The road is switchback after switchback, terrifyingly slippery as the rain is coming down in buckets. My wipers are touch and go, working one minute and refusing to move the next. At every turn there are makeshift waterfalls crashing down the sides of the rocks, soaking my car and seeping into my cracked window. Every so often I catch a glimpse of the water but the fog is so dense I see no mountains in sight. “I knew it was going to rain. I knew it was going to rain. I knew it was going to rain”. I chant this mantra to myself as I drive hours on end. At last I hit the famous T intersection, white knuckled from the scary and otherwise unforgiving drive, where most people choose to turn right, making their way into the hippie surf town of Tofino. It wasn’t Tofino I was after though and as I turned left I finally saw a sign welcoming me to the very teeny tiny small town of Ucluelet.
“It’s like you picked the most obscure, smallest, least accessible place on the west coast” my sister had said with anger a month ago when I told her I was relocating to Ucluelet for an undetermined amount of time. “There’s not even an airport there” she muttered. Indeed, there is no airport, no big box stores, no snow and an abundance of wildlife. I hadn’t decided to move here because I thought there would be good shopping, I hadn’t moved here to be closer to family and I certainly hadn’t moved here with any sort of expectations for a regular city life I was used to. Truthfully I wasn’t sure why I had thought moving here was a good idea. I had simply googled a place in Canada where I could learn to surf, avoid the horrific winter weather and live at a slower pace of life. Turns out, there aren’t that many places one can learn to surf in Canada, nor is there a lot of places where you can avoid the cold winters much of our lovely country experiences.
Ucluelet is known for a couple things, the overwhelming amount of deer that like to hang out in the town, the black bears that wander throughout, the migration of the grey whales (which I missed. More on that later), the closeness to some great surf spots and well that’s pretty much it. It has one of the warmest winters in Canada, gets a heck of a lot of rain and is Tofino’s little sister who often gets ignored.
I had caught the surfing bug in Nicaragua last summer, when I spent 10 days battling the warm waves that constantly sucked me under and spit me up. The thrill of catching my first wave had evoked a feeling inside of me unlike any other I had before. I craved that feeling again and decided Ucluelet was where I could find it. Like all my great plans, this one had serious flaws. I hadn’t taken the cold water into consideration, nor had I considered just how small the town was and what that meant. I hadn’t thought about not having a grocery store within an hours drive. My focus was on surfing, how I was going to become some kick ass surfing chick who threw out any notion of needing possessions or expensive things. I wanted to focus on me, I pictured yoga on my deck overlooking the bay, waking up to surf in the sunrise and sipping beers around campfires on the beach. I had ignored others who warned me about moving to small town where I knew no one and I certainly hadn’t ever imagined that I wouldn’t like surfing.
It took exactly one week for me to learn that I hate surfing in the cold weather. Seven days of struggling to get my soaking wet wetsuit on complete with booties, hood and gloves. Seven days of being pulled under the waves time and time again. Seven days of utter exhaustion. I like to call it my seven-day hell. On advice from a few surfers I took a few days off to recoup my energy and refocus on what I had come to do. I toyed with taking lessons, sought out advice from other newbies and licked my wounds. What ensued next was three more days of hell. From the icy cold water hitting my face every 10 seconds to not catching a single wave to pulling on a cold wetsuit everyday, I admitted with defeat that cold weather surfing just wasn’t going to do it for me.
Besides the fact I hated cold weather surfing, turns out I hate the rain more than I hate the snow. I spend weeks without a dryer, my clothes always being damp and wet. Despite the fact that I tried to brighten my days with my hot pink and bright orange rain boots, it was still grey all the time. I constantly smelled like ocean, my hair constantly frizzy and I could never get warm.
On the flip side I hiked a portion of the west coast trail, every other day, located a 5 minutes walk from my apartment. I saw more black bears than I have ever seen in my life, some just yards away from me. I saw my first bald eagle as it soared overhead. I spent hours climbing mountains where I wouldn’t see another soul. Days were spent wandering the famous beaches, walking for miles on the sand, alas in a raincoat. I met people from all walks of life, explored the famous hippie town of Tofino, went whale watching and lived a carefree live. I didn’t step foot into a Walmart or Home Depot for weeks on end and I bought my produce from the tiny farmer’s market. I learned that was a right time and a wrong time to gather oysters, where to forage mushrooms and which red berries were poisonous and which ones were safe to eat.
The most valuable lesson I learned though was to expect the unexpected. With a clear plan in mind I had set out to learn how to surf, only to return a few months later, tail tucked in between my legs with some fear of even getting on a surfboard again. I learned that Ucluelet is a wild and unforgiving place, teeming with friendly locals, incredible views and more wildlife than most people see in a lifetime. I made memories, ones that took place on top of a mountain watching the sunset tucked in the corner of a couch that 4 guys managed to carry up there, and memories that involved campfires on beaches and plenty of laughs. I didn’t manage to become the rad surfer chick I wanted, I didn’t even make it long enough to enjoy the warm winter or the grey whale migrations but I did gain invaluable experiences and a burning desire to explore more of our rugged yet beautiful west coast of Canada.