TOFINO, BC — A golden sun dips into the undulating ripples of the Pacific. Diamonds of setting sunlight glimmer on the water's surface in front of me; light and liquid dance together in brilliant displays of amber and blue. My body, sitting steady on the surfboard beneath me, sways with the rhythm of gentle waves.
I’ve taken pause from my attempts to ride the waves of Tofino’s Cox Bay to applaud the final performance of the sun for the day. From the vantage point of the water, the view is unobstructed. Ignoring the ice cold water, shielded from my skin by a resilient rubber wetsuit, I can’t help but feel like I’m on a tropical island far away from where I actually am — an unassuming town off of British Columbia’s coast.
Above: The rugged B.C. coastline is a perfect spot for surfers to rise the waves.
Less than six hours by car and ferry from downtown Vancouver, Tofino is settled on the traditional land of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation; a sleepy town defined by relaxed locals, mild weather and a vibrant surf scene. The landscape is detailed with old-growth temperate rainforests, courtesy of the rich biodiversity of the UNESCO Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Region that envelops the peninsula. Paired with soft-sand beaches where roiling waves hug vast shores and the labyrinth of hidden-spot inlets, Tofino’s unique environment is undeniably tropical-looking — a remarkable feat for this corner of the Pacific Northwest.
The first time I visited Tofino in 2017, I arrived in a van with two friends and an Airbnb booking for a single room 10 minutes from the main hub. Our days were spent ambling through the town’s various cafés and restaurants. Fresh morning brews at Tofino Coffee Roasting Company, the infamous tacos out of the Tacofino food truck and foie gras and cocktails we could barely afford at the Wolf in the Fog, which boasts the 48th spot out of the 100 best restaurants in Canada.
Above: The sunsets in Tofino are some of the most spectacular in Canada.
In the pockets of time in between we’d explore the different beaches Tofino had to offer. As the early spring fog rolled in across the expansive and aptly-named Long Beach (the longest beach on Vancouver Island at 16km) we would lose ourselves in the thickness of the mist. The horizon disappeared into a homogenized grey and the beach’s expansiveness was exaggerated by indistinction of our surroundings.
The only hint of a divergence of the shore and sky was found in the rippled reflections of surfers as they walked down the shoreline.
The following day the clouds and fog parted like the curtains of a stage, revealing soft sandy beaches and an ocean of foaming waves. We tanned in the May sun and watched the line of surfers zipping along the horizon. There was a delicious languorous air to our movements; an infectious ease of mind that comes with proximity to the sea. The laidback sensibility bleeds into the collective attitude of the locals, too, who affectionately call their town Tuff City.
There’s a youthful vibe to Tofino, largely because it attracts so many young surfers from the mainland and beyond. Some stay for year-round surfing, others just stay seasonally and migrate to the mountains in winter for the snowboarding siren call.
Above: Tofino has a rich Indigenous history and is the perfect playground for families.
During my most recent trip to Tofino, I gathered the courage to surf for the first time. Perhaps it was a post-COVID burst of adrenaline -seeking energy after so long being shut inside. But mostly it was because I was inspired by the wave (pun intended) of female surfers that have been dominating the town in recent years.
Surfing, like many sports, has a particular male-dominated history that has fostered, at worst, a hostile environment towards women, and at best, a patronizing one. But Tofino, far removed from the patriarchal standards of California surf scenes, has a unique and flourishing environment for female surfers, thanks, in large part, due to the influence of the legendary Surf Sister school.
The school, which started off as a truck slinging out surfboards back in ‘99, has become a home for the female surf scene in Tofino. For over 20 years, Surf Sister has offered safe spaces for women to learn how to surf together, allowing them to bypass the intimation of being the only woman out on the water.
It provides an inclusive environment where women encourage each other to keep going. The results have been palpable over the years and has culminated in a new generation of female surfers who are taking the sport to new heights, including sisters and Olympic hopefuls Mathea and Sanoa Olin, both still in their teens.
The waves at Cox Bay, where the school has an outpost as part of the adjoining Pacific Sands Resort, are dotted with Surf Sister instructors — distinguished by their hot pink rash guards.
In the water, my Surf Sister instructor sways beside me as she shouts out instructions in between the incoming waves.
She teaches me how to read the swells, how to position my body on the board in anticipation, and finally how to flow with the incoming wave and allow the board to be carried along with it. Gulping saltwater, I tumble off the board more times than I can count but I get back on each time.
After a while, I manage to push my weary body up and shakingly balance on my knees a few times. And once, I even stand up and laugh in triumph as my board soars through the water.
Surfing is both addicting and humbling; the freedom of flying through waves comes at the cost of being tossed around at the water’s will. The ocean is a wild thing.
That’s what makes it so beautiful and incomprehensible.
I pause to sit on my board and watch the sun dip into the horizon, golden and brilliant.
I feel so at home here, in the water, in this deceptively tropical corner of the Pacific Northwest.