Posted by: M.A. | October 18, 2007

Zen and the Art of Canadian Winter Surfing


By Lesley Choyce

It’s one of the final days of February. The air temperature is about -5 degrees but it was much colder last night. The sea water temperature is, of course, below freezing but only the freshwater of the lakes, streams and potholes are frozen. All the local driveways are sheets of ice. But the sea is intent upon remaining its liquid self. It’s salty and active and full of life. I’m sitting on its surface on my surfboard. The shoreline of Nova Scotia is only thirty meters in front of me. I’m staring at a ragged, snow-dusted headland.

Like an idiot, I’m thinking about mutual funds. Alone with a playful mind that’s filled like an old junkyard full of useless scrap, I have nothing better to do than begin to think about mutual funds. As nature’s direct response to this insult, the sea has ceased sending surfable waves my way and I bloody well deserve it.

So I stop thinking about mutual funds and say the mystical eastern word “Om” very loudly. I’ve been rereading and teaching Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha again and so the word “Om” has good reason to be up there in my brain with the other iron scraps, memory shards and jagged heaps of information about retirement investment. A single “Om” seems to be good for a spectacular small but icy parade of near-perfect waves that afford several damn fine rides.

I talk to the waves, giggle a little. Hey, I’m alone and happy. At this very minute, it’s possible I am the only person surfing in Canada. This, I realize, is another potential ego trap but I gloat on it for a minute, and then I let it go. The little ego blimp drifts off into the faultless empty blue sky and I try to keep my mind empty and pure, knowing that such a deed will conjure more exquisite winter waves.

My drysuit keeps me warm. The sun is on my face. There is little wind. Last night it howled long and hard enough to knock down the power lines and we were without electricity for an hour or so. But none of that matters now. Now is now. The eternal surfing present. No other place to be. Everything is indeed as it should be, unfolding.

That’s when I notice the seagulls: about two hundred of them, directly in the air in front of me. They have gathered suddenly into a very precise formation. All kinds of gulls. Brownish ones, white and black ones, grey ones. Herring gulls and laughing gulls and all their cousins. They have found a thermal rising at the edge of the cliff and they are making it work for them. Thermals, of course, come from heat and the sea is somehow “warm” enough to stir the westerly breeze into a spiralling current of air that, up until this very moment, has been invisible — to me at least, but not to the gulls.

More gulls collect from along the coast and slip into the dance. A joyous, magical dance of birds in a gentle rising cyclone. Last night, before the power went off, I watched a TV version of the movie, Twister, with my kids for the third time. The gull wing thermal looks just like the Atlantic Ocean’s version of an Oklahoma tornado. There’s no one else around on the beach or headland to watch so this is my own personal sideshow and I realize that there’s more here than meets the eye: I’ve seen this very image somewhere else. No, not in some damn movie. Something more ancient than that.

I squint, breathe in pure oxygen to regenerate lazy brain cells, coerce slothful nerve connections. Got it. Pure DNA.

The birds spiraling upward in perfect harmony before me have frozen into a pattern that is now recognizable as a DNA molecule. In the fourth grade, I built a DNA molecule for the science fair out of wood sticks spiraling upward with a vertical metal rod holding them all together. It was a bit static for a science display but I had a chance to become intimate wit the names of all those chemicals that make up DNA. Leave it to the gulls to outdo anything I could have created with wood and metal in the fourth grade. So this day has conspired and triggered one hell of a DNA display as a reminder not to think about mutual funds while surfing. Zen lesson number twelve thousand.

I catch a wave, turn, race, tuck down, dip my hair into the frigid Atlantic, kick out and then look up. The gulls have given up the joyride. No doubt that thermal has ceased as quickly as it had begun. The gulls are now settling onto the rocks in front of me. Seaweed bedraggled, glistening ocean stones, some with white frost toques of snow or ice. The gulls watch me surf for another twenty minutes, then spread their long salty wings and fly off in search of food.

Aside from the lesson about not thinking about mutual funds and the business with the sea gulls skydancing DNA like a full-blown ballet, I’m not sure what other Zen things will come along. But they will. Winter surfing is a good anchor for everything that needs to be said because: 1.) most people think it is absurd and, therefore, I too am absurd for doing it; 2.) it’s full of grand metaphysical and metaphorical possibilities and, 3.)it proves the lesson of some great Bodhisattvas who once said that enlightenment could be achieved from absolutely anything.

Anything I take to mean: great ponderous spiritual thoughts, deep meditation, years of self actualization studying, a grain of sand, doing good deeds everyday of your life, being a really swift Parcheesi player or, herewith, surfing in the winter.

Time is a malleable thing, stretching and contracting and doing all sorts of maniacal things to us and I’ll not let it tangle me up and tie me down like it often does. I’m reminded of Siddhartha learning lessons from an old man, Vasudeva, who lives by a river and ferries people across. Vasudeva is really fond of this river. He loves it and he knows the river can teach him, or anyone, anything he or she needs to know. Rivers — always moving, always different but always the same, always flowing.

Winter will probably lead to spring, as it should, even in a cold country like this. For now, I’ll assume that the Zen I am talking about is simply this: being fully here when stuff (like the gull tornado) happens. Not being someplace else.

Last night, I was driving home from teaching my classes at the university. I picked up Pamela far down one icy road and just turned onto the road where I live — the old gravel lane skimmed over with two inches of frozen snow and ice. As soon as I turned onto the dark road, I slammed on the brakes because something was lying there in my path. At first I thought it was just a big chunk of ice that had fallen off the back bumper of a truck or something. But it turned out to be a seal. I’ve coaxed seals off this road before to keep them from getting run over. It’s never an easy job.

He’d been chasing smelts up into the marsh down those little rivulets that I have named after American rivers: the Delaware, the Hudson, the Potomac, and so forth. He surfaced somewhere, got himself lost and decided to fall asleep on the road. My daughter and I try to get him off the road and onto the marshy ice. Big weepy eyes, a soft beautiful form and a snow-coloured coat. We talk to the seal.

My daughter calls the seal names: Katie, Flipper, Buster. Get off the road, Katie. Come on Flipper. Move, why don’t you, Buster? But she can’t seem to find a name the seal will recognize. I try busker tactics to make him move but he’ll have none of it.

So I drive home and return with a flashlight, a plastic sled, a snow shovel and a can of tuna fish. Trying to save the lives of living things often seems to involve cans of tuna fish or sardines. Curious.

Upon my return to the stranded mammal, I splash some juice from the opened tuna can in the seal’s face but he seems uninterested. He shows his sharp teeth and hisses at us.

“Katie, why are you so nasty?” my daughter asks the seal.

My next attempt involves an old army blanket that is in the trunk of my car. This is the very blanket my mother used to sleep under when she was in the American Coast Guard during World War II. I wave the blanket like a matador and the seal grabs it and I drag him a few inches each time over and over until he’s out of the road.

An hour later, at home, trying to eat dinner, I see car lights stopped at the end of the road and know that the seal is in trouble again. It’s minus 20 and windy out. And bloody dark. The seal is on the edge of the paved road now when I return and my neighbour is there pondering what to do. Together he and I cover the seal in the blanket and shovel him (gently, gently) into the frozen ditch with a snow shovel. We work at it until he is out of harm’s away again. In the morning he is gone. And it appears that he scooted off across the snowy dunes towards the sea and safety.

I fell asleep that night thinking about William Carlos Williams’ short story, “The Use of Force,” in which a doctor is obliged to be physically coercive in his attempt to diagnose and treat a very sick little girl who is completely opposed to his intervention. I never liked the story, but now I identify with the doctor.

That night the stars blazed like hard diamonds. Orion veritably crackled with the intensity of its brilliance. The dark above the sea was clean hard obsidian. The earth itself here in the depths of winter was as hard as ancient boulders and about as forgiving. The clocks stopped at exactly 3:40 a.m. and time engaged again around 5 a.m. If it had been the end of the world, I would have slept through most of it rather peacefully.

And in the morning the sun is out, celebrating the hard blue and white world again. The sea, sky and waves are rewarding me for my kindness the night before. I am provided with waves, birds, DNA and, despite all the garbage clanking around in the brain, I achieve a sense of being here and being now and I am hanging on to it all as if my life depends upon it.

© Lesley Choyce



  1. By Ahmed Lotfi
    Hello there Lesley. i was searching the web about surfing in Nova Scotia in the winter and i came across your blog. My condolences to you and the surfers family.
    On another note, its great to hear that people actually surf in Halifax waters during the winter. I am hpping to move to canada for grad school in 2 years time and im thinking about going to dalhousie because its in Halifax which is close to the surf spots. I havent surfed before but i really want to learn to do it as i have always enjoyed being in the sea. So are there surf camps there or something where i can learn to surf when i move there?

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