Port Renfrew

Where the Surf Meets the Trees

by Andrew Findlay

© Alamy Stock Photo

Mist seeps through the Sitka spruce and western red cedars towering above Sombrio Beach. Sunlight glistening on ferns and the call of a raven complete the impression that I’m standing in an Emily Carr painting.

Two surfers bob in the water, seeking the sweet spot. Down the beach, a solitary stand-up paddleboarder makes her way out near the mouth of the creek, where tea-coloured water rich in forest tannins blends with the sea. Doffing outerwear, I wriggle into my wetsuit and step past intertidal pools on boulders slick with rockweed that pops underfoot like bubble wrap.

Now in the sea up to my waist, I take a deep breath and slip into the water astride my board, bracing for the splash of 12°C water against my face.

Although the Strait of Juan de Fuca coastline between Sooke and Port Renfrew is a mere 60-minute drive from the shopping, dining and nightlife of Victoria, it may as well be a world away. There’s a wildness and a dynamism to this stretch of Vancouver Island that is as invigorating as a North Pacific plunge. The vibrant green of forest and surge of sea are in your face.

Land and sea are in the souls of the people who live here — people like Frederique and Sinclair Philip, proprietors of Sooke Harbour House, a headquarters for culinary adventure on Vancouver Island. Chances are a fisherman down the road caught the spot prawns you’re eating at the restaurant the same day. In 1979, long before slow food was trendy, the Philips purchased the intimate, aging guesthouse overlooking the sea and began practising their form of extreme culinary localism.

Surfing also has its own enthusiastic local culture, but today it’s just me and two others in the water at Sombrio. I surf so infrequently that each time almost feels like the first. The sensation of having mere centimetres of fiberglass and foam between your body and the powerful Pacific Ocean thrills. Two hours pass in an instant.

I ride an easy wave toward the shore, shoulders fatigued from paddling, a slight chill permeating my wetsuit. After emerging from the water, I stumble to the driftwood shelter where I left a change of clothes.

A few steps away in the rainforest lies the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, a rugged coastal trek that can be tackled in day-long sections or in its entirety as a multi-day adventure. Sombrio Beach, where counterculture families once fashioned makeshift homes from salvaged materials, is one of four trailheads. The other access points include China Beach at the southern end near the popular point break at Jordan River, Parkinson Creek and Botanical Beach at the north end, with its fantastic geological formations and tide pools teeming with anemones, sea urchins, periwinkles and other creatures.

Later that day, after warming up in the sun, I head north on Highway 14 to Port Renfrew, still just two hours from Victoria, but feeling ever more like a deeper dive into the wildness of Vancouver Island’s west coast. At the marina, I meet hikers packing gear into monstrous backpacks before boarding a water taxi for the short shuttle to the north side of Port San Juan and the West Coast Trail’s southern terminus. A week of strenuous but spectacular coastal hiking awaits them.

I pull into Pacheedaht Campground, then stroll out to the beach where waves lap the satiny sand. I’m gazing at the sea, but when I think of Port Renfrew, I think of trees — big trees.

I’m close to where the San Juan River converges with the Gordon River, a bumpy waterway popular with whitewater paddlers. Over millennia, these rivers deposited deep, rich soils that, when combined with a steady deluge of Pacific moisture, make for ideal tree-growing conditions.

Less than three kilometres from Port Renfrew, accessible via a four-wheel-drive road, the forest giant known as the Red Creek Fir soars nearly 75 metres skyward. This is believed to be Canada’s largest standing fir tree — it was a seedling when Vikings landed at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site in Newfoundland a millennium ago. Its circumference is a whopping 12.5 metres, a girth that would require six adults with fully outstretched arms to encircle.

If the Red Creek Fir is one of Canada’s tallest, the trees of Avatar Grove are some of the strangest and most surreal, cedars with massive burls that appear like gargoyles — or the megaflora specimens from the 2009 film Avatar, after which the grove was named. Roughly 15 minutes of logging-road driving from Port Renfrew, Avatar Grove is a time capsule of what valley bottoms throughout Vancouver Island would have looked like 150 years ago.

Douglas fir and western red cedars appear like the buttresses of an organic cathedral rendered in infinite shades of green. The fact that such ancient trees could be found so close to the historic logging town of Port Renfrew surprised everyone, including T.J. Watt and Ken Wu, leaders of the Victoria-based Ancient Forest Alliance, who discovered the grove and brought it to public attention a few years ago.

Avatar Grove has become a popular attraction, but today I have it to myself. I lie on the spongy forest floor at the base of one its monumental cedars and stare up as sunlight filters through the canopy.

If the Red Creek Fir is one of Canada’s tallest, the trees of Avatar Grove are some of the strangest and most surreal, cedars with massive burls that appear like gargoyles.

Late in the afternoon, I’m back in Sooke, following signs to Sooke Potholes Provincial Park, a favourite hangout for locals and visitors wanting a dip in fresh water. Giant holes in the bedrock, made by water swirling around boulders that were deposited during the last glaciation some 15,000 years ago, are the park’s star geological attractions.

Easing into one of these pools, I relax and look back on an amazing day exploring the riches of this stretch of Vancouver Island coast — so wild, yet so close to the creature comforts and attractions of the provincial capital.