VSSL Takes on Nootka Sound
PART 1 - GETTING THERE
This past May I was in Tofino and Raph (VSSL Voyager Raph Bruhwiler) took my son and I out on his boat to show us around and find some crabs and oysters. Raph mentioned that he's partnering with a friend to do adventure charters off the wild west coast of Vancouver Island aboard a 74' former Canadian Navy training ship, built in 1955 (the Yag Badger). I didn’t realize it at the time, but that conversation led to one of my all time favourite adventures.
If you know Raph or follow him on IG, you know he's an old school master of cold weather surfing and was Canada's best surfer for a couple of decades (he might still be!). He's traveled the world and conquered waves with the likes of Kelly Slater and Shane Dorian for years. But not only that, he's also a VSSL Voyager because he's extremely competent in the outdoors: hunting, fishing, hiking, and boating. To top it off, he's active duty Canadian Coast Guard. Needless to say, he checks all the boxes. But more importantly, he's a class act. When we attach someone to our brand - sure, their experiences and expertise are important - but we strongly value WHO they are as much as what they can do.
"You should round up the VSSL guys and take them out on the Badger", Raph casually dropped when we were pulling up a crab trap. The seed was planted. Raph talked about what the trip would entail and he was pretty much listing off all my favorite things. In my mind it was just a matter of logistics and timing and, of course, the journey just to get there!
I assembled the VSSL crew. These guys are kinda like the family you get to choose. I was asking them to take some valuable personal time off right at the beginning of the school year (most of us have young kids), and also at the start of the very busy retail season to travel 8 hours to get on a boat we had only seen pictures of and to be away from families and totally offline for 4 days.
Just getting to Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island from VSSL HQ takes 6 hrs of driving plus a 2hr ferry ride. The last few hours of the drive are on rough logging roads so by the time we got there, we were already pretty road weary. Once we hit Cougar Creek we still had to unload all the gear from the VSSL Jeeps, load everything onto the tender, then "commute" to the Mothership and unload, unpack and organize. Then it's another 1.5 hrs plugging through rough waters to get to our home base in a remote bay (undisclosed location) at the western end of the sound. When I was planning this trip out a few months ago I thought, "There's a good chance we're gonna want to kill each other before the trip really even starts!".
But my apprehensions were alleviated as soon as we boarded the Badger and met Raph and his crew. The guys were STOKED! Or maybe they were just glad to get off the road.
PART 2 - THE TRIP
Waking up ain’t always easy, especially after a late-night celebrating the start of an adventure! There was an unmistakable orange glow flooding the cabin and, unless the boat was on fire, it could really only mean one thing; the sun was coming up! I could hear the early risers’ voices escalate in volume as Mother Nature cranked the sunrise up to 11. I scrambled out of my bunk and onto the deck and was floored by the amazing sunset lighting up the boat and the glass calm harbor we had anchored in. The water was like liquid gold! As we sat there in awe, drinking our morning coffee with the smell of breakfast being cooked for us below decks, the vibe was high. This was going to be an amazing day!
Raph didn't want to control our itinerary and left it somewhat flexible so we could work around the weather and whatever the VSSL guys wanted to do. But as chill as Raph is, he had mentioned a remote surf break often enough for all of us to get the hint. We knew the surf report was solid and the sun was shining so today seemed like the ideal day to head over to undisclosed beach.
Loading up the tender with surfboards and gear for the day, the first of our group headed out. It's an hour return trip by boat and we had to go in two groups, mostly because the surfable part of Nootka is exposed to open ocean all the way to Japan so the seas can be rough and unpredictable. I was with the 2nd group. As I hopped on I asked Raph how the surf was looking. He was grinning from ear to ear as he said, "It's good, really good!". My heart jumped into my throat. Raph has been surfing these waters all his life so for the waves to get him that pumped, I knew we were in for a show.
Just having some surfable waves would’ve been good enough. But the beach Raph took us to was what you would conjure up in your mind if someone asked you what your ideal surf break would look like: calm water, clean breaks, rights AND lefts (I'm goofy foot) and a sandy bottom, for starters. But if you're spending the day, other things become pretty important and these were taken care of as well.
We were literally high fiving each other as we walked down the 1/4 mile long secluded sand beach towards a waterfall that spilled into a beautiful pool and flowed out into the ocean via a meandering freshwater creek. Surf? Check. Beach? Check. Fresh water? Check. Firewood? Check. Waterfall? Well, that's just an unreal bonus! We were all in awe and mentally doing a double take to see if we were awake or dreaming. A few of the guys exclaimed, "Is this even real!?!". If you would have asked any of us to raise our hands if we would spend a week on that beach, we would have raised them fast and high. And we hadn't even put the boards in the water yet!
These are the kind of days I live for, and I was so stoked to have the opportunity to share it with the VSSL crew. We surfed for hours. I was in total shock that in September on the west coast of Vancouver Island I was in board shorts and a rashy!
As the tide came up later in the day and the surf flattened, we had the chance to explore the area and to climb and slide down the waterfall and rinse off in the pool at the base. Just to make sure we were thoroughly exhausted we had several rounds of beach olympics. No surprise, but a few of the crew are pretty competitive! Raph had mentioned to me that the creek leading to the waterfall might have fish. If there's a chance of fish, I'll always have my Tenkara rod with me so I climbed the waterfall and hit a few secluded pools that may have never seen a fly rod! While I would rather catch fish than not, I never take for granted the amazing spots that fishing has taken me to, and this creek leading into the ocean was so breathtaking. When I got back to the beach later, I told the guys it was probably a good thing I didn't hook a big trout - I might have moved in.
When I got home, I researched the undisclosed lake that fed the creek and discovered it's actually a floatplane access only fly fishing destination for a pretty well-known guide in that area. I'll be back. But really, all the guys said they'd do this trip again, including all the travel, just for a day back on that beach!
We were all feeling pretty spoiled after that surf day but there was still a big chunk of the trip left. We were totally keen to hit the beach again but the surf and weather weren't favorable, so we decided to finish the adventure on the inside of the sound. What do you do when you can't surf? You fish :). You shoot guns and you whale watch, you SUP and you gunkhole remote bays and hike for lost lakes. And when you're exhausted from all of the above and pushing yourself physically to get every ounce out of your time on Nootka Sound, Raph has a trick up his sleeve: a massive hot tub on shore! This one you'll have to see to believe. After a dinner of feasting on fish caught earlier that day, our last night in the harbor was spent recovering in a MASSIVE hot tub that Raph hand built (with some help from the VSSL crew) into the harbor's edge, just above the high tide mark!
Believe me, when your arms feel like noodles from paddling, your legs are weary from the constant balance required for life on the water and your shoulders are bruised from trying to win the "Golden Gun" in a skeet shooting competition, a hot tub is as unexpected as it is unbelievable!
Oh, and our skeet shooting competition? We did that from an abandoned logging camp! Something that would be the highlight of a lot of trips was an add-on to this one :). Blasting clays with Nootka Sound as the backdrop brings it all to a whole new level.
PART 3 - GRATITUDE
After our long return journey and after dropping some of the guys off at the airport, I had the rest of the drive home to Abbotsford to contemplate the trip. As much as doing awesome things is great and necessary for an epic adventure, what really makes a trip like this stand out are the amazing people. I'm so incredibly fortunate that I have the opportunity to work with guys who I really enjoy spending time with. Life's too short! Add in the Ground Swell Adventures crew; Raph, Capt. Ryan and Douglas (first Mate and Chef) and you've got a pretty diverse and inspiring group of guys. And what makes this unique is that as much as we all wanted to have a great time, everyone in this group was just as concerned with making sure the people around them were having a good time as well. It occurred to me that this attitude works incredibly well for life in general! If we're all looking out for each other, doesn't that really mean we're all being looked after? We saw this attitude on display during our 4-day trip, and you could tell with this group that we could have been gone for weeks and the vibe on this journey would have carried us through an extended stay. When you're rolling deep with guys who are all helpful, selfless, resourceful and a shit load of fun, you're going to have a trip worth remembering!
Since I started VSSL, some wise folks have been trying to get this message through to me; You build solid companies around great people, not products. During this trip that really started to click. As I pulled into my driveway, I felt like I had started the most solid company in the world :).
VSSL - Founder