We set out to debunk the myths of surfing in Canada and enlisted the few denim-breasted surf guides that we could think of, Pete Devries (who is most likely the only Canadian surfer you can name) and photog, Marcus Paladino (who more than likely shot the most recent Canadian surf photo you’ve seen).
With notes from someone who’s never been to the greater Canadian region, including such conversations topics as (but not limited to): bears; grand hikes through wilderness for surf a la Endless Summer II); empty lineups as far as you can see; snow; aggressive wildlife; how much snow and aggressive wildlife is between you and those empty waves; and more, the two sat across from each other for conversation warm as maple syrup.
The conversation was meant to debunk Canadian surfing stereotypes, but, as they say, sometimes stereotypes are there for a reason.
Ever driven behind an ______?
Without further ado, here’s Pete and Marcus, spitting cold, hard Canadian truth.
M: So Pete, what are the biggest myths about surfing in Canada?
P: The biggest myth is that there is nobody ever here. That’s completely false these days. Go out to the beach break at any given time, there’s going to be like 200 people in the water.
M: Geez, times have changed since you were a kid, eh?
P: (Laughs) Yeah. The last five years have seen the biggest change. My amount of solo sessions are about 10 times less than what they used to be. It’s just that people are moving and staying here more often. They come to surf in the summer and get a job, then they realize that they’d rather surf than snowboard in the winter. So they hang around.
M: That’s basically exactly what I did. I’ve only lived here (Tofino) for six years, but I feel like my first winter here was the last real one. Like, where there was nobody on the beach and on any given day only five guys in the water.
P: Even the days that are super windy, stormy and rainy are crowded. Like on the days that are gnarly to be in the water and the spray’s blowing in your eyes, that aren’t very enjoyable to be out, were when I used to surf alone. Or it’d just be me and Raph (Bruhwiler) trading barrels. Now everybody’s onto it.
Somewhere between the trees, there is a wave.
M: So one of the biggest things people think about surfing in Canada is that you’re certain to run into a bear or a wolf while getting to the sand to surf. How common is this?
P: That one’s laughable for sure! It’s pretty uncommon, especially at the local beaches around here. The only time you’ll ever see bears are on camping trips up the coast. Most of the time, they’re just forging on the low tide, flipping over rocks and looking for purple shore crabs.
M: So you’re not fighting them off with a stick or anything?
P: No. Well, not unless you leave your food out overnight and track them to your camp…then you might get a couple visits. Like up the coast there have been times where bears have come through the boy’s campsites looking for food. But I’ve never been there for one of those. I would say it’s pretty rare.
M: How many bear encounters have you actually had while going to or from the surf?
P: I have seen bears, but never have had an encounter while surfing. The only encounter I’ve ever had was with my dog when she charged one. The bear stared her down and she realized she made a mistake and turned around. Luckily she came back.
M: See, stories like that make people assume bears are everywhere.
P: Yeah, I see them out from my house and across the inlet. They usually just keep to themselves. Cougars are something that you never spot.
M: I’ve never seen one.
P: I heard the scream once. They make this shrill screaming sound that’s terrifying.
“The only encounter I’ve ever had was with my dog when she charged one. The bear stared her down and she realized she made a mistake and turned around. Luckily she came back.” – Pete Devries
M: What about wolves?
P: I see wolves mostly across from my house as well (Laughs)
M: The only wolf story I have is from when I was filming Michael (Darling) and Shannon (Brown), they were in the water and between sets, they kept waving at me. I kept looking through my camera and wondering why. So I kept waving back to them. I found out later that there was a very large wolf walking behind me.
P: Oh, that’s kind of gnarly.
M: I had no idea until they came in.
P: Animals are always on the back of your mind. If you’re camping in a remote place up the coast you want to be aware. You don’t want to be walking around, looking at the surf or other things and tilt your head up and see a bear. You don’t want to startle those animals; that’s when things go bad.
M: How often is there snow actually on the beach here?
P: Not often enough. It snows, but maybe three-to-six times a year there’s actually snow on the beach.
M: And, it’s usually all melted by noon.
P: It doesn’t stick very well. It usually snows, warms and melts.
Backdrops the beautiful. Pete offering Marcus a lot to look at.
M: It’s funny, the most common thing people ask me for are photos of surfers walking through snow. Up until this year, I didn’t have any.
P: It’s nice when it snows on the beach, but for that, you have to go to Nova Scotia. There’s something really nice about big trees covered in snow, and it lining the water. It’s great photographically. It’s not very fun to surf in.
M: Have you ever had icicles hanging from your hood post session?
P: Never here in British Columbia. Nova Scotia is the coldest place I’ve ever surfed though. The few times I’ve been there in the winter the water was .8 degrees Celcius and the windchill was minus 25 Celcius. It’s really, really cold. It’s very different than over here.
M: I feel like the East Coast of Canada is what everyone thinks all of Canada is like. Just super cold water, snow on the ground and bears.
P: True. Although Nova Scotia has a crazy fluctuation in water temps, where ours stays in a very small range. Out there, people wear boardies in the summer.
P: The water probably gets 18-20 degrees (Celcius) in the summer. So you can wear boardies and a top, or a short arm. Then in the winter, you’re lobster claws and a six-mil.
Nothing about this photo is warm. Here Andy Jones puts two boots on the nose.
M: Do you think surfing in a five-mil limits your ability?
P: You’re never going to feel as quick when you’re surfing in full rubber. Gloves are a major restraint. They make paddling feel so labored. But, when the waves are good, you don’t notice it as much.
Wearing boots for me though is easier to surf in than bare feet. Especially for airs.
M: I read a quote once from Kelly Slater saying you’re the most athletic surfer because of what you do in a five-mil.
P: (Laughs) If Kelly puts some time in a five-mil, he’d be a lot more athletic than me. But, that’s very nice of him.
M: What are the crowds like at the most popular spots?
P: When the waves are decent come late summer early fall there could be 200-plus people out. Especially if there’s just one break in town that’s good. There will be cars lining the whole side of the road. It’s a mess. There are so many people learning to surf here. They come in the summer and take lessons and rent boards. Most the time it’s mushy, easy beach break. It’s actually a really good place to learn. There’s a pretty healthy surf scene growing here.
Noah Cohen leaps behind the belly of the whale.
“I read a quote once from Kelly Slater saying you’re the most athletic surfer because of what you do in a five-mil.” – Marcus Paladino
M: Are there any good waves with easy access?
P: For the most part the best waves are hard to get to. Like, require a boat or a helicopter. What a lot of people don’t realize is that best waves are extremely fickle. They only get good a handful of times each year.
M: Are you the only pro surfer in Canada?
P: No, Raph and Sepp Bruhwiler were the first to make it at a professional level. And there’s Noah Cohen, who is surfing as a full-time job.
M: What about seeing Canada in surf publications makes you cringe?
P: Probably the bear, cougar, wolf thing. That you have to fight them off to go surfing. But that also makes me laugh.
M: For me, it’s reading the descriptions for any surf edit from Canada that says something about frosty eyelids.
What about the pre/post work surf session? Can you go surf for 45 minutes if you want to?
P: In Tofino, definitely. Our beach break is about a five-minute drive from town. In the fall, spring and summertime you can easily do that. In the winter, it becomes harder. It’s only light from 8 am to 4 pm. So, if you’re working that 8-4 shift, you basically live in the dark. Which can get pretty depressing.
M: Tough times for people who work in the surf shops. Are the hardships of surfing in Canada amplified by surf media?
P: (Laughs) The hardships are what they are. It’s cold, you surf in a wetsuit but if you’re prepared you can stay warm. It’s like camping in the rain, if you’re prepped right it’s comfortable but if you’re not it’s an awful experience.
It’s like the bear thing. You tell surf media you saw a bear once and all the sudden everyone’s like “There are bears everywhere!”
You say you had to hike to surf and everyone’s like “You have to hike at least 45 minutes to go surf anywhere!”
M: It’s like Australia. I’ve never been to Australia but I just assume there are sharks everywhere.
P: Well… look at that text. “Bear on the road, trying to get into the trash again.” (Laughs)
M: (Laughs) No way.
P: There you go. So there are bears everywhere.