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Travel Story - Discovering Tofino

On the edge of Clayoquot Sound, nature is at its best

There’s an old saying, "It’s not the destination that counts. It’s the journey."

True and not so true when applied to British Columbia’s premier surfing destination, Tofino, on Vancouver Island. Once you arrive in the small seaside town located in the heart of Clayoquot Sound, at the end of Highway 4, there is so much to do that you realize your journey has just begun. Yet it really started the moment you stepped off the ferry in Nanaimo and stuck out your thumb for a lift.

My friend Melanie Thaker had found a little time between photography jobs in California and decided to head north to visit. Having heard nothing but good about B.C.’s answer to the Hang 10 culture, Tofino was earmarked as our destination.

Despite all the bad press about hitchhiking over the years, it is still a great way to meet the locals. And to see the magnificent scenery, (aside from the heavily logged areas), of the Pacific Rim National Park along the way.

Contrary to Tofino’s hippie image, it wasn’t a series of peace-sticker, combi-vans providing the rides. Rather, a succession of Vancouver Island travelling salespeople, a teacher, a tourist and a character called Sterling whose heavily tattooed forearms spelt out his life history, from the names of his sons to his original home in Prince Edward Island. An hour-long traffic jam due to roadwork gave us ample opportunity to learn of his careers in delicacy mushroom picking, tree planting, logging, fishing and beachcombing. And we had thought it was just a story made for television.

Our last two lifts were from a surfer and the long awaited combi-van. We were getting close.

Upon arriving in town we learned two things. Firstly the spell of hot, dry weather we were experiencing was very unusual given the West Coast is more about rain, mist and wind. Grab a local tourism office brochure and it backs up this fact. Storm Watching is an officially sanctioned tourist activity in this part of B.C. with the "season" lasting from October to March. Participants are instructed to sit back and enjoy Mother Nature’s fury.

Secondly we learned how popular this place is. The local hostel was nearly full and it was only April. Tour operator Ken Thomson from Ocean Outfitters says one million visitors a year descend upon Tofino’s 1,400 residents, and the town fairly bursts at the seams during the peak summer period. Accommodation is sold out two years in advance in some hotels, he adds. And you can see why. Especially with a bird’s eye view.

Peering out of the windows of the small Cessna seaplane, white-sanded islands unfolded below in the turquoise waters of Clayoquot Sound. Jason Bertin, the owner of Atleo River Air Services, was flying out to Hot Springs Cove to pick up passengers. We could hitchhike with him one-way but had to find our own way back on one of the tour boats. After only three years of owning the business, his plans are ambitious, including the establishment of regular scheduled flights between Tofino and Whistler.

"Both destinations are B.C.’s top tourist stops so it makes sense for people to go directly from one to the other," he explains.

Fifteen minutes later, we landed in the water between an Indian settlement village and Hot Springs Cove – the only hot springs on Vancouver Island. A two kilometre wooden boardwalk takes you directly from the jetty to the springs, passing through some old growth coastal rainforest. Even hikers who stare at their feet will experience an interesting journey as many of the floorboards have been painstakingly carved and signed by previous visitors. A history unto itself.

Eventually you reach the springs, a series of hot pools that decline in temperature as they progress toward the ocean. If you’re lucky, you may see a whale swim by from your luxury hot spot.

Of course the main way to see whales during their annual spring to fall migrations is from one of the many tour boats. It’s also the main way to see dolphins, sea otters, birds, seal lions, bears, seals, and a whole host of other marine and coastal wildlife.

The highlight of our tour with Ocean Outfitters was seeing a wolf hunting for food while we scrambled for binoculars on the boat, and the comic sight of a sea otter guarding his prized spiky sea-egg from a hopeful seagull.

Other tours celebrate human life such as trip to Cougar Annie’s Garden at Hesquiat Harbour, where settler Ada Annie Rae-Arthur raised her 11 children and nursery, and outlived four husbands and any cougars that crossed her path. If you can’t take the tour, there is always the B.C. Book Award winner, Cougar Annie’s Garden by Margaret Horsfield.

Galleries, native art and history – Tofino has a bit of something for everyone. However the main draw card for most is the ocean. And according to Kevin McPhail, a part-time sea kayak guide, it’s very addictive. Like many Whistler locals, he has multiple jobs to survive and pay the bills. But he says it’s worth it to live in Tofino.

"The adventure tourism business is tough because many Canadians will just go hire equipment like a sea kayak and do it independently rather than go through a company," he explains. "But there are still those who do, and every day I am out on the water is a special day."