Nocturnal Navigations and the Subtle Art of Realizing You’re Totally Screwed

Young, dumb, surfboards underarm. We’d been advised by the drunk loggers at the local pub that walking into the beach at night was a very bad idea. “Not without cork boots and high-powered flashlights!” they cackled.

Of course, we dismissed their warnings as tourist fear-mongering, another rant induced by a few too many Lucky Lagers with the boys. The beach was only 1.8 kilometres from the trailhead and we each had a headlamp. How hard could it be?

 

NightSurfFeature
Dave Barnes illustration

By Mikey Nixon

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But, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island in a stand of rainforest and coastline routinely battered by hurricane-force winds, so the answer to that question can range anywhere from “really hard” to “borderline impossible.” And this became painfully obvious within the first few steps of our journey.

We were a group of four humans and one geriatric dog, Chips, and about five minutes into the mission, (aside from the seven hours that it had taken us to drive from Victoria) the words of those drunken loggers began to echo through the hollow space of naivety between our ears. Headlamps doing little to penetrate the thick forest night, we shimmied our way along rain-slicked logs that made natural bridges over stands of stinky swamp water. Welcome to the jungle, baby; at least Canada’s version of it.

During the rare moments where we found ourselves on solid ground, the earth itself would shake from the huge surf crashing somewhere beyond the darkness. We’d feel it in the soles of our feet first, but the vibrations would soon move up and into our chests, as if we were human tuning forks struck by the power of the North Pacific seas. But at least we knew where the ocean was, right? And we were getting closer . . . we had to be getting closer.

We called it a night, but the forest did not and our sleep was fitful, for all the cracking of branches and occasional bouts of heavy breathing lurking in the dark between the crashing of the surf.

Or maybe not. We pressed forward, but only after accepting the possible futility of our mission and agreeing that we’d find somewhere to camp if the going got too tough. Then the going got too tough, and much of what made it so tough also translated into there being absolutely nowhere to camp. Nervousness began to spread amongst the crew, a feeling that intensified when something not-so-funny happened: my headlamp died. Then Rene’s died a few minutes later. Then Julie’s and Luigi’s. Straight out of the script of a crappy horror movie, all four of our headlamps gone in the course of 45 minutes.

So there we were, a chain of four humans and a 13-year-old terrier, shuffling forward through the Coastal Canadian jungle—two steps at a time into the fleeting illumination of a well used BIC lighter.

There was much talk of “all being lost” (and other dramatic platitudes) as we soldiered on blindly with Chips positioned at the back of the line as a sacrificial offering to the local cougars, bears and wolves. After another hour of increasing dread and minimal progress, we eventually bumped into a downed Sitka spruce that was wide enough to accommodate our tents. It was elevated and safe from the mud and the rest of the deadfall, so without much discussion (or the benefit of light), we set up a couple of two-person tents along the span of the fallen piece of old growth and called it a night.

So there we were, a chain of four humans and a 13-year-old terrier, shuffling forward through the Coastal Canadian jungle—two steps at a time into the fleeting illumination of a well used BIC lighter.

We called it a night, but the forest did not and our sleep was fitful, for all the cracking of branches and occasional bouts of heavy breathing lurking in the dark between the crashing of the surf. Eventually day broke and our eyes were able to behold the forest that had seemed ready to eat us whole the night before. In the canopy-filtered daylight, a formidable mix of hemlock, cedar and Sitka, crisscrossed their way through various stages of life.

After a quick snack, we set off towards the pounding sounds of the beach and finally reached the Shangri-La that had led us to shirk responsible decisions and walk blindly into the night. She was glorious: a two-kilometre expanse of beach break that boasted four-metre-plus closeout waves that seemed ready to break our boards and spines within five minutes of paddling out. Oh well, what’s a good surf mission without the realization that you’re completely unqualified for the waves you tried so desperately to find? Instead, we sat on the beach and mind surfed the bone crushers, knowing we were a little too far from home to take them on.

I’ve always said that surfing can ruin a beautiful beach, like when the water doesn’t meet your expectations and you fail to appreciate what’s in front of your eyes. But that wasn’t the case here. We were perfectly happy to sit on the beach in the middle of absolutely nowhere and save our limbs for the 1.8-kilometre beat-down that would take us back to the car.

When does the sun go down again?

 


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