That is 4,596 miles (3,994 nautical miles) of nothing but water from here to there. Alaska is far to the north, Hawaii way to the south. If I were a seabird, I’d make very sure I was prepared for such a trek; do the wildlife here venture across the world?
It’s not a crazy question, because the west coast of Vancouver Island—part of the Pacific Rim—teems with creatures. From the massive 1,000-pound Mola Mola sunfish to the rafts of sea otters, the Minke whales, humpback whales, and orcas; the Steller sea lions, porpoise, and grizzly bears, to the tufted puffins, and salmon, halibut, and steelhead trout, this rugged coastline has a lot of wild characters. And a guy who sees them all from above is pilot Jason Bertin, owner and manager of Atleo River Service; an air tour and seaplane operation based in Tofino harbor.
“We had the grand slam yesterday,” he says. He flew a couple in his Bell Long Ranger out to be wed on the rugged peak off Cleland Island to the northwest. “The bride points out a gray whale below the helicopter; I’m so used to it I don’t correct her ’cause it could be the back of a sea lion or a Mola Mola, this big sunfish that can be up to a thousand pounds and which lies on its side in the sun. But, sure enough there’s a gray whale and he’s pushed up against the rocks because a pod of orcas is playing. There’s a baby orca, and orcas love to put on a show. Then when the gray whale pulls away, all these sea lions come up to the surface to sun on the rocks. We do see a Mola Mola—ugly but fascinating—and a grizzly bear on the flight back. Sometimes it’s hard to leave because so much is happening. It’s an adventure every day.”
I’ve got ripplin’ water to wake me
To the mornin’, my woman and love
And tall pine trees are pointing us easily
To heaven above
—Ripplin’ Water, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Bertin and his partner, Misty Lawson, started today early. In the predawn light she made coffee and breakfast. Then the couple motored over from their island house to the harbor in their 16-foot aluminum boat that her brother designed. From there they grabbed their surfboards and wet suits and headed to Chesterman Beach for an hour-long surf session. “We try to surf most every morning. We call it our sneaky little board meeting,” Lawson said.
Lawson is the base manager for Atleo, a company Bertin bought in 2011. It was started in 1995 and owned by a Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations family, the indigenous settlers of the area. Atleo’s original owners served the coastal communities, flying people and supplies in and out of the villages dotted across the area on the waterways, lakes, and mountains that plunge into the Pacific Ocean. Bertin started flying for the company—“it was exciting and thrilling”—and eventually bought it. “I came on as a pilot and although I never really wanted to be self-employed again, it felt right,” he said. He has flown fixed-wing aircraft and flight instructed since he was 19. From southern Ontario, he ventured into flying on the northern prairies, in the Yukon, and northern British Columbia. He came to the Tofino area and decided the end of his road was here. “It’s a natural spot with a sense of adventure,” he said. “We are the first to get the weather that rolls in here; in the summer, it’s marine fog and in the winter it’s the monsoons, but we don’t have to shovel our rain. The mountain peaks, the river gravel bars, the wild salmon runs; everyone has to see it for themselves.”
The Nuu-chah-nulth are one of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The term Nuu-chah-nulth describes 14 separate but related First Nations, such as the Tla-o-qui-aht, Ehattesaht, and Hesquiaht First Nations, whose traditional home is on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest coastal community’s lives centered around ocean and river fishing. Salmon was a significant resource. While Indigenous people were numerous on the coast and islands, smallpox wiped out many, and as the population decreased groups of tribes were absorbed in others. Lawson’s father was First Nation, and he and her mother lived on an offshore island. “I was born into that magic; my father caught me in his arms.” She was born on a misty November morning; her native name is Mitla Nova—Misty Rain.
Getting out to Vancouver Island and as far west to Tofino was difficult. Only a logging road stretched to Tofino in 1959. Highway 4 (the Pacific Rim Highway) was paved in 1953 (completed in 1972) and extended to Tofino in 1961. The Pacific Rim National Park was established in 1970. In the 1970s, surfers discovered Tofino for its long sandy beaches and—especially in winter—consistent challenging waves. Summer swells are approachable for those new to the sport—there are several surfing schools in the small town (population 1,932). In the winter, the big waves sought after by professional surfers make Tofino an adventurous winter escape. Tofino is called the surfing capital of Canada. The water temperature only fluctuates about 10 degrees between seasons, but the dramatic surf and storms also have created an armchair sport of winter storm watching. At Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn, visitors stay just to watch nature’s beautiful fury from the window-walled hotel.
Oh, like a bubble on a windy day
I start to flutter when I hear you say
That you feel too good to go away
And you make me feel fine
—Ripplin’ Water, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Atleo River Service has grown from the one Cessna 172 that Bertin acquired when he purchased the company to include two floatplanes, a de Havilland Beaver and a Cessna 185, plus two helicopters: the Long Ranger and a Jet Ranger. During the summer, Atleo River Service employs eight to nine pilots, a full-time maintenance staff, and an additional crew for bookings and logistics. The pandemic forced the couple to find alternative work such as firefighting, search and rescue, slinging home supplies (like delivering a wood stove by helicopter to a mountain house), and counting eagles’ nests. But 2022 came back strong, and even though their business—especially the air tours—has increased, neither Bertin nor Lawson want it to grow much more. “Odd maybe to say, but we really don’t want to grow,” said Lawson. “It comes down to time off versus money, and we like the time off.”
The seaplanes take off from the harbor; Atleo has a little shack on the dock where tourists get their life jackets, pay, and come to board the aircraft. Bertin keeps the two helicopters out at Tofino-Long Beach Airport (YAZ) in a hangar where friend and mechanic Kelly Hale keeps the aircraft in good working order. Hale is an old friend who grew up on the coast but left, and he is from the Ahousaht First Nation. He moved back to the area because he wants his family to experience the coastal life. There’s a little hum of activity at both locations. At the seaplane base, only the de Havilland is in operation because the 185 is down for maintenance back at the airport. That’s keeping pilot Markus Ranalla busy. He steps in front of the video camera as we are interviewing Bertin. “There he is, mouthful of Cheerios and ready to go flying,” Bertin laughs. Friends of the couple and previous staff members stop by with their children to visit with Lawson. Bertin takes an electric bike and rides up to town for sandwiches.
Later at the airport, Bertin returns from flying a wedding party and greets Lawson as if he hasn’t seen her in ages, even though they spent the morning surfing. The couple are clearly very much in love, even as their 16-year-old daughter waits at home. The youthful pair exude health and happiness. “I’m afraid to tell you how much I love it here and that I love my job so much, everyone would want it,” said Bertin.
Ranalla flies AOPA Director of Photography Chris Rose and me in the Beaver into the mountains and down a canyon to land on a glacier lake. Ranalla uses an oar to get the Beaver set on the gravel bar. I have never landed on a lake or gravel bar, nor have I ever been in such raw country. The mountains and cliffs soar around us, and the silence is good for the soul. The three of us quietly wander the small spit of land and watch as a lake salmon leaps out of the water. I expect, but not hope, that a bear will appear on the shoreline. Ranalla tells us that a glacier lake like this rarely sees human life. I get the impression he’d be happy to stay out here in the wilderness.
“There are so many island inlets, waterways, lakes. I’m afraid you’ve only scratched the surface; it’s amazing the places you can go,” said Lawson.
And you made my world a warmer place
By the sparkling of your diamond face
On a frayed spot put a little lace
And you make me feel fine
Warm as the mountain sunshine
On the edge of the snow lineIn a meadow of columbine
—Ripplin’ Water, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Spanish explorers first arrived in Tofino in the late 1700s by. It was named for Capt. Vincent Tofiño, a Spanish navy rear admiral. He was a renowned astronomer, mathematician, and later the king of Spain’s hydrographer. Europeans sought out this area for its furs, especially the sea otter. There are few monuments to the Spanish influence; Tofino celebrates its native heritage. In Anchor Park, on a bluff overlooking Meares Island and Clayoquot Sound, stands a totem pole or Čiinuł, carved in a style that is specific to the Tla-o-qui-aht tribe. At the top of the pole, a thunderbird perches above a humpback whale, representing the hereditary chiefs or Ha’wiih. Tla-o-qui-aht master carver Joe David gave the 15-foot red cedar symbol to the city of Tofino in 2018. In the same park are historic markers, and tributes to the area’s seafaring residents.
Tofino is a hilly but easily walkable town. There are surf shops, outfitters, coffee shops, and many restaurants. We were in Tofino in June and the town was hopping. So much so that we could not find accommodations and had a true Vancouver Island experience, staying on a houseboat in the harbor. Our landlord, Pearl, drove her boat back and forth from the Fourth Street dock anytime we needed her. We were in a prime viewing spot for the seaplanes taking off and landing in the harbor. The motion of the water added to the serenity of the spot (although on occasion the houseboat would sway; I’d forget we were on the water and would wonder if I was having a stroke). The sunsets were extraordinary.
Because we had a houseboat, we picked up supplies in the town grocery store. It felt like being a local in the little harbor town. Of course, you’re going to want seafood here, and we did eat at The Inn at Tough City Sushi Bar facing Clayoquot Sound. It’s run by a guy locals call Crazy Ron; we’d seen him feeding bald eagles on the shorefront earlier in the day. It was fun to see airplane memorabilia in the restaurant, but when we met and asked Ron about it he was exactly as reports had said: grumpy and uninterested. If there was a reason for the aviation stuff, he wasn’t sharing. Still, the food was good.
We had drinks at the outside seating area of Shed Tofino, which looked like it had great food. We were recommended to try Wolf in the Fog, a TripAdvisor top pick, but the menu scared us away—remember Tofino is a far outpost, so prices for food are very high. However, menu items such as seaweed salad, charred Humboldt squid, smoked steelhead trout, and cardamon-glazed sablefish looked wonderful, and I wish I could go back.
“This little fishing town has turned into something crazy; something we’re crazy about,” said Lawson.