The struggle of getting into a six-millimetre wetsuit virtually guarantees that many who try winter surfing really have to want it. At least that's what I'm thinking when, stretching a leg like a giant rubber band, I suddenly lose my grip and my hand snaps back to violently punch me in the face. It doesn't help that when I finally do squeeze into all the rubber—hood, booties, and gloves as well—the tightness activates latent claustrophobia, every fibre of my being suddenly wanting out. Also, with blood flow in my legs now constricted, my feet freeze on the 3C walk to the beach with a partner hefting a couple of soft-top longboards between us.
Things don't improve much when our lesson group from the Long Beach Lodge Surf Club settles into a circle on the dark sand to go over key safety and style issues with two young instructors, who, hoods down, seem nonplussed by either the frigid downpour in which we huddle—or the roar of overhead surf pounding across the outer sandbars of Tofino's North Chesterman Beach.
Once we've inculcated enough to reduce the chance of hurting ourselves (or others), the boys drop the flag and we bolt for the ocean. Happily, no matter how angry the sea might seem, as soon as you slip into the North Pacific on a January day, it feels more friend than foe; the water is warmer than the air, and the thin layer that takes up residence between the suit and your body heats instantly. Within seconds, all of us—a collection of folks who may (like myself) have surfed in the past or never at all—are riding the foam for all it's worth.
There's plenty of power in some of these post-break maelstroms, but let's be frank: no surfer worth his salt (ha ha) wants the foam. None are searching for rad mush. Thus, this part of the break, far inside of where locals drop into beastly faces like cavorting dolphins, is the realm of Kooks Like Us, as we haul our boards repeatedly back out fin-first so as not to have to turn them around to ride back in. Though it's been a few decades, catching waves comes back to me pretty quickly, and I grab a few good ones. Popping to my feet, however, is exceedingly difficult. I briefly imagine that in part it's fighting the resistance of the suit, but have to admit it's mostly old age; as a result, I enjoy plenty of rides into the beach on my knees. After an hour, launching a clean-and-glassy last wave, I decide to stand. But by the time I scramble erect and assume the surf position—feet wide, forward arm outstretched—I grind to a sharp halt, the board's fin embedded in the sand, water retreating around me, a stranded statue of a failed—but satisfied—surfer.
Getting out of the wetsuit seems more exhausting than getting into it, but I'm motivated by what awaits. The genius of having a Surf Club on the premises at Long Beach Lodge is that in addition to providing lessons, all equipment, and killer cappuccino, there's a warm change room, showers, a hot tub and sauna. For those who aren't fans of the dirtbag change-in-your-car-or-the-parking-lot nature of most surfing, this is the way to go—in comfort and style steps from Cox Bay, one of Canada's best beach breaks. Having fled the savage floggings of the sea, the sauna feels like calm embrace.
"My wife and daughter took a lesson from one of the local surf schools and were asked to remove their wetsuits in the gravel parking lot at Chesterman Beach," says owner and long-time Tofino-fan Tim Hackett. "My wife slipped and fell; that day I decided we could do something better and started planning the Surf Club."
Whistlerites have many connections to Tofino, not least of which are the vehicles leaving town with surfboards strapped to the roof whenever there's a serious swell on the coast. But surfing is only one aspect of a Tofino winter. Though officially "off-season," given the number of people coming here for storm-watching and other activities it's more like "going-off season." If you've braved a crazy-cachet-crowded Tofino summer, however, you'll appreciate how easy it is in winter to find accommodation and also indulge in uncrowded beach walks, hikes in Pacific Rim National Park, and the inventive, world-class dining scene exemplified by ambient Wolf in the Fog (named enRoute's Best New Restaurant in Canada in 2014), cozy SHED in downtown Tofino, Tofino Resort + Marina's Hatch Waterfront Pub, and the dining, drinking, sitting and gazing Great Room in Long Beach Lodge itself, one of the coolest interior spaces in Canadian resortdom from which to view the raw nature of a coastal environment.
Between surf sessions, Long Beach Lodge is a stormwatcher's and beachwalker's paradise. With the tide out, waves pounding the headlands, and sun bathing the whole scene between storm pulses, I literally dropped my bag when I first walked into my beach-view room, running hard across the black sand to water's edge, counting sand dollars along the way. That night I left my door slightly ajar so I could sleep to the sound of the ocean.
And what did I dream of? Surfing, of course.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain, or a beach, he didn't like.