Peter Devries is still haunted by his early memories of surfing in Canada. "I was a scrawny little kid," he explains. "Finding a wetsuit that actually fit was impossible, especially in Tofino. So winter surfing was completely out of the question until I was about 13, after I finally grew into one."
Tofino's winters are remarkably brutal. Life is cruel for anyone who dares to stay for the relentless rain, long frigid nights, and violent storms. Early settlers of the old maritime trading post dubbed it "Tough City" because of its toll on the human spirit. The west coast of Vancouver Island is mostly uninhabited, and Tofino sits right in the middle of the Pacific's largest island.
For surfers, modern wetsuits eased much of the pain. "The impact they've had is incredible," says Devries. "I grew up looking for people to surf with. Now? In the summertime there are thousands of people surfing in Tofino…thousands." Tofino's winters are remarkably brutal. Life is cruel for any surfer who dares to stay for the relentless rain, long frigid nights, and violent storms.
With more than a half dozen surf schools, three brick and mortar surf shops, and a steady supply of waves, surfing is now big business in Tofino. And the gorgeous beaches and wilderness surroundings of Clayoquot Sound have attracted a new breed of visitor. Eco-tourism is the big business, and Tofino's surfers, and surfing, are the main attraction.
"Surf lessons are on every tourist's check list," says Jeremy Koreski, a surfer, photographer, and videographer who's been documenting Tofino's local talent for nearly two decades. "The beachbreaks are easy access, easy to learn in, and right in front of the nicer resorts, so if a family comes with kids you can bet they’re getting signed up."
As for surfing's popularity, it's safe to say Devries and Koreski have done their part to put Tofino surfing on the map. Since the late '90s, they've been card-carrying members of Tofino's pocket of progression. Their motley crew was spearheaded by the likes of Raph and Sepp Bruhwiler, who introduced Taylor Steele's Momentum movement gospel to the younger surfers in town.
Their VHS tapes were worn down from all the rewinding, but the Bruhwiler brigade grew more determined to brave the elements in order to replicate what they were seeing on screen.
Having an unexplored wave garden in their backyard was equally inviting. With access to boats, insider knowledge of the latest logging roads, recon reports from floatplane pilots, and of course better wetsuits, they ushered in a golden age of surf discovery, uncovering point breaks, reef slabs, and wedge refractions.
In 2002, Koreski released Numb, a short video of that highlighted their exploits, and its contents stunned the surf media, who immediately made contact with the displaced tribe. That media made it clear that Canadian surfing was no longer a novelty. And as the hits kept coming, Tofino surfers were gaining national headlines at home and global surf fans abroad.
By 2009 surf companies were clamoring to establish a beachhead in Tofino. The thought of indoctrinating thousands of new recruits into brand loyalists helped spawn more surf schools, and it wasn't long before the ASP validated Canada's surfing scene with its first internationally ranked contest; the 6-Star O'Neill Coldwater Classic.
Devries played the role of hometown hero and long-shot underdog. He entered hoping to get a respectable result for the home team. But Devries is to Chesterman's Bay what John John is to Pipeline, and after he dominated the early rounds the ranks of his believers grew quickly.
With access to boats, insider knowledge of the latest logging roads, recon reports from floatplane pilots, and of course better wetsuits, they ushered in a golden age of surf discovery, uncovering point breaks, reef slabs, and wedge refractions.
On the final day of competition news outlets had jumped on the bandwagon, and hundreds of fans made the four-hour trek from Vancouver to watch. When Devries pulled the unthinkable, beating Aussie Jay Thompson in the final, the entire town exploded, and our neighbors to the north went nuts. That Canada was producing legitimate surf stars was one big takeaway the Canadian press reported. The other was that Tofino sure is beautiful.
Today Raph Bruhwiler spends a good chunk of his summer months on his nature tour operation, and business is booming. "I take families out on my boat and we'll go fishing, watch whales, bears, elk, eagles. I teach them about Clayoquot Sound and the environment. They love it. And so do I."
Sepp runs one of the busiest surf schools in town.
Devries is still enjoying the perks of pro surfing.
"Tough City" has a softer side for those who enjoy hermetically sealed comfort. The proliferation of luxury wilderness resorts, hidden spa retreats, high-end restaurants and family-friendly adventure camps are making it a global beacon for eco-tourism. Even legacy businesses like fishing and logging are being handled much more responsibly as a result.
Yet while Tofino makes for a nice home base, those pining for the older days of isolation need only take a short trip in a car or boat. Getting lost in the forest, or at sea for that matter, is as easy as ever up here. "There are breaks up the coast that, as a crow flies, aren't more than a hundred miles away,” said Devries. “But it's way easier for me to get to Sumatra then to some of those spots. That's how much of a mission it is to get there. That's how untamed this place still is."
WATCH: At Road’s End | Tofino