The ins and outs of paddling around Tofino

July 26th, 2016

Part 1 the ever changing terrain around the Esowista Peninsula.

Sitting along first street looking out over the water with Meares Island in the background you may think, what a beautiful place to go paddling, and this area really is a world class paddling destination, but padding  on the west coast doesn’t come without its challenges.

4 main factors that will have an impact on your paddling experience: Tides, wind, rain, swell. Understanding how these factors affect the area you’re paddling in will allow you to enjoy your time on the water. I’ll be talking about the details of understanding these factors in Part 2. For now, let’s take a look at how conditions change as we move from one side of the Esowista Penisula (where Tofino lies) to the other, and how these factors apply.

Starting off with an overview of the area. Tofino is located on a peninsula in Tla-o-qui-aht territory. Geographically the areas is made of the meeting of 2 types of terrain. Its where the coastal plain (the flat lowlands) meets wrangellia (the mountains ). why is this important? This provides us with an ever changing paddling environment as we make our way around the peninsula. On our journey we’ll start on the west coast of the peninsula with the swell exposed sand beaches. We’ll move to the dynamic waters on the north end where we’ll see tidal currents in the harbour. And we’ll end up on the east side of the peninsula where we see large mudflat inter tidal zones. Let’s see the challenges and thrills that each area presents.

sup surfingThe Beaches.

It’s not everywhere along Vancouver Island that has such long flat beaches. A result of the coastal plain. Beaches are great because they provide easy launching and landing options, and a big variety of surf. On a chart look at the direction the beach is facing and what types of obstacles lie in between the beach and the open ocean. This will give you an idea of how exposed that beach is to swell.  You can see Cox Bay is facing west without any obstructions to disperse the energy of the incoming west swell, so you can expect the surf at Cox Bay to be larger. As you move toward the north end of the peninsula (toward downtown) each beach becomes less and less exposed, so smaller surf, and calmer paddling. Hey watch out though, once you paddle past Mackenzie Beach and Middle Beach toward Tonquin Beach and the very north end of the peninsula, you begin to enter a different type of paddling terrain, one effected by the tides, now we’re in the downtown harbor area.

paddle canada sup touringThe Harbour.

Okay, so remember how we started off, looking out toward the sound and Meares Island. Looks clam, but depending on the tide there can be a lot of water moving here. The water that fills in and empties out of the large inlets with the changing of tides is constricted as it moves past the smaller islands around the harbour area, creating strong tidal currents at peak flows. This is a popular paddling destination when paddling to Meares Island or exploring around Tofino.  But you need to be careful and understand how the tides effect the current.

sup navigation When we have the largest rate of water exchange, when the tide is flooding or ebbing the fastest, a range of strong tidal currents in the harbour create navigational challenges, remember these currents will all reverse when the tide turns. Padding in tidal currents is a very  dynamic environment, not only is there fast moving water, you will also face big eddy lines (boily confused water) when entering and exiting the current.  So it’s a great idea to understand ferry angles and the technique behind entering and exciting current when paddling in the harbour area. Toss in the additional challenge of high volume of boat traffic and you can see that paddling in the harbour can be a tricky. It’s easy to mitigate this risk by paddling with someone with local experience, planning your route around the tides, and knowing the channels that boat the traffic uses.

inlet supThe Inlet.

As we continue moving further around the peninsula we follow the tide in as the ocean water submerges the mudflats located on the south east shoreline. Now, we’re on the opposite side of the peninsula from where we started. We’re on the inlet. completely protected from the swell and the north west sea breeze that picks up in the afternoon on sunny days. The inlet is often the calmest  and warmest area to paddle around Tofino. But there’s a catch, you can only paddle around this unique intertidal zone when the tide is high. With a total of 21 sq km of mudflat  intertidal zone around Tofino (look for the large green areas on a chart), you can see how it can be easy to get stuck out on the mudflats (and this does happen to people). One minute there may be a couple feet of water underneath you, but once that tide starts ebbing again you won’t notice a gradual decent in the water, instead with the whole area so flat, when the water recedes it does so everywhere at once, leaving you high, muddy and relatively dry. There’s no walking out of the mudflats, so just remember knowing the tides here is key.

I hope this provides a bit of insight to the intricacies of various paddling destinations around Tofino. Next month we’ll take a look at better understanding the 4 factors effecting paddling work. So get out there, have fun, make sure you have the proper safety gear including a PFD and whistle, and don’t forget to respect the ocean.

Emre runs T’ashii Paddle School and is always stoked to watch and learn from the ocean.