I live in an old cedar cabin perched atop a rock looking over an inlet off the North Pacific ocean. The living room window we call Channel One, and the glass paneled door on the wood stove is Channel Two. Both are lovely, but I ultimately prefer the more dynamic and expansive Channel One. We don’t actually have a T.V. On the walls of the cabin are marine charts— cartographic representations of what I can see out my window. Only, if you were to draw a box around the section of chart visible from the window, it’d be about the size of a post-it note on a three-and-a-half foot map. Every day as I go about my house business, sipping coffee, reading, writing, cooking, I end up staring at those charts a lot. They help me visualise the maze of mountainous islands and channels that make up Clayoquot Sound, the “backyard” of our little town at the end of the Esowista Peninsula: Tofino, British Columbia.
The thing about backyards is that during our busy lives, we seldom get out and use them. So after a summer of long workdays and evening chart-gazing, a rare weather window in late October provides the perfect opportunity to paddle out the back door, so to speak, and into the yard. And what a yard it is.
My paddling partner is a long-time friend, Kevin Hawker. He and I both migrated west around the same time, lured by oceans, mountains, and the promise of adventure. We learned to surf around the same time, and travelled extensively together around South America. Our shared experiences have taught me that the guy is annoyingly good at pretty much any physical activity he tries, and he’s probably one of the nicest dudes you’ll meet. In other words, a perfect adventure and life pal.
We depart the Esowista Peninsula in the early afternoon, about thirty six hours after deciding to green-light the trip. That morning, I invited Kev to try out a paddle-surfboard while I instructed a lesson in the small waves at South Chesterman beach. While my client had all his own fancy SUP-surf gear, a flat-brimmed hat, and very much talked-the-talk, Kevin out-surfed him handily, balancing well and using his paddle naturally. It was his second or third time ever on a standup paddleboard, and I knew we’d be fine for our circumnavigation of Vargas Island.
Our paddleboards this afternoon are 12-foot touring machines, and resemble flat-hull, flat-deck kayaks far more than they resemble surfboards. Casting off from First Street Dock— town has four cross-streets and they all have docks— the big boards easily float the weight of drybags we’ve strapped down. The added ballast increases momentum as we reach cruising speed, paddling in a rhythm of long, strong strokes across the harbour. There’s not a breath of wind, and despite the cool October air, the sun and paddle-strokes are both powerful and we’re sweating in minutes.
Our goal is to camp at a beach called Dick and Jane’s on the north shore of Vargas Island. Any semi-serious surfer in Tofino has heard tell of waves being found there, but in order to work, the spot requires a pretty good size swell to push through the Braybant and Russell Channels from the open ocean. Despite the small surf forecast, I’ve optimistically brought along my shortboard, and am dreaming of scoring some cheeky little rides on gasoline-free remote surf safari. We glide the glassy waters of the Maurus channel between Meares and Vargas Islands, beneath the imposing presence of Lone Cone and Catface mountains. I remind myself that this is a backcountry SUP and camp mission, and that if I don’t get to surf, that’s just fine! Surfers are crazy and have a tendency to lose perspective, always chasing waves in their heads.
We reach Dick and Jane’s within a few hours, and are able to carry our boards and supplies above the high tide-line just in time to crack the growler of fresh Kelp Stout from the brewery and watch the autumn sun sink into the sea. With a fairly empty stomach and a body tired and happy, my pint takes quick and pleasant effect. I take a deep draught of the air coming off the ocean, all cool and salty and clean in my lungs. I look out towards Bartlett Island and her daughters. Their punchy silhouettes are rendered in that acute definition generated by the soft but direct backlight only created in those fleeting moments when the sun is just below the horizon. The air is cooling quickly, and it doesn’t take long for goosebumps to replace beads of sweat on my bare arms. Giving my shoulders the first shiver-shake of the evening, I finish getting out of my wetsuit and we get going on the fire.
There’s an abundance of driftwood logs for fuel. Some old cedar shakes have washed up on shore and will make for some nice kindling. A piece of discarded plywood becomes the perfect kitchen table. Before long, we’ve got pesto veggies and smoked sausage sizzling in the cast iron pan as the fire contributes its own pops and hisses to the evening music. The stars have just poked through the darkening fabric of the sky, enjoying their brief opportunity to shine without competition from the moon, which is rising somewhere behind the impenetrable wall of old-growth Sitka Spruce lining the beach. Already, the contours of their crowns are defined, the sky behind them radiating that ghostly, silvery quality preceding moonrise. And still perceivable is still the faintest glow of orange along the western horizon.
So there I am, centred in a land of in-between, of liminality. Framed by sun and moon, stars and sand, mountain and ocean. Enjoying the food, drink, warmth, and light of home, while on the edge of raw, symphonic nature, a place I feel is both mine and not. There I am, positioned at some midpoint on the line of coming of age, too. Realizing the depth and breadth of all my relations, and how I’m really just their sum. I think that’s all anyone is, the sum of their relations. It’s a powerful idea, and not scary in the slightest if one always maintains respect.
Around a table of friends at home, a growler can disappear quicker than you can finish making the toast, but thanks to Kevin’s strategically small pours, we’re still enjoying it after dinner. We talk of girls, of surfing, of plans, both long and short term. Of earning and saving and spending money. Of balance, in all senses. Pretty soon I get the inkling that it’s time to do a “cloud reveal” of a special treat I’d brought along.
During our road-trip through Peru and Chile, we hiked extensively in the Andes. Often, clouds would obscure a peak we knew to be there. We’d wait, keeping an eye out for the “cloud reveal” when the mist would dissipate enough to expose the summit. Quickly though, “cloud reveal” infiltrated the slang in our camper van. More often than in its original context, we used the term to describe any kind of secret surprise, such as covertly buying chocolate, then surprising the group with it when lost, frustrated and looking for a gas station in the sweltering heat of a crusty mining town in the north Atacama.
Anyways, I had some nice tobacco to cloud reveal to Kev. Neither of us really smoke much pot, but we do both enjoy the dry, fragrant essence of tobacco on the right occasion, and this was certainly an occasion. Afterwards, with my feel hot from the fire, belly full of food, and head buzzing a little from the tobacco, I walk out to touch the ocean. It is electric cold, and feels awesome. My face is warm and I turn to the moon, which by this point, hovers silently above the sitkas, casting gossamer shadows across the beach. It illuminates the grandstand of mountains to my right so brightly I can see the contours of their faces. Thirty minutes later as I teeter on the verge of sleep, snuggling in my sleeping bag, I picture the my surroundings in vivid detail. I feel very connected. This is the good stuff. It really is!
The next morning, we wriggle from the tent and get the fire going. Its heat forms a small oasis of dry warmth in the utter dampness of the coastal dawn. The sky is still grey, but the winds and seas are both calm as can be. I look at my shortboard, and realize it’s main contribution to the trip will likely just be cool photo opportunities. But, lack of swell means that it will be a great day to paddle the outer coast of Vargas, across Ahous Bay and through the shoals and islands of the La Croix Group. The return to Tofino will be about 15km, the last 3 of which will require some hard paddling up a strong tidal current by my calculations; if we had all day, we could wait for the current to slacken, but Kev’s got to work at 2pm and we’re young and full of piss and vinegar. We finish our pesto sausage omelettes, slurp the last of the yerba mate, and hit the water.
We encounter a little wave action as we round Vargas' northwestern corner and begin our southward return along the outer coast. My hopes of surfing briefly reignite, but as we continue, cove after cove, including the mighty Ahous Bay, are flat as pancakes. There will be no surfing here. A pod of porpoises is flying around the bay, their little dorsal fins and shiny backs flashing in the sunlight. The eastern horizon is lined with the jagged, alpine peaks of the Strathcona Park, the interior spine of Vancouver Island. In front of these stand tall the rounded, treed faces of Catface and Lone Cone, presiding over us. Then there’s the lowlands of Vargas Island. From our vantage point midway down Ahous bay, the island seems to be opening its arms to us, inviting us in for a big embrace. But we ignore the hug offered and continue south.
We stop at Ahous’ southern terminus for a floating lunch break. As if to remind us to keep going, a sea lion, with it’s big honking forehead, surfaces. It is very large, and very close. We begin paddling. She follows. We paddle a little faster. They’re not dangerous, but her size alone is enough to make me uneasy. I’m not scared, but definitely very aware of her presence. We’re in her domain and she knows it.
The final leg of the journey, from the southwestern corner of Vargas back to Tofino Harbour, is where the burn begins. Massive amounts of water drain twice daily from the large inlets of Clayoquot Sound, bottlenecking in narrow channels between islands and peninsulas. Kevin and I savour the last easy paddling up an eddy along the south coast of Vargas. A few meters further offshore into the channel, we can see the ripples and boils of fast moving current flowing out to sea. Without hesitation, I nose into it and we’re off. We don’t stop paddling hard for 45 minutes. You can’t take breaks when paddling up a current or you lose all the distance you’ve just worked so hard to gain. I’d spent the summer on the water and was in great paddling shape, so it is no trouble. Kevin too had spent many months working planting trees and fighting fires, so has all strength required to muscle up the current and return safely home. It felt good to really let loose and paddle hard after such a relaxing trip.
The up-current grind doesn’t let up until I paddle into the eddy of the 1st street dock. Sweaty, happy, sun-kissed. Physically tired and mentally fired up as can be! Kev and I conclude the mission with a ceremonial and very official fist bump. It’s 20 minutes before 2pm, so it looks like he’ll make it to work on time.
That night, I let myself be absorbed into the chart on the wall that started this all. I look at the contours and crannies, the channels and bays. I think about the currents. I visualise the places on the chart I’ve been, and fantasize about the myriad I’ve yet to explore. It’s a wonderful feeling, getting out into the backyard.