It takes some time and a little planning to arrive at a place as remote as Nootka Island, an islet off the western coast of Vancouver Island, near the western edge of British Columbia. Some is a considerably vague length of time. For surfboard shaper Danny Hess and his wife, photographer Erin Kunkel, it took almost five years to get there.
According to Danny, their account begins with an interest in Western Canada and, specifically, wanting to return to the Vancouver Island region. So back in 2009, when the owner of the only wilderness surf camp in the area -Tatchu EcoSurf Village on Nootka Island - contacted Danny to buy one of his surfboards, Danny suggested a trade.
Danny was thinking that he and Erin would deliver the board themselves. And, so it went, once Danny designed and crafted the 8'10" Gun, he and Erin headed north from their hometown of San Francisco.
While they were in transit, a strong earthquake struck the region. Nootka was at its epicenter. Soon after, the bears came.
“The quake itself didn’t cause too much damage. It was the bears, rats and wolves – they were the problem. They came around because of the smashed food jars and cans. We were told ‘definitely’ to not come,” recalls Danny, with a chuckle.
Hindered by these natural forces, Danny and Erin instead stayed in Tofino, a small surf town with a welcoming vibe just a few hundred miles south of Nootka Island. “It’s really friendly there, and we had a great time surfing, fishing and exploring the area,” Danny says.
Although they enjoyed their detour trip to Tofino, they found that Nootka was still very much on their minds. Nearly three years after their first attempt, the adventurous pair finally did reach Nootka this past September. It was a great time of year to visit, with mild temperatures, potentially warmer currents and the possibility of a winter storm system that can deliver some big waves.
Even without any tremors or plundering wild animals, reaching Nootka is an adventure in itself. “As we made our way west across Vancouver Island, we saw stunning scenery – snow covered peaks all around us and pristine lakes,” Danny recollects. After a day and a half of air, land and sea travel - including a white-knuckle ride on a narrow logging road, after radioing ahead to negotiate passage and avoid oncoming trucks - they arrived at the Tatchu Eco Surf Village at Beano Creek. Tatchu is a fully guided wilderness surf lodge and adventure tour company that hosts only a small number of visitors in cozy, rustic tree houses.
Designed and owned by experienced outdoor enthusiasts Silvi Rautter and Clay Hunting, Tatchu was constructed in 1999 with local timber and consists of more than 1,500 meters of boardwalk floating over ferns, bogs and giant trees. The boardwalk meanders throughout the village and connects a common building to the guest tree houses. There’s a sauna, biomass outhouses, and wash huts. There is no water or electricity in the tree houses, but they are well made and snug, warmed by wood stoves. Silving provides many things for guests: Organic meals, guides, surf reports, lessons, wet suits and warm fires on the beach. Situated on a surf beach, Tatchu Village is a short walk from reefs and several points breaks. It is a remote locale that hasn’t been visited by many, which is perhaps its greatest feature.
Nootka’s extreme elevations produce snow-peaked mountains that jut straight out toward the ocean. Countless inlets, coves and tiny cedar-covered islands are scattered throughout. These features make Nootka Island a spectacular place for surfing, hiking and exploring. Natural coastal trails offer up former native village sites, sea caves, rivers and massive spruce trees. For some, surfing is a reason to come; but many find that the island’s remote, rugged beauty and abundant wildlife are their reason to return. “It’s one of my favorite places. About 99% of the time we were there, we were in awe of everything around us,” says Danny.
For Danny, Erin and a limited number of year-round visitors, Nootka Island is a marvel because so much of it hasn’t been witnessed before. Not even the guides know all of the nooks and crannies. Danny talks about boating around the coastline to explore new surf spots one day: His local guide, professional surfer Raph Bruhiler, was excited after Danny discovered a new wave.
“Raph had never surfed that particular wave before either,” Danny said. “It’s hard to find something like that today – to be the first person to experience something. At Nootka, it may be a roll of the dice, but I’ll take my chances going to a place that may or may not have big, perfect waves, just to get to be the first one out there, to get to look at a wave that no one’s ever seen before.”
It was a chance Danny was happy to take, and luckily for him, there were still double-overhead set waves making for excellent surf - though at times the water was too stormy to ride, with winds exceeding 60 mph.
Another stroke of luck came in the form of warm water temperatures – which reached nearly 60 degrees during Danny and Erin’s visit. Nootka Sound warms up from a Japanese current, which means the water there can be - and was - warmer than in Danny’s hometown surf spot at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Despite the warmth, the water is still cold enough to be inhabited by a stunning variety of wildlife: salmon, halibut and otters; hump back, gray and killer whales. The are also moola moolas, which is the local name for the odd-looking Sunfish.
The wildlife is bounteous on Nootka island, and not so elusive. During one surf session, Danny and Raph saw a pod of orcas just off shore. Danny paddled out to take a closer look and could only describe the whales as “magnificent,” with their four-foot tall black shiny fins and playful dispositions.
On another morning, Danny set out to explore a nearby cove and found what looked like the vestiges of a wolf party from the night before. The beach was covered in tracks; back and forth the wolves had crossed all night long, a veritable highway of paw prints, made by an untold count of the four-legged animals. Swaths of sand were imprinted with the traces of wrestling matches and the carcass of the evening’s main course – a young seal – was awash on the shore.
In addition to wolves, bears, mola molas and whales, there are tufted puffins, bald eagles, sea lions, otters and deer. There are even legends of a mystical sea monster called – depending on the language — sisiutl, wasgo, or haietlik, a totem animal of several tribes, an honor shared only with the thunderbird.
Erin’s own experience with wild animals was a bit more – as Danny delicately puts it - intimate. Having grown up in rural Colorado, Erin is highly capable on her own in the wilderness and there was one day she was, indeed, alone. Hiking around an uninhabited island for a good vantage point from which to take photos, she crossed some slippery river rocks while balancing her heavy camera equipment. Once she arrived at the other side, Erin spotted a large timber wolf watching her. “Someone told me, if you see one wolf, it’s pretty certain that 10 or 12 can see you,” she says. Soon after spotting the wolf, she saw bears – a mother bear with her babies, as well as many others – and was reminded who was the local and who was just a passing visitor in this remote land.
“These are elements that keep you on your toes,” says Danny, referring to both the wildlife and surf. While the surf isn’t guaranteed to deliver big waves, it can be spectacular and is ever changing – shifting from day-to-day, even hour-to-hour. His eyes flicker when he remembers one location, described as a “surfer’s fantasy come true,” they found on a beach reached after hiking through bogs and cedar forests. An hour from the logging road. “It had massive cedar logs washed ashore, creating two perfect horseshoe coves with a point break on the left and the right. It was hard to wrap my head around and it was just one of the many amazing spots there.” While conditions and formations change, perhaps the best part of the whole picture was, according to Danny, “There’s never going be a freeway. There’s never going to be a road. You’re going to be the only surfer.”
For thousands of years Nootka Island has been the traditional territory of the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth people, comprised of fifteen separate but related Nations. The word Nootka means “go around, go around,” and the Spanish and English likely thought the natives were referring to land itself and not the water that encircles the island. The island also has significance in the history of European settlement and expansion when both Spain and the United Kingdom staked claim to it resulting in near war, the 1789 Nootka Crisis. Today, Nootka is home to a few small native villages, but the area is heavily entrenched in the logging industry, which has taken its toll. In addition to old growth, there are large tracts of new growth forest as well.
“It’s heart-breaking to see and, at the same time, hard not to be a hypocrite,” says Danny. “I build surfboards for a living, but I choose not to use cedar for the exact reason that I’ve always known how it’s harvested. But, we all live in wood houses, and we’re all contributing to that.” For many people in the region, the logging industry has created a way of life that’s slow to change, and clear cutting old growth forest remains the status quo. With that said, there are pockets of awareness growing around better harvesting techniques. Though it requires more time and money, some in the area are moving toward single-tree selection. Hopefully, more people will continue this trend.
For Danny, seeing the result of clear-cutting makes him feel even more connected to his designs, his choice of materials and his focus on creating a board that is durable. Crafting each board from raw materials like reclaimed poplar, cork and blocks of recycled expanded polystyrene, Danny builds his boards from the interior out – from the internal frame structure to the exoskeleton of wood. More conventional shapers pare a big block of polyurethane, or a “blank” down to the shape they want. For him, “The whole pursuit has been about creating a high performance board that is far, far more durable than foam boards,” and he hopes that his customers consider their purchases an heirloom to pass down to the next generation. Most surfers are often initially drawn to his boards because of their eye-catching aesthetics but once they’ve ridden them, they talk about the how the wood feels different – yet at the same time familiar. “Our bodies can transfer speed and energy down the line better,” says Danny, a result of the mostly organic materials he uses that give a springy responsiveness and flexibility. The wood boards can take a pounding, which seems to make a lot of sense; especially in the big waves and often-stormy northern waters around Nookta Island.
When asked about his fondness for surfing in colder climates, Danny recalls Ireland – where the water was “really, really cold” – and also brought up Iceland, “where the light would be amazing.” Ultimately, for some - including Danny - it’s not about just the surf but the broader appeal, a place more remote and astonishingly beautiful. “With or without the big surf, I’d go back to Nootka in a second even just to read books and hike.”
Sounds like a plan.