A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear

An Interview with Raph Bruhwiler.

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I’m on the bow of the Nite Bite, a 22-foot center-console aluminum, helping Raph Bruhwiler navigate between rocks, into a cove, and up a creek on a remote stretch of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. We beach the boat on the sandy bank and the crew jumps out with fly-fishing rods. Just 10 minutes prior, we’d been jigging in 60 feet of water, pulling all manner of Pacific bottom fish over the gunwale.

We’re exploring on account of small swell. And, if I’m being honest, Bruhwiler, who runs Ground Swell Adventures, doesn’t really need my help navigating. 

On nearly every coast in the world is a glorified culture of surf self-sufficiency. The old ideal of exploration and living off the land, watered down to a TikTok’ed pre-converted Sprinter van in a Walmart parking lot with solid Wi-Fi, just a short e-bike cruise away from a Lululemon.

Bruhwiler is actually doing it. 

He grew up in Tofino, a charming surf town on the west coast of Canada. To the north are miles and miles of beaches, rivermouths, and headlands, which were mostly uncharted in the surf world before he started poking around up there as a teenager. It would be completely fair to argue that Bruhwiler, Canada’s first professional surfer, has named more spots than any other surfer of his generation, or of any generation after his thus far, if we’re defining “naming” as being the first to find, successfully surf, and mark on a map a significant wave. 

It’s not just the cold that keeps this coast unspoiled. It’s also the accessibility. Unless you have a floatplane—and those are not cheap—it’s a long, wet, and often harrowing ocean voyage from the relative protection of Clayoquot Sound to access points above latitude 49.4° north, fully exposed to whatever gale-force violence the Gulf of Alaska throws down the coast. And if you’re lining up surf, you have to battle that very swell to score. 

It’s not a trip for any captain without the right vessel, frame of mind, and experience, three things that have aided Bruhwiler in his exploration over the last 30 years. It’s also put food on the table: first in his exploits as a pro surfer, then as a member of the Canadian Coast Guard, and today as a surf guide. There’s a lot of cod, venison, and salmon on that table, as he’s a skilled angler and hunter as well. 

But uncrowded waves aren’t the only draw. In addition to hosting spots open to a variety of swell directions, the coastline is a wild paradise, a primary reason that Bruhwiler, wife Joey, daughter Aqua, 17, and sons Shea, 15, and Dusty, 12, are currently building an off-the-grid cabin in a remote sound up that way. 

I went up with Bruhwiler and his friends from VSSL, a Canadian outdoor brand that makes packable cylindrical aluminum survival kits for the backcountry, including a surf kit they developed with FCS. Over the course of five days in May, we saw black-bear sows ambling on the beach with cubs, a humpback whale surfacing 3 feet from the gunwale of the boat, bald eagles soaring overhead, and seals popping up to watch us cruise right-hand pointbreaks backdropped by temperate rainforests with thick carpets of fern that gave way to old-growth Sitka spruce, western red cedar, and fir trees.

Although the British Columbia coastline is rife with natural wonders, the hazards also become pervasive above the 49th parallel, making it anything but a weekender’s paradise. Bruhwiler, who knows the area’s risk-versus-reward question as well as anyone, solving for x. Photo by Marcus Paladino.

JC I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface up here. There’s just so much unspoiled coast.

RB That’s why I think we’re lucky, right? I’ve traveled all around the world and I always come back here, because there’s so much to do and see. And the best part is that there are no other humans around. A lot of people won’t even come up here by boat. It takes years of knowledge.

JC  How close have you been to becoming a meal?

RB  Pretty close. I’ve had a bear jump on my tent and bash it down.

JC And didn’t you have your daughter in the tent? 

RB Yeah. [Laughs.] But, for the most part, I don’t really think they’re out to get you. There have been lots of encounters on beaches, but you can usually scare them off. We’re in their territory. If you respect one another, you’re usually fine. We did have an issue with a big black bear at the fish camp that had gotten used to human food. We’d seen him around. They’re looking for more and it’s easy pickins. He started coming up from the dock to the house. The ones that have gotten into human food…it’s sad. They say a fed bear is a dead bear. It’s just going to keep coming back, so you’re going to have to kill it. 

JC I first met you in Tofino about 23 years ago. It was a different place then. Now, locals can barely afford to raise families in the beach town they live in. It almost seems like Tofino has become the Canadian Tamarindo.

RB Well, it’s still a really beautiful spot. None of that has really changed. I do feel bad for my kids. The beautiful areas all over the world get overrun by wealth. And you can’t really blame people. Who doesn’t want to be in a beautiful spot? But as they buy places up, the cost of living goes up for everyone. I still love Tofino, and there are wonderful people [there], but if I was trying to buy a house in Tofino now—there’s no way. My kids will never be able to afford anything here. There are no jobs in town where you can pay off a  $1 or $2 million mortgage. And there are these houses that sit empty half of the year. For a lot of people, it’s just an investment. And it’s like that everywhere. 

JC Yeah, that’s the case in every surf town. It’s killing communities. 

RB The town does everything for tourism dollars. Meanwhile, half the kids at the elementary school are in trailers because they can’t afford an addition for the school. Instead of another new walkway for tourists, what about taking care of the kids who actually live here?

JC Tell me about growing up in Tofino.

RB My parents saw a newspaper ad for a lot in a trailer park and they bought it, sight unseen. My dad’s a logger, so he had lots of work here. Then he bought a piece of property on Chesterman Beach, right on the water, and built a house. The beach was kind of our backyard. We had a halfpipe on the side of the house. You could basically check the surf from the top of the halfpipe. Whenever it was good, we’d go surf, then come back, keep skating—do that all day. Four, five guys out was kind of crowded. We had a couple of neighbors all the same age—a little posse—and we all kind of started searching together. We’d be going to the next bay over, exploring our little neighborhood. Eventually that turned into hearing about good waves. No one drew us a map or told us exactly where the breaks were. I got a boat when I was, like, 16, and we figured a lot out. 

JC Some of the spots had already been surfed?

RB Some, yeah. There were some Vietnam-era draft dodgers who apparently brought surfboards up to Vancouver Island in the ’70s, and then some locals got into it. I don’t know the exact history, because the older guys don’t like getting into that period. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that there were illegal weed farms. And sometimes people just don’t want to talk about the uncrowded waves. We would just listen to what we could. Then we started exploring farther and farther, eventually finding some of our own waves. The waves do get good, but it takes a lot of effort. 

You can easily die just getting there by boat. But that’s the regulator—the fear factor involved in going to some of those places. Maybe some of those outer islands get a little busy in the summertime, but the waves are flat. It’s easy to boat when it’s flat. If you want to get good waves, it’s pretty risky.

JC When you were poking around, there had to be some heavy moments.

RB You know, before you have kids and responsibilities, you don’t really think about it. We’re all pretty lucky that nothing bad happened, but some of those things that we did back in the day…heavy waves up north with 1 or 2 feet of water over the reef and one other guy with me. Things could still go wrong nowadays, even with all the communication we have. You’re still quite a way from help, and if the weather is bad you’re not gonna get a helicopter flying in. Rescue boats maybe can’t even find you. 

JC What were the hairiest stories?

RB Being stuck offshore in the most exposed areas in huge seas and your engine dies—mechanical breakdowns in the worst places. There’s nothing you can really do to avoid it. You’re out there having issues and saying, “Okay, please just let me get around this next point, and then it can break down.” I’m a big believer in always having new power on the boat, but I’ve had engines that are less than a year old break down too. You have to have a backup plan. You can easily die just getting there by boat. But that’s the regulator—the fear factor involved in going to some of those places. Maybe some of those outer islands get a little busy in the summertime, but the waves are flat. It’s easy to boat when it’s flat. If you want to get good waves, it’s pretty risky. You need the money, the time, and you need to know what you’re doing. 

JC Did your time in the Coast Guard help with that?

RB Well, I was going up there even before I was in the Coast Guard. That just drove home the safety aspect. I never really wore a life jacket that much. I always had them on the boat, but after pulling my first body out of the water, I said, “Okay, this guy died because he wasn’t wearing a life jacket.” Whenever someone drowns, there’s always a life jacket on the boat. I still don’t go out in really nasty weather. I know my limit. 

JC The life you and Joey have made for the family seems pretty idyllic. The cabin is a dream. You’ve got food and resources 360 degrees around you there.

RB Hopefully it stays like that. That’s a scary thing. There’s always a chance that stuff will be gone for the next couple generations, but you try your best to keep it like it is.  All of my kids love surfing, so for me, that’s an accomplishment, just that I can surf with my kids. We’re starting to surf the same type of waves now because they’re getting good. They’re all pretty level-headed and hard workers. They can actually make pretty good money here in the summertime and travel all winter. I’d like them to keep surfing, whatever they do, because it’s so good for your body and mental health. If I didn’t have kids, I probably wouldn’t surf as much. But the kids are like, “Let’s go. Let’s go.” I don’t even remember the last time I surfed by myself. I’m always surfing with one of the kids.  We took them camping and on the boat when they were 1 and 2 years old. We’d go up north. Some people think it’s crazy, but you just have to put more effort into it. So that’s second nature. They don’t always want to come with me, but they usually do. When I don’t have a group to guide, I’m doing the same thing with my kids.

JC You recently decided to take an extended leave from the Coast Guard. What led to that?

RB I still have the option to go back.  I was in the Coast Guard for seven years. But I was doing guided surf trips before and during. I would work for two weeks, guide a trip, and go back to work for two weeks. You can’t surf that much when you’re on shift because you’re basically on call 24 hours a day. And, at the same time, I started getting busier guiding. I would rather just take people surfing. So I took a year off and it’s going pretty well.

JC You’ve said you have some mixed feelings about taking people to some of those spots.

RB There’s always that nagging thought in the back of your head that a place might get blown up and you’d be responsible. I sort of screen people. [Laughs.] You never know. You could take someone to one of these waves and they could start doing exactly what I do up there. I worry about it getting overblown. But I don’t see it yet. I remember 20 years ago, when I was guiding for a company called Tatchu Adventures, we were always saying, “I wonder how it’s going to be in 20 years. It’s probably going to be so busy up here.” But everything is just so much more expensive now—gas, boats, food. People need to work more, and they have less time to go up. Honestly, when I was guiding back then I would see more people on their boats than I do now. I love doing it. What makes my job easy is that there’s so much to do without even looking for it. No one has ever been bored on one of these trips.

[Feature Illustration by Yann Kebbi]