Editor’s Note: This adventure was made possible through the support of Toyota.
A month ago I opened an email from the editors of The Inertia, asking if I’d like to go on a solo camping and surfing trip.
“Just a weekend surf and camp trip entirely alone. No phone. No people. Just a human on his own for 48 hours pursuing a wild life, documenting the experience and learnings along the way.”
It sounded like a good idea – I never need much convincing to go camping, and I’d been tied to the computer for too much time this fall. Maybe I’d drive to Tofino, get a boat to the islands and camp on the beach with the wolves; either that or I’d head the other way to surf one of the rivermouths and fish around one of the bends upstream. There were only two problems – the first that this was Canada in the winter, and the second that the ocean had gone flat.
It had gone, like, really flat. Strangely, unusually flat. It’s usually stormy and pumping at this time of year, but a field of high pressure was parked over the North Pacific; at the same time, outflow winds were pouring out of the interior, with the temperature falling way below freezing on the coast. It was -9 C at our house one night; the wind chill was -17 C. Water pipes froze and burst, and friends of ours built an ice rink behind their house for their kids. Surf camping in weather like that is uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst. So the solo surf trip went on hold.
Eventually, though, the big field of high pressure finally broke down – convenient for the Pipe Masters, and definitely convenient for a weekend camping story that was already way past deadline. On Friday, the swell started with small but perfect longboard waves, with waist-high rights spinning over the rocks on the inside and lefts shouldering off into the deeper water of the river. There was bigger swell in the forecast, so I headed back home smiling, and packed up for a weekend of waves.
In the northern latitudes, you have to be well prepared, and you have to respect the physical force of the cold. The list of essentials for a cold weather surf camping trip goes something like this:
Wetsuit. Gloves. Booties. Boards. Dry bag. Warm clothes. Wool socks. Toque. Tent. Sleeping mat. Sleeping bag, preferably synthetic. Camp stove and stove fuel. Matches. Hatchet. Firestarter. Food, and lots of it. Thermos. Something to read. Something to write with. Something in a flask.
If you’re interested in traditional camp craft, you should find a copy of Wildwood Wisdom by Ellsworth Jaeger. He’ll teach you things like how to build an Adirondack pack, how to make pemmican and how to start a flint-and-steel fire. He’ll also offer you this advice about camping sites: “Expert woodsmen on a trip begin to look for a good camp site early in the afternoon, for camp should be pitched and settled before darkness descends.”
This is advice I have failed to heed. It’s cold, dark and raining; from the shoreline, I can just barely make out the long fingers of rock that reach into the lineup at low tide. The darkness is close and complete, and the twinkling lights of America, across the water on the other side of the Strait, are fully obscured. The swell has backed off again; it’s been small all day, and sliding down the steep, muddy trail to the beach I’d planned to set up at seems an unpleasant prospect. So I pull the plug and head farther west, turning down a side road to where friends of mine have carved a homestead out of the forest, just a few minutes by trail from a good A-frame wave. The tent stays in the truck, and I bed down above the woodshed.
As I climb into my sleeping bag, I start wondering if the editors of The Inertia will either a) axe the story and yell at me on email, or b) shame me and laugh for being a pansy. But it’s a miserable December night, and I justify the decision by thinking that Jaeger would understand – I’ve selected the only site that was dry, well-drained and safe from falling trees and rising tides. I fall asleep to the sound of wind and waves, and though it’s not the far wild, I’m know I’m already feeling calmer and more peaceful than I’ve been for weeks. I’m happy that I’m not in town, and the the good peace of the coast surrounds me.
There is the near wild and the far wild.
The far wild, which is being diminished by the day, is what Gary Snyder describes as “a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction and the landforms are entirely the result of nonhuman forces.”
The near wild, in contrast, is anything we can easily access – the land slightly beyond the roadhead, or everything within a few hours’ walk of vehicle access. It is a place where human activity is common and impactful, but where natural processes maintain their primacy. Those of us who are drawn to nature like to think of ourselves as intrepid, pioneering sorts, and our minor adventures as some sort of pure experience of escape in the unspoiled earth, but most of what we do is just dabbling in the near wild. It’s a blessing to be out in the natural world, and it’s integral to our well-being, but the ideas we hold of wilderness are questionable – firstly, because they’re colonial constructs and almost of all the land base of North America was heavily used by indigenous cultures, and secondly because we depend on a web of human help, influence and ingenuity to enter the wild and emerge in one piece. There is the road built by a logging company, the truck that takes us there, the surfboard made in California, the wetsuit made in Vietnam. Entering the wild, near or far, is not a solitary pursuit; you are a dependent, a beneficiary of a system bigger, more complex and more consumptive than you can imagine.
In our time, having a pure, uninfluenced experience of nature is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. It seems to me that we should spend less time trying to convince ourselves that we’re finding new places or stepping through them alone; instead, we should spend more time and energy protecting what remains of the far wild and restoring what remains of the near.
Sunday morning: it’s firing. I slip and scramble down the path in the grey light of dawn, winding past tall trees and big clumps of bright-green fern. A creek tumbles over boulders and through a jumbled fall of alders. A minute later I emerge out of the woods, board under arm, expecting to see a few friends and no-one else. Instead, it’s packed. A dozen guys, maybe more. Everyone on southern Vancouver Island is wave-starved, and everyone’s frothing. So much for solo sessions and 48 hours of solitude. It’s OK, I tell myself. It’s all good. It’s the near wild.
I paddle out on a 5’11” quad and watch a friend of mine drop into a solid overhead wave and race through to the inside. I know it’s going to be a good session, and I sit out back taking a moment to be thankful for what I have: life, health, a peaceful place to live, a clean and tree-lined coast to enjoy. The ocean is grey and sheet-calm, with solid sets lumping up every few minutes and loping through the kelp. To the northwest, another reef is barely visible through the morning fog; a small black figure winds along on a right, the grey hills ghosting behind. A flight of cormorants wings by; a few minutes later, a sea lion surfaces in the lineup, barking something to us in sea lion language. A set looms, and I spin and go; a soft roll-in to a speedy wall, and I kick out on the inside shoulder and paddle back out smiling. Every time I surf out here I’m amazed by how beautiful it is, how affirming it is of the deep divinity of life.
Back in the pack, a guy I haven’t seen before tells me I’d just got a good one. I say “hey, thanks.” I’m supposed to be solo, but I’m happy I’m not alone; I’d have no-one to share it with, no-one to talk to. I’ve disconnected from distraction – (try it for a weekend, and you’ll be amazed how fast the stress of the world slips away) – but not from my fellow beings, both human and non. Waiting at the peak for another one, I realize I won’t want this small surf trip to end. I want to stay here, scoring waves in the near wild, being a small warm speck in the quiet and continuing miracle of the world just beyond the end of the road.
And now a message from this adventure’s sponsor:
This adventure was made possible by Toyota, who would like to remind you that we’re all born wild. The trick is staying that way. 4Runner remains a rugged beast of a body on frame. The perfect companion for those brave enough to keep it wild.