Chris and I bob in the swell at Spot S. while a sea lion circles my longboard.
"I think he likes your board better."
Chris is a cook. I wonder what he's thinking. We've been riding shoulder high sets that roll in every five to eight minutes.
We are the only people in the water. Ah, weekdays. I have a few days off from work and I've driven down from Cumberland to this place just west of Sooke to catch waves and sleep on the beach with my longboard beside me, my idea of heaven.
I think Spot S. stands for soul surfing.
There isn't much out here . . . yet. Highway 14's narrow ribbon of windy road traces the craggy shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and offers up glimpses of the Olympic Mountains of Washington State and Neah Bay at its most peninsular point.
The waters and lands are the traditional territory of the Paachedaht, Dididaht, Nitinaht and T'sooke.
"The logging companies and the government came and said you don't need all this land," Queesto (Chief of Chiefs) of the Paachedaht told an interviewer in 1972. "So they took it."
The Paachedaht (meaning Children of the Sea Foam) claim traditional territory from Jordan River to Port Renfrew, about a 50 kilometer stretch, and have been pushed back into a reserve beside the San Juan river. They are fraught with poverty, unemployment, suicides.
The land they claim has been planted and re-harvested again and again and again by Western Forest Products. WFP signs are marked "Harvested 1959, Planted 1967, Spaced 1978" -- and now must include: "Subdivided 2007."
This is the strip of coastal Vancouver Island now under the scrutiny of B.C.'s Auditor General, because B.C. forests minister Rich Coleman approved a controversial deal to let Western Forest Products convert former crown land into a housing development.
The locals, including aboriginals and surfers, have been sounding alarms about the deal for months, though only now is it grabbing the attention of the major news media.
And, while tensions have sparked vandalism and violence of late, suddenly there seems a bit of reason to hope that the area might be preserved as a sanctuary for surfing.
Down to the Jordan River
The first stop past Sooke is Jordan River, a one and a half hour drive and worlds away from Victoria.
Jordan River is a flat spot past a wide curve that's been logged down to dirt. The river was dammed in 1913 and until the mid-1950s supplied most of the power for southern Vancouver Island. To this day, boom men can be seen dancing 'catty' on the logs, making booms that are towed out by tugboat, a tricky proposition if there's a swell.
Jordan River is best known by surfers for a long wave perfectly formed by a point break. For Western Forest Products it houses their main office (soon to be moved to Sooke) and their dry land sort.
Perched by the river mouth with a view of the perfect point break is Shakies, a popular take out restaurant. Kyle Hack, 23, and wife Cindy are the friendly owners of Shakies, named for a cedar shake mill in the area. They recently purchased the restaurant from Cindy's mom who ran it for 15 years.
Cindy's family has lived for generations in the stretch of four or five houses that separate the dry land sort from the beach.
"Jordan River has a pioneering mentality," says surfer Ian Garrard. In the early '90s Garrard lived part time at Sombrio beach just up the road in a cabin he shared with a few other people. "The down island surfing crowd is a pretty hardcore bunch of people, not in a nasty, territorial kind of way, although that was there as well. The people were there to surf because they like being on the beach in the rain and they love experiencing that west coast thing."
Stinkeye (a cold shoulder) is pretty common around the breaks at JR. The attitude is a real contrast to the aloha spirit you will find in most places you surf in B.C. There is so much uncharted surf in B.C. that one would think there is room for everybody. But not at Jordan River, apparently.
Anger at sell-off
Planted in front of a sauna and clubhouse on a 4 kilometre stretch of waterfront park land provided by Western Forest Products is an innocuous little sign, a declaration of territory that reads: "Jordan River is Mine." The sign was put there by a group of surfers known as the West Coast Surfing Associates better known as 'the clubbies.'
The sign now stands as an ironic joke as the land has been sold by Western Forest Products to Ender Ilkay, president of Ilkay Development Corp., a West Vancouver developer that already has a subdivision project underway in Sheringham Point, in nearby Shirley.
Western Forest Products was given government approval earlier this year to remove more than 28,000 hectares of private land from tree farm licenses on Vancouver Island, including about 12,000 hectares from License 25 near Jordan River. An area that includes the waterfront parkland.
The move sent shock waves through the surf and recreation community, which quickly organized several town hall meetings, lobbied the federal and provincial governments and formed a Facebook group named "Make Jordan River a Park." All to no avail.
When Minister Coleman announced the deal he stated it was "to bring stability to the company." Western Forest Products is one of the provincial Liberals' biggest corporate donors. NDP forest critic Bob Simpson has accused Coleman of bailing out the firm without getting fair value for taxpayers.
Attacks and smashed windows
Just behind Shakies is Western Forest Products dry land sort. The rumble and rattle of heavy equipment can be heard all day long. Western Forest Products employees regularly stop into Shakies for their breaks, as do frozen surfers. When the surf is pumping the joint is jumping.
On the menu at Shakies are sweet treats dubbed "surfer's balls." Given how cold the water is (as low as five degrees Celsius) -- they should be really small balls indeed -- but after recent acts of vandalism at Jordan River, one needs very big balls to venture into the water here.
On November 1st local surf photographer Shane Deringer was approached by an unknown assailant on the beach in front of the clubhouse who berated Deringer for taking photos at Jordan River, spat in his face, pushed him around, ripped his tripod from his camera and tried to wrestle the camera away from Deringer.
A couple of days later a vandal, wearing a wetsuit and carrying a bat smashed windows out of a truck belonging to Ed Garlinge, proprietor of Mother Ocean Surf School. Garlinge and students were in the water and unaware of the attack. Garlinge has been taking students to the river mouth for 10 years and hasn't experienced hassles previously.
Hack is sickened by the attacks.
"The cops were here the other day with specific names. They're going to catch those no-minds," says the owner of Shakies.
Hack feels the attacks may have grown out of a sense of frustration over a loss of control over Jordan River and its future. "But that's no excuse."
Cam Scott, who runs CoastalBC.com, a popular website for surfers and recreational types, has posted a $1,000 reward for capturing the vandals. "It amazes me, that at a time when Jordan River surfers should finally be looking for common ground and uniting in an effort to retain the best possible access to the surf breaks in the area, individuals or groups would commit a series of criminal acts calculated and designed to intimidate B.C. surfers from coming to JR," notes Scott on his website.
A few days after my surf safari I'm on the phone with a buddy from Tofino and we talk about the attacks. "If we would have knocked out the windows of tourists in Tofino years ago, it wouldn't have become the crazy place it is today," says the friend, a former surf shop owner who grew up in Tofino. "I'd like it quiet. But I'm not complaining. I'm complicit."
Then he adds: "The thing about violence is that it works. Look at the Hawaiians. Do you think they're cool with haoles surfing their spots?"
Above the takeout window at Shakies is a popular bumper sticker in memory of the late legendary Sombrio surfer Jesse Oke which reads 'Jessie is King.' The Oke clan legally squatted at Sombrio Beach for more than 16 years with 11 children in a cedar home they built themselves. Barbara Oke, mother of the family, now lives at the end of the road in Port Renfrew on the opposite side of the river of the Paachedaht First Nations.
"What right do the forest companies have to sell this land? The white man stole it from the natives, gave it to the forestry companies to log and now they get to sell it to the highest, the richest, bidder," says Barbara Oke, whose daughter Leah, a world class surfer, now teaches surfing at the Paachedaht reserve, "It's crazy."
'Rich and their SUVs'
Back on the beach at the river mouth at Jordan River, Kyle Hack is tossing the remains of the tuna he has carved up for the sushi he makes. A friend pulls up in a van which he has lived in for years." There's still lots of people squatting around here," says Hack. "Not for long though."
John Doyle, the Auditor-General of British Columbia, announced on Nov. 19 that he will scrutinize the real estate play made by Western Forest Products and approved by the provincial government. The review of the deal, Doyle said, is "in the public interest."
If the land sale does go through, Hack will look to the future. "We want to see eco-tourism that is going to bring jobs to the community. Not something that is only for the rich in their SUVs. If it brings jobs, it's a positive thing," says Hack. "Why didn't one of the clubbies start a surf school? They know the breaks and the area. They could be a real good influence."
Meanwhile on the beach Hack tosses the tuna guts onto the beach. "Look at that seagull," he says. "It's going to eat the whole head." We both stare and laugh in awe. In one gulp the seagull engorges its throat with tuna, thinking: This tuna is mine.
Related Tyee stories:
- Ucluelet's Chairman of the Boards
In a logging town that also happens to be the surfing capital of BC, Billy Leach has a dream. He wants to build better rides for the world.
- Real Estate Boom Rolls North
Parcelling Haida Gwaii into 'trophy properties.' A special report.
- On the Edge of Eden
Frank Harper, Tofino's Steinbeck.