Remote surfing in the off season
Skunked on the North Island

Growing up on the south of Vancouver Island, a proverb I’d often hear was: ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.’ Visiting Vancouver Island North one weekend in late February, I came to realize how true this saying can be. Experiencing all four seasons each hour on repeat throughout the day was the norm during a visit to the small hamlet of Holberg and the surrounding area. Joining me was two of my closest friends: Marcus and Niko. On the Sunday, as we hiked along the accessible path down to San Josef Bay from the parking lot, warm summer-like sun shone brightly – a very welcome change from the torrential downpour that had plagued us most of the day prior. Upon reaching the treeline at the beach, we saw the menacing, dark clouds approaching over the tree-covered hills on the opposite side of the expansive bay. Within seconds, the sun was blotted out completely, and snow began to blow across the sand, followed quickly by hail, and then rain. Tucked amongst the towering trees, we sheltered in place, knowing the bitter winds that brought the sudden storm would soon allow the sun to break through once more. Like clockwork, that’s exactly what occurred, and we stepped back onto the beach to explore. 

A surfboard leaning on a log on the beach

As mentioned, I was raised on southern Vancouver Island. Marcus, like me, was  raised in the Cowichan Valley, and completing the trio was Niko, who grew up in Vancouver. For all of us, Vancouver Island North has long held a mystical allure. Although not too far from home in the grand scheme of things, the north of the Island has always felt somewhat otherworldly – an object of desire, calling to the adventurous spirit within the three of us. This trip’s specific calling to Vancouver Island North, was the temptation to surf remote beaches, devoid of crowds, steeped in rugged beauty. When I’d pitched a North Island trip in the middle of the winter to the other two, I knew the answer would be “yes”. Dreaming of clean breaks on unspoilt beaches (read: no resorts, paved roads, etc.), we packed my father’s SUV with our backpacking, camera, and surf gear, and set off with the intention to post up for a few nights on an isolated beach, hours down an unpaved road, and along a path winding through the old growth forest. 

Two people walking on a remote beach

Checking the forecast for Port Hardy (the largest town on the North Island) as we drove north Friday morning, we began to question our hardiness; seeing a Saturday of nothing but relentless rain, along with near-freezing temps throughout the weekend, and possible snow come Sunday/Monday. Although equipped with proper gear and all experienced outdoorspeople, the thought of changing out of a wetsuit in low temps and an ongoing monsoon, to then huddle in a cold tent with no dry firewood available, wasn’t the most appealing thing. Luckily, Holberg’s iconic Scarlet Ibis Pub – which touts itself as ‘The most remote pub on Vancouver Island’ – provided an alternative to a cold/wet tent: adventure hut rentals for a very reasonable price. The huts are basic, with bunk beds, a bar fridge, a heater, and a thoughtfully included drying rack (which was much needed). This, all right across the parking lot from cold beer and warm meals. Thus, we took the easy way out, and booked a hut for the weekend. 

A warning sign on a backroad stating to "Prepare for the Unexpected"

A sign on a building that says "The most remote pub on Vancouver Island"

Arriving in Holberg on Friday afternoon, we explored the small hamlet as the rain began to fall. Notably, we stopped in at the old ferry-terminal-turned-community-wharf that once connected the logging town to others in the area, such as Port Hardy. Located at the end of an incredibly large fjord, Holberg has had a fascinating history, with its population rising and falling with world events. Now home to very few permanent residents, the town once housed prosperous logging camps, and military bases during WWII and the Cold War. Before that, and to this day, the area is the ancestral home of the Quatsino First Nation, which has faced the impacts of  colonization throughout history, and whose land we are grateful explore. While we cooked lunch under the cover of the picnic area at Little Loggers park, ‘downtown’ Holberg, we saw only one person, who greeted us as they walked by. After sheltering in the park until the Scarlet Ibis opened, we then headed in to grab some beers and dinner, before retiring to our modest but most appreciated accommodation. 

A person taking a photo of sleeping huts

The next morning, with the monsoon in full effect, we set out to one of the many remote beaches in search of surf. Driving along the forestry roads out of Holberg, we hardly passed a single vehicle, save for a mammoth logging truck parked in a clear-cut – its size dwarfing our SUV. While I’m accustomed to solitude on South Island logging roads, the complete absence of others found at the northern tip was hauntingly beautiful. Arriving at the trailhead, we loaded up camera/surf gear, and began along the trail through the rainforest – emphasis on rain. The downpour was relentless, testing our gear like never before. Trudging through the mud, over slippery roots, under fallen trees, and along slick boardwalks we soldiered on, laughing at ourselves for willingly enduring such a testing slog. Before we’d embarked on the trail, we’d been under the false impression that the distance was a mere 2kms, and that we’d be at the beach within 45 minutes or so. The truth, however, was we were a kilometre short in our estimates, and the difficulty of the trail  – especially with all the gear we’d packed – had also been underestimated. 

A person holding a surfboard on a trail through an old growth forest

After over an hour of marching, we arrived at the beach wet, a bit cold, and in a somewhat delirious state. While in an ideal world I’d be able to say that we were met with clean, endless, rolling breaks across a glassy, expansive bay, the reality was a blown-out mess of a surf. Whitecaps were smeared across the cove by a howling wind, and the rain showed no signs of slowing down. We’d been officially ‘skunked’. Yet, that’s surfing for you: sometimes you score, and often you don’t. This instance fell solidly into the ‘don’t’ category. That said, we’d lugged the boards all the way down, so, after a shivery coffee/snack, Marcus and I figured we might as well try to catch some crumblers for posterity’s sake. Suited up and in the water, I don’t think either of us caught a single wave as we battled the unabating waves and heavy rip which constantly pulled us towards the south end of the bay. We spent a bit of time out in the waves, messing around more than anything, before heading back to the shore. Despite the lack of surf, the beach was strikingly beautiful; a pristine idyllic cove, with mountains adorning each side, rimmed by towering stands of old growth, and no one else around, aside from one other group of intrepid, if not masochistic adventurers. After a chilly change out of our wetsuits and packing of our things, we made our way back up to the vehicle, once again laughing at the predicament we’d placed ourselves in. 

A picture of coffee fixings on a beach

Arriving soggy back at the Scarlet Ibis, the rain turned to hail as the temperature dropped, and we were extremely thankful to not be in our tents back on the beach for the night. Had the waves been incredible, maybe it would have been a different story. But, things as they were, it would have been a very cold and wet night, with morale certainly a bit lower. Instead, spirits were fairly high as we cooked a meal on our covered porch, and reflected on the lunacy of the day. 

Hotdogs being cooked in a pan over a camp stove A photo of a surfer sitting on a surfboard in small waves

The following morning, with surf conditions very likely unchanged from yesterday, we decided we ought to visit the legendary San Josef Bay; in my opinion, the crown jewel of Vancouver Island North. Arrived at the bay with the weather changeable by the minute, when we finally stepped out onto the beach as the sky broke into sun, the fabled spot lived up to all its hype. In particular, the seastacks at  the north end of the beach were something I’d dreamed of seeing for many years, and to finally see them was a memory I won’t soon forget. Continuing past the  seastacks, we traversed up a headland following the trail with no other aim than to explore. The sun was still shining warm, but we knew some form of precipitation could, and would, strike anytime. Serendipitously, we followed a trail down to a small cove, as a light snow began to fall. There, between waves that cut off access around the headland, Marcus sprinted around and out-of-sight. Niko and I heard him yell for us to join him, and we raced the waves to do so. On the other side, we were met with an impressive cavern, with cliffs rising tens of metres high to the old growth forest above. I probably wouldn’t have risked the soggy feet if it hadn’t been for Marcus’ gumption, but the coincidental find turned out to be worth the risk. From the cave, we headed back to San Josef Bay to make coffee on the beach as the sun shone once again. From there, we returned to the car in order to explore our next stop, something that intrigued us on the way in: a sign pointing down a tributary dirt road towards “Ronning’s Garden”.

A person on a beach with sea stacks and trees in the background

Driving down the lonely dirt roads provided a wealth of natural and historical  curiosities. One forestry sign we passed noted a hurricane and the subsequent  replanting of the forest in the early 1900s. With no cell service to investigate the peculiar claim (reception is few and far between on the North Island), we tabled it for later when we found an article from the North Island Gazette, which in turn references an article from The Victoria Colonist stating that on Dec. 23, 1907, a severe storm dubbed as a ‘hurricane’ hit Vancouver Island North, which “tossed around boats, knocked down a considerable amount of timber, and caused many injuries and at  least one fatality.” These strange little tidbits of information are scattered around the North Island, and Ronning’s Garden is the quintessential example. The gardens are a volunteer-driven restoration of a botanical garden founded by Norwegian settler Bernt Ronning in 1910. Visiting the gardens comes highly recommended, as the experience was surreal. Through a towering west coast forest, we walked the old cart path as another hail storm turned the canopy into a cacophony of patters. At the end of the path, the trees opened to a mysterious clearing, alien in nature compared to the surrounding trees and understory. Spread across a few acres, what remains of Ronning’s Garden stands as a testament to his dedication those many years ago, and the work of the volunteers holding at bay the encroaching forest, which seeks to swallow up the modified landscape. In a semi-manicured state, the garden is home to a variety of species, curated from across the globe. Among other foliage, rhodos, bamboo, and the first bulbs to sprout up at the earliest taste of spring surrounded us as we strolled about. Most striking was the monolith of a monkey puzzle tree, towering as tall as any of the native giants surrounding the garden. All three of us  were taken aback at its sheer magnitude. If one didn’t look up and see the iconic  spiked branches, only looking at eye level to the massive trunk draped with moss, one may miss the fact it was a monkey puzzle tree at all. 

A photo of a rusted out vehicle being taken over by nature

White crosses in a remote forest

Past rusting relics of machinery we looped back up though Ronning’s grounds and back down the cart path, crossing the dirt road and parking area towards an old cemetery. A few kilometres down a narrower path through the forest we reached the solemnly beautiful resting place, with its old headstones worn illegible over time, and white-painted wooden crosses and picket fence striking against the otherwise dark green landscape. Fallen trees and limbs had dilapidated the fence that once enclosed the burial site, as the forest worked to reclaim the small plot. The area had an air of reverence to it, which we took in for a moment before heading back to the car, and returning to the Scarlet Ibis as the sun broke through the clouds for the countless time.  

During dinner at the pub we reflected on our mostly dry day, at least in comparison to the one prior. We discussed the great beauty of the places we visited, and the welcome surprise that Ronning’s Garden had been. Over another round of Lucky Lagers (“doing our part [as temporary locals]” the server said) we reflected on the spirit of place the North Island possesses; the isolation and unpredictability; and the challenges that come along with the territory. Although on paper the surf trip had  been a bust: marred by challenging weather systems both in and out of the water resulting in no waves to write home about – or, rather, a blog about – never before  had I been so thankful, in a sense, to get skunked. Fully undeterred by the set-backs, and resolute in the incredible experiences we shared outside of surfing, the three of us planned our next visit to the area as we sat around the table at the Scarlet Ibis. We went to bed that night as a light snow began to fall over sleepy Holberg, and awoke the next morning to a light dusting covering the hamlet. As we began driving home along the dirt roads, the snow began to increase its intensity, turning quickly to a complete whiteout. The blizzard continued until we made it over the pass to Sayward, making for a slow and intense drive home – just another surprise from Vancouver Island North. The three of us look forward to what’s in store for us next time.

Two people standing on a sandy beach with hiking gear on

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