Fuck it’s cold. So cold that in another attempt to keep my body temperature from plummeting with the falling sun I desperately cling to the idea that around seventy million years ago this glacial archipelagic was actually a tropical island paradise resting somewhere near modern day Fiji. But with light fading on another abbreviated day there’s an icy breeze running through the shadows of this hidden sound and the shivery chill it brings to this Northwest lineup is a painful reminder of the urgency of fall, and the notion of a few short weeks till frost. Vancouver Island is a long way from the South Pacific, and for those who’ll brave the dark, wet, lonely season to come, there’s no escaping this bitter reality.
There is, however, one redeeming aspect to this frigid moment: the arresting panorama of this giant inlet. Many miles away snowcapped peaks towering out of the dense forest reflect the sun’s afternoon light, while just offshore a small gathering of islands are being washed over by open ocean swells crashing and exploding into the soft pink twilight. With a quick pan of the horizon it’s easy to see how eons of titanic forces and savage elements have had their way with this hidden corner of the Pacific Northwest, yet the people, the landscape and its creatures seem all the more ancient and wise because of it. Between them, they’ve seen everything.
Geologists believe most of the islands lying between Anchorage, Alaska and Vancouver Island were born south of the equator, and later arrived to the Northeast corner of the Pacific Ocean via the subterranean plate that twirls counter clockwise under the ocean floor. Eventually these islands either crashed headlong into the sturdy Continental Plate or became trapped in the giant armpit of the Alaskan Peninsula. Some merged seamlessly with the mainland, others collided with violent fury and formed coastal mountain ranges, but thousands more studded the coastal horizon, and these islands collectively form a massive network of majestic sounds and inlets stretching for thousands of miles along the Northwest coastline from Washington State to Alaska. This string of islands has been dubbed the Wrangellian Belt… but many just call it Wrangellia.
Great explorers of the past knew Wrangellia as the graveyard of the North Pacific, and considering the harshness of the environment this is easily understood, even to modern day adventurers. Yet life actually flourishes here. Bald eagles soar from their haphazard nests to watch over pods of orcas, prowling cougars, howling wolves and black bears with mouths full of twitching salmon, the lifeblood of the land. In fact, there’s a greater amount of biomass per acre in the lush cathedral forests of Vancouver Island than in the Amazon. Upon closer inspection one quickly realizes this is no graveyard–this is heaven…or maybe just the place where tropical islands grow old and retire.
Nevertheless, when you’re waiting out a lull in the frigid lineup it gets fucking cold once the sun drops below the cedars so it’s time for me to snap out of my watery daze and join friends waiting by the campfire burning on the beach.
As a set stacks out the back of this beautiful round headland I put myself in position for a ride in. I turn, stroke, rise and glide through a section as racy as any south of the 48th parallel. But after some carefree swoops on the outside my ride nearly comes to a tragic end when I reach shore. While trying to negotiate the giant floating logs being tossed amidst the boulders inside I barely escape a crushing death between two fallen trees. Things get so ugly I actually hear myself scream. When the sudden horror ends I ponder the variety of ways death could find somebody up here, and how such an untimely demise would even be explained. Meanwhile, my friends by the fire are bent over in laughter, having witnessed the whole embarrassing debacle at close range.
With tail tucked firmly between my legs, I make my way to the warmth of the flames, my rigormortis fingers and frozen toes serving as clear indicators that my session lasted about twenty minutes too long. Raph Bruhwiler and his brother Sepp, two of the laughing locals, had given me fair warning that despite 7-mil booties all the latest advancements in neoprene technology there remains a fine line between functionally cool and totally frozen. “Some days there’s no escape. You just have to embrace the pain,” Raph theorized.
Embracing the pain actually defines the essence of the surfing experience on Vancouver Island, especially in the far west near Tofino, where nothing comes easy. If surfers here forego the sloppy peaks in front of their homes there’s certain to be a wild adventure at hand, and each has its own list of things that can go terribly wrong. Navigating the old logging roads can loosen molars, break axles, flatten tires and drown full size pickups in mud. Boarding small boats for open-ocean sprints is always full of peril in this fog infested, reef-strewn zone. And even a seemingly peaceful hike through the forest is full of lurking dangers since most bears and cougars are always game for sampling new flavors.
Taking all this into account I can’t help but be amazed by the local surfers I’ve come to know up north over the past five years. Raph, Sepp and friends are as passionate a group of surfers as you’ll find anywhere in the world, but what’s even more impressive than the elements they endure is how they rip like hell right through them.
I met Raph and Sepp Bruhwiler in Victoria, British Columbia four years ago on one of my wild hair trips to the region. While I’d actually gathered some intelligence before meeting up with them at a local south island pub, nothing could’ve prepared me for my first impression. Over some frosty lagers and a heart stopping Canucks game we began grilling each other.
“How many chop hops can you do on a wave?” Sepp demanded to know.
“Um, I don’t uh, really do-“
“I did five the other day…three on the outside and three on the inside.”
“Sepp…that’s six you idiot.” Raph chimed in. Sepp’s excitement grew after recounting on his fingers. “Man…that’s cool! I did six then, eh.”
Raph tried to apologize, “He asks everybody he meets that question. I’ve been trying to tell him chop hops are for kooks but he doesn’t believe me. You’ll tell him, eh.”
But why should I kill his misguided stoke.
Raph Bruhwiler, 27, is the oldest of the four Bruhwiler siblings, Sepp, 23, is the youngest. Raph is tall, slender, refined and mellow. Sepp is thick, wide, rough and tumble. Raph told me when we met that Tom Curren and Kelly Slater were his early surfing influences, while Sepp was adamantly backing Hollywood’s North Shore as his favorite movie of all time and wanted nothing more than to meet Mike Latronic in person, since after all, he doubled for Rick Kane. In fact, Sepp was not yet willing to forgive Lance Burkhart for his hostile transgressions, and to this day expresses some residual hostility towards Laird Hamilton.
On the long drive north to their home the next day I learned a little more about their surfing history, and how they even came to exist in such a place. Raph and Sepp grew up in a trailer near Chesterman’s Beach in Tofino, a little jewel of a town guarding the entrance of Clayoquot Sound halfway up the west coast of Vancouver Island. Today, roughly 1800 working class people live in Tofino year round, most with roots in logging or fishing.
Raph and Sepp spent their fair share of time in the surrounding hills helping their dad Vern fall trees while growing up. When they were young they’d carry the gas for his massive chainsaw. As they got older they played a more active role. But they also worked in the fishing plants, shoveling ice at first, cutting and cleaning the fish later. But today the old fishing plants are rusting away. It was the first industry to fall.
Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s pressure was mounting to save the salmon that stimulate life on Wrangellia. Local Indian tribes and environmentalists presented damning evidence that over-fishing, especially of the salmon, was starving the wildlife of its indigenous creatures. Scientists were just beginning to realize the enormous significance of this celebrated fish. With rivers and streams running free the salmon can swim, spawn, and die upstream by the hundreds of thousands the way nature intended. This is essential because their carcasses feed species like birds, bugs and bears, and eventually supply rich nutrients, namely phosphorous, to the nearby forest and the ocean below, keeping them both healthy and thriving. Local tribes have long understood the salmon’s value as the region’s lifeblood, which is why this legendary fish is prominently featured on totem poles throughout the Northwest.
The closing of the fish plant in Tofino was the town’s first major economic blow, but the Bruhwiler’s were mostly unscathed, since logging still provided food and shelter, and even Raph’s early surf equipment. Vern, who’s quite the handyman, built Raph a surfboard out of plywood after noticing his son’s passion for the water as a young boy.
“Of course that thing didn’t work,” Raph explains. “But there was already a little surf shop in town and they needed some land cleared so my dad worked a trade with them to get us some decent gear.”
Raph eventually burned his plywood board and threw away his two-piece wetsuit for more modern equipment. With his spirit ignited, his love of surfing attracted siblings and neighbors to the pursuit. But while they ventured into bigger waves and new territories they could only learn from a few older locals and one old copy of SURFER Magazine. Inside the issue Raph’s dad spotted an ad for the Paskowitz surf camp, and a few months later he loaded Raph in his VW bus and headed 20 hours south to San Clemente. At the time, this was a big adventure. “I didn’t really learn much from the camp,” Raph says. “They basically just throw you out there and make sure you don’t drown. But by watching other people surf I learned quite a bit, and I brought back a bunch of magazines and videos.”
Among the videos was the newly released Momentum.
Suddenly, new school testament was being spread throughout the farthest reaches of the Canadian wilderness. Raph, Sepp, their brother Francis and a tight knit group of dedicated friends from their trailer park became even more enthralled with surfing, and all that could be done on waves. During the endless summer days of the 48th parallel, where the sun sets around 10pm, surfing was the perfect time killing distraction. They all bought skateboards and terrorized the town, practicing their tricks on land before taking them to the water. They’d surf, skate and rage till dawn. Suddenly they didn’t quite fit with the lumberjack crowd, these guys were surf rats.
Exploration was the next natural step. It was around this time when the boys were beginning to realize there might be more beyond their little sound than just some decent beachbreak. Each new logging road seemed to lead to a new surf discovery: some points, others reefs, but each fueling their desire to go deeper into the far reaches of the north and south. But exploration also takes a few bucks, and hard times were falling on Tofino…again.
After the fisheries were closed the logging industry was next to step into the crosshairs of environmentalists. Naturally, Raph and Sepp resented the earth first hippies that first started flooding into Tofino to protest the local clear cutting practices. In 1993, the international media invaded the tiny town as riots erupted during the heavily publicized protests of Clayoquot Sound. Apparently it was quite the scene: tent cities, rock stars, hippies, and even eco-terrorists who burnt down businesses. The small community was ripped apart over the issue, and some of the deep rifts are still dying hard today.
While painful, the protests were also successful, and logging practices were severely restricted, which made work much harder to find. As eager teens the Tofino boys took jobs wherever they could: construction, dock work, deckhands. But long after the clear cutting stopped, the invading hippies kept returning, some even with their rich uncles, and the former working class town slowly began to transform into a tourist destination. Raph and his friends began working sport-fishing charters and whale watching trips, and suddenly their long summer days always revolved around the sea. They came to know her moods, and all the safe places to run in a sudden storm. Best of all they were making nautical strikes to places they’d never seen, confirming rumors of reefs and points they’d heard about, and finding a few new ones of their own. All the while their surfing rapidly improved.
Eventually, they saved for bigger winter surf excursions that would help them escape the long dark winter. Raph explored Australia with his girlfriend, and later Brazil, Mexico and Portugal. The Bruhwiler brothers and their young protege Peter Devries began representing Canada in international competitions. They’ve even starred in some cult videos of their own, like 5MM Canada and Numb. But no matter where they find themselves on the globe today, when spring arrives they all long for home. With some 400 miles of pristine coastline north of Tofino wide open for wave exploration is there any wonder why?
Raph lives in a small trailer on the edge of town just above the Esso petrol station where you can buy everything from coffee and donuts to galoshes and fishing poles. “This part here is skid row,” he says referring to the trailers at the bottom of the hill as we pass behind the station. One hundred yards up on the plateau behind is where his home is parked. “This is it, man, we call this part Beverly Hills.”
The wood panel walls are adorned with photos that verify everything from massive trees felled and 100-pound fish caught, to stunning lineups of secret reefs and points. And in the hallway across from the bathroom hangs a six-foot tall map of Vancouver Island. The top of the island lies just about eye level, but when I look for Tofino, the town farthest north on the west coast, I find it down at my knees. Above lies nothing but wild coast, and thousands of waves breaking into sovereign Indian reservations. From the tip of the island down little red X’s mark spots either verified or soon to be.
“Guys have been all up and down this coast looking,” says Raph. “There’s a lot of rumor about what’s up there, but no proof.”
Every year he and his boys usually find or validate some of these X’s but it remains a painstakingly slow process because it can require weeklong camping excursions, high-risk open-ocean runs and good breaks in the weather, which dictates everything.
“It gets pretty damn rough,” says Raph. “Scary shit can happen.” And has. On more than one occasion they’ve come split seconds away from getting swamped by rogue waves while running close to shore to check the surf. But after years of driving whale watching vessels and sport fishing charters Raph’s become a poised navigator and trusty captain, even in harrowing conditions. He won’t take unnecessary risks now that he and Sepp have their own boat. Together with their small posse they’ve wasted no time discovering for themselves what’s around the next corner.
These days the annual migration of tourists fuels the new economy of Tofino. The trailer park where the boys grew up has long since been torn down and replaced with million dollar homes. In fact, this winter will be Raph’s last in Beverly Hills. It’s hard to believe, but with the population swelling to around 3000 in the busy summer months Raph and Sepp have carved out a living riding waves…in frickin’ Canada. As two local celebrities they run a highly successful surf camp, and business is thriving. This past summer Tofino was sporting three surf shops, kayak stores galore, and countless hiking and sport fishing outlets. Still no Starbucks (in fact they’ve wisely put laws on the books preventing outside chains coming in) but it’s becoming upscale and, dare I say, trendy.
Standing by the fire alongside the local crew some of the boys are contemplating the town’s transformation, and Raph is quick to point out the highs and lows. “The good thing is we can surf when we want now,” he explains. “The bummer is it’s tougher today for the grommets who live here. None of them live on the beach anymore because tourists have bought up all the homes.” It’s hard to get around when you’re a grom, especially up here, and while you’ll see huge crowds of people learning to surf in the summer Raph and Sepp have yet to see a new generation of surf-stoked groms coming up behind them.
But on this chilly fall night it’s obvious many things remain the same. With autumn’s arrival the crowds quickly disperse and the tiny little town of Tofino takes back much of its former life. Vern Bruhwiler is still able to knock down a few trees and the salmon can safely make their runs. And tomorrow will be another day of exploration for Raph, Sepp, and a handful of hearty souls. This is the season when the horizons of Clayoquot Sound prove most tempting. Sepp, now long past his chop-hop phase, would love nothing more than a few perfect tubes to thread. Raph agrees, but yearns for something more.
“There’s some big ass waves up there,” he says, pointing at the map. “Guys are searching for new waves up here but nobody’s really looking for the big ones. That’s what I want. I need to be scared again.”
It shouldn’t take long.