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Riding Vancouver's Waves

Test the waters off Vancouver Island in
Pacific Rim National Park


by Jen Zacher

There is a sign on the side of the road with a marker under the largest of three waves indicating "extreme wave action." I'm remembering the islander mantra "never turn your back on the ocean," which is exactly what I am about to do.

Long Beach

I'm headed to Wickaninnish Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island to go boogie boarding in Canada's best surf. The beach is located on a hammerhead shaped peninsula inside Pacific Rim National Park and on the outskirts of the village of Ucluelet (pronounced "u-CLUE-let") at the peninsula's southern most tip.

Pacific Rim National Park is the only national park on the 500 mile long island and consists of three geographically separate areas that surround Ucluelet. There is the sandy Long Beach, the Broken Group Islands archipelago and the challenging West Coast Trail.

I meet the mayor of Ucluelet, Dianne St. Jacques, at a local surf shop. She started boogie boarding at age 50 and kindly offers to show me how it's done. Posing in her wet suit, she announces with a laugh, "What the Ucluelet woman is wearing this season."

She also tells me about a project she's working on to develop wave generated electricity off Amphitrite Point. Harnessing the ocean's energy in this area is a superb idea considering the intense waves and weather these shores see.

Waves originating far off to the west traverse the Pacific Ocean to slam the shores of Ucluelet. Winter storms can roll in weekly, throwing swells 12 feet high against the beach and tossing old driftwood like match sticks. This is Canada's premier boogie board-ing destination with prime season running November through April.

Miles of uncrowded sandy beaches edged by the world's largest temperate rainforest surround Ucluelet. Salty sea breezes and the scent of hemlock, cedar and spruce mingle in the air. Perched on the open ocean, the village of Ucluelet is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts seeking solitude.

Traveling to Ucluelet is a marvel unto itself. Winding the two-lane highway from Victoria half way up Vancouver Island, I imagined myself in a race with spawning salmon, swimming up hundreds of unnamed creeks en route home to fresh water. Cameron Lake to the right, Sproat to the left, Kennedy to the right - each reflects steep mountains blanketed with verdant evergreens.

Driving through Ucluelet along Peninsula Road on a Saturday morning, local shops (and only local shops) line the street, sailboats bob in the marina at the bottom of a steep hill and only a few people saunter down the sidewalk.

Local shrimp, fish, crab and oysters can be bought from folks, like "Oyster Jim Martin," who harvest the ocean's bounty themselves. Cocoa colored sea lions sunbathe on rocks in the inlet, and orcas often wander into the downtown harbor. Seals and bald eagles reside here too.

During spring, about 25,000 grey whales swim past town, outnumbering Ucluelet's human population of 1,700. The event is celebrated with a weeklong Pacific Rim Whale Festival, including a chowder cook-off and First Nations totem pole raising ceremony.
Besides whale watching, you can hike the coastal Wild Pacific Trail, fish for salmon, beach comb, tide pool and storm watch. Adventure-seekers can watch wildlife up close in a zodiac or floatplane, tour the Broken Islands in a kayak or slip below the surface to dive among octopi, wolf eels and shipwrecks.

But boogie boarders come for the surf. They flock to Ucluelet to hurl themselves toward shore, hitching rides on the backs of rushing waves. An adventurous spirit, wet suit and the ability to lie belly down on a light foam board is all a "boogier" needs. It's much less frustrating and tiring than trying to stand on a surf board in an undulating ocean.

Boogie Boarding

I wiggle into my wetsuit and feel an odd space around my knees. Neoprene, a rubbery material four millimeters thick, holds a thin layer of water close to the skin that is warmed by body heat and insulates from cold. Kevin, a lifelong surfer, tells me with a laugh that my suit is on backward, and the mayor, suited up herself, admits she made the same mistake her first time (Note: Wetsuits zip up the back.)

After a short walk through the woods we step onto sandy beach with tangled driftwood marooned on shore. The familiar scent of sea welcomes us, salty sweet like watermelon. Light mist hangs in the air, giving the towering evergreens on the beach's southern tip an ethereal glow.

It's an hour before high tide. We walk waist deep into the surf and I'm amazed at my boldness. I feel the first seepage of cool water into my suit, knowing it will warm me soon. Waves farther out seem to break as tall as the trees on shore. We turn our backs to the white caps.

The mayor shows me how it's done. Watch for a repetition of waves, one right after the other. Just before the first wave slaps your bum, lean forward onto the board and pick up your feet. The wave lifts you and carries you to shore. Easy. If timed right, the others in hot pursuit will add a few boosts of speed along the ride. After a few duds, we find a good set.

The first wave picks us up and the rush of weightlessness and momentum elicits shrieks of excitement, like little girls. We are laughing, mouths wide open and screaming unabashedly charging to shore. Our screams rise with the swell as the second wave kicks in and accelerates the ride, but no one can hear us over the roar of foaming waves.

We laugh hysterically after a triple (three waves carrying us one after the other) and run back for more. I feel like a five-year-old and can't get enough. Cold is the last thing on my mind. My heart is pounding with the excitement of riding waves on my belly like a seal, well-insulated and fully alive rolling with the surf.

The "extreme wave action" sign was right, but the islanders will have to rethink their mantra. Turning your back on the ocean with a boogie board underneath is an extreme Ucluelet experience not to be missed.

If You Go:

Ucluelet is a four-hour drive from Victoria, BC and about a 45-minute flight from both Vancouver and Seattle.

BC Ferries offers several routes to Vancouver Island from mainland British Columbia. For information and reservations call 1-888-223-3779 or visit www.bcferries.com.

For more information on Ucluelet, please visit the District website at www.dist.ucluelet.bc.ca or the Chamber website at www.uclueletinfo.com.

Inner Rhythm, Ucluelet's only surf shop, offers rentals, lessons and Canada's only residential surf camp for kids or adults at www.innerrhythm.net or 1.877.393.SURF

West Coast Cabins are hidden in the privacy of the forest overlooking Ucluelet Inlet. Fortune Cove post and beam constructed cabins include a full kitchen, wood stove and propane BBQ. www.westcoastcabins.com or (250)726-2406

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