A Lonely Paradise

PADDLE ON

Passion, while sometimes tough to harness, or control when it overwhelms us, is something we all need, whether we acknowledge it or not. It doesn't matter if it's shooting marbles, if holding a cat's eye between your fingers tweaks the pulse, than that's it. That's what we're after.

And that's where I find myself now. Chasing it in the middle of nowhere, with an eclectic group after the same damn thing. People bonded by the commonality of going after it, to the ends of this grand Earth in search of that which ignites our souls. In this case, it is waves.

When Sean Poynter, Rob Zaleski, Stuart Robinson and I throw our drybags on to the 18-foot Zodiac in Tofino, a tiny surf town on Vancouver Island's wild west coast, the rain pelts our drysuits. The pine forest reaches down to the water's edge everywhere you look. The clouds are low and a slight fog curls around the green shrubbery, enveloping the place in a moody swirl of mist and nerves and overwrought foreshadowing.

Only hours earlier we were cruising in the rental car along the Vancouver Island highways, caught up in the mountain scenery and goodness, wondering why in the hell we were so lucky. But then we reminded ourselves: we're chasing it, setting ourselves up to score, like you have to with everything you love. You may not always get the goods, but the more you put yourself in position, the luckier you become.

In a few hours, Allan Gornall and Maris MacDonald—our volunteer guides for the week—will boat up in the dark of night to the tiny island cabin we're staying in for the week carrying Zane and Matty Schweitzer and our group will be complete. The cozy base camp will serve as ground zero as we scour the coastline for hidden breaks, warming ourselves near the fire and eating the best food we've eaten in weeks, cooked artistically by Maris.

  1. When you're searching for it, you sometimes have to suffer. And, in relative terms, we're in agony. Zane is hunkered down in the seat next to me in his big red rescue suit as 20-knot winds blow water over the rubber Zodiac's stern. His arms are crossed and he's wearing ski goggles to keep the wet wind out of his eyes. Sean is on the other side, arms crossed too and sitting low. I'm using them both to stay warm, nuzzled in between them in my own drysuit, struggling to keep the hood low and the cold wind off my face. Somehow I missed out on goggles.
  2. The boat rises and falls in the swell as we motor north along the coast, 10,000-foot peaks screaming at us from the Vancouver Island interior. "We're going to pull into this protected cove and then we'll hike over to check the break," yells Allan over the roar of the engine. Matty and his girlfriend Elena, along with Rob and Stuart (the trip mastermind) ride in the other metal boat with Maris. We can see their craft catching air over every wave. The seas are not small.
  1. We reach a point of land that juts out into the ocean and Allan skillfully pulls into the tiny cove on the leeward side. The wind shuts off. It's as if we've reached a high mountain lake. The water is flat, calm, almost blissful. We empty our gear onto the secluded beach and it has to be 75 degrees. The sun shines and we strip off the drysuits. Getting dressed for these conditions each day is a process: first the long underwear, then pants, top layer, fleece, followed by the drysuits and sealed with gum boots. We all feel like marshmallow men. Zane and Matty grew up in Maui, learning to surf and paddle in the South Pacific's warm waters. "I've never worn a wetsuit," Matty admits later.
  2. We're all hyper to surf so while Maris works on a fire and lunch, everyone packs up their boards and changes into wetsuits and begins what we think will be a quick trek to the surf break on the windward side. We start off through the forest and things get thick. Thorny bushes threaten to rip our neoprene as we trudge over and under logs decorated with green moss.
  1. Twenty minutes later we reach a vast swath of open sand that stretches a half-mile up the coast. The wind howls again and threatens to carry our boards away as we trudge across the desert-like beach to the northern most point.
  2. The seas are angry. Ten-foot walls pound the shore with hardly a shoulder on offer. It's disorganized and frothy. But the boys are ready. Stu, Zane and Sean zip up their 5/4 wetsuits and paddle out. "That looks like mayhem," I tell Rob.
  3. It takes them ten minutes to make it outside. Zane is the first to paddle into one of the wind curled bombs. Riding right on his back hand he builds up speed and smacks the closeout section with frenetic veracity. I'm reminded how much I love watching this kid surf. He rides each and every wave with unmatched passion—regardless of the conditions.
FISH OUT OF WATER
Zane Schweitzer, loving the North Country

Sean makes a smooth, full rail turn on the only open face we've seen and then gets caught inside. Stu catches a big left down the coast and rides it all the way in. Twenty minutes later they call it good, crawling onto the beach in surrender. When Zane reaches the sand he lies on his back in the howling wind, exhausted. "That was miserable," he sighs, spitting sand out of his mouth.

When Sean comes in he stands there for a moment in the wind looking out at the ocean. "Totally frustrating," he says. "There wasn't much to work with." It's as if Mother Earth is giving us a little spanking.

A bit dejected, we trudge back down the trail to meet Maris, who's waxing gourmet over an open fire in the cove. Shrimp and veggies. We all dig in and enjoy the windless sunshine. Eating good food in this place makes up for the beating the boys just took.

While our days are filled with serious exploration, the nights are all about new friends, good food, and good music. Maris slaves in the kitchen and we gather near him, sitting on stools around the wood island, drinking beer and talking life. With some nudging, the humble Maris talks about going to architecture school in Vancouver, how he and his family built this cabin from the ground up and that they've been coming here for years. Allan is stoked to be a new dad, and explains passionately how dedicated one has to be to surf in British Columbia. Allan and Stu are from nearby Cofax, where Stu and his family have run a sailing club for years. Stu and his brother now operate the family business and focus on getting kids on the water.

After dinner, Maris busts out his fiddle and I grab the guitar and we jam for the small crowd. When Elena belts out a beautiful tune she wrote, Zane is pumped, "That was sick," he says.

I take a second to look around the room. Everyone gathered near the cozy fire comes from different places, different backgrounds, but we groove like family. Matty and Zane (who actually are family) give each other shit and talk about their long trip here from the Middle East (they flew straight through from an event in Abu Dhabi). Sean—one of the sport's most gifted surfers—loves to talk about his sister, an equally gifted musician. I can't help but admire the humility of it all.

The wind blows lightly offshore as the seas lap lazily onto the cobblestones in a rhythm that could soothe even the most cynic of hearts. After chasing this moment through airports and along highways and over the open ocean, we've found it.
  1. Traveling on the open ocean in the North Country doesn't just happen. It takes experience and planning. And a fair bit of resolve. Over coffee the next morning, Allan listens intently to the weather report on a small radio and discusses different options with Maris. The wind has died some. But so has the swell. "How about we head an hour further north today," he suggests. "There's a left that barrels and there might still be enough swell."
  2. We all suit up and meet at the boats on the rocky beachfront below the cabin. Two hours later, through seas that are still rough by our standards, we pull the boats into another protected cove. I'm colder than I can ever remember being and all I can think about is fire.
  3. Everybody's on the same page and we quickly gather driftwood. We've yet to see another person. Zane goes Paul Bunyan—he's just as cold as I am—hacking at branches and wood as we all work together to create a bonfire, warming ourselves in anticipation of switching to neoprene. Leaving Maris again to cook, we hike around the corner to look for surf.
  1. On the way in we scouted the setup: the left wasn't breaking but there was a fun-looking peak we thought might provide some surf.
  2. When we reach the break we're ecstatic. An empty peak adorns a small bay. Chest-high waves break over cobblestones in perfect order. If I wasn't surrounded by mountains and pine trees, I'd swear I was looking at Lower Trestles, the iconic Southern California surf spot. But instead of 70 grumpy locals, we're met by a joyous emptiness. A lonesome break in the middle of nowhere. "This spot doesn't even have a name," Allan says. "And it definitely has never seen SUPs."
  3. By the time he finishes his sentence we're all running into the water. The wave breaks in perfect uniformity and we take turns paddling into rippable chest-to-head-high waves. Mother Earth has rewarded us for persevering in our passion chase.
  4. Sean paddles into wave after wave, blowing his fins out off the top and wrapping each open face in his own, beautiful style while Zane pumps down the line, doing his best to land airs on his forehand.
  1. I'm not a religious man. But in some divine, un-dogmatic way, the hand of God is touching us. The wind blows lightly offshore as the seas lap lazily onto the cobblestones in a rhythm that could soothe even the most cynic of hearts. After chasing this moment through airports and along highways and over the open ocean, we've found it. And we're not going anywhere fast. We session the wave all day, pausing only to enjoy fresh mussels on the beach that Maris has cooked in a peppered beer batter.
  2. Sean stuffs a fresh mussel into his mouth and raises his arms above his head in thanks.
  3. When we get back to the fire, Zane can hardly help himself, diving at the open grill, looking to soothe his hunger pangs. "Whoa, hold on there," Maris jabs playfully. "It'll be ready in a second." When it's served, Sean stuffs a fresh mussel into his mouth and raises his arms above his head in thanks. We're all where we're supposed to be. There is no doubt.


Motoring up and down the Vancouver Island coastline, deer and elk dot the shoreline and the wildlife is everywhere. Maris and Allan had mentioned hot springs that morning and we don't let them forget about it on the return trip. Just before we reach the springs, a small brown dot appears on a rock outcropping ahead of us. We pull in for a closer look and the small dot turns into a large Canadian wolf, pilfering the shoreline for mussels and crabs. He puts on a show for us, flipping crabs in the air playfully.

Following the wolf show, we motor into another cove and hike up a rocky cliff to the hot springs where we see other humans for the first time in five days. The hot water soothes our tired muscles and we soak in the heat, crawling up and down the pools of the hot springs which empties from deep in the Earth into a granite gorge that rises up above us, filtering out to the ocean. Eventually, we have to pull our drysuits back on to continue the boat trip home.

  1. For our final session, we decide to explore the local surf breaks of Tofino, the small fishing-come-surf town that has recently become a hotbed of Northern Hemisphere wave riding thanks to talented surfers like local Pete Devries.
  2. Sean and Zane instantly find their place in the lineup, tearing into the walls as rain pounds down, soaking Matty and Rob, who are doing their best to capture the session on film.
  3. Cox Bay is the town's crown jewel. Part beach break, part point break, we motor into town and drive up the road to the postcard-worthy locale.
  1. SUP surfing has only recently infiltrated Tofino, thanks in part to Catherine Bruhwiler, part of a local surf family who started a paddling school in the area. We carefully paddle out and take our place among the locals in the lineup. It's the first time we've paddled with other surfers since we've been here. A peeling right rips off the point on the northern side of the bay. Sean and Zane instantly find their place in the lineup, tearing into the walls as rain pounds down, soaking Matty and Rob, who are doing their best to capture the session on film.
  2. We're careful not to cut surfers off or snake anyone. But even the locals have a hard time taking their eyes off Zane and Sean. By the end of the session, they've both tucked themselves into a couple of barrels.
  3. We escape the rain and bustle into one of the posh breweries in town. We sit down and order beers and burgers, talking about the session. "I'm stoked we were able to surf there without ruining the vibe," I mention to Allan.
  1. "That's because Zane and Sean surfed that wave as well as anyone ever has," Allan replies, thoroughly impressed with the skills of his guests.
  2. We exchange numbers and emails and memories. Everyone's disappointed that the trip has to end. All splendid things do. Zane talks to Allan about windsurfing (one of his other passions) and how he'd like to help Allan get a new setup when he visits him on Maui. "Our home is open to you guys anytime," he says.
  3. Before we drive back to the airport the next day, Sean leaves his nearly brand new 5/4 wetsuit on Stu's back porch for Allan to pick up when he gets all his gear put away. I can't help but feel a bit touched by the thoughtfulness. "Ah, it's no big deal," says Sean. "His suit is full of holes. He's a surfer and he needs to be geared up when he's out there chasing it."

Zane Schweitzer doesn't like the cold. Here, he is generating his own heat.

Familiar move, unfamiliar place. Sean Poynter, getting comfortable in new surroundings.

RUNNING ROUGHSHOD:
This is what five days on the open ocean looks like.

Maris MacDonald

Joe Carberry

Stuart Robinson