Three planes, a train, a bus, a ferry and a five hour car ride with strangers was all that stood between me and Tofino, British Columbia; a land of towering rainforests, moody beaches, hidden hot springs where the forest meets the sea and knee deep bogs.
I’d read about the world-famous cold-water surf town of Tofino originally in a Bon Appetit magazine. I had never been surfing, or traveled somewhere completely alone before, for that matter. But there I was, carrying an overstuffed duffel with backpack straps that were not meant to be used for more than a quick jaunt across the airport on my back, and another backpack in my arms, jumping into a car with people I’d only briefly chatted on Facebook with, in a foreign country.
I quickly realized that the Canadian accent is not just an American gimmick and that my trepidations for going on this trip alone were for naught. By the time we got out of the car in Tofino, me slightly green from riding in the back seat on winding mountain rounds through Vancouver Island, I had made two new friends.
When we arrived at our hostel, it was already dark out. I had never stayed in a hostel before, but was soon introduced to the vibrant togetherness of communal living rooms, kitchens and showers. There was live music and talking and drinking next to the fireplace up until quiet hours were announced.
The next morning, I ventured out of our room into the common area in search of coffee and quickly turned back to our room to get my camera. The morning light revealed that our hostel was sitting right on the water, the moody skies were hiding mountains and boats and seaplanes bobbed on the waves. The hostel had a whole wall of windows and in the quiet, early morning, those who were up had dragged chairs to watch the scene over coffee.
By the end of the first day, I found myself with even more new friends. We forged through a bog that was knee deep in places – even on our host, Kieren’s, long legs – to find a plane crash. We got lost and we found our way out and we laughed, hard. I ruined a pair of hiking boots, but the adventure was so worth it.
Tofino experiences an intense storm season in the winters, but our trip was supposed to fall before its commencement. However, the day we came in the seas were churning and the sky was angry and everyone was nervous that storm season was upon us. Our resourceful trip leader, Kieren, took to the phones on our first night and arranged an alternative activity in fear we wouldn’t be able to surf: a sea plane to a remote hot springs, the only way accessible by plane or boat.
The morning of our second day we got on the plane in shifts, as it only held five people. On the way out, I sat shotgun. Taking off from the water and flying over the islands and water was incredible. Such amazing beauty! After the twenty minute flight we were all pretty nauseous, but a twenty minute boardwalk through the rainforest sent our spirits back up as we neared the hot springs.
Situated right on the ocean, the natural rock pools collected the scalding water coming off a steaming waterfall and mixed with the incoming freezing waves to create an incredible natural phenomenon. As the tides came in, the pools grew colder and colder. The whole thing was natural and unaltered by humans, the only sign of our interference, a wooden changing shelter and the boardwalk trail in. We soaked and then hung out in the cool mist, taking pictures before heading back to the hostel by plane.
Day 3 was our surfing day and while putting on a wetsuit may have been one of the most unpleasant experiences in my life, the actual act of surfing was incredible. We stuck to the baby waves near shore as most of us were beginners, but our South African instructor, Mouse, had most of us standing by the end of the lesson.
At that point, I’d come down with a cold despite my best efforts and had gone to the grocery store to buy some medicine where I realized that, despite its relative similarities to the US, Canada has some big differences including the FDA, poutine and “eh”. Not recognizing anything on the shelf, I picked something that sounded like Mucinex and proceeded to feel drunk for the remainder of the trip and into the next week.
We were surprised on our final night with a sunset beach yoga class. We flowed on the sand and then ditched our socks and shoes to hold hands and run into the ocean as the sun sunk into the waves. It was so beautiful.
We lingered as long as possible in the living room that night, not wanting to say goodbye to our newfound friends.
I left Colorado, nervous about spending a week with strangers, focused on adventure. While the adventures were incredible, what truly stood out about the experience was the people. A group of 20 mostly strangers spent four days together and left friends. We came from all over Canada, and two of us from the US, from a variety of different walks of life, careers and backgrounds and came together pursuing adventure.
I learned about oil pipelines from a gal who worked on them. I learned about the Canadian healthcare system from two nurses. I learned that pom-pom hats are not beanies, but toques, and about all the best Canadian candy and radlers.
While the Lady Alliance is about adventure and getting outside, its even more about a community of women empowering each other. I still don’t think I’d say I “know” how to surf, but over the course of my five day trip, my growth was exponential.