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Thursday, January 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Storm watching: Vancouver Island's treacherous edge

Chicago Tribune

UCLUELET, B.C. — It's winter on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The sky is blue, the temperature moderate, winds mild, the sea is calm.

Bill McIntyre points a few hundred yards down the jagged coast and nearly 100 years into history.

It's late December 1905. The sky is pitch black, the temperature freezing, winds howl at 60 miles an hour, the sea is a maelstrom of 30-foot waves. And the Pass of Melfort, a 3,000-ton, four-masted, steel-hulled sailing ship, is about to have its name written in the logbook of this "Graveyard of the Pacific," a stretch of coast sadly rich in shipwrecks.

"There were 36 men on board, but not one of them got off alive. I find that amazing," says McIntyre.

"The bow was driven right onto those rocks, and you would think that surely someone could make it the 200 feet from there up into the bushes and survive — but not a one. All 36 died. And besides that, they never found but about two bodies. Within the next day or so, the vessel was clawed back into the water and it sank on a reef there in about less than 200 feet of water."

The Pass of Melfort wasn't the first ship to come to a violent end on this stretch of Vancouver Island's wild west coast. The first recorded wreck was in 1854, and since then, hundreds of ships and small boats have met similar fates on this coast near the small towns of Tofino and Ucluelet.

From roughly November through February, massive winter storms pound the unprotected coast with waves, wind and rain (although there can also be, as I found, days of calm sunshine).

Thus the shipwrecks and thus an increasing number of winter storm-watching visitors to this area that typically sees its largest number of tourists in July and August, according to Sue Payne, manager of the Ucluelet Chamber of Commerce.

What a nice day

The locals I met were a friendly and helpful lot, but I'm afraid I was on the verge of throttling the next person who grinned, looking up at the cloudless blue sky, and said, "Oh, isn't the weather today wonderful?"

"No!" I wanted to shout. "I want rain — lots of it — and gale-force winds, and monster waves and crashing surf and ... and ... "

But Mother Nature would have none of that. It was temperatures in the high 40s and low 50s and lots of sun and mild breezes.

Good thing I had an ace in the hole. Bill McIntyre, my ace, is the former chief naturalist of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. So he knows a ton about the storms: what causes them, why they're good for the various flora and fauna that live on the shore and under the waves, how they affect the way trees and other vegetation grow along the coast ... well, you get the idea.

And the best thing is, though he's a scientist, he doesn't talk like one. He sounds more like your next-door neighbor, except he knows what he's talking about.

McIntyre has been doing the nature-tour business full time since 1998, along with running a small bed-and-breakfast with his wife, Susan, in Ucluelet (you-CLUE-let), on the edge of the national park.

We had agreed to meet in the parking lot of what's called the Wild Pacific Trail, not far from his home. The trail winds along the headlands around Ucluelet and is full of lessons about the sea's potential for great mischief. It's along here that the Pass of Melfort smashed into the rocks.

The Amphitrite Point lighthouse sits along the trail. The Canadian government ordered the original lighthouse built in 1906 as a result of the wreck of the Pass of Melfort just offshore. The lighthouse lasted only eight years before it was swept away by a tidal wave or storm surge, depending on whose version of the story you hear. Its replacement is still standing — an unremarkable, automated beacon.

Lonely beaches

Earlier, I had wandered along Combers Beach in the Long Beach section of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, hoping to perhaps find a glass float ball from some far-off Japanese fisherman's net. (McIntyre's B&B is liberally decorated with a wealth of the glass balls that he's picked up in his years of wandering the beaches here.)

Only a few other people shared the miles-long expanse — some walking, some wind surfing, some flying kites. I saw bald eagles and giant kelp, too, but no float balls.

This stretch of coast is a wonderful mix of rugged headlands around Ucluelet and miles-long sandy beaches to the north. The park's Wickaninnish interpretive center at Long Beach — an aptly named 10-mile stretch of sand, driftwood and forest — is closed mid-October to mid-March. But I shared the elevated observation deck there with other visitors to enjoy expansive views. The pounding surf has tossed hundreds, maybe thousands, of trees of all sizes every which way, forming a logjam that extended up the shoreline nearly as far as I could see.

Fifteen to 20 miles up the road from the center is Tofino, a town of about 1,500 people that once was the site of a native Clayoquot village. Today it's a fishing village that also lives off tourists.

Eating a late lunch and downing a Piper's Pale Ale in the Sea Shanty Restaurant, I looked out the window onto Tofino's protected harbor, where float planes come and go.

At the Driftwood gift shop, where I bought a small wood carving, a clerk said winter business had been getting better, thanks to winter storm watchers. And, oh, isn't the weather today wonderful?

Across the street, I bought a handmade pin at the Bead Comber, where the owner said isn't the weather great?

At the end of the day, homeward bound, I stood on the upper deck of a ferry carrying me and several hundred other people and their vehicles back to the B.C. mainland. I clicked away with my camera, taking photos of snow-tipped peaks and islets bathed in the pink and gold of the setting sun.

Oh, isn't the weather wonderful?

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