Dream-Chasing Sechelt Guide Knows Coast

In my corner of the country, Coastwise John knows the backwoods and waters as well as anyone. He's the person to call if you want to explore the Caren Range on the Sechelt Peninsula, home to 2,000-year-old yellow cedars, Canada's oldest known trees. And if the far recesses of Jervis Inlet beckon, he's the one to get you there. With more than three decades' worth of knowledge of his area of operation, Coastwise John can save you time and energy (and thus money) on trips to specific destinations. On general outings, he can add variety and depth to an outdoor experience, maximize your comfort, and, if necessary, save your life.

Most of us are incessant, big-time travellers now. We roam the surface of the globe at the slightest urge: for entertainment, for escape, to learn about the world, to challenge ourselves. We knock off more territory in a month than our great-grandparents could cover in a lifetime. But, our own back yards excepted, few people really get to know any particular spot in much depth. With so many places to see and so little time, why go where you've already been?

When travel becomes this superficial, you start to see the true value of someone like John Dafoe, Coastwise Guide. Professional guides stake their livelihoods on knowing a particular stretch of country better than those who live there--and much, much better than those who are just visiting. Although Dafoe, like the rest of us, has seen his share of foreign shores, most of his exploring has been on the Sunshine Coast. Over the years, his cumulative understanding of the region--of people, weather, animals, the land itself--has deepened into wisdom. And he has become a natural resource.

Coastwise John was born in Vancouver and grew up in Deep Cove, at the edge of the rain forest. "I was always interested in going out," he reflects in a phone interview. "I did a lot of adventuring and expeditioning in the mountains. From a young age I was always on the water, always fishing. After years of doing that, I just wanted to bring people to the outdoors. A lot of people weren't as comfortable with going out as I am, so I was able to offer something."

Dafoe arrived on the Sunshine Coast about 1970 and lived a while on Nelson Island in the mouth of Jervis Inlet. By 1982 he had moved near Pender Harbour, acquired a small boat, and started guiding sport fishers. Eight years later, no longer able to ignore the precipitous decline in Strait of Georgia game-fish stocks, he made the switch from salmon to ecotourism. "I was already halfway there anyway," he says. "Showing wild animals made just as good a day as catching fish."

I've had the privilege of "going out" with Coastwise John numerous times in the past five years. In Sechelt Inlet, which he knows intimately, we once drifted, engine off, past a rock-hugging quartet of huge California sea lion bulls while I shot telephoto close-ups to my heart's content. In the Strait of Georgia one winter's day, we bounced over the chop in Dafoe's five-metre Boston whaler to the White Islets north of Roberts Creek. At low tide, these offshore rocks are a slippery fish-and-bird bone yard. Uncommon creatures go there to forage and rest, and amid the black turnstones, harlequin ducks, pelagic cormorants, and harbour seals, I had my first sighting of a flock of surfbirds, about 100 of them, motionless and almost invisible against a backdrop of greys and browns.

Dafoe's clients include visitors from Canada and abroad who have been referred to him by acquaintances. "It's pretty well all word of mouth," says the bearded, curly-haired guide. Sometimes he gets unusual requests, such as the call from a woman determined to find a place she had visited only in dreams. She described the location in detail, and Dafoe thought about where it might be. "We went out a couple of times," he recalls, "and it was quite interesting trying to follow her dream around. I don't know if we exactly got it, but she had a pretty good time out there."

To me, part of the fun of exploring with Coastwise John is the chance to meet far-flung locals. He's a master of the art of "dropping in". With Dafoe, I've stopped to share lunch or conversation with pioneering old-timers and fishers on float homes, and always come away with a fresh perspective on rural life. "I used to know where the best beer was brewed," he says. "Most people don't mind the occasional visitor--if it occurs on the right level. Of course, there are some folks you just don't go see."

Hiring a guide brings you the benefit of local expertise. "You're not going to make the same errors I made 30 years ago," Dafoe points out. He knows the risks and opportunities. Instead of a week to orient yourself and a week to find what you're looking for, Coastwise John might help you get there in a day. And, who knows, that could leave time for a feast of fresh shellfish at a family-owned oyster farm.

John Dafoe, Coastwise Guide, can be reached at coastwisejohn@dccnet.com or 8945 Redrooffs Road, Halfmoon Bay, B.C., V0N 1Y2.