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May 31, 2024

Explore the west coast’s incredible waterways with Tofino Paddle Surf

by Erin Linn McMullan

“We’re surrounded by so many incredible waterways there’s just literally endless possibilities when it comes to paddleboarding exploration.”

— Catherine Bruhwiler, Tofino Paddle Surf

Imagine gliding across the variegated-blue Pacific, barefoot on your Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP), your paddle dipping in rhythm with the surf. Serene and centred in the universe—connected to this remarkably special place in Načiks (Tofino).

Whether you’re an absolute beginner or SUP master, the west coast offers endless possibilities to explore pristine waterways from the protected cove right out front of Tin Wis Resort, to the lush inlet surrounded by old-growth temperate rainforest to breathtaking flatwater at remote fly-in locations like glacial lakes amidst mountaintops. Tucked into a corner of the property at Tin Wis Resort next to the beach, Tofino Paddle Surf is your portal to adventure.

For owner, Catherine Bruhwiler, the ocean is home—the first sponsored female surfer in Canada, 2017 and 2019 Canadian champion in SUP Surfing, and the first grandma to wield her shortboard to win Queen of the Peak.

Catherine is intimately familiar with the west coast and with Tin Wis (aka MacKenzie) beach, where she grew up with her family and her three brothers – now known as Canada’s first family of surfing. Her brothers Raph and Sepp, and her son, Kalum are all pros in the World Surf League.

“Our programs are based on this lifelong experience of basically just having fun in the ocean, and that’s what we try to let other people experience.”

“Because we have so many beautiful places to go, there’s always options. We’re really lucky in Tofino, because we live on a peninsula, there actually are places to go almost 100% of the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s for surfing or paddleboarding, there are places you can go and hide from the swell, and hide from crazy winds.

“Without a little bit of that local knowledge, it would be pretty hard to create those parameters. Depending on people’s experience and budget, we come up with a plan.”

“Both with surfing and with paddleboarding, because what you do and where you go and what time you go is so dependent on the environment: everything from the sunrise and sunset to the tides to the winds to the swell, and the currents that are created by those things. We really try hard to make sure that we set people up for success and that when we’re going on our tours, we know that the natural beauty of pretty much anywhere we go will capture people.” 

“And so really the determining factor will always be the level of skill and experience and comfort of the participant, and then, the conditions—how things are trending in the environmental conditions. We’re very in tune with that, and can come up with a really good, customized plan based on those two things.”

Tofino Paddle Surf partners with Atleo Air for fly-in adventures by floatplane or helicopter, broadening the benefits of local knowledge.

“The places that we’ve been on those helicopters—glacial lakes on mountaintops, sure, you can maybe climb to them, but they’re places that are very hard to get to otherwise.” 

Sitting on the deck at Tofino Paddle Surf in the sunshine, Catherine smiles warmly as she relates how running her business here is a dream come true and brings her full circle to her childhood.

“We were on the beach all the time from dawn ‘til dusk every single day,” she recalls of growing up here with her family in the mobile park that is now a campground just down the beach from where her shop sits oceanfront. The Bruhwilers later moved to Chesterman Beach where one of the neighbours had an old surfboard kicking around “when it was like a little hippie community, and the road into South Chesterman’s was just gravel, and everyone had their own wells.

“We were home-schooled,” explains Catherine, “so we just naturally gravitated to being in the water – we were in the water without wetsuits all summer long. My dad, he did some work in exchange for a couple of crappy old wetsuits for us. And then we just started spending more and more time in the water trying to figure out how to ride waves, and stand up and surf. And yeah, it was good times.

“I always find it fascinating when I think about the fact that I’ve turned being a surf bum into a bit of a career. I guess I’ve been lucky.

“It can be a challenge to take that and translate it in a day-to-day quality business, but I definitely do my best.” A lifetime of experience makes that intuitive, helping her to quickly spot and correct any gaps in services.

“I’ve been teaching surf lessons since I was 13,” says Catherine, who recalls when she and her older brother, Raph worked at Live to Surf and hung up a handmade sign offering “Surf Lessons” and inviting people to come talk to them. 

“When I moved back to Tofino full-time, I decided I wanted to do something a little bit different than surfing because everybody’s trying to get a piece of this surf lesson pie. But nobody’s doing paddleboarding.”

Catherine had witnessed that industry boom over the past decade while living and working in Mexico with her ex-husband and children. She learned paddleboarding from the Hawaiians who were always there, including attending a SUP camp run by Gerry Lopez.

Catherine started Tofino Paddle Surf in 2009 and for the first year, ran it out of her truck, then transitioned to Tin Wis Resort. Originally, the business was set up in an old laundry room. “Lucky for me, I’m super-handy with a saw and some tools and I built everything and turned that little laundry room into a shop.” 

Catherine explains that a friend of hers had made a connection with a man who worked in the maintenance department. “I owe really a lot to these two guys because they were like, ‘Oh, this is a fantastic idea’, and I feel like I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did without them really believing in it.

“I started the business because I was a single mom and I wanted to be able to bring my kids to work,” says Catherine. “Even if they want to hop on a paddleboard, they can still come with me or they can sit on the beach and play. So that was my driving motivation at the very beginning—was to be able to work and still be able to have my kids around me.” 

When a ceiling leak necessitated a move to the little burger shack down on the beach, it was an opportunity to rebuild during Tofino’s tourism shutdown at the onset of the pandemic. “We made it twice the size. We built the deck, all the storage, the racks, and we did that all during the spring of 2020 when we didn’t have any customers anyways. The timing couldn’t have been any better.” 

Reflecting back now on the move, Catherine says, “My dreams are even more coming true. Because I really wanted to work on the beach—it’s actually what I had in mind.”

Families are always welcome at Tofino Paddle Surf and with summer, comes the launch of the big family-sized paddle board. “We can put 17 people on there,” she explains. “It’s super-fun. Everybody gets a lifejacket and a paddle. And, it includes a single paddleboard too if people want to use that.” As part of their safety briefing, they receive tips on how to better coordinate their paddling with so many paddlers in action.

Tofino Paddle Surf offers group SUP tours, but, as Catherine emphasizes, those groups are small with a great ratio of instructor to participants, and families often opt for private sessions.

“Families can go out with their kids. I would take my granddaughter—I took her from the time she was six months old on my lap and we’d paddle out there. I also started taking her surfing when she was one.”

Catherine ensures their messaging always conveys respect for the environment.

“With the kids’ groups, we’ll go out to the kelp beds, and we’ll pull the kelp up and the kids get an opportunity to touch it, and taste it, and see all the little crabs—there’s lots of little creatures they get to see and interact with. It’s really can be a respectful hands-on experience as well.”

While the business initially offered only SUP, it expanded organically to include surf lessons and coaching, tapping into the wealth of her expertise.

“With our surf lessons, we only do private lessons, so we teach a lot of families, and our instructors are really good with kids. That’s one of the things we specialize in. We’ll often have parents and their young ones, or we’ll have two little kids, or a group of teenagers.

“It’s really important, we feel, that people have a more intimate experience surfing because often people get lost in giant groups.” If families need more guidance, there is always the option to add another instructor.

The safety requirements for SUP differs from surfing as Catherine points out. Technically, a paddleboard is considered a human-powered watercraft and you’re required to wear a PFD (personal flotation device) and carry a whistle and a floating tow rope.

“How we explain it to people is, ‘You’re considered a boat if you’re anywhere else a boat could be. If you’re inside MacKenzie Bay, and you’re close to shore, you’re not going to ever see a boat there. You could be on a floating unicorn, and it wouldn’t be any different.”

Summer’s milder conditions and the sheltered cove at Tin Wis provide ideal conditions to learn to SUP.

“We are really fortunate,” says Catherine, “because the prevailing winds in the summertime, they blow towards the beach. So, we know that people, even if they’re having a bit of a hard time paddling, or they’re tired, or they’re on their knees, they’re going to get blown back to the beach. They’re not getting blown offshore so that’s a very cool thing about our location. Probably one of the best things about our location, honestly.

“But as soon as they’re going that little bit further, and that’s where our advanced tours happen, then, we’re like, ‘Okay, now we’re part of the traffic. And so, we need to know the rules of the road and we stick together.’ It can be difficult for boats to see a paddleboarder because they blend into the horizon. Fog may roll in. In Tofino’s busy harbour, summer traffic is especially busy with larger ships docking, floatplanes taking off and landing, and kayak and other marine adventure tours leaving from shore.

“Some our west coast adventure tours are super-awesome because they are a little bit more accessible than the remote tours. It’s cool to see people that might not have those experiences all the time just get to be a part of that. To see the wonder in their eyes and to have an eagle fly over and drop a feather and to be able to paddle over and pick it up.”

“I’m pretty much addicted to being outside,” confesses Catherine, who is living her passion at work and in her leisure time. “I spend a lot of time with my family, both with my siblings, and their kids, and my own kids, and their kids, and just doing a lot of camping and exploring. We all have boats. We hop on boats, and we go north, and we find waves, and we fish off the paddleboards and we camp. It’s awesome. Those are my favourite things to do.”

Tofino Paddle Surf also offers camps and intensive courses. “One or two times a year we do surf camps where we take people surfing and paddleboarding and they stay with us – we have a vacation rental that has a lot of rooms – and sometimes we run them out of the Tin Wis in the past.

“When it comes to the paddleboarding, if someone was to get into racing or SUP surfing, which I’ve done a lot of, it’s very technical. There are a lot of techniques you need to know: you need to know how to move the board to position it in the waves, to get through the waves. It’s actually more complicated than surfing, believe it or not.”

Asked about her favourite experiences, Catherine says, “We’re also super-fortunate, actually, we teach the Outward Bound groups.” These 21-day sea kayak trips are usually for teenagers, and occasionally, young adults. “We meet them twice a summer out on the outer beaches of Vargas Island with all our surf gear and then we give them two days of a surf experience. That’s so cool just being in the middle of nowhere – as far as Nootka Island way up north.”

Catherine revels in the stories those same teens share when she runs into them later in adulthood. One guy told her, “I’m a surf photographer. I was out on an Outward Bound and you taught us how to surf.’

“It’s really cool to just see people be inspired and follow their dreams after that,” she says. “Come out and do some more ocean stuff!”

Catherine’s commitment to her home includes supporting efforts to preserve this beautiful place and all the animals that live in it. Tofino Paddle Surf, a Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks Ally, is also sponsoring the Paddle Out for Healthy Oceans and Wild Salmon on Saturday, June 1st from 10–12 p.m. on Tin Wis Beach in Unceded Tla-o-qui-aht territory.

When you’re dreaming ahead to your west coast SUP or surf adventure, visit the Tin Wis beach cam online to share virtually that same beachfront view you’ll see from their deck.

Catherine encourages you to come with “a sense of adventure and a willingness to experience big nature—because it really is. And to know that you will do that with support so there’s nothing to be afraid of. 

“There’s something for everyone. It doesn’t really matter your age or size or experience. We get people out on the water, and they just have a great time.”

For visitors or locals who are taking rental SUP or surfboards offsite, the staff at Tofino Paddle Surf do their best to gauge their experience and ensure they’re prepared for the challenges of the local environment. Where are you going? What’s your plan? What’s the tide going to be? What’s your cold-water immersion plan? What are you going to do if you fall in? What if you’re far away from shore and you’re freezing?

If you have your own gear, Catherine invites you to call the shop and chat as you plan your next west coast adventure. “Everybody surfs. Everybody knows what’s happening. We’re happy to answer questions.”

Catherine reflects that they treat everyone who walks in their door “like they’ve been our best friends forever”. Come be part of Tofino Paddle Surf’s extended family.

And, if you want to unwind as nature unleashes a kaleidoscope of colour across the sky, come out for a sunset paddle.

Paddle Out for Healthy Oceans and Wild Salmon meets on Tin Wis Beach in front of Tofino Paddle Surf on Saturday, June 1st, 2024, in Unceded Tla-o-qui-aht Territory. Learn More.

Guests of Tin Wis Resort enjoy a 10% discount for online bookings at Tofino Paddle Surf onsite year-round. Open daily in June from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Book Here.

Register for our new Best Western promo and get 10,000 bonus points when you stay three nights between now and September 2nd, 2024. Book Here.

Limited tickets are available for naaʔuu, a three-hour interactive cultural event and dining experience running from May 22–June 29, 2024. Buy Tickets Here. To stay at Tin Wis during the festivities, click on “Enhance Your Stay” when you Book Here.

To make online reservations for lunch or dinner or order food for pickup at Tofino Browns Socialhouse, visit their website here & come enjoy their new dog-friendly patio! Starting June 1st, 2024, Browns has new hours from 12 p.m.–11 p.m. with a full menu until closing time, including delicious new Bistro Steak Frites and a fancy tomato sandwich on baguette. Social Hour is every day from 3–6 p.m. and from 9 to close with new food specials: Snackin’ nachos and Maple bacon poutine.

Beach Yoga is available during the summer on Tin Wis Beach at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Online reservations are mandatory. Book Here. 

T-Bird E-Bikes are now available onsite at the resort as of June 1st, 2024. Tin Wis guests receive a 10% discount. Book Here.