Storm watching

It all began, simply enough, with this photo. In January 2006, I had newly joined flickr and found Vida Morkunas’ photos. This one, which she had just uploaded, captivated me because of other things going on in my life, things at the not-so-nice end of one of those “versus” dualities. I just wanted to sit on that bench, sink into it, even be that bench — and stare at the waves. The “restful” part sounded good, but “wild pacific trail” sounded remote, and the description below the photo confirmed it: “Ucluelet BC, on the Left Coast of Vancouver Island.” sigh. Not right now.

Then I found this one that she had uploaded the day before the one of the bench. I knew instantly that I had to see this. On the rare occasions when I experience something like this, I pay attention because of the wonderful essay by Lewis Thomas, ‘The Tucson Zoo’, in The Medusa and the Snail. He describes watching otters and beavers at play in a walk-through tank at the Sonora Desert Museum: “I was transfixed. As I now recall it, there was only one sensation in my head: pure elation mixed with amazement at such perfection.” And: “I came away from the zoo with something, a piece of news about myself: I am coded,… I have receptors for this display.”

In like manner, Vida’s display of the storm on the coast of Vancouver Island triggered a deep sensation, one that I have felt a few times previously on the west coast of California, in Hawaii, in Japan. Like Lewis Thomas, I fancy that it is in my lower brain stem, primal and not especially rational. I am coded for that ocean, oddly not just any ocean, but the Pacific. And in that moment, from that photo, I realized that the less it fits its putative self-attribution, “pacific,” the better. Bring on the storms.

Over the next year-plus, I learned several things:

  • Storms like this occur in the Northern winter. They come off the Siberian land mass, pick up energy across the North Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska, and then pummel the coasts of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California.
  • At least one person, probably many independently up and down those coasts, had the brilliant idea to turn the off-season and its crummy weather into a cottage industry for tourism. And they gave it a catchy name: “storm watching.” This is the logical equivalent of the oft-heard quip in the software development world about a misbehaving program: that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
  • The pinnacle of storm watching, raised to an art form under the tag line “rustic elegance at nature’s edge,” is the Wickaninnish Inn on Chesterman Beach in Tofino, British Columbia. The proximity and views are breathtaking — witness the slideshow and videos on the just-linked page. And if you want to meet it all head-on, there is yellow raingear in every room, boots available at the concierge desk, and an oilskin hat to keep with the Storm Watchers Package. (As for that “rustic elegance,” it includes wonderful rooms, exceptional staff, and The Pointe, a restaurant with cuisine at least on a par with the very best in Seattle, my favorite food(ie) town. But that is for another post.)
  • These winter storms can be easily tracked as they move across the North Pacific. I found two surfing Websites that were especially useful, and As of this writing (July 2010) Surfline offers a Global Outlook map on which you can see the sweep of winter storms, currently that orange-red-purple dragon’s breath flowing across the Southern Ocean and touching Australia, New Zealand, and Chile.

    In the fall of 2007, I began to move from daydreaming to planning. OK, to thinking seriously that maybe I would actually do this. By November and December, I was looking at Wavewatch on a daily basis. Mind you, on a wave-height map, the storms moving across the North Pacific don’t form that continuous Southern Ocean dragon’s breath, but instead a series of discrete blobs of color. It’s like North America is being doused with a paintball gun instead of a fire hose, where each blob has a life of its own and may splatter the coast… or may mysteriously subside (Hidden Portent #1). But overall, on into that winter, it was storm after storm after storm after storm. Amazing. Cool. Let’s do it!

    [Update and aside on 9/30/10: This turned out to be the same winter of intense Pacific storms that figure prominently in Susan Casey’s The Wave, which I just finished reading and highly recommend, for its beautiful writing, wonderful storytelling, and excellent recounting of some very challenging science. And arguably the most compelling two sentences of incredulity ever written in the English language: ” ‘Wait a minute,’ I said, wanting to make sure I understood correctly, what with the vague pronouns and all. ‘You went back out?’ ” ]

    At the very end of Jaunary 2008, I flew to Seattle, took the high-speed ferry to Victoria, and rented a car for the five hours needed to go “cross-island,” as I would learn that the locals in Tofino termed it. I had reserved a small SUV, but when I got to the National Car outpost in downtown Victoria, all they had left was a 4-wheel drive Jeep Wrangler. I reluctantly took it (Hidden Portent #2).

    The route is northwest from Victoria to just south of Nanaimo, west to Port Alberni, a long dogleg across the mountainous spine of the island and then back down to the coast, and finally a turn toward Ucluelet (left) or Tofino (right). During a repeat visit with my wife this past spring, many of the features and landmarks of the overall route were familiar, but three memories remained dominant from that first passage: the road noise and cold from the “open” architecture of the Jeep Wrangler; the oasis of a Starbucks in a shopping center beside the highway in Port Alberni; and my undying gratitude for four-wheel drive.

    From the outskirts of Port Alberni to the coast, conditions were officially “insane,” surely a technical term used by the Weather Office of Environment Canada. As a calibration point, I have spent more than three decades in Upstate New York winters and I know how to drive in snow. This early photo was the only one I got, however, because subsequently things got really bad and I kept both hands glued to the wheel. It was just two pickup trucks, a slow-moving snow plow, and me, not necessarily in that order after a couple of turnouts. Viewed in clear weather on our recent visit, it is not obvious why those two pickup drivers were out there. I mean, it’s not like this is a populated area. At all. Unless they were prodded, as I was, by a voice speaking robotically from the lower brain stem, “Must get to Pacific, must get to Pacific….”

    The snow ended abruptly, and there was the lower end of Kennedy Lake, not far from the coast. Mercifully, I would not finish out the winter as a frozen corpse inside a Jeep Wrangler, to be found in the spring when National went looking for its vehicle. Instead, I stopped, took this picture with the small patches of blue sky (Hidden Portent #3), and made that right turn to Tofino and the Wickaninnish Inn. Home never looked as good.

    The next morning revealed a light dusting of snow on everything (see photo below), to the amazement of the wait staff at breakfast: “I’ve been here for four years, and I’ve never seen….” That sort of thing. It was largely melted by noon.

    And how about the storms that I had come to watch? Perhaps you remember those Hidden Portents scattered through the text above. Recall that #2 was about my unknown-but-impending need for four-wheel drive. Enough said. Of the other two, #1 was about paint-blob storms that could mysteriously subside over the Pacific without reaching land. And #3 was about those little patches of blue above Kennedy Lake. Needless to say, the next four days were all about blue sky and mysteriously-vanished storms. The small roller just right of center in the photo above was pretty much the biggest wave I saw. So I spent my time walking on the beach, reading, and soaking in the view — being that bench, as it were.

    From my photos, I conjured a panorama at the south end of Chesterman Beach, looking back at the Wickaninnish Inn. It is the banner that graces the top of every page of this blog and is there as a gentle but persistent reminder to myself about unpredictability, improvisation, and spontaneity in the face of flowing Tao. I lay no claim to wisdom, but I now fully understand the words of Deng Ming-Dao in 365 Tao (and also on the far right of this page): “…wise people travel constantly and test themselves against the flux of circumstance.”

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    1 Response to Storm watching

    1. vida morkunas says:

      what a gorgeous story – I am so glad that my pictures inspired your beautiful trip!

      as for driving in the snow, yes I’ve done that too – on that road – and as you can see, we both survived this terrifying experience 🙂

      best to you,

      Vida, now in Greenland.

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