/ Stories

Hang ten and triage: Surfing Haida Gwaii with Dr. Jocelyn Black


Dr. Jocelyn Black, head to toe in a black wet suit, walking down a beach pathway toward the water, holding her surf bard under her right arm.
Dr. Jocelyn Black, Family Practitioner in Haida Gwaii

For me, Haida Gwaii has always been a bit of an enigma. Other than the beautiful photos of the untouched west coast I’ve seen, I wasn’t totally sure what it’s like to live and work on BC’s most western islands. This is why it was so awesome to chat up Dr. Jocelyn Black, a surfer and practicing physician who lives on Haida Gwaii! Here’s what Dr. Black had to say about the islands and the lifestyle that comes with them.

When and why did you move to Haida Gwaii, and what was your initial experience like? What did you think?

I first went in as a resident in 2015 with UBC Rural Family Medicine. I was there from July until October, and I started working right away. The hospital was short-staffed, but I still had a great time working with the physicians that were there and the nurses. One thing that stuck with me was how very quickly I was accepted into the community. Before I knew it, I was invited to gatherings and potlucks and people were really keen to get me surfing!

That’s where my surfing life started. I had a few doctors that lent me wet suits, loaned me surf boards, and said they’d take me out and try to teach me how to get on a wave.

Looking back now, I think about how awesome everyone was. There was this immediate acceptance from people that was really unique and special. It really hooked me into Haida Gwaii.

I'm originally from a small town in Ontario, so I grew up having a general sense of who my neighbours were and the families in town, and feeling pretty safe. Haida Gwaii has felt really comfortable for me.

Halfway through my rotation, my partner joined me on the island and he felt the exact same!

Tell me about your experience working on Haida Gwaii. What does a day in the life of Dr. Black look like?

4 surfers sitting on their surf boards in the water 50 feet from shore
Dr. Jocelyn Black waiting for the next wave with friends

On the island, I do a mix of clinic and emergency call. Usually if we have patients in the morning admitted to the hospital, I’ll go in a little bit early, around 8 - 8:30 am. There is often a huddle at the nursing station where we meet with the interdisciplinary team to review patients admitted and try to plan for discharge.

From there, I either start seeing patients in Emerge, or I'm in clinic. In the clinic I see patients every 20 or 30 minutes. It’s lower volume, but with more complicated medical issues, more trauma-informed care.

My on-call period is 24 hours, usually. During this time, I try to get a good chunk of sleep during the night, and the following day wrap up and head home in the morning or early afternoon. You don't get too bored, that’s for sure!

What does Haida Gwaii bring to surfing that other places don’t?

A typical surfing session on Haida Gwaii is unique. You can have five days in a row of amazing surf, or you could have a week of nothing. Generally, the surf season is fall, winter, and the beginning of spring, which is huge because the winters can be tough in the North. The days are noticeably short, and the weather can be grey and rainy. In a way, it makes surfing that much more fun and important here. To have this amazing hobby during tough months where a lot of people struggle mentally or are trying to find a way off-island, surfing is the perfect way to get out and make the most of where we are and have a ton of fun doing it. Surfers have this thing that keeps us there and keeps us really excited about the next day.

Speaking of surfers, that’s sort of the other side of why surfing here is unique. When you’re on the water, you know almost everybody in the lineup, especially as a resident. Everybody's familiar and cheering each other on, encouraging each other, asking each other for advice. I’ve had locals push me into waves to get started - which is hilarious. That's the kind of community we have here.

And then there’s days where we have an empty lineup, which is really peaceful. There can be just two of us out there, it’s amazing.

Is it hard to get out on the water?

Not at all. On one of those days where I'm on call the next day, or post on-call, I can go catch some waves real quick. When spring comes around and the sun starts to come out a little earlier, I can go for a quick session in the morning and after work too. The closest surf point to the town is about five minutes away, and the main one is about 15 minutes. For some, it’s literally out your front door.

Another unique aspect about Haida Gwaii is the fact that people (and those who surf) are always searching for new spots. This place has so much untouched nature, so many places to still explore and hide! If you have a boat and you like surfing, the locations are endless.

Favourite place on the island to surf?

I really love the Hiellen River. The river creates a bit of a point break, and when the waves are big enough you get these beautiful long slow longboard waves that are just wonderful – you can ride them for like 30 seconds. I’m not competitive with other people, just with myself, so I’m always trying to go further and be better when I'm out there! This spot is perfect for perfecting the art.

What is something you would say to another physician or health care professional to bring them out West?

I would say if you're looking for somewhere that has a flexible schedule, if you want to be involved in a longitude of care and work with Indigenous patients in a very empowered community, Haida Gwaii could be the place for you. We do full-spectrum, full-service work, and it’s really rewarding.

I love having young kids here because it's so free. My kids can identify a lot of different and unique plants and animals in the forest, which I'm very proud of. The outdoor recreation activities are specific but so incredible. Surfing? Ocean fishing? Hunting? The opportunities here are amazing. And the pay is pretty good!

Final thoughts?

One last thing I wanted to say is that I recognize health care is in a difficult spot. There are challenges everywhere. We’re struggling with staffing and a million other things. It's hard to be a doctor or health care professional anywhere today.

This community on Haida Gwaii helps. After a hard day of work, I can go out into the ocean and watch the sunset from a surfboard, and catch waves with my friends. It's so unique and special, and has kept me here for so long because of things like that!