Life on the Edge

In Tofino, where the Pacific meets Vancouver Island, there's drama to spare

Tofino coastline

Robert Leon

I'm gaping at a huge set of waves washing over razor-sharp coastal rocks when our hiking guide, Bill McIntyre, says, "Now this is life on the edge." Sounds about right to me. Since my arrival in Tofino, British Columbia, I've met daredevil surfers, explored organic co-ops and eclectic art galleries, and chatted with more than one ardent environmentalist.

But it turns out a bohemian edge isn't what McIntyre is talking about. He's referring to an ecological "edge effect" that's created by onshore winds, nutrient flow, and massive ocean storms from thousands of miles away hitting this stretch of the Clayoquot Sound's shoreline. "Energy telescopes down in this one small unit area," McIntyre says, "so you find greater species diversity."

In terms of geography, too, Tofino represents life on the edge: Tucked away on the west side of Vancouver Island, from Vancouver it's accessible only by boat or small plane. But the long journey doesn't discourage.

Tofino's steady flow of visitors, many of whom arrive between November and March to witness the roaring tempests that have made this a winter storm-watching destination. Summer is an even busier time, with families flocking here to explore the trails and beaches.

What most people haven't realized is that April is one of the nicest months in Tofino, with lower lodging rates, wild rhododendrons and irises beginning to bloom, mild weather for hiking and surfing (a sport that's booming here), and excellent wildlife-watching opportunities ― including the springtime migration of up to 26,000 gray whales.

 

EAGLES AND ILLUSIONS

As we walk past storm-twisted spruce along a wide gravel path, McIntyre and I are greeted at every turn by new views of the Pacific, its churning whitecaps bright in the sunlight. Next to me, McIntyre is explaining why the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada is such a special place. As former chief naturalist here, McIntyre has been guiding visitors among the ancient cedars and spruce of these coastal headlands since 1973, almost as long as the reserve has existed.

"It's truly the cornerstone of eco-tourism in this region," he says of the 124,000-acre reserve. To prove his point, he stops us often to call attention to striking details. He explains how the Sitka spruce, which forms a narrow fringe zone along the shoreline, has adapted to withstand ferocious storms through its long, fibrous root system. And he points out a gimlet-eyed eagle perched in a tree. Normally this eagle sits here with its mate, McIntyre tells us, in a scenic area known as Wedding Point ― for a reason we could guess. "The eagles were the first couple to be married there," McIntyre jokes, "more than a decade ago."

This is a savage place too, I learn when McIntyre points out the site of a 1905 shipwreck that killed every man on board even though it happened just 100 feet from shore. As I gaze out to sea, imagining the tragedy, I'm struck by the illusory nature of this landscape. Out on the horizon, a distant surfer might be mistaken for a seal, mink, or bald eagle. In the forest, massive cedars draped with thread moss and lichen change shape in the breeze.

Not only do the vistas constantly change, so does the weather: On our hike, the morning's pelting rain gives way to sunny skies. McIntyre assures me that unpredictable weather is the norm. It explains why the region gets twice as much rain as Vancouver, about 130 inches per year, but also twice as many hours of sun.

Luxury resorts such as the Wickaninnish Inn and the newer Long Beach Lodge Resort wisely market themselves as jumping-off points for outdoor adventures. At the Long Beach Lodge, every room is equipped with a guidebook ― subjects range from hiking to bird identification ― and raincoats. But there's another reason to visit these resorts: the food.

For such a small town, Tofino has a disproportionate number of noteworthy places to eat ― everything from a purple truck serving top-notch fish tacos to the swanky Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn. Chefs here benefit from Pacific Rim influences as well as a bounty of local ingredients. No fewer than five species of salmon are found here, along with wild chanterelles, blackberries, and huckleberries.

 

At the RainCoast Café, Lisa Henderson, who runs this local institution with husband Larry Nicolay, combines unbelievably fresh seafood with the region's exotic local produce ― nettles, salal, tatsoi (a type of bok choy) ― for fusion dishes such as Thai coconut-chili clams and mussels. The ability to find the appropriate ingredients to fuel her Asian-influenced style are part of what keeps Henderson rooted here. "It's an exciting wild garden we have in Clayoquot Sound," she says.

The Tofino Botanical Gardens are equally exciting in their own way. Though not exactly wild, they're full of unexpected surprises: On a wooded path, a mobile of seashells painted with peace signs hangs from a tree branch; among a grove of subtropical windmill palms and banana plants, Red Man Walking, a wood sculpture crafted by an artist from a nearby island, stands tall.

"It's a venue for telling a more complete story about this place," says George Patterson, who founded the gardens seven years ago. It's where native plantings, wildlife, local art, and pieces of history ― such as the 1946 wood salmon trawler Evian on view at the water's edge ― converge.

Locals come together on these grounds too at the onsite restaurant Cafe Pamplona, where the bistro-style fare is made with fresh organic herbs, salad greens, and vegetables raised in the adjacent kitchen garden.

"Conservation is part of the community ethic in Tofino," Patterson says. He points out that the high level of environmental awareness is especially welcome this time of year, when thousands of sandpipers and sanderlings feed in the 5,000-acre bird habitat that borders the botanical garden (a bird blind provides the perfect spot to take in the views). "All the neighbors and residents near the water tie up their dogs," he says.

Along a scenic wood boardwalk in the garden's shaded groves, a sign posted on a tree reads, "Listen to the wind, the birds, and the water." In a place like Tofino, that seems like enough.

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