Recently, I was very fortunate to be sent by Power To Be to Hooksum Outdoor School to receive additional waterfront and surf lifeguard training in arguably one of the most beautiful places on the island.

Hooksum is located at Ayyi’saqh, Hesquiat Harbour in Clayoquot Sound. To get there, we departed from Tofino by water taxi and headed north, weaving through seemingly endless small islands until we reached the exposed Pacific Ocean. From there we continued along the Vancouver Island coast’s jagged rocks, sea caves, and stone beaches, stopping to view whales and sea otters along the way. Vancouver Island’s west coast is one of the few places in the region that has seen the return of sea otters. Once hunted to the brink of eradication, sea otter populations are showing a strong rebound in numbers and are increasing their territory once again. After an hour and a half journey, our driver steered into the protected waters of Hesquiat Harbour. As we headed closer, a long west facing sandy beach came into view, protected on its north and east sides by stunning green mountains. Three figures on the beach waited to greet us, one of the three howled at our arrival. Steve, one of the two owners of Hooksum, paddled a dugout canoe to come meet us. After all the camping and lifesaving gear was loaded, including multiple spine boards, we paddled ashore and met Karen, Steve’s wife and co-owner of Hooksum Outdoor School. Karen and Steve are members of the Hesquiat First Nation, the most northerly and most remote of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations. They started the outdoor school in 2000 and since then have been offering environmental education through traditional indigenous knowledge and lifesaving courses in partnership with the lifesaving society of B.C. Upon arriving at Hooksum Outdoor School I knew it was a special place. The classroom is situated in a longhouse just off the beach that was built, in part, by Steve. The knowledge possessed by these two is seemingly endless, gathered by a lifetime of living on the land and sea.

Participating in a lifesaving course in this environment was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I was participating in a course that would certify me to lifeguard waterfronts as well as open water surf areas. There are currently no surf beaches with lifeguards in B.C., so the participants in the course were there for their own education and to experience Hooksum as opposed to attending the course just for the certification. This fact, along with the caliber of instruction, created a learning experience like no other. The instructor, Danny Burgi, has been instructing lifesaving courses for over 25 years and it showed. His knowledge, patience, and skill are apparent in his teaching style. He pushes his students to be better and helps them to achieve the level of understanding necessary for success.

The days were long and the environment was unforgiving. We would put on wetsuits starting at 8 am and wear them until 5 or 6 pm. Most days started with wading into the cold Pacific water to Steve’s boat just offshore, getting dropped off with our surfboards and spending the day in a remote location. We would be in and out of the water more than a dozen times, practicing lifesaving techniques, physical standards in crashing waves, and lifesaving simulations. This was the hardest and more rewarding lifesaving course I have ever done. The locations, including the popular surfing destination Hesquiat Point, were breathtaking. We swam through sea caves covered in gooseneck barnacles, anemones and sea stars and surfed in the presence of grey whales all under the watchful eye of ever-present soaring eagles above.

The differences between learning lifesaving in a pool and at Hooksum are evident. Hooksum offers a completely immersive experience, unlike anything you can experience in the city. At Power To Be we value the power that experiential education has to provide, and the rich learning experience that contributes to the retention of knowledge. Hooksum outdoor school provides just that.

This blog post was written by Michelle Zimmer, a passionate and dedicated Program Facilitator at Power To Be. On top of attending Hooksum Outdoor School for waterfront and surf lifeguard training, Michelle also has certifications in sea kayaking, SUP board instruction, lifeguarding and wilderness first aid.