Trip Log: Tofino
Getting to Tofino from Vancouver required a full day's worth of travel, so we got an early start.
We were up and out the door by six, walking a few blocks to Pacific Central Station and climbing aboard what would be the first of three buses. Next was a ferry from Vancouver to Nanaimo — which, while technically just a leg of transportation, was honestly one of my favorite parts of the trip. It was definitely more spacious than any airplane or Greyhound, and we sprawled out across two rows, nursing coffees and watching the increasingly wilder sea and sky and mountains drift by. It was breathtaking.
The scenery provided a valuable distraction from the fact that the final two bus rides — the longest portion of the trip — were just hours of whipping around windy mountain roads at truly terrifying speed. TofinoBus drivers are kamikazes. Instead of focusing on our imminent death, I just stared, jaw-dropped, out the window. Towering forests and mountains above them and the sky just piercing blue sped by, light filtering through leaves bright and sharp and hard off crystal lakes and rivers.
Everything about the scenery suggested we were landlocked. As soon as we pulled into the station at Tofino and tumbled out, though, the ocean made its presence known — from salty scent to sandy feet and surfboards strapped to vehicles of every kind.
We walked the length of the main street to our guest house, dropped our bags, and headed out again.
The combined mountain and beach town vibes of Tofino give it a real-life Neverland feel.
Everyone knows each other, first of all. The sidewalks are dotted with surf shops and local coffee haunts. People cruised the sidewalks on foot or skateboard. Outfits are interesting combinations of flannel and neoprene.
The whole place has a transitive and transformative vibe. You wonder how people ended up there, and you feel bold enough to ask. I don't know how to describe it, exactly; but I know I've felt it before, when I'm in a small place for a temporary amount of time. Especially when that small place is home to people who find the outdoors and being in them significant enough to sacrifice what most modern adult humans deem most significant — you know, money, stability, career success.
I felt it when I worked in Colorado all the time. I never was a summer camp kid, but I'm guessing that it's similar. Either way, I've spent too many sentences on this, and I think half the magic is in not being able to pin it down.
At the end of the day, something about an entire town of people that will shut down at any moment for a good swell just delights me to the core.
Nikki and I grabbed fish and chips and wandered through shops on our way to the grocery store. We divvied up cereal and sandwich supplies, then hopped on the (¡FREE!) shuttle back to our house to drop off our goods and race to the beach before sunset.
I want to have words good enough to describe the first time you step onto the sand at Cox's Bay, but I don't. I didn't even have words then. I don't even have many pictures, honestly, because they just didn't do it justice.
In fact, as soon as I saw the waves and thick slabs of rock jutting out to frame them; as soon as I saw the fog curling on the horizon, rolling in to the trees and mountains all around; as soon as I saw it all and realized I'd never see it enough — all I remember saying was, "No way."
"No way," first at a whisper, then at a yell.
Guys, mountains about do me in all on their own.
Add the ocean on top of that?
That's just not fair.
Have you ever seen something so beautiful it almost hurts? Something so utterly surreal that your heart really believe if you could only look at it big and hard enough, maybe reality would just tear in two and you'd step right into heaven.
That's where I was at. I was borderline hysterical.
I was just laughing, and I couldn't stop. I laughed so hard I had tears running down my face. I laughed so hard my ribs hurt. I laughed so hard that any level-headed companion would have begun to seriously doubt her decision to travel with me — but luckily, Nikki is my same brand of lunatic.
In fact, open enthusiasm is just one more reason I love her and we traveled well together. She yelled and laughed and prayed out loud, and kept yelling "WE'RE HERE!" as if to confirm the reality of the moment.
I don't know why, somewhere along the way, humanity decided it was a mark of maturity and taste to keep excitement at an even keel. If you love something, go ahead and love it. Loud, if necessary. In Jesus’ name. Life is more fun that way.
The next day, we were back at Cox’s Bay — this time, zipped into wetsuits and practicing pop-ups on the sand.
The only surfing I’ve done before was in Costa Rica last summer. I took to it more easily than any other board sport — I’m a fairly cautious cruiser long boarding, and no matter how many times I snowboard, my toe edge bites into the mountain just enough to remind me who’s boss. Surfing, though, once I managed to stand, felt far more natural, and falling was much lower-risk. I loved it, and knew I wanted to do it more.
Tofino is known for being beginner-friendly — good, reliable west-coast waves with no strong undertow or rip currents — but neither Nikki nor I wanted to paddle out sans a little instruction. We signed up for a weekend camp with Surf Sister, a girl gang of local instructors. Mouse and Alyssa kept our group afloat (some almost literally) throughout the weekend. They gave us a refresher on the basics, then struck just the right balance of encouraging our progress and pushing us to go bigger and deeper than we would have on our own.
The water was stunningly cold, and the first plunge in every day was always a bright, sputtering shock. I waited until my first fall in our first session and came up gasping as icy wave surged into my wetsuit, snapping every nerve to life. It only takes a moment for that water to become a thin, body-temperature-level shield; but from then on, the first thing I did every time we entered the water was dive under of my own volition.
I played around in the whitewash my first morning out, reminding my muscles how to pop up and trim around. I could have happily stayed there, too, but Mouse immediately waved me deeper.
“I’m going to get wrecked,” I half-laughed, half-pleaded every time she motioned further out.
“That’s how it works,” she grinned.
By the end of the weekend, we were still getting wrecked, but happily. With the feeling that, with each wave caught and each wave eaten, we had it a little more figured out — and it wasn’t so scary or so important if we didn’t.
At one point during the weekend, I paused while floating in the lineup. Breathing heavily from the paddle out, I perched on the deck, watching otherworldly billows of fog sweep into the beach and over the mountains rolling above us; the hot sun burning it away from behind and the cold salt water all around.
And it felt like a gift and it felt like pure good, and I just told God thanks.
Thanks that he is good and he makes good and he does good, and he is and makes and does for me. Beyond all reason.
We surfed and surfed, and when we weren’t surfing, we ate peanut butter sandwiches back at the house — on the floor, mainly, because it turns out the smell of wetsuit is actually the worst smell in the world and sticks to everything you touch — and fish tacos at Tacofino and explored little art galleries and shops and climbed the rock formations on the beach like fifth graders. We covered the length of town time and again, milking the free shuttle for all it was worth and catching a few rides along the way, too. As we packed everything up on Saturday night, we agreed that we loved Vancouver, but could easily have spent the whole week in Tofino. We were a little sad we hadn’t.
Sunday morning, we walked to Tofino Roasting Co. for mistos, knocking them back silently on our last bus ride to the beach. We wrestled our wetsuits on, shivering, one last time, and paddled out for a final session. Our muscles were aching but I don’t know that my heart has ever been so happy. It turned out to be the most beautiful morning of the week, and Nikki ended everything with the wave of the weekend, double-fist-pumping all the way to shore.
We got out of the water at 11:30, wrestled our way back out of the wetsuits, tossed sweatshirts on over our bathing suits, and met for a final camp debrief until 12:15. We’d already begged a ride from the sweetest couple (also camp participants), and after a quick pit stop by the guest house to grab our bags, they had us in front of the bus station by 12:30.
We grabbed our tickets, tossed our bags on board, and sprinted in opposite directions down the sidewalk in search of more caffeine. I was unsuccessful, but Nikki reappeared at a dead run eight minutes later, double-fisting coffees like a pair of Olympic torches. She handed me mine, we climbed onto the bus at 12:45, and it pulled out five minutes later. If you’re not impressed by that turnaround, get out of here. Now.
The journey back to the mainland was as beautiful as before, but sore and still reeking of wetsuit, we were more than ready for its end by the time we pulled arrived in Vancouver.
We pooled our remaining coins for bus fare and trudged from its stop to our hostel.
The bad rap hostels have historically gotten is outdated at this point, I know — there are plenty of good ones, and they're such a common and good option for backpackers. However, this one turned out to be unexpectedly... vintage, shall we say? Think outdated dorm, appearance-wise. Light unsanitary vibe going on. And the room, amazingly, against all odds and science, was like 80 degrees Fahrenheit. You think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. I still can't figure this out, because it was definitely no more than 60 outside.
Ultimately, after dinner & a truly generous try, we abandoned the hostel. We used the showers, grabbed our things, called a cab, and an hour later, we were asleep on the floor of the Vancouver airport.
It may sound like a bad thing, but even as I hugged Nikki goodbye a few hours later and headed towards my Texas-bound plane, I assured her the whole adventure was wonderful in my book.
A perfect weekend of surfing? That's good. A perfect weekend of surfing with a friend you don't mind crashing on the floor of an airport with after? That's even better. Mishaps make stories — and shared stories build bonds.
Tofino was a dream, and the laughs at the expense of reality along the way were every bit as good. Thankful for the whole experience.
Now, if Dallas were only closer to some good waves...