Northern surfers hit the beach

🕔Nov 19, 2007

My partner and I were awakened, early one chilly March morning in our cabin on Haida Gwaii, by knocking and a hoarse whisper through the cedar planks of the wall. All I heard through the duvet over my head was the word “surf.” But whatever swell report our friend was imparting through the wall was interesting enough for my surf-mad bed-mate to sit up immediately to check out the breaking waves visible from the bed-side windows.
For a small group of people living on Haida Gwaii, one eye is always turned towards the state of the ocean as it makes landfall. On certain days, when the wind, tide, and swell come together in the perfect (or sometimes only half-decent) combination, eager wetsuit-clad figures wade out into the frigid water with boards under their arms and a thrill in their hearts. They’re going surfing!
According to most of the surf magazines that appear like clockwork in our mailbox, surfing equals sun, sand, bronzed bodies in sponsored shorts, and breaks so large you could drive a Volkswagen van with three boards on top right through the barrel of the wave. North Beach on Haida Gwaii has the sand, no question…but for the rest of the equation, you have to substitute cold, grey days where the clouds seem to hover only metres above the ocean, hoods and gloves and stubby black booties to complement your wetsuit ensemble, and waves that are ice-cream-headache cold, inconsistent, and sometimes almost non-existent.
I’ve been watching the surf culture on the Islands from a distance over the past few years—from the beach, as it were—visiting the area with a surfer boyfriend who blocks off the entire month of November as the prime time to visit the little shack on the beach—and surf. Having lived my entire life on the North Coast, I had no idea that surfing was something people even thought about up here. But even though the surfing community is small, it is passionate, and growing.
My first (unnamed) source of North Beach surf information has been surfing off the beaches along Tow Hill Road long enough to know he’s never going to be a pro, but that doesn’t stop him suiting up in full-body neoprene whenever he can. He picked up the sport after he moved to the island, lured by the sound of crashing waves in the middle of the night. He says surfing makes him humble.
“It’s another way of getting in touch,” he says. “There’s a feeling of insignificance.”
The rush and the excitement is a major draw too. “You’re not ever really going to get hurt,” he says. “There is an element of danger to surfing, but not to surfing here [off North Beach].” The softer sand bottom is more forgiving than a rocky coastline, but he adds that if he did happen to die surfing, it wouldn’t be a bad way to go.
He doesn’t elaborate on that.

Secretive surfers
When asked about the potential of surfing on the rugged west coast of Haida Gwaii, my friend just laughs. “Oh, you want to know about that, do you?” he says, and proceeds to dance around the question for the rest of the interview, never answering it.
Considering that surfers are supposed to be the world’s most laid-back individuals, there’s a surprising amount of territorial passive-aggressiveness that comes with surf culture—too many people out in the line-up means less waves for everyone. “Easily accessible yet not heavily used surf is an endangered species,” says my informant. It’s fairly common knowledge that there’s surf to be had along North Beach, yet reticence seems to come automatically when talking to an outsider. “I’d hate to have my name connected with the locations of surf spots,” said one guy I spoke to.
Last April, a group of professional surfers made the trek to Masset and the west coast of Graham Island, and published an article about it in the June 2007 edition of SBC Surf, a new Canadian publication. Their article featured a picture of a west coast wave so appealing that some worry it will draw too many people to the limited wave breaks on the island, though the article did lack a caption saying exactly where the picture was taken.
On the other hand, local opinion is also adamant that the surf is too inconsistent and fickle for Haida Gwaii to become a surf mecca in the same way Tofino has in the last fifteen years. “In Tofino, you can live there and be a surfer, and do other things on the side,” says another Tow Hill-area resident, referring to the reliability of the waves near the Vancouver Island community. “Here, you go out to the beach with your surfboard, but you’ve also got your chainsaw and your clam shovel in the truck. If the surfing isn’t good, then hopefully the food is.”
For surfing to be a rewarding pastime on the Islands, one has to be prepared to make the best of the beach when the waves aren’t cooperating. It also helps to able to arrange work and other commitments in a way that allows flexibility. With so many people working part-time and seasonally, word seems to spread like the smell of damp moss and cedar on the wind when the possibility of good swell approaches the sand bars and beaches. Hence the early wake-up call that morning in March, and the cheerful crew of other surf-seekers that soon followed. On those promising days, taking a drive down Tow Hill Road (otherwise known as doing “the surf check”) and coming upon a group of trucks at any one of several known surf spots means that the waves are enticing enough to draw a crowd.

Growing wave
The sport has experienced a surge of popularity in the past year as more and more Haida Gwaii locals become involved. “It’s expanding horizontally in the community,” says one aficionado who, for reasons of surfer ethics, also wishes to remain anonymous. “Especially women: girlfriends, people’s partners and kids are getting into it.”
Boards and suits have been shared and passed around, but people are slowly beginning to acquire their own gear. Although it’s an expensive purchase, a good wetsuit can last five years or more, and then all you need is a board and a pair of strong arms to paddle out with. The simplicity of the sport is extremely appealing.
The pictures in the glossy surf mags on my coffee table, with their images of giant waves and blue skies, don’t jive with the reality of North Beach surfing in the fall: in a setting that is a rainbow of greys there are toques and gumboots, requests for a hot roaring fire after a session, and a dripping wetsuit hung inside-out in the alcove behind the wood stove.
Surfing culture on Haida Gwaii is unique by the very nature of the place in which it occurs. The people who surf here are making it up as they go along, embracing the sport despite the obstacles, seizing opportunities and waves when they appear. Even when the waves are stubbornly absent, those surfers are still out on the sand, as appreciative of the eagles, orcas, and a nice chunk of beach wood as they’d be of that perfect peeling break.
Myself, I recently acquired that good wetsuit (a present from the surfer boyfriend), and plans are in the works to make the annual November trip to the cabin. I’m looking forward to experiencing a quality ice-cream-headache of my own—though hopefully not too early in the morning.