Cold, Wet, Stoked: The Uniqueness of Pacific Northwest Surfing

Words by Chris Zimmerman
Photos by Jake Hanson & Chris Zimmerman

Your wetsuit didn’t dry much overnight, but being stuffed in a drybag along with some sandy booties and damp gloves was never a recipe for success. After peeling off your suit and finally warming up, hanging it up felt like too much of a chore, and this morning you’re paying the price. With overnight temperatures in the mid 40’s and a steady mist off the water, it’s not like it would have dried out anyway. But now here you are: huddled next to a truck in the pouring rain, trying to decide if it’s worth keeping your jacket on until the last second or just ripping off the band-aid and putting this cold, wet wetsuit on in more of a sprint maneuver. Once it’s on, the five millimeters of neoprene will start warming you up—at least that’s what you tell yourself. Even after struggling into your suit, it’s still nearly a mile down a steep, muddy trail just to get to the beach.

It’s mid November and you and a couple friends have spent the last few days hunting for waves on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Fall is supposed to be the best time for surf around here, but the beating wind and rain has turned the sea into more of a roiling mess of whitecaps and waves than anything. Fortunately the wind finally let off, although it’s still pissing rain, but that won’t matter in the water. As you make the solemn hike to the break, you and your friends talk about why you even surf up here. Wouldn’t it be easier to move to Southern California and pull up to the parking lot in board shorts, rocking a sweet tan and blonde hair? But eventually you agree surfing in the Pacific Northwest is a whole other beast—one where just getting to the waves can be an adventure in itself and a place where the weather alone can crack even the most hardcore surfers.    

Photo: Jake Hanson

Washington, Oregon and Vancouver Island are three similar, yet unique, regions that make up Pacific Northwest surfing. On one hand there’s Oregon and its long, straight uninterrupted coastline, within easy reach of the iconic Highway 101. On the other, Washington, boasting remote beaches, a patchwork of reservations, private land and hidden gems is more like Oregon’s rebellious brother. To the north, Vancouver Island is a looming monster. Nearly 300 miles of remote, rugged coastline, chewed up by retreating glaciers, has left a network of fjords, inlets, bays and mountains that fall right into the sea. Remote and underpopulated, access is one of the biggest challenges. While each of these regions is unique in their own right, they complement each other to make surfing in the Pacific Northwest an experience like no other.  

Oregon

Photo: Chris Zimmerman

With 360 miles of uninterrupted coastline, bordered by Highway 101, the beaches of Oregon attract visitors from all walks of life, and from all around the world. Home to over 80 state parks, a variety of terrain from sand dunes and flat beaches to sea stacks and scenic coves, and the setting for classic movies like The Goonies and Free Willy, the Oregon Coast is an accessible taste of the wild Pacific Northwest. Thanks to the Oregon Beach Bill of 1967, free beach access is allowed to everyone, making the entire coastline essentially one continuous state park.

This accessibility has opened the door for a good amount of surf spots between Astoria in the north and Brookings in the south. While the most popular locations are easy to locate by the full state park parking lots just off the highway, plenty of hidden gems remain to those up for a search. Towns along the coast like Cannon Beach, Bandon and Lincoln City offer plenty in the realm of lodging, tax-free shopping, and skateparks, not to mention those 80 state parks. The area’s popularity ensures a booked up summer, so be sure to plan ahead.

Washington

Photo: Chris Zimmerman

The coast of the most northwest state in the contiguous United States can essentially be thought of as three separate zones. There’s the southern coast with its flat, sandy beaches and dated 60’s tourism aesthetic, the steep, sea stacked and rugged northern coast, and the Strait, which shall remain shrouded in mystery. Compared to the open accessibility of Oregon, the coast of Washington is blocked by native reservations, private timber leases and a barrier of sheer primitive wilderness.

That’s not to say there’s nowhere to surf, it just takes a bit more willpower. While there are a few popular beaches that tend to draw crowds through summer, a willingness to hike and a sense of adventure can reveal many empty breaks. Ideas of nice rental houses and cabins should be traded in for the realities of moldy double wide trailers and rainy campgrounds, but crowds generally remain minimal. With most of the area’s population residing around Seattle, a three-  to six-hour drive and ferry ride away, weekend campers end up being a more common sight than day trippers.

Vancouver Island

Photo: Jake Hanson

While more “northwest” in terms of geography and attitude than technical location, Canada’s Vancouver Island is nearly in a league of its own. Put under the spotlight in the last few years with cold water surfing’s popularity explosion, the once small fishing village of Tofino has benefited, debatably, from a boom in visitors, arguably on its way to becoming the Whistler of Canadian surf towns. Restaurants, cabins, hotels and plenty of surf shops stocked with rentals help feed the steady stream of Canadians threading their way down Highway 4, while many locals tend to retreat to the shadows to wait out tourist season. Just around Tofino there are at least five or six places to surf, which is good because the area tends to get crowded, but beyond Tofino, the population drops off and the island’s remoteness begins to show its true colors.

A lack of roads and long distances have forced a tight knit crew of die hards to use boats and seaplanes to track down secret, inaccessible waves and open ocean slabs that would shake 99% of surfers right out of their wetsuits. With these extreme distances, camping out on the beach or in a boat comes with the territory, and the local crews have it wired with backcountry luxuries ranging from hand dug wood-fired hot tubs to intricate beach forts. Wildlife is another consideration when surfing Vancouver Island, as bears, wolves and cougars are known to frequent beaches in search of edibles, in-cooler or otherwise. The potential orca and humpback whale sightings as well as seals and sea otters playing in the surf makes surfing up here one unique, wild experience.

Photo: Jake Hanson

With surfing gaining ever more popularity in the Northwest, beaches are bound to be more crowded, secret spots blown out and more amenities will arrive to fill a need. But one thing that will never change about the Northwest is the cold water, spells of terrible weather and the overall barriers of remoteness and inaccessibility. This combination is bound to keep numbers of “surfers”, as opposed to “people who surf” in check. Maybe it’s like this everywhere, but the Northwest seems to full of perpetual beginner surfers, out on foam rental boards, floating in rental suits, giving it the old college try. With the aforementioned barriers, combined with the pure difficulty of surfing, many end up finding it’s not for them.

Like many sports, there are the dabblers and the die-hards, and surfing is no different. Catching a wave, even for just a few seconds, is one of the most rewarding, exciting experiences one can have. But how much of that is due to the act of riding the wave compared to the payoff from the effort, dedication and sometimes pure luck it takes to get on it in the first place? All these factors help make surfing in the Pacific Northwest an experience like no other. Those looking for a quick day trip to ride some perfect waves in the sun will no doubt leave disappointed, but for people ready for an adventure that includes hiking, camping, surfing, being generally cold and wet, and drinking around a bonfire, this might just be the place.   

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