Just because our waters are cold, our beaches don’t look like processed flour, and bikinis and board shorts do not feature prominently in our wardrobes, it would be a mistake writing Canada off as a top-notch surf destination. Sure, we’re more at home skiing mountains than catching waves, but both coasts of Canada have surprisingly robust surf communities. Keep your warm water Hawaii, we scoff at your sharks on the Australian Gold Coast. True Canadian surfers, engaged in their peculiar spiritual obsession with nature, don’t mind strong winds, icy water, rugged coastlines and patrolling packs of killer whales. At least they didn’t look like they did when I headed into the waves off Vancouver Island’s Tofino.
Canadians who surf inevitably end up here in the country’s only true surf town, together with an odd combination of new age hippies and loggers. Tofino gets battered by storms, with whole trees shredded or washing up upon the long shores of the Pacific Rim National Park. Thick grey clouds are draped across the sky, sharp wind attacks the bones, and you could chill beer in the ocean, and yet those aren’t black seals bobbing up and down along the break. They’re surfers in wet suits, and given the dropping temperature, the only thing crazier than their presence is the fact that I’m about to join them. Since I don’t know how to surf, I’ve enlisted Krissy and Tia from Surf Sisters, a local surf school with around 20 twentysomething female instructors. They explain to me that Tofino’s beach break, the absence of rocks or reefs, makes it an ideal place to learn, and that Tofino’s prominent female surfing population means ego and testosterone are refreshingly absent. They’ve also trained a pair of 73-year-old twin sisters, which was too bizarre not to mention.
After renting your gear and taking a lesson with one of Tofino’s six surf schools, head to these popular surf spots:
Cox Bay: 1.5km long, facing west, the most consistent break in the area and probably the most popular surf destination in the country.
Florencia Bay: 5km long, facing mostly south, one of the quieter beaches, with a steep shoreline offering protection from cold westerly winds.
Chesterman Beach: Popular beach with locals and families, with forgiving swells that make it one of the best beginner breaks on the continent.
Wickaninnish Beach: Located at the south end of the 16km aptly named Long Beach, facing west with an epic coastline.
Personally, I would be happy to just stand up for a few seconds on my long board, ego be damned. While summer is definitely preferable to hit the water, enthusiasts on both Vancouver Island and along Nova Scotia’s Queen’s County are known to surf year round. Covered in thick wetsuits, wearing booties and hoodies, cold water surfers are truly dedicated, since, as Krissy rightly points out, nobody looks great tanning in a wetsuit. Canada’s best surf beaches include Chesterman and Long Beaches in Tofino, and Lawrencetown and White Point Beaches in Nova Scotia. There’s also river surfing for the landlocked masses, where fast-flowing rapids create waves on the St Lawrence and Lachine rivers, and even river surfing in Alberta, where the hardcore few hit glacier waters strong enough to deliver a wave (and probably flash freeze vital organs).
Back on the west coast, the Surf Sisters have taken me to Cox Bay, where the waves are gently introducing themselves to over a dozen newbies. Brisk water flushes into my booties, a shock of cold that quickly dissipates as the wetsuit insulates and heats it up. Given the effort to merely paddle out (and not flip off the side of the long board), the cold becomes the least of my worries. I’m using muscles that haven’t been tested in years, breathing heavy as I flip the board around, paddle hard to find the rhythm of the wave, and instantly wipe-out with the grace of a swan flying into a skyscraper.
Sitting on the board to catch my breath, I look back at the coastline and spot a large bald eagle flying along the shore. Here on the wild west coast, where waves can reach 10 metres high, nature is pristine. Other than a few people walking their dogs, the beach is deserted. No umbrellas, no concession carts, no machismo, or beach bunnies to perform for. Just a total immersion in the beauty of the wilderness. Although I only manage to stand up for a few seconds and taste just the briefest of that thrill surfers crave, it doesn’t matter. In Canada, wherever you surf, or at least try to, you get way more than just a gnarly ride, dude.
Surf Sisters have year-round daily lessons open to everyone of all ages, and also run private, kids and girls-only classes. All equipment, including wetsuits and soft-top surfboards, is included. For prices and more info, visit: www.surfsister.com