North of Nowhere
The cold, perfect slabs north of Tofino aren't easy to get to, even when you know where they are
The pilot flicked the switch. There was a dull, lifeless click, then nothing. He shot us a bewildered look, mumbling technical jargon to no one in particular. He climbed out of the cockpit and sauntered over to the hangar. We exchanged worried glances. Suddenly, we were questioning our decision. Fresh off a camping trip to one of Western Canada’s notoriously remote slabs, we’d decided to hire a helicopter to go further. It was something we had been humming and hawing about for ages, but it had yet to come to fruition—each time we’d attempted it, bad weather suspended our plans.
That morning had already been an emotional rollercoaster, so in hindsight, engine difficulties were fitting. Having never taken a heli-surf trip to this area, none of us knew what to expect—or whether it would be worth our time and money. The dense landscape and complete lack of roads north of Tofino ensures the reef passes, along most of the coastline, remain almost entirely untouched. It also means that getting to them is an adventure. As some of the few surfers with the knowledge and means to reach the best waves, our tight-knit crew has worked hard perfecting the art of strategic maritime missions. But the thing about exploring the coast by boat is that the same offshore wind that transforms the area’s best reefs from sectioning, chandeliering runners into hollow slabs is the same wind that creates sea conditions too vicious for a small boat to survive the five-hour round-trip out of Tofino. And that’s where the helicopter comes in.
After a few minutes, the pilot emerged from the hangar carrying a trickle-charger type device. He connected the cables, and the engine sputtered to life. Say what you will about the marvels of trickle-charger devices, but jump-starting a helicopter does not fill you a great deal of confidence. Especially when you’re headed somewhere just north of nowhere.
“Okay, we’re set to go,” the pilot assured us. At this point, it was too late to back out. With our money paid and our surfboards strapped to the landing skid, we had no choice but to trust him. We nodded confirmation. Moments later, we were airborne. Below us, Tofino and its surrounding area sloped steeply from rocky headlands to swell-exposed sandy beaches, a pattern that consistently works its way south some 25 miles to neighboring Ucluelet. There, the grains of sand transform into pebbled shorelines as the coast bends eastward toward Barkley Sound. North of Tofino, however, the abrupt headlands begin to take on the form of longer, flatter reefs, and the quantity and quality of surf increases by the mile. From heaving slabs to dribbling points and everything in between, it’s all there for the taking. You just have to know when and where to look.
Say what you will about the marvels of trickle-charger devices, but jump-starting a helicopter does not fill you a great deal of confidence. Especially when you’re headed somewhere just north of nowhere.
Growing up somewhere surrounded by untapped surf potential is both a blessing and a curse. While the ease of warm-water surf destinations has its allure, there’s nothing quite like the pleasure of scoring perfect, completely empty barrels after spending days tracking a swell and hours at sea chasing it down. And whether you end up scoring or not, at the very least you’re always left with an epic tale that those living in surf Meccas can’t even fathom.
One particular mission comes to mind: After a two-day barrel feast, we’d run into a stiff southeasterly just as we left to head home. The chop continued to grow larger, meaning each time the boat’s bow smashed down, more water poured in. The extra weight and violent seas meant that the underpowered vessel could no longer get up on a plane. Our captain, photographer Jeremy Koreski, circled over and over, turning the headwind into a tailwind to help us reach a plane, before quickly spinning back in the direction of home. Meanwhile, Peter Devries and I frantically bailed seawater from the stern. Over the roaring winds, Jeremy screamed every cuss word in existence, occasionally sprinkling in the fact that he was, “Never fucking taking three people in the boat again!” Being the “third” man on that boat hadn’t made the situation very comfortable for me, so rather than joining the complain train, I uncharacteristically kept my mouth shut, bailed water, and tried not to make eye contact with Captain Koreski. Four hours later, when we were safely on land, we couldn’t help but laugh at the situation.
Thankfully, our helicopter adventure turned out to be far less dramatic. Traveling north under the now steady whir of the rotating blades, we watched the incoming swell bend around the tiny uninhabited islands dotting the coast. Peter and I squealed at each other through our headsets, pointing out the breaks below, amazed at the perfect, long-period swell and unseasonably warm weather. Every little reef and offshore island was alive with wave energy.
With the day’s unusually low tide, the reef in front of our chosen slab sat high and dry, offering a natural landing pad better than we could have possibly hoped for. Our pilot was able to set the bird down at the water’s edge. Before the blades had stopped, Pete and I had leapt out to survey the conditions. I’d thought long and hard about my chopper exit, and planned exactly how I’d step out tall beneath the spinning rotors—in movies, for some reason they always duck even though there’s ample room to walk upright. But alas, all of my planning was for naught: The minute I stepped out and felt the intense breath of the blades, I ran for safety at a height that could have won any limbo contest. As soon as the blades’ spinning had subsided, we frantically started unpacking gear, readying boards, and talking strategy with the two lensmen.Peter and I squealed at each other through our headsets, pointing out the breaks below, amazed at the perfect, long-period swell and unseasonably warm weather. Every little reef and offshore island was alive with wave energy.
Peter and I both left back-up boards as close to the lineup as possible, something Peter had always insisted upon ever since the first time he had taken me out there. “You’ll waste way too much time running all the way back to camp to get your other board,” he’d say. And although this time “camp” was a flying chunk of metal not 50 yards from where our second boards had been placed, I guess old habits die hard.
While Peter wasn’t among the first to surf this particular spot, he certainly surfs it best. Sliding in behind the peak of double-up wedges with ease, it’s not uncommon for him to double or even triple the barrel count of his peers—locals and visiting pros alike. His surfing ability is head and shoulders above the rest of Canada and has been now for the better part of the last decade. Somehow, he’s remained levelheaded and friendly, despite his growing local celebrity. His patience and humility have made him a respected figurehead of the ever-growing surf community in the Great White North.
We took turns shouting each other into set waves in a lineup shared only with a couple of (relatively) friendly sea lions. Since the swell was on the decline, the continuous wash-through sets that had plagued us during the two days prior were no longer an issue. Generally, when the swell is bigger and the tides are that low, every wave that isn’t made means a nightmarish paddle the long way around, eating up about 15 minutes and dragging you through a labyrinth of pinnacles that jut through the inside of the impact zone. The dangers are usually magnified by the utter remoteness of the break, but this time the helicopter sat idly on the reef, ensuring a quick, dry return home.
Unfortunately, helicopters aren’t ordinarily part of the equation in this neck of the Canadian woods—the financial barrier being what it is. And barring some small miracle, trips like these are never going to be commonplace for my friends and I. But the opportunity remains. The coastline is rife with underexplored reefs and bays, and while it’s never easy, trips in this part of the world aren’t meant to be. Most of us prefer it that way. It’s a special place that few people get the chance to enjoy and even fewer get to surf, and in an era where “secret spots” are nearly extinct, a cold, wet, windy boat ride is a small price to pay for empty, barreling surf.