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Travel - Rough and Ready: Steep thrills in Canada's storm watching capital

The sub-arctic current off Japan's east coast flows with a sense of purpose. Travelling at four to eight kilometres a day, through one low pressure system after another, water heads east for two to five years.

The sub-arctic current off Japan's east coast flows with a sense of purpose. Travelling at four to eight kilometres a day, through one low pressure system after another, water heads east for two to five years.

Then it hits the rocks at the bottom of Bill McIntyre's garden.

"We soundproof the downstairs bedrooms so the waves don't keep guests awake," says McIntyre. "You can still hear thuds on a rough night though."

McIntyre runs Ocean's Edge Bed and Breakfast in Ucluelet, on Vancouver Island's west coast. His idea of a rough night includes hurricane force winds, six-metre ocean swells and rain – lots of rain.

To some, it might seem a dubious source of civic pride but they experience a perfect storm here on average once a week between October and March. Storm watching is the latest evolutionary step for a town reinventing itself. With Canada's west coast salmon fishery already in decline, Ucluelet's community of 1,800 suffered 400 job losses in the forest industry during the last decade.

With its two most profitable resources gone, the town looked west to the very elements that helped shape its earlier good fortune. A volunteer society led by local oyster farmer, "Oyster Jim" Martin, secured government funding to build the Wild Pacific Trail, a 2.7-kilometre waterfront loop trail overlooking Barkley Sound.

The trail is accessible to wheelchairs and strollers and provides a safe, front row seat from which to view the ever-changing seascape. In the spring, it becomes one of the world's best land-based whale watching spots, as thousands of gray whales migrate north, some but 200 feet from the trail.

"March is when things really start cooking," says McIntyre, rubbing his hands and all but licking his lips. "The herring come to spawn, we have 26,000 migrating gray whales passing here, sea lions and orcas, bald eagles..."

When he's not running his B&B, McIntyre, a biologist and former chief naturalist of Pacific Rim National Park, leads small guided walks on Ucluelet's trails and beaches. He describes the Wild Pacific Trail as a wilderness experience accessible to everyone.

It is only when you join him on the trail, he starts talking about "rogue waves" and "the kill zone."

"People are easily fooled by the waves here," says McIntyre. "It can be a clear sunny day but a storm 200 kilometres off shore can send waves twice as far up the rocks than normal. Being on those rocks is the equivalent of traipsing out of bounds in the backcountry during a high avalanche alert.

"That's why we call it the kill zone, or the death zone."

People have been swept off the rocks here and in neighbouring Tofino, 40 kilometres north. Yet brochures promoting storm watching in Ucluelet include a photo of walkers perched on the rocks' edge, viewing waves built like houses.

"Keep off the rocks and stay on the trail and you'll be fine," says McIntyre.

Today's conditions look rough, but McIntyre describes seas as moderate. High pressure holding steady over British Columbia has deflected the usual flow of low pressure systems southeast to the Oregon coast. But waves are still cresting at two to three metres and, naturally, it is raining.

The Wild Pacific Trail offers shelter at least part of the way, while allowing glimpses of the foamy barrage below. Through a clearing, McIntyre points south toward the Broken Islands chain – an archipelago of more than 100 islets at the entrance to Barkley Sound which attracts thousands of kayakers during the summer.

"It's like a big pizza making factory out there, with those barometric pressure lines you see on weather forecasts, showing where the leading edge of the next pizza's going to come slamming onto the coast."

McIntyre is in his element, but then his outdoor office is inspiring. And the action is not just in the ocean.

Stunted by centuries of storms, the old growth cedar, western hemlock and spruce along the trail have developed a natural bonsai effect. This is a coastal rainforest in miniature, though not so small as to deter bald eagles from nesting in the tree tops.

New growth sprouts from cedars toppled centuries ago and up to four species grow on a single trunk, clinging to each other in what McIntyre calls "nature's slow dance."

"Cedar takes centuries to biodegrade," explains McIntyre, "which is why you see it acting as a nursery log, sustaining four or five new trees growing directly from its trunk." Further along the trail, what looks to be half a dozen trees turns out to be one on closer inspection. Instead of growing out and up, branches descend to the soil only to reappear a few feet away, looking like a separate tree.

Given that winds in excess of 120 km/h are a staple of Ucluelet's winter, trees could be forgiven for growing down instead of up.

"Storms do funny things to trees here," agrees McIntyre.

The trail surfaces from the forest at rocks near Amphitrite Lighthouse, the bleakest and most dramatic section of the Wild Pacific. Four layers of clothing are little protection against the chill of even the mildest January breeze. Swaying and breaking in no discernible direction, the "moderate" sea throws thudding jabs at Amphitrite Point like a punchdrunk boxer.

It is a frigid place to listen to shipwreck tales but apt since Amphitrite Point is the scene of numerous seafaring calamities. The first lighthouse was built in 1906 in response to three shipwrecks that winter. The wooden construction lasted seven years before being blown away in a storm. It was replaced by a brick building in 1914 that stands today.

There are 125 documented marine tragedies on this stretch of coastline, known as the Graveyard of the Pacific.

The wreck of the Pass of Melfort lies concealed a lifebuoy's throw from the lighthouse. A British four-mast, square rigged vessel, the Pass of Melfort left Panama bound for Puget Sound in the autumn of 1905 when it hit a storm off Vancouver Island on Christmas Eve.

Barkley Sound's jagged reefs dashed the ship's attempts to shelter in Ucluelet, a Nuu-chah-nulth word meaning safe harbour. Nuu-chah-nulth is a collective name for 14 native tribes that live along the West Coast of Vancouver Island.

No remains of the 36 crew were found, but rescuers did find the wreckage of a lifejacket belonging to a boat called the King David. Though never proved, it is thought that the Pass of Melfort had picked up survivors from the King David, which had sunk two weeks earlier on Bajo Reef, north of Ucluelet.

Those survivors appear to have enjoyed the briefest of reprieves before succumbing to that fatal Christmas Eve storm. Today, the Canadian government's vessel traffic management centre overlooks the lighthouse and ensures that any boat sailing within 100 kilometres of the coast is well aware of local conditions.

The Wild Pacific Trail ends in Ucluelet's He-Tin-Kis park (meaning By the Sea) but this 30 to 45 minute walk is just the beginning. Six more segments of the trail are planned, which will extend the route 17 kilometres from Ucluelet to Pacific Rim National Park. The park includes miles of sandy beaches, the Broken Islands chain and the 48-mile West Coast Trail – so popular, visitors must reserve a limited number of passes to hike it.

The prospect of winter's end does not diminish McIntyre's enthusiasm for the elements. The whales are coming and besides, the sub-arctic current of Japan is already gearing up for another winter.

For more information:

• Ucluelet celebrates the gray whale migration in the Pacific Rim Whale Festival from March 17 to April 1. For more details on this and other events, activities and accommodation, call Ucluelet Chamber of Commerce at (250) 726-4641 or visit www.uclueletinfo.com.

• Ucluelet is three hours' drive from Nanaimo or five hours from Victoria, both destinations accessible from Vancouver by B.C. Ferries (1-888 BC FERRY, or www.bcferries.com).

• To find out more information on the Wild Pacific Trail, visit www.wildpacifictrail.com.

• For more on Bill McIntyre's tours, call (250) 726-7099 or visit www.oceansedge.bc.ca.

• The diversity of Ucluelet's marine wildlife is matched by an impressive array of species on land, including North America's largest population of cougars, a sub species of timber wolf and between 26 and 28 black bears between Ucluelet and Tofino. For details of guided backcountry tours from Ucluelet, call (250) 726-7625 or visit www.raincoastadventures.com




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