Starfish and surfers

A word or two about surfing in British Columbia.

Some of you are probably thinking what Dick and I thought a decade ago when we learned about this: Surfing in British Columbia? Isn’t that like water-skiing in Death Valley? Like doing Olympic-style curling on a lava field?

For example, take this exchange with a young woman working in a Victoria café. I said we had just come from Tofino on the upper west coast of the island where it had been foggy all week. That would make it pretty much all of August so far.

“Perfect surfing weather,” she told me.

“Yeah, if you’re an Antarctic penguin,” Dick said later.

I smiled politely, trying to see if she was kidding. She wasn’t.

“I’ve always wanted to try that,” she said. “But it’s hard to get up there at the right time of year.”


She nodded. “It’s the best time.”

Well, sure. In the winter the waves roll in so ferociously people go up to Tofino on purpose to watch the wicked storms. But the “best time” is a relative concept. To British Columbians, it’s the only time they can surf in Tofino, really.

Surf sister on Chesterman Beach, Tofino

We are not accustomed to seeing surfers all in black wetsuits, hoods, booties and gloves. The surfers we watch—sometimes on ginormous waves in January on the infamous North Shore of Oahu—are clad in board shorts and not much else. When they hang ten, they hang ten toes, not booties.

This is not to say that West Coast surfers (which is what they call themselves in Tofino) are weenies. Far from it. But most of the ones we saw were definitely beginners. There was a lot of sitting and stomach paddling. And when one brave penguin tried to rise to his or her feet on a board, it was a quick up-and-down move.

You should understand that Dick and I, who are non-surfers, admire surfers of all sizes, shapes and abilities. We think people who can balance on boards on moving waves are brave, if not crazy. We like to watch.

Which we did this past week on beaches up and down the Tofino coastline. While no one was exactly shreddin’ it (meaning tearing up the waves to Hawaiians and surf geeks), we gave them high marks for sheer toughness.

Surf lessons on Chesterman Beach, Tofino, B.C., in August (aka "Fog-ust").

Though they do look like penguins as they toddle out on these long, flat stretches of packed sand to get to the water. Penguins carrying surfboards.

Yesterday we had lunch at the Wickaninnish restaurant on Wickaninnish Beach. This is not to be confused with the very upscale Wickaninnish Inn, whose restaurant The Pointe, we also dined at this past week. The Wick restaurant on Wick Beach is in Pacific Rim National Park, which makes up a big stretch of the Tofino peninsula. Up and down beaches like Chesterman and Long Beach and Wickaninnish, the fledgling penguins in surfing classes take to the frigid waves with their oversized boards. They are as funny to watch as real penguins, and just as serious.

I should point out that in all fairness, they do have some sunny days in Tofino (four of them, usually in July), and if you look at websites, you’ll see those sunny-day surfing-in-Tofino photos. It can happen.

But we also walked a chunk of Wick beach at low tide to see what marine critters were hanging around. As a kid I grew up next door to Sue Lester, who desperately wanted to be a marine biologist for much of her young life. Sue taught me a lot about fish and marine life, and one thing I’ve always remembered is that it’s bad form to tickle a sea anemone lounging around with its tentacles unfurled in a tidepool.

“You’re making it think it’s got food,” Sue would chastise me when I did this.

But I used to love tickling the anemone. Their pale green tentacles feel a bit sticky and soft, and with their bellies up, so to speak, they look like a cat ready for a tummy rub.

Anemone report: The anemones at Wick Beach are very happy cats. There are, roughly, a kabillion of them on and around the rocks at low tide. Even when you’re walking on sand, you’ve gotta be careful not to step on the babies that are as tiny as nickels. But they grow. Some get to be as big as softballs.

(Sue, if you’re reading, I did not tickle any anemone on Wick Beach. Not one. I just admired them.)

And if the anemone were happy cats, the starfish were sleeping puppies, some sprawled over each other like litter mates.

Happy anemone and seastars on Wickaninnish Beach.

One seastar arm tossed across another seastar’s back, orange over plum-coloured, mashed onto rocks so tightly you couldn’t pry them off with tire irons. Not that you’d want to. (Though we did find dead, dried-out stars on a log in Campbell River. They didn’t get there on their own, I’m afraid.) They’re so pretty in their natural habitat. I petted a couple of star backs, but they don’t react like anemones. They play possum really well, sleeping on like contented puppies with full bellies.

This comprises a happy day for me: Watching penguin surfers on foggy beaches in British Columbia, eating a nice lunch inside a nice restaurant, walking the tidepools to see thriving anemone and seastars. And, finally, retreating to a nice hotel where I stayed up late into the night, fine-tuning the novel like a word mechanic, adding details and deleting superfluous words and redundancies.

The big news (the lead, which, yes, I am burying) is that I am done with this novel. It’s been reworked three times now, and I’m calling it finished at long last. The next challenge is to find it a home, a Real Publisher who will bring it into the world, preferably in Canada where it is set, where my fictional characters live and work and love—in my mind, at least, and on paper, too.

Thanks to all of you who have been so supportive of my journey into this novel, into this world of Ocean Falls, for the past (can it be?) five summers. I seem to only work on it during my brief summers, and it’s taken what feels like forever. But it’s ready now for the eyes of the Canadians who have helped me with it. And a publisher—please, God—who will give it a good home and bring it into the world.

Fingers crossed—here we go!

About janishaag

Writer, writing coach, editor
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4 Responses to Starfish and surfers

  1. Vonnie says:

    Congrats, Jan. It is a great story and it will find a home. Just came home from St. Marks and an Anne LaMotte lecture. Will share the nuggets when you return.

  2. emmaswan says:

    OH, buried lead made me cry. Is it done, really??? I know that a publisher is lurking, waiting for this just right book to be born. can’t wait to read the final version.

    Great descriptions of the penguins and star fish and anemones. Gorgeous photos, too, of course.

    You must be so pleased, like a mom just given birth, proud, exhausted, glowing and full of love for your new addition to the world. We need to have a party. Love, G

  3. Ron Turner says:

    Your descriptions of the Vancouver locales and scene are great. BIG congratulations on deciding Ocean Falls is donedonedone! Just to expand your publishing options, here’s a link to a Sac Bee article published just today (8/9) about the ginormous expansion of self-publishing sites and getting yourself e-published. You could be on right away, getting 70% or more royalty for downloads of the e-version.

    The Bee also published an interesting companion article about “literary bloggers” who host discussions and do book reviews. Here’s the link:

  4. Connie Raub says:

    Good news about the “novel” novel, Jan! Thanks for keeping us posted about your North West adventures. Loved the stuff about the anemomes and Flora BUNDA. I always just thought of those as roses, but I can see the “pull” to make them more amazing!

    Best of luck finding that perfect publisher! I’m sure there are many, but we all want her/him to be the PERFECT one. You have poured tons of your soul into this endeavor so you must feel satiated. Brava!


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