On Vancouver Island, the Storms Chase You

Your guide to getting swept up in coastal Canada’s wildest season.

A woman standing on the coast of Vancouver Island looking at mountains.
Photo by Lauren Breedlove
Photo by Lauren Breedlove

Tree branches were bending under the weight of wet, heavy snow as the wind whipped our van noticeably to the left. I wondered if we’d even have power when we got to the hotel. “You’ve arrived during a once-in-a-20-year storm,” our guide told us as we navigated the unplowed roads of Vancouver Island. If the purpose of my visit was to experience coastal Canada’s storm season, well, I’d seemingly nailed the timing.

I’d gotten to Vancouver Island by ferry, from Horseshoe Bay. The hour-and-40-minute boat ride to the city of Nanaimo would have been a great time to tuck into a book, though I couldn’t resist eagle-watching from the upper deck, as my destination lay shrouded in snow ahead. The drive to Ucluelet would normally tack on an additional two-and-a-half hours, but with the storm, it took nearly four. My traveling still wasn’t over; in a few days, I’d trek to Tofino, which is 30 minutes further north of there by car. I knew there would be a myriad of hiking trails to wander, a National Park to explore, and a cool seaside sauna to visit at my final destination, but storm-watching was my real reason for undertaking such a long journey. Most of the year, these beach towns are a haven for surfers, hikers, beach-combers, whale-watchers, and overall nature lovers. Storm season typically kicks off in November and stretches until the end of February, or, as I was finding out in real-time, occasionally into the beginning of March.

A snow-covered trail during winter in Canada.
Photo by Lauren Breedlove

On Vancouver Island, you don’t have to chase the storms, they come to you. So, the best plan of attack is to stay somewhere with a balcony that has views of the moody ocean, access to the beach, and all the cozy amenities. I chose to split my time between the Black Rock Oceanfront Resort in Ucluelet and the Long Beach Lodge Resort in Tofino, both of which ticked all the storm-watching boxes and more, like whale-watching from the lobby. I found myself lingering at the check-in desk, scanning the Pacific through the two-story, floor-to-ceiling windows for any sign of the giant mammals.

The next morning, I woke up in the pitch-black and ambled outside, hoping the storm clouds had cleared enough for me to see the sunrise. According to both the general manager of the hotel and a handful of locals, I was apparently in a place that had never seen this much snow. Naturally, my first impulse was to capture it—preferably without slipping on the icy rocks and tumbling into the ocean. I took it slow. Pastel pinks and yellows dotted the sky; Mother Nature’s make-up offering after a fight. I gladly accepted the apology and washed it down with three cups of coffee while counting whale spouts from the breakfast table. I was mid-bite when folks at the corner table started pointing out the wall of windows. Abandoning our meals, everyone stood for a closer look. Sure enough, a mama and her calf swam in the distance, spraying water into the early morning light. My omelette would have to wait.

Black Rock Oceanfront Resort has direct access to the Wild Pacific Trail, but it was covered in snow and ice. “We’re pretty spoiled here,” our guide from Hello Nature Adventure Tours, Kevin Bradshaw, said as we attempted to stay upright on the slick terrain. Our hike was instead shaved down to a short nature walk in the old-growth forest, a territory shared with the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations people that was filled with ancient cedars.

Two surfers hitting the waves after a winter storm in Vancouver Island, Canada.
Photo by Lauren Breedlove

Since we had arrived on the heels of the season’s biggest storm, we had missed out on the thrill of the watch. But we still had to deal with the leftovers, which meant canceled activities like foraging, bike riding, surf lessons, hiking, and more. In that situation, the only thing to do is eat, drink, and hope for another storm between bouts of feasting. Thankfully, it turned out that Ucluelet and Tofino were more than just surf towns. I was able to get my hands on everything from sushi to Korean BBQ to poke bowls to fine dining.

I also spent a lot of time people-watching from my new balcony at the Long Beach Lodge Resort and toasting my toes by the in-room fireplace, as if I was practicing Vancouver Island’s version of Nordic hot-and-cold therapy. I used some of my free time to take a bath—a luxury I never indulge in at home. There was plenty of photographic fodder: Daring surfers tackled the waves while kids clad in raincoats searched for sandy treasures. The wind was picking up, signifying another potential storm in the works. I readied the camera with my pruny hands, but no dice just yet.

The next day, we were supposed to ride beach cruisers after breakfast. But the fact that I had to physically hold my hat to keep it on my head told me that activity would certainly be canceled as well. I was correct in that assumption; we ended up walking the nearby Chesterman Beach at low tide and saw the waves throwing a tantrum against the black rocks. The wind frantically rippled the sand. In the distance, the island lighthouse was getting hammered by whitecaps.

A lighthouse sticks out of the rough waters off Vancouver Island, Canada.
Photo by Lauren Breedlove

We were in the midst of a proper Pacific coast storm now; sleet was assaulting my face as I pulled the strings of my hood tighter. My eyes were tearing up. It was so loud that my group had to shout to communicate that we’d need to go back to the car before the storm got even worse. Then came the lightning. It was frightening, but I couldn't help but laugh. This was what I came for, after all. Still, I was ready to defrost in front of the aforementioned fireplace and watch the scene play out from my balcony.

A few hours later, I stepped out of the much-needed hot shower and peered through the window—my new routine here on the island. It appeared the storm had ravaged the shore, super-stoked surfers were already reemerging onto the beach. By the time I was dressed, a small gap in the clouds had given way to an epic sunset. I grabbed my camera and threw on a coat, sprinting out to the beach like a maniac with soaking-wet hair, clearly ignoring the childhood warnings from my parents that it’d make me sick.

I made it just in time to capture several photos of the scene, and as I lowered my camera, I found my own beach treasure down at my feet—a perfectly whole sand dollar that had survived yet another storm season on Vancouver Island. It turned out that storm watching was about letting go of plans, taking it slow, and savoring the fact that you’re not the one in control. It was a stark contrast to how I usually traveled, and I was hooked.

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Lauren Breedlove is a freelance writer, travel photographer, and the girl behind girlwanderlist.com, a list-based travel blog where she keeps it real on the regular. She thrives on random adventures, offbeat destinations, and grilled cheese. Follow all her travel exploits on Instagram, @girlwanderlist.