Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Balancing Clayoquot Sound

Notes from Tofino, Vancouver Island on the stunning and isolated Clayoquot Sound.

Six Northwestern springtimes deposited six seasons of Pacific Northwest pollen on my white truck, turning it chartreuese. 

I was using the truck so infrequently that I neglected it's upkeep, and mosses and lichens were beginning to set along the rim of the windows, hornets were making their nests in the doors, and a few plants were beginning to grow in the roof rack and the rear-view mirrors.

In anticipation of a long road trip with Jane and our four-year-old son, I finally got to it, coaxing pine cones and acorns from the cracks, and scrubbing hard with soap.  To celebrate the progress, I set two lawn chairs, a lantern and a small library of books in the back, and with my son, I sat in there with the rear door open, pretending road trip in the driveway while it rained.

Polishing the truck off makes me realize, my true love in travel has always been the road.  By road, I don’t just mean cars.  So of much of travel, for me, is walking along the side of the road, sometimes wishing I could move just a bit faster. 

This summer, I dabbled in that Pacific Northwest conversation about transportation by picking up the old longboard skateboard that Jane bought me eight years ago.  For years, while walking alone down a really long road, I would look at its curves and it would make me kind of sad.  It made me miss human-powered speed.  All at once those roads would dig up a deep craving from childhood, of biking down hills, and skis and sleds.

The longboard was always a novelty in the garage.  But I found myself thinking about it more and more as a possible mode of transportation, a slow movement for travel, and the long winter had hit me hard with that deep craving of summer's freedom, of speed and movement.

By the end of summer, I was just starting to get comfortable with the so-called foot brake, where you drag the sole of your shoe along the pavement to control your speed, when suddenly, my longboard wheels hit something on the road. I lost my balance and I was just a lump of flesh in the air. I hit the ground hard on my chest.

Vancouver Skyline in British Columbia, Canada

Downtown Vancouver, British Columbia

Breath wasn't coming easily, and I was disoriented.  Maybe 38-year-olds shouldn't be skateboarding, I had told my neighbor only minutes before, which was my way of balancing my embarrassment with a gentle prodding, a way of saying, “Hey buddy, we're not that old.”

Our road-trip had a purpose.  We were driving to an international mecca of self-propelled transportation – an isolated, fog-shrouded fishing-town in Canada that had become an international surfing, kayaking and biking destination.  But now, my injury meant none of that. Still, I couldn’t resist keeping the kayak on top of the truck, and I hid the longboard just out of Jane’s sight under the duffle bags.

On a bright morning, we leave Portland and pass slowly through the nightmarish traffic of Seattle.  People from other places always want to compare Portland to Seattle, often confusing the two outright or speaking of them together, as if they are interchangeable.  Passing through reminds me that few cities are so different – the food, the population density, the ethnic mix, the architecture, the geography, the layout, the traffic.  It is wrong to talk of what unites the two cities without including Vancouver, B.C.  The three Pacific Northwestern cities, all quite different, are united by just one thing: they are Pacific Northwestern cities.  

The border into Canada is a long line, lots of security.  I ask the Canadian immigration officer if he could stamp our passports.  He looks blankly at the passengers in the truck and sees the four-year old kid.  He says, “I can stamp his,” he explains, meaning, I don’t really have the time to stamp the adult passports.  What a douchebag.  But is this heavily-secured border really even necessary?  Commerce should flow freely through the Pacific Northwest.

From Vancouver, we take the morning ferry to Vancouver Island, and cross the giant island on the only paved road to the open Pacific in Canada. 

After we pass through Port Alberni, about half way across, Vancouver Island becomes a wilderness of fjords and aquamarine rivers, mountains of conifers and valleys of cottonwoods. 

The terminus of the Trans-Canada Highway ends at Tofino, population 1,650, at the end of a long peninsula, separating the vast Clayoquot Sound from the Pacific Ocean.  

Clayoquot Sound itself is cluttered with islands and inlets stocked with whales, sea lions, crabs, oysters and salmon.  The rainforests dotting and surrounding the sound are the last intact old-growth forests on Vancouver Island, and even the southern half of British Columbia.    

Sundew Plants in a bog near Tofino, Vancouver Island

Carnivorous sundews in the Pacific Rim National Park.

A few days after arriving at the sound, I meet up with a local school teacher, and we drive south to the edge of the Pacific Rim National Park, where we walk on a coastal trail through a thick fog.  The fog is so thick that we see almost no details.  We can barely make out the trees; the ocean is just a gray blank canvas, and alI that is revealed to us are the leaves on the trail, and a big, warm, brown pile of chewed berries.

John explains that it's bear poop, and that the bear was here this morning, maybe just 20 minutes ahead of us.  He shows me the bent horsetails where the bear joined the path. 

In a few minutes, we come to another steaming poo.  John looks at it and explains that the bear has diarrhea.

"Must have ate something real bad," he explains, when we arrive at the third giant poo on the trail.  Seeing that we are literally trailing this bear is to understand how close you always are to large mammals here.  Just two days ago, an 18-month boy was walking with family on a trail near a campsite in the Pacific Rim National Forest when a cougar leapt from the forest and sank his fangs in the boy's skull. Cougar attacks are more likely to take place on Vancouver Island than anywhere else in North America.  And the forests around Tofino are teeming with them. 

The pooping bear, explains John, is not a concern.  He says he knows of this individual bear, and that she knows to keep her cubs away from the trails, which makes her no threat.

But as we slip off the trail and onto the fog-shrouded rock beach, John urges caution.  Bears bring their cubs here to sift through the washed-ashore kelp.  "What are they looking for?" I ask.  John lifts the kelp, and tiny bugs spring out.  "They’re training the cubs to find beach fleas under the kelp."

While walking on the beach, John mentions that he had lived in Oregon when he was younger.  "We are the same people,” he offers.  "Oregon and Washington, British Columbia." It is common refrain you hear in British Columbia. 

"But I do notice one thing different, everybody smokes a lot more pot here.  I smell it everywhere!  It's like the scent of Tofino."

"Once, the (national park) warden approached me.  He wanted to know where he could get some marijuana.  I asked him, who is it for?  The police, he said. They can't seem to seem to get it anywhere."

John continues.  "When I was teaching, most of the kids’ dads were on welfare or were very poor fishermen.  But these two kids drove around in brand new trucks.  When they were graduating, they approached me and said, 'I guess you figured out why we have so much money.' I told them I had a pretty good idea.  They replied, ‘But we don't smoke a lot of it, and now we're both going to good colleges, and we can afford it.’ "

We leave the beach, and connect with the forest trail, and wind through old-growth trees, while navigating around steaming bear poo.  John explains that these trees host nesting marbled murrelets. 

Skateboarders in downtown Tofino, British Columbia

Downtown Tofino, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

The nests of these small seabirds had eluded scientists for decades, until a climber found chicks high atop an ancient tree in 1974.  As logging encroached on old growth forests across the North Pacific coasts, the species declined severely.  The population in Clayoquot Sound is healthy, due to the protection of the old growth trees.

But that protection didn't come easily.  Nearly all the old-growth forests of Vancouver Island had been logged.  The islands inside Clayoquot Sound had been spared, due to their inaccessibility.  But as all the forests of Vancouver Island were stripped, Clayoquot Sound looked more and more enticing.

In 1984, the British Columbia Government declared that Meares Island, a giant landmass inside the Clayoquot Sound, would be logged.  The results would be devastating to a wide range of wildlife, from sea life, migrating whales and migrating shorebirds, as well as the rare ancient forest itself and the health of the Clayoquot Sound fisheries.  First Nation tribes began to say, the rest of Vancouver Island has been trashed.  You’re not going to trash Clayoquot Sound.

Locals blockaded the logging company, and tasted the sweet air of a local victory when the government relented.

In 1993, the Canadian Government again agreed to allow logging on Meares Island. 

Quiet and dark forest in Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia

Clayoquot Sound forest at sunrise, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Protesters, organized by First Nation tribes living in the sound, and environmentalists in Tofino, organized the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. 12,000 people swelled into the Clayoquot Sound and protested, resulting in the largest mass arrests in Canadian history.

A lot of people were saying, hey you hosers, you can’t do this because it will be destructive to the environment for a list of reasons.  But others were also saying, hey, you newfie lumberjacks, anybody with half a brain knows that this land is worth much more to the Canadian economy if it doesn’t get logged!

The protests brought international attention to the sound.  Greenpeace and The Sierra Club joined the fight, and musicians played to the protesters.

The government again relented, and the protesters won.

Seven years later, Clayoquot Sound became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and today Tofino swells with tourism.  Its fisheries are productive and profitable.  Clayoquot Sound took something vital to the Pacific Northwest belief and packaged it: balance is not a tipping scale between economy and environment, balance is an act of environmental preservation that invigorates economies.

Fishing shack on Clayoquot Sound

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. 

Beach on the Clayoquot Sound in a deep morning fog

Isolated beach on Vancouver Island

Tofino’s small town center slopes toward the Clayoquot Sound, facing Meares Island and several smaller islets, fjords and marine passageways.  In the distance are coastal mountains.  We walk down to the docks, where crabbers, sailboats and whale-watching boats are moored.  In the bay, a handful of kayakers are returning from an overnight outing.

You might think of the cold water of the Pacific Northwest as cold and lifeless.  But underneath the docks is a magical world of multi-hued anenomes and tunicates, strangely shaped jellyfish, and bright starfish.  It is this undersea world I never want to miss showing my son.  We spend the late afternoon poking our heads at the water, watching fish go by.  

Lying on the docks for so long exacerbates my skateboarding injuries, and when I stand, I feel dizzy.  We walk back into Tofino, and we see an old, rusty bicycle, a model that appears to be from the World War II era. 

“You like my bicycle,” a twenty-something girl sees us staring at her bike.  We explain that indeed we do.  The girl came to Tofino for the summer, from Chile.  She bought the bike when she got here.  “And I’m quite proud of it too,” she says.  Her boyfriend gets around town on a longboard.  “What brought you here?” we ask.  “It is the perfect place to learn English,” she explains.  Is this girl a scrubbie?  Perhaps she, like the Canadians who flock here, might better be described as a refugee in Cascadia.

 A few days later, I am repacking and preparing for our drive home.  I hear the news about the toddler that was just attacked by the cougar, surgery from two fractures to his skull had gone well, and he is making a full recovery.

The sun is shining brightly above, but it comes through dappled in the forest.  I take a look at the skateboard in the truck.  Just a few weeks ago, I gave myself the worst injury of my life trying to prepare for this trip.  Should a 38-year-old really be skateboarding?  The injury made me ponder the safety of travel and the sports that go along with it.  People always say – that’s dangerous, don’t do it.  They also say, all the time, do this, it keeps you young.  Is the constant buzz we hear – don’t do that, stay young, don’t do that, stay young – consistent?  I don’t think so.  My injury reminds me that I had let go of the balance between safety and the pursuit of life.  My injury taught me that I’m not 18 anymore.  My injury reminded me about caution. I think that in life, the advice that matters most is less about age and avoiding danger, and more about balance.

Then I stand on my board, and it feels good, and I bomb the asphault road through the quiet trees.

Explore more in Cascadia

A backpacking trip to the solitary wilderness in southwestern Washington feeds my love of campfires.

On a road trip to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, I compare Oregonian and Californian views on public lands.

On a quiet stretch of Columbia River beach, an unexpected ark sends us to discover the life of the maverick inventor who built it.

On a backpacking trip to the Olympic Peninsula's rugged Pacific coast, I explore four possible future scenarios for rural coastal areas.

Late summer backpacking in a Southwest Washington national forest ends in my terrifying rescue. Includes an interview with rescuer Lauren Dawkins.

Hiking the Oregon Coast from Bandon to Port Orford: Snowy Plovers, hipsters and cops.

On the Oregon coast, I write about my dearest subject: perpetual road travel.

Notes on traveling to Portland, Oregon, laidback capital of Cascadia -- before I moved there.

With a group of pelagic birders and a grumpy sea captain, I pursue a rare treasure.

Frozen rattlesnakes and wolf politics in the fabled setting of the Zumwalt Prairie.

Notes from Tofino, Vancouver Island on the stunning and isolated Clayoquot Sound.

Color and camoflage in nature, from the Hood River Valley area of Oregon.

An interview with a native artist on the whaling controversies and life in Neah Bay.

I travel to the Umpqua Dunes in pursuit of the answers of a mysterious stone tool.

Glowing Mushrooms, deer-meat, stone and a Portland underworld of old ways.

The Oregon Hotel is old, rickety and delightful, and in the geographic center of Oregon.

Native migrations to the Americas, tundra, gyrfalcons and summertime on the Bering Sea.

Field sketches and illustrations from my travels in the state of Oregon.

Travels by boat with a group of birdwatchers in pursuit of rare pelagic birds.

Thoughts on rough roads, carefree trails and backcountry science in Oregon's Jefferson Park.