Just because most people wouldn’t ride in the winter doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But choosing to walk into the Pacific Ocean with a surfboard in January or February takes a special person.
It’s December: cold, grey and stormy. Grubby-looking clouds crouch low over the coast, and a saturated, fitful wind tries to gnaw my ears as I trudge up the steep trail. The relentless precipitation is the perfect combination of slush and snow – cold enough to sting, wet enough to penetrate all but the best rain gear: ideal weather for a remote motorcycle ride to a steep, rewarding hike overlooking Ucluelet on Vancouver Island’s west coast and 50 km of Pacific Rim coastline. Happily, I happen to be wearing the best rain gear.
Thirty minutes earlier I was on my 2005 Triumph Tiger 955i, picking a careful line along the muddy logging roads. At first the way was hard-packed dirt and gravel, but as I got deeper (and more lost) in the woods, the ruts deepened and softened, the stones got bigger and more jagged. Washed-out sections, lengths of broken tree and off-camber turns added tricky obstacles to steep descents. The Tiger is a fine bike and handles these roads fairly well despite my smooth road tires, but it’s no dirt bike. Nor am I an experienced off-road rider. So, to make up for both our shortcomings, I had to proceed ultra-cautiously. The slushy mud tried several times to take us down, but we kept it upright and eventually made it to the trailhead.
All in all it is a glorious and typical winter’s day in the Pacific northwest: infinite possibilities for adventure and not a single other person in sight. Granted, Tiger and I had encountered alarmingly large ice pellets along the way, and we are a good 90 minutes behind schedule due to, well, not quite knowing where we are going. My fingers are numb and I’m famished, but I’m happy!
Wet and Cold
People seem incredulous when they see me riding in these conditions. Despite the fact that Tofino is one of the warmest parts of Canada throughout the winter months, the weather is often miserably wet and usually just a few degrees above zero. Five minutes of underdressed riding in this weather feels like an eternal frozen hell, and most days I compound the cold by spending a few hours surfing in the chilly North Pacific Ocean. Changing out of a frozen wetsuit in the rain is uncomfortable, to say the least, so generally I throw my protective gear on right over the sopping suit and scoot home as quickly as possible. Never does a hot shower feel better than on these days.
Truth be told, I don’t find riding in winter altogether unpleasant. Over time I’ve honed my riding wardrobe to comfortably accommodate any weather – from blistering hot summer days to sub-zero mountain passes to torrential freezing rain. On the very worst days, it’s not the cold or wet that’s an issue, but more often the condition of the road surface and my own preparedness that have become the most important factors in winter riding safety.
A New Year
It’s the middle of January, and I have errands to run in Nanaimo and Courtenay, on the east side of the island. Not having a car, this means a 550 km round trip over two mountain passes and back on a loaded motorcycle. January means rain and fog, and more often than not, snow or ice through the passes. The trickiest part of the route takes you through the Alberni valley, where Sproat Lake cloaks the highway in dense, nearly liquid fog. The valley is bordered by Sutton Pass to the west and the Port Alberni Summit to the east (elevations 340 metres and 411 metres, respectively), and the combination of persistent moisture and sudden elevation changes means potential ice buildup on both asphalt and helmet visor. Preparation and patience are key.
In the morning, five quick minutes are all I need for packing (wallet, keys, phone, shopping bags and spare underwear). The next 45 minutes are spent getting dressed: underwear, light merino socks, skiing shorts, nylons, thick socks, long johns, thick wool pants, riding pants, loose rain pants, bra, light merino tank top, light thermal long-sleeve, merino T-shirt, wool hoodie, wool sweater, light wool jacket, riding jacket, rain jacket, neck gator, and finally helmet, glove liners and mittens. Though I look like the Michelin Man, I feel confident that there is no danger of freezing on the four-hour road trip. Sure enough, I’m not only okay, but even comfortable on my arrival in Nanaimo, then Courtenay.
A crew of girls I ride with meet me in town and we do a loop through the Comox Valley together, then home to my host’s for beer and storytelling. The next day is the same in reverse, waddling safely back into Tofino with nothing worse than chilled fingertips and a bit of numbness in my sore but warm backside.
This evening I’m invited to dinner at a friend’s, and as he lives a mere 2 km away and the rain had stopped, I ride over in jeans and a sweater, riding jacket and gloves. By the time I leave his house, the rain has (naturally) started again, and the temperature has plummeted to about 3 C. The ride home takes little more than three minutes. I am miserable. My legs are frozen, my fingers feel as if they’re going to snap from the cold, and icy water rolls uncomfortably into my boots. I think I’ll never get home, that perhaps the morning commuters will find me frozen on the side of the road, my poor, sad motorcycle lifeless and frosty on the shoulder.
But I make it home, and have to heap extra blankets on my bed to warm up even after a hot shower. Somehow, through some trick of physics perhaps, those 180 seconds dragged on eternally: eons longer than the entire last two days of winter riding. The aha moment is powerful, one that I won’t lose the lesson from any time soon.
It’s not all rain and gloom, however, and the heavy clouds are occasionally dispersed by bright, cheerful sunny spells that can often last days or even weeks. During these times, all the frustration and care of winter riding lifts away and I’m many times repaid with blue skies and dry, deserted roads.
Ride the Waves
It’s February. The morning frost is heavy, and promises a glittering wonderland once the sun rises high enough to catch it. My fingertips quickly lose dexterity in the hard air, slowing down my progress as I strap my surfboard into the rack mounted on my saddlebag. The dawn sky brightens and turns into a bizarre and gorgeous shade of greenish orange; I pause to look at it a moment, wondering if this is the normal way of things in the pre-sunrise dawn. Ignoring the small, whiny part of my brain that protests the feeling of the clammy wetsuit I’m wearing under my gear, I slide into the saddle and move out. A shiver runs down my spine as my body adjusts to the icy wind, but again I ignore it, paying attention instead to the slippery pavement and to the extravagant prismatic effect in the eastern sky. Part of me wants to be back in my toasty bed, but with two jobs and fickle weather and swells, it’s hard to find time to surf. It’s go now or lose another chance to get out on the waves, so I swing by a friend’s house, enjoy a quick coffee and I’m back on the road.
In the parking lot at the beach, again my whiny brain protests loudly as I strip off my warm outer layer and prepare to walk into the Pacific Ocean. It takes all my strength of will to take that first step, but as soon as I do, all complaints are forgotten and I relish the feeling of the bracing water on my face. As always, once submerged, my wetsuit is perfectly warm despite the 8 C brine. There is only one other surfer on the water, and as I paddle past the break to where he’s floating he gives a broad grin, and we turn to watch the sun break free from the white-tipped mountains beyond the beach. I have to be at work in 90 minutes, but in this moment, my world is perfect.