Inspiration for art comes in many forms; it can be as gaudy as a sunset or as subtle as the flicker of light through leaves; as huge as the sea or as tiny as a periwinkle. Sometimes it’s a location, and all the things in it that combine to make that place a muse of sorts. My place like that is the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, most particularly the area around the Long Beach part of Pacific Rim National Park, and the two towns at either end, Ucluelet and Tofino.
Almost every year, a group of friends makes the 5-7 hour pilgrimage from Victoria (some of us stop on the way more than others) to spend time camping near Ucluelet. Yes, camping, in tents, and at my age! But more on that later. This is the first of a seven day account of this year’s trip, which I hope you’ll find entertaining and informative, and maybe even useful if you ever plan to visit our lovely island. Today’s post is kind of a travelogue of the beaches and how we amuse ourselves on them.
The spectacular expanse of sand known as Long Beach is a favourite of surfers, waders, beachcombers, and hikers (and artists, of course). It’s bordered along its entire length by impressive piles of silvery driftwood, backed by forest, cliffs, or in one place, dunes. The areas around the parking lots tend to be where you find the most people, but even then, it’s almost never crowded. And if you really want to be alone, just walk down the beach a ways; you can find yourself feeling like you’re on a primordial stretch of sand at the dawn of time — never mind the bears, wolves, and cougars, there might be a dinosaur lurking behind those piles of driftwood!
We usually spend a lot of time at Wickaninnish Beach. It’s only a five-minute drive from our campground, Surf Junction, and is a comfortable place to flop down in the soft, warm sand above the tideline, wade along the edge of the breakers, or go investigate the tidepools at the south end. From there you can see the whole stretch of Long Beach to the north, stretching 9.5 kilometres.
It’s often cold on the beach, with the wind blowing off the Pacific, but up by the driftwood it’s usually cozy warm. Mike, one of our jolly crew, loves to build “beach palazzos” (which is Italian for palace) with materials on hand, some lengths of cord, and some strong, light fabric he carries for that purpose, and we set up a little temporary camp under and around them:
That’s us under the two fabric covers (Alain has taken to building his own using his poncho). Even our dedicated sunbathers eventually come into the shade. The driftwood structure is one of hundreds along the beach constructed by surfers, kids, and anyone with a compulsion to build stuff. Here’s another one:
Every now and then I get curious and actually crawl inside one of these. This one was quite small, and, short as I am, I couldn’t quite sit up inside. It was surprisingly stable in its supporting beams, but nevertheless, every time I go inside one, I can’t help but think that we are in earthquake country!
There were charming decorations inside made of shells and seaweed; a mock “fireplace” had been constructed out of stones circling some crispy-dried seaweed, probably by the children who had been playing in there previous to my investigation. When I entered, it was startlingly chill; I felt the ghost of their play-story swirling around me spookily, and was torn between a call to join it and a feeling of being out of place. Maybe it was just claustrophobia.
On one occasion, our intrepid palazzo-builder was stumped by the insistence of the wind in driving down the top of the shelter so that it was bouncing off of our heads — so he tied his kite to the centre. Problem solved; the winds are so steady that it kept the tent nicely aloft for the duration!
At the south end of Wickaninnish is an area of rocks and tidepools, a much different habitat than the vast sandy beach. The first day we were there, it was low tide when we arrived, and I immediately scrambled off to find my tidepool buddies — anemones, starfish, barnacles, periwinkles, crabs… I’ll be writing more on that later this week, with pictures.
The rocks are covered in sea life, and surrounded by treacherous rip-tide currents, so I’ve never attempted to reach the ones that are just offshore but seem so close. I’ve waded out quite a ways, but only on a very still day, at slack tide. I don’t climb on the rocks in the low-tide zone, as that can cause a lot of damage to the life-forms clinging to the rocks. Even walking across the sand I could sometimes feel a crunch, probably of a razor clam since their shells were there in abundance. I could only hope that I’d provided a future meal for a seagull or something.
North of Wickaninnish is a section of beach called Combers Beach; I used to think that was because it was good for beachcombing (it is), but this time I had a revelation as I watched the combers come in. Heh. Is this a good time for the obligatory selfie?
You will notice I am bundled up. That scarf is wool, folks. One can be in a t-shirt up along the driftwood, but the closer you get to the water, the more layers you want to put on!
The fog is a ubiquitous presence on the coast. When we got to Combers, the tide was way out and the fog was way in — I could walk a little way out and feel like I had entered another dimension. Ghostly figures passed by, barely visible only a few yards away. I couldn’t see the surf, though I could hear it, and skirted a colony of murmuring seagulls to get there, my feet massaged by the ripples in the wet sand.
Finally the fog lifted, presenting an almost painfully brilliant day. The configuration of the landscape at Combers causes a lot of tidal channels which drain slowly, like shallow streams; there is also a real freshwater stream which empties out similarly, its channel changing with each tide. My friend Victoria and I explored the current (haha) incarnation of the stream.
Later, I took my binoculars and went to see if there were Sea Lions on Sea Lion Rocks (there were), and then walked up to the rocks at Green Point, where the park campground is. It’s a lonely stretch to be walking alone, and for some reason I always find myself singing David Crosby’s “The Lee Shore” to warn off bears and wolves:
“All along the lee shore, shells lie scattered in the sand, winkin’ up like shining eyes at me… from the sea…” Well, really it’s the windward shore to one standing on the beach, but the shells still wink up so beguilingly!
Combers Beach is reached by an easy hike through the forest and across boardwalks; even I could manage it handily, though some of the other beach accesses are difficult for me these days. We were reminded of the nearness of wildlife by a couple of shockingly purple, um, heaps left by bears on the boardwalk (it’s berry season), and trod noisily, singing show tunes, badly (we figured if anything would scare off the bears, it would be show tunes). The boardwalk is there not only to make walking easy, but to protect fragile forest areas from erosion, and to bypass boggy areas (this is a rainforest, after all!).
North of Combers is the main Long Beach and Incinerator Rock parking lots; easily the most popular of all the spots along the beach, if you go by numbers. The Incinerator Rock lot is almost always full with surfers and their campers (but no camping at night allowed), there for a full day of surfing. People squeeze in and out of wetsuits, have lunch on their tailgates; an atmosphere of serious sport pervades the zone. It’s where the Cool Kids hang out.
Just 300 metres to the south, the main lot is shaded by forest, with easy little trails to the beach crossing a grassy swath sheltered by trees in between parking and beach; a nice place for a picnic if you’ve had enough sand in your sandwiches! This area is very popular with families, and we had a good time people-watching for a change. We watched some surfers paddle out and climb up on the offshore rock, which couldn’t have been easy!
The area around Incinerator Rock itself (so called because back in WW2 there was an incinerator which was used to burn trash from the army camps and air base; only the concrete foundation now remains) is a favourite place of mine. The largest of the several rocks there is an old First Nations lookout site. They are islands at high tide, but at low tide, as above, you can walk all around them and explore the tidepools, and the sand seems to go on forever, as it is quite shallow there for a long way out.
If you stroll north from Incinerator Rock, which I didn’t do this time (so the photos below are from another trip), you come to the First Nations village of Esowista. From there, the beach curves around a point, and if you walk a bit farther you come to Schooner’s Cove. The path in from the highway is something I’ve never attempted; the first time we tried it, I got as far as the first boardwalk, which was unacceptably high off the ground for my vertigo’s liking, and chickened out. I left my friends to brave the thing, went back to Long Beach, and hiked up to meet them along the beach; much more my style (and lots easier)!
It really is a beautiful beach, worth the hike either way, with lots of wonderful tidepool areas to explore. You can also reach a couple of sweet little pocket beaches from there, by hiking over some sandy dunes:
Another couple of beaches I didn’t do this year with my friends were Florencia Beach, just south of Wickaninnish, and Half-Moon Bay; both involve lots and lots of stairs down the cliffsides, and while that is civilized enough, and those beaches are two of my favourites, my knees were not feeling up to it. So I went into town and did other things those days (as you shall see in future posts). But for the sake of completing the set of beaches, here are some photos I took on previous trips:
Florencia Bay, which used to be called Wreck Beach, is named after a shipwreck that happened there in 1860. The unfortunate Florencia had capsized earlier, killing four men, but righted itself and fetched up in Nootka sound, where it was deemed repairable. As it was being towed back to port for repairs, it had to be cut loose by the towing boat when it experienced it’s own engine trouble. The whole coast is dangerous to ships (being a lee shore, which means the wind more or less constantly pushes towards it) and the sea floor is littered with shipwrecks — so much so that the area is known as the Graveyard of the Pacific.
There is a dramatic and heart-rending reading about one of them, the wreck of the Valencia, in the interpretive centre at Wickaninnish. The investigation that ensued resulted in a number of life-saving measures being installed along the coast, including the construction of the West Coast Trail, now the southern part of the Pacific Rim National Park.
South of Florencia, and reached from an offshoot of the same trail that accesses the south end of that beach, is little Half-Moon Bay, probably one of the prettiest and dare I say it — cutest — beaches I’ve ever seen. At low tide you can get out to the rocks in the middle, which have an incredibly rich assortment of sea life, and there are even some almost-caves to wade into. Plus, you get to walk through some really fine rainforest on the way there and back! In the photo above, you can see the cliffs at Florencia in the distance, so that will give you some idea of the distances those staircases go down — I’m amazed every time to see people bounding down them with surfboards under one arm, as I toil carefully down clinging to the railing.
Did I get any paintings of beaches done while I was there? No. I felt a bit guilty about that, as two of my companions were keeping up a daily practice. But I realized after a few days that there is something there that feeds my soul, so that I can come back to the city recharged, and ready to make art again, and that I need to pay attention in a way that does not involve making art. I need to breathe the air, and look at the little plants and animals that thrive in such a difficult place, feel the textures of the sand under my tootsies, and listen to the sound of the surf and the wolves howling at night (which they didn’t this year, darn it all). And sometimes, you know, you just need to laze about on the beach.
Tomorrow: DIY Glamping it up on the cheap.