Tofino, British Columbia.  Fishing shack on a small island in Clayoquot Sound.

Balancing Clayoquot Sound

PHOTO: Fisherman's shed on an islet near Tofino.

The people of the Pacific Northwest, regardless of their origins, are united – no, not by salmon and micro-brews - by a shared vision for the land that borrows from the future, rather than the past.   If the Pacific Northwest - Oregon, Washington and British Columbia - were ever torn apart from the mainland, Seattle would be the economic center of the nineteenth largest economy in the world.  In this context, the successes and particular culture of the Pacific Northwestern cities are compared to the Ernest Callenbach book Ecotopia, which imagined the Northwest to be its own country.

Anybody can say, hey, look at Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.  Look at those bold things they are doing in the name of sustainability.  And they can even squabble about which one is doing the best job.  But the people of the Clayoquot Sound chained themselves to bulldozers to save their land – what more pure representation of the Northwest is there?  

When John and I pass another giant heap on the ground, I hear John mutter to himself, oh, eh! And we find ourselves at a crescent-shaped cove.  Sun pours through the fog here, lighting the small bay.  John says that if we keep quiet, we may expect to see wolves here, and that the beach is known for nasty freak waves, and that in the winter, beaches like this become killers.

John explains that Vancouver Island has invented a new kind of tourism called storm watching, where people flock to the beach during heavy winter storms.

“I don’t get it,” I say.  “What is there to see?”

“Nothing.  Its just waves. Stormwatching is an industry.  A restaurant might advertise, come to our restaurant, our beach has the best stormwatching.  They put you out there on the beach in the cold, and it’s really dangerous, because you can really get killed out there.”

“I suppose tourism is down in the winter?”

“That’s right, eh.  You need to find a reason to get people here in the winter.”

I say goodbye to John and head back to Tofino, to look for my wife and son.  I park at the headlands over the beach near our lodge, and find them with my binoculars.  Jane reading her book, looking relaxed.  Kellan running in circles around her.

I walk down to the beach and ask if they want to go into town, to look at sea life down by the docks.  Driving into Tofino is itself an experience, because even at the end of summer, hundreds of hitchhiking surfers have descended upon the town to live, surf and play, and we pass dozens of them, riding their longboards or their rusty old beach cruisers to town. 

Few of them have much money.  John had explained, “They’re not hippies, because they don’t believe in anything.  We call them scrubbies.  I think that means that they need to be scrubbed with soap.  They live in the woods on any piece of land they can find where they won’t be kicked off.  They beg for food and get really skinny.  At the end of summer they go home.”

I don’t see John’s grim depiction of the ragged-looking Canadian surfers.  Most of them hitch-hiked across Canada to get here, to do something big, to do that most human thing – to pursue human-powered speed.  Once here, they buy a skateboard or bike, and usually, a surfboard. It’s all they need.  In this way, Tofino sounds more like the cities depicted in the car-less cities of Ecotopia:

“New mini cities, like the sleepy village of Alviso…has a cluttered collection of buildings, with trees everywhere. There are restaurants, a library, bakeries, a ‘core store’ selling groceries and clothes, small shops, even factories and workshops – all jumbled amid apartment buildings. These are generally of three or four stories, arranged around a central courtyard … They are built almost entirely of wood, which has become the predominant building material in Ecotopia, due to the reforestation program.”

We park the truck in town, near a café selling fresh oysters.  We cross the street and buy ice cream.  Seeing my bafflement at the coins in my hand, the store owner says, “Just give me that toonie and a loonie,” meaning, three dollars. I buy a cup of Tiger Tiger.  That’s orange with veins of licorice, which I’m told is Canada’s national flavor.