Five Boys Exploring Canada
When in doubt take the road less travelled
With a minivan full of boys and camping gear, we turned south on the North Island Highway and talked about what we would do next. Our only agenda was to end up back in Alberta in about a week so the kids could get ready for the upcoming school year.
We stopped for an “Ocean Break” at Qualicum Beach to figure it out. Our choices were to keep heading south to Victoria, or load onto a ferry and hit the mainland and take our time touring the BC interior, or jump on Highway 4 and see what Tofino was all about.
At that point in my life, I had never been to Tofino or the Pacific Rim. I had grown up hearing that you could surf there, but in all honesty, I thought that was probably a load of bullshit. Surfing in Canada? Ha! A likely story.
Here we were, five guys literally at a crossroads. Do we do what we know, or do we go do something we’ve never done? I put it to a vote.
“Guys, we have a choice to make.” Turning in my seat, I looked back at my charges, “We can head south to Victoria and see the city and museums, or take a ferry back to Vancouver and drive around the lakes.” I paused for the next suggestion. Not for dramatic effect, just to give me a moment to see if I wanted to open Pandora’s Box of Trips. I took a deep breath, “or we can go west to Tofino and see if we can go surfing.”
No sooner had I said “go surfing” than we were headed to Tofino; kids are so predictable. We’ll gas up and eat in Port Alberni, then jump back on Highway 4 for the “easy two-hour drive” to Tofino. Easy 2-hour drive to Tofino. I was so naive back then.
The thing about British Columbia is that there is magic around every corner. For example, no sooner had we started our trip to Tofino than we ended up in Cathedral Grove, home of giant old-growth Douglas Fir trees. So naturally, we had to stop and explore and play with slugs. Slug Breaks are a thing in BC.
Back on our way to Tofino, we stopped in Port Alberni to top up the fuel tank in the minivan and top up our stomachs at McDonald’s. We saw many bumper stickers on other vehicles that said, “SURF HWY 4.” Fun!
The road from Port Alberni to Tofino back then was not in terrific shape; a lot of it was not fully paved. The road pitched up and down and around corners like a roller coaster. We were not even 5 minutes down the road when I heard, “Dad! Pullover, Nathan’s going to puke!”
Please note that McDonald’s is never a good idea before “Surfing Highway 4.”
I managed to pull over in time, and thankfully Nathan was able to eject his lunch outside of the vehicle. We took a moment to reassess our adventure. We didn’t have Google Maps back then and had no idea what was ahead of us other than road signs saying, “Tofino 115KM.” Oh, and the road signs also looked like spilled spaghetti denoting curves ahead.
“What do you say, guys?” I asked as they buckled up, “Keep going or turn around and …”
“KEEP GOING! THIS IS AWESOME!” Kids.
Nathan looked a little green but just as enthusiastic as his brother and best friends, so off we went. Highway 4 is one of the best roads I’ve ever driven anywhere. Yes, there were parts back then that were barely paved and blind corners that only one car could navigate (even though it insisted it was a two-lane “highway”), and yes, there was a sheer cliff going up on the left side of the road and a sheer cliff going down on the right. There was even a brutal left-hand corner that had a surfboard stuck in a tree like it went shooting off the roof of a car. I hope the car made the corner because the surfboard sure didn’t.
We went up and down and around, “surfing Highway 4,” until we came to a sweeping right-hand corner with rapids, waterfalls, and swimming holes. Wally Creek and the Kennedy River Rapids. We stopped to explore and swim and take a break from the harrowing road to Tofino.
Literally, every corner we went around was an “OH, MY GOD, I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS CANADA” moment.
Wet and happy, we loaded back into the van and continued on our way.
The sun was about to set, and it had just started to rain when we turned north up to Tofino. A few minutes into the drive north, I saw a sign on the left that said, “Long Beach,” so we pulled into the parking lot to have a look at this “Long Beach,” because I was still skeptical. The plan was to grab a hotel in Tofino and explore the next day, but how could we pass a sign that said “Long Beach” and not have a look.
The parking lot was misty. Surfers were walking through the parking lot with surfboards under their arms, the air was thick with the smell of good weed, and through a short path surrounded by trees and bushes, we could hear laughing and waves crashing. I instantly felt the west coast vibe, all the tension left my shoulders, and my senses become clear and acute. I was 100% at peace and in the moment. This was Zen.
We came out from the undergrowth to witness the full glory of the Pacific Rim. To our right were surfers around a bonfire, boards stuck in the sand. Sand. A white sand beach as far as you could see. In front of us, five-foot waves crashed on the shore.
The sun was setting. A light rain fell. Salt mist swirled. We smiled and said “Hi!” to the surfers and walked out to stand in the Pacific Ocean and watch the sunset as the waves crested and broke in front of us. We decided that we made the right choice in coming here.
Once again, we were all wet and happy getting back in the minivan; talking non-stop about how beautiful Canada is and how we couldn’t wait to go surfing tomorrow. Our next stop was to grab a hotel in Tofino.