, I guess I wasn’t prepared for it.
* Arctophobic – a fear of bears