March 02, 2001 Features & Images » Feature Story

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.

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."

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