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In Search of Cold Water

I tossed and turned in the sheets late into the night, sticking one leg out of the covers, my body overheating from too much brain activity. With one eye shut and one eye on the clock, I watched as my 5:45 AM alarm and the impending work day drew nearer. But the harder I pursued sleep, the more elusive it became. The mini surf reels playing on repeat in my imagination kept my blood pumping and my mind churning. Every time I shut my eyes I saw endless longboard rides, waist-high waves peeling to infinity, and long drives in the van looking for the perfect spot, the perfect conditions. 

The autumn weather systems had officially arrived and I longed to surf the resulting waves. Staring at the moonlit ceiling, I weighed my options over and over again. From our cottage on Vancouver Island, Tofino’s famously consistent waves are usually our first bet. But our time had become limited and four hours of driving on the long, winding highway seemed too much for just a couple of short sessions. Even if we were up for all that driving, we didn’t have the money to fuel the van all the way there and back. 

I knew there were breaks closer to home along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but the specifics of these spots remained well-guarded secrets. A couple of hours before my alarm sounded that morning, I made a pact with myself that I would find a way to ride some waves on the upcoming weekend, even if that meant driving up and down the coast all day looking for the spot. With this decided, I fell into a deep, short-lived sleep. 

With coffee and cameras close at hand, I steered the van down familiar roads toward a destination which held many unknowns. Our loose trajectory followed the main highway along the Straight of Juan de Fuca, dotted with bedroom communities and old logging towns. As we followed the narrow, winding road, the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula peered across The Strait through the early morning haze. Tiny plumes of chimney smoke drifted above our path, reminding us that the late fall sun would not warm the air completely. We’ve come to expect both air and water to hover around the same temperature on brilliant fall days like these. Suits and booties are not an option, but a welcome necessity that I couldn’t imagine surfing without. 

Visiting many small pullouts along the way to check the surf, we followed a few hints whispered to us by a friend who knew the area well. We were mostly greeted by calm glassy inlets and the odd rogue ankle slapper. Finally, the clues lead us to a rocky beach about a mile down a crumbling road off the highway. I let out a sigh of relief as we came upon a collection of vehicles equipped for camping and off-roading. Surfboards leaned against knobby tires as their owners wriggled into their neoprene suits–confirmations that we had come to the right place. 

Tiny plumes of chimney smoke drifted above our path, reminding us that the late fall sun would not warm the air completely. We’ve come to expect both air and water to hover around the same temperature on brilliant fall days like these. Suits and booties are not an option, but a welcome necessity that I couldn’t imagine surfing without. 

We came to the end of the narrow beach trail just as a large set crashed on a tower of rocks near the point to our left. Around the corner to our right, an extension of the same wave broke over the rock reef as a surfer took off and sped down the perfectly-formed left. Directly in front of us and about 100 meters off shore was a friendly-looking right in deeper water. Sheltered inside a bed of kelp and safe from any current, we chose this as a good place to start. 

Paddling hard to the lineup in an effort to keep warm and work out the jitters, I took mental notes of protruding rocks and shallow spots along the way. The sun had finally finished burning off the morning mist and surrounded us with a soft golden glow. A curious seal began to surface at ten second intervals a few yards away. Aside from him, we were completely alone in this remote lineup.  

When the first set came, we knew exactly where to be from our surf check on the beach. I paddled hard to the spot and then faced the shore trying to keep my speed. When I felt the wave push me forward, I watched as the water turned glassy and revealed a bed of rocks just a couple of feet below the clear green water. I bailed hard and moved quickly to get out of the way of the next wave in the set. The perils of surfing a reef break quickly became clear to me for the first time. Pearling on the takeoff would have far worse circumstances than we were used to at our usual beach breaks. On my second look, I took care to stand back on the board and stay in control as I made the short drop. Crouching low and grovelling along the tiny wave, I felt the rush in my chest that I’d been longing for. This was the feeling that my mind was after; this was the feeling that had kept me awake two nights prior. 

More surfers joined the lineup over the course of the morning. By eleven, we were a group of ten bobbing with the faint ripples and stuffing our numb hands into our armpits as we waited for the infrequent sets. I was more than happy to sit back and take notes from those who knew this wave intimately, taking only the odd wave for myself. By noon, the sets had shrunk and the periods had grown. I caught one last ripple into shore where I basked in the surprisingly warm sun and reflected on our new discovery. 

Although it was difficult to see through the rose-tinted glasses on our first visit, these waves did have their drawbacks. For starters, they were extremely fickle: when we returned a week later under a similar swell forecast, we found a calm channel hardly resembling the collection of clean peelers we were expecting. When the waves were working, the rocks posed formidable obstacles–although these would only make us better surfers in the end. Finally, although the drive was much shorter than the trip to Tofino, the total four hours we spent in the van was something to ponder if we chose to return. 

In spite of these hiccups, as we packed up our wetsuits and hiked our boards back up the narrow trail to the van, I knew in my heart that we would be back soon. Ever since the day I paddled out on my first fomaie, the pursuit of the rush of riding a wave has governed many of my thoughts day and night. I have learned that the only way to cure a sleepless night spent thinking about the ocean is to suit up and paddle out to sea, regardless of the quality of the waves. Whether it is fresh or salt water, standing waves or ocean swells, being in the water with friends and wildlife satisfies a deep craving that we all experience.

As the van crawled back up the potholed road toward the highway, a tiny pool of saltwater poured out of my nose and into my lap: a sign that I’d taken at least a couple of thorough wave beatings. Steering our rolling home onto the sunbaked highway, I knew that I would have at least one night of sound sleep before I was plotting my next pilgrimage back to the ocean.  

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Olga Stern: Illustrator, Graphic Designer & Surfer.