Why Some Creatives Escape to Tofino—and Nowhere Else

Nestled on the western edge of Vancouver Island, Tofino welcomes locals and visitors alike with wave-hugged mountains and ancient cedars that stretch to the clouds. Much of the serene setting shapes the way folks live here and how visitors spend their time, with sandy beaches that mark Tofino’s surfing persona with a sense of relaxed adventure.

In this unique, tight-knit community of fewer than 2,000, many are their own boss and big-box stores are nonexistent. Instead, makers and doers inhabit this creative ecosystem. Meet those who call this temperate rainforest by the ocean their home.

Tailor-made boards

Much like its community, Tofino’s waves are welcoming. First-timers can rest easy when falling into the soft sand as they get started in waist-deep shorebreak. The habitual pros can paddle far out to be challenged by big rollers. The natural construct of its beaches gives the waves of Tofino its own character, and Stef Aftanas sets out to complement the landscape with each board that he crafts at Aftanas Surfboards.

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For over two decades, Stef and his team have been hand-sanding and tailoring each board to give owners the best surf possible. Carpentry originally brought Stef into the area; surfing made him stay. And the collision of those two waves allowed him to build a career. A constant surfer himself and viewing the sport “as almost therapy,” Stef brings his own experiences onto the boards. In return, his approach has attracted many riders to his boards, from newbies to pros being considered for Canada’s Olympic surf team.

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Smells like Tofino

Moss-draped trees, lush greenery and all-encompassing waves are some of the inspirations behind Angela L'Heureux’s line of candles, soaps, and body care under Tofino Soap Company. Having previously lived in Southern Ontario and Alberta, Angela says she “needed to connect back to nature” and eventually found her way to Tofino, where she worked at the Wickaninnish Inn when she first arrived.

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Influenced by her relatives, who are indigenous healers, Angela modernizes her family’s recipes by pairing foraged local medicinal herbs with the essence of Western Vancouver Island. Her creations can now be found all over the island, including the Tofino Public Market and Wickaninnish Inn.

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Capturing the spirit in spirits

Experiences from living off the grid on a float house got John Gilmour curious about sustainable fuel sources and how refineries worked. That train of thought led John to distilleries, and he took the idea of opening a sustainable distillery to his friends Neil Campbell and Adam Warry. Together they are learning as they go and opened the Tofino Craft Distillery during the summer of 2018. From borrowing forklifts to understanding building codes to DIY drywalling, the distillery was built with “a lot of local support.”

As the distillery was built on the spirit of Tofino’s community, the trio is trying to capture its essence with their spirits by using the water from the Meares Island watershed reservoir, organic grains from British Columbia, and organic herbs and vegetables from the Tofino Ucluelet Culinary Guild. When the team is not trying to source organic ingredients or testing distilling formulas, they can be found at the fire station, where they are all volunteer members.

A shop to call her own

After a two-week surfing trip in Tofino, Jen Thorpe returned home to Toronto—then turned around and drove her car right back to the West Coast. Initially settling in Vancouver for a stellar job in fashion, Jen would start off each morning by gazing into Tofino’s live surf cam. It was only a matter of time before she swapped her wool jacket for a raincoat and moved to Tofino permanently.

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Leaving city life behind, Jen brought her decade-long experience in fashion to Tofino and opened Caravan Beach Shop. It’s a collection of goods from Tofino’s makers, and Jen knows that this shop “would not be able to [be] anywhere else.” Her Campbell Street store is filled with curated home goods, clothing, and stationery that encapsulate the essence of the Pacific Northwest.

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A different kind of factory

Known as the Factory, this studio and retail space is home to a few artists who create onsite. For Julie Boocock, her community made it possible for her work to come to life: her line of handmade leather goods and bags, Market Canvas Leather, can be found in Wickaninnish Inn and also in Caravan Beach Shop, as Jen was one of her first supporters.

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Another resident, Lisa Fletcher, grew up living by the ocean, which “had a profound effect” on her work. Previously employed as a biologist, Lisa found a hobby in making fly-fishing ties, a skill that transferred nicely into jewelry making. Lisa now plays with textures of materials like metal to bring a “fluidity between the elements” on the everyday pieces of jewelry that she makes.

Then there’s Kyler Vos, who has captured a sense of the artists’ setting with his lens. As a constant observer of Tofino, Kyler photographs the curves of waves, edges of coast, and everything in between with his camera. His photo gallery and print shop can be found inside the Factory as well as on a limited edition of Aftanas Surfboards.


A landmark gallery and an artistic refuge

From being an anti-substance abuse advocate to becoming a Member of Order of Canada, Roy Henry Vickers has been widely recognized as a leader within this community and among First Nations families. His paintings have been gifted to Queen Elizabeth II and published in over a dozen books. Roy still finds time to release a painting a season while operating his gallery–a traditional Northwest Coast longhouse that’s a local landmark, complete with a carved and painted cedar plank exterior–and he can sometimes be found sharing his life experiences and favorite art inspirations there.

Resting on the edge of the coast, and enclosed between ocean and trees, the iconic Wickaninnish Inn acts as a hub, connecting visitors to local services and culture. Within the grounds of the inn, on Chesterman's Beach, sits Henry's Carving Shed. It was originally home to Henry Nolla, who helped with the construction of the property in the 1970s. As years passed, Henry mentored other wood carvers, and many of them carry on his sense of creativity and community by treating the shed as their artistic home. George Yearsley, aka “Feather George,” is one such artist. He creates intricate wooden feathers with only hand tools on red or yellow cedar.

Neighborhood animal watch

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When a neighborhood dog fell ill, James Rodgers and a handful of friends were captivated with taking care of it. With no local animal shelters, and the closest veterinary services at least an hour and a half drive through a mountain, CARE (Coastal Animal Rescue & Education) Network was born as a volunteer-run, stop-gap solution. This nonprofit now acts as the first line of defense for animal well-being on Tofino.

But costs can add up from rescuing eagles, vaccinating strays, and facilitating adoption, and James realized that CARE Network could not run on donations alone. So he launched a coffee-focused social enterprise with the help of Tofino Coffee Roasting Company, where sales from beans and cold brew go toward CARE Network's animal well-being efforts.

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All about #muglife

After a decade of working all over Canada and abroad within the culinary world, Jesse-Ray Laking was brought to Tofino and into the kitchen at Wolf in the Fog, a forage-based fine dining restaurant. Jesse-Ray would start off each morning with a cup of coffee from Tofino Coffee Roasting Company and grew increasingly interested in beans and how roasting affected the taste. Soon enough, Jesse-Ray left the kitchen and became a partial owner of the roastery and started to teach himself roasting.

Today, Jesse-Ray runs Tofino Coffee Roasting Company, which boasts a café and roastery. The coffee shop is serious about #muglife, offering discounts on brews when customers bring their own cup, and has a rotating collection of ceramics from local artists. While the roastery in the industrial neighborhood provides a glimpse at how beans are roasted. Jesse-Ray is constantly collaborating with other makers in the community to create limited-time coffee ice cream floats, beans, and cold brews. And many of these partnerships were born out of friendship, including one where he helps roast beans for CARE Network.Relationships like this, says Jesse-Ray, “happen on a personal level first.”

Illustration by Verónica Grech
Photographs by Jeremy Koreski