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Surf's Up - On a Cold Canadian Kayaking Winter's Day

Days grow colder and shorter. Leaves change color and flutter from the trees. The sun slowly migrates south. Along the Pacific shore of Western Canada, shorter days bring bigger waves. Colder weather sends the tourists south in search of the sun. What a perfect time for surfing in Tofino.


Catching whitewater.  Tristan CreesI boarded the Nanaimo ferry in search of a girl who told me over the telephone that I could identify her by her short, mousy hair. She had offered me a ride to Tofino where we would join 22 other hardy souls ready and eager to brave the frigid water. My eyes locked onto a tall, pretty girl. Somehow, among the hundreds of passengers on the ferry, I knew she was looking for me. Mousy hair? That isn't the way I would describe her shiny brown feather cut. I could tell it was going to be an even better weekend than I had anticipated.

Her station-wagon was loaded with ocean kayaks, not the most agile craft for rolling 12-foot ocean breakers. The drive to Tofino along a dark winding road was treacherous, but that didn't prevent locals from passing us at breakneck speed. The four strangers in the car entertained me with music, jokes and conversation. We were greeted with more music when we arrived at the hotel. Our group, the Simon Fraser Outdoors Club, had booked the entire lodge.

The next morning, 27 people stood tall at water's edge in skintight neoprene, everyone color-coordinated thanks to the outfitter's rental service. Only our faces peeked out from beneath the dive hoods. Wet boots and neoprene gloves were a must and hypothermia was the main concern of the day as the wind whipped the rain along the beach. Our toys were 20 white water kayaks with a few surfboards and boogie boards thrown in for fun. Ocean kayaks were deemed unnecessary for this sort of punishment. The longer Ocean Waves were not nimble enough to play on these ocean waves.

Several members of the group sat in their kayaks on the beach, lifejackets and spray skirts on, paddle in hand, waiting for waves to wash them into the surf. Like seals, who hop and wiggle clumsily into the waves, once they hit the water they were as agile as dolphins. Surfers dragged many kayaks into the sea as the kayakers looked eagerly out into the breaking 12-foot waves. The neoprene hoods muted the crash and roar of the waves. The whole scene was surreal.

Surfers and Kayakers catching the big one.  Tristan CreesMy first encounter with a wave stung like a blizzard. A wall of white water engulfed my kayak head on, throwing freezing water in my face and salt into my eyes. The force of the 4-foot wall of frothing white water forced me back, but I struggled forth into the next wave. This happened repeatedly until I felt I was ready to take on a big one. Eager to catch some white water, I turned. It hit and I flew ahead as if propelled by jets. Blinded by spray, I leaned back to avoid digging the kayak’s nose into the water. The kayak spun sideways on the wave as I was hurtled to shore.

As my confidence grew, I ventured out into deeper water. I was getting closer to the waves as they broke. They would crest at about 12 feet, slam down and pulverize anything in their path. One wave caught me off guard and flipped me over. Being upside down in 7-degree (Celsius) surf was a shock. I tried to right myself by poling with my paddle off the bottom, but it was too deep. Even the pros were having trouble rolling in this stuff. I lifted my head above water to breathe quickly and saw a huge wave barreling down on me. My face burned from the cold and blood rushed to my head. I panicked. Visions of dying upside down in a kayak raced through my head. My sense of self-preservation finally kicked in and I took a few seconds to calm down. The task at hand was simple. Find the release chord on the spray skirt and get out. The skirt seals too tightly to allow you to simply push yourself out of the kayak. The only trouble was, I could not feel anything with my thick neoprene gloves and cold hands. I reached in the general direction of the chord, grasped what felt like water and pulled. It took two attempts to pull the chord and I pushed out of the kayak just as the wave caught the upside hull and dragged it towards the beach.

A Wet Exit.  Tristan CreesI was lucky. One kayaker was hit so hard by a wave, he dislocated his shoulder. Being tough, he waited half an hour, popped it back in and ran back into the water with a boogie board. It was a much safer pastime. I, too, decided surfing and boogie boarding were safer and I stuck with those for the rest of the day.

Two hours of this cold surf was the limit for most of us. Towards the end, we resorted to running along the beach to warm up. The driving rain and bitter cold was too much. That night, in an A-frame cabin around a fireplace we swapped stories of our adventures. Then the scene grew wild. A fellow hoisted himself up and swung from the rafters. Twelve people started dancing to a particularly catchy tune on top of a bed and broke it down. A few wanderers set off in search of a good bar, or "scene" but they soon returned. Tofino, they discovered, is usually a quiet town, but that didn't keep us from partying until late. But not too late, we had to surf the next morning.

A tangerine sun rose against a teal-blue sky. The day and the surf were perfect. We were eager to get started. Despite the rip tide that scattered us down the beach, there were no problems. All too soon we had to head back to Vancouver. We caught the last ferry home. My fellow adventurers tired and worn out from surfing, snoozed in the lounge. Not me! I headed down to the car decks to play Frisbee. Trucks framed our "field" and the sea breeze wafting through freshened the air. It was an enjoyable way to unwind after a perfect weekend. Where to next, I mused.

For more information

Go to the Tofino/Long Beach Chamber of Commerce and Information Center website at http://www.island.net/~tofino/

Or phone them at 250-725-3414. (The office is closed until March 1, 2000, but the Chamber of Commerce will still mail you information if you leave them a message with your name and mailing address.)

For more BC information go to travel.bc.ca