1778 was a busy year for Captain James Cook. Early on in the year the English explorer became the first European to discover the paradise that is Hawaii, and his shipmates were the first to write about the thriving surf culture that already existed there. What’s lesser known, however, is that from there Cook and crew sailed north, where they spent the better part of a year mapping the coast of Alaska. Two very different places in most regards (although some native Alaskan tribes believe their ancestors migrated from Hawaii) but there’s one thing the two very unique states have in common: the spirit of aloha. Back in 1993 Alaska was featured on the cover of SURFER magazine. In Dave Parmenter’s acclaimed piece, The Land Duke Forgot we learned that while Duke may have passed this place up on his whirlwind tours, his spirit most assuredly has taken residence. Granted, the stereotypical surf image is a bit skewed up in the northern reaches, but the stoke is the same.
The biggest challenge to any outdoor endeavor up in Alaska is simply getting around. Outside of tourist traps like Anchorage and Juneau, which both have big commercial airports and harbors, moving around becomes much more of a challenge. Yet there’s something in the neighborhood of 47,000 tidal shoreline miles to be scoured, and with ample swell activity pumping through the north pacific year round, there’s certainly no shortage of opportunity for mining some perfection.
Of course, if you’re in Alaska, you must be willing to brave alternative methods of transport. Bush planes, skiffs, hearty fishing boats and romantic ferries are, for all intents and purposes, the most realistic mode of finding quality waves up in this region, because save for the Alaskan Highway, roads are nearly impossible to find. Any one of those alternative craft get you around the corner or up into the sound far enough to escape any hint of your fellow man.
The biggest freeway in Alaska is on water, it’s the Alaskan Marine Highway, which is used by the ferry system which runs all the way from the Alexander Archipelago in the south to the Aleutian Islands in the northwest and beyond, and services most of the state’s numerous ports and coastal towns. Starting in 2005, Yakutat, population 800, which is also known as surf city Alaska, will see the ferry twice a month, while across the Gulf Kodiak Island and the Aleutians will see once a month visits. For those who have time to wait it out, it’s a pretty handy service, especially if you can secure passage for your car, truck, van, or as Jack Endicott, owner of Icy Waves Surf Shop, suggests, “bring your bike and keep the air clean.”
But even armed with the Alaska Marine Highway schedule in your back pocket and a reliable four-wheel drive rig the best surf Alaska has to offer can escape you. The Aleutians are more known to Hawaiian and California surfers as a place where surf is generated rather than located: harsh, wind blown and lonely, there is potential to find quality waves, but the otherworldly elements make it difficult. The small port of Dutch is the regional hub for fishing boats, small planes and the ferry, but the Aleutians are not at all for the faint of heart. Boats disappear regularly. Bars are for drinking and fighting and only a few hearty fishermen have been known to lash their boards down on deck in case they happen upon a lucky day of surf. Without question, it is some of the roughest conditions in the world.
To the east lies Prince William Sound, where, in 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled over 11 million gallons of oil, polluting over 1,500 miles of coastline and becoming the standard to which all other environmental disasters have since been judged. But the area is slowly recovering and these days the surf quality is just starting to be realized. Montage and Hinchinbrook Islands both have some of Alaska’s most ridden waves. Hinchinbrook is home to several cobblestone trestles-like setups. Tucked high in the Gulf of Alaska, it is the northernmost surfing locale in the Pacific Ocean, and on big winter days this becomes painfully obvious. Hinchinbrook is about a 10-minute puddle jump from the town of Cordova, though it’s possible to commandeer a fishing boat out of Anchorage if you have the right connections.
The islands that dot southeast Alaska are home to hundreds, if not thousands, of rivermouths and headlands to explore. According to local surfers, the potential is absolutely mind-blowing. This is also where Endicott and about 20 to 30 other local Yakutat surfers reside. As you’d expect, most surfers in the area make a living either fishing or tending the area’s modest tourist business, but nearly all locals own tiny aluminum skiffs that allow them to scout out surf in the immediate area.
“You simply won’t find the real quality waves if you don’t have some local knowledge and a trusty boat,” says Endicott. However, several functional spots in the immediate Yakutat area don’t require any form of aquatic transport. Cannon Beach, Ocean Cape and Point Carrew all have pockets of sandbars that make for fun surf if conditions are clean. Venturing deeper south into the Alexander Archipelago seems to be where the bounty of quality surf is literally unlimited, but this region is really only accessible with a good seaplane, or a boat that can handle severe open ocean storms for days on end. If you can manage to pull one of these together you and your friends will enjoy some truly solo sessions.
The big surprise most first-time Alaska surfers enjoy is finding out that the water temperature is not as ball-shrinking cold as they originally anticipated. Thanks to the Japanese current, summer water temps can climb all the way into the mid-60s, but average somewhere in the mid-50s to mid-40s for the better part of the year.
“The Santa Cruz guys couldn’t get over how much warmer than home the water was this year,” explained Endicott. “Of course they were here in August, not January.” Depending on weather conditions and snow melt, ocean temps can plunge down into the low 30s in the winter. As one would expect, the locals here are a different breed altogether. Bulging characters with names like Fishbone and Chop Stick gut out the winters in 6/4s with five-mil hoods, booties and gloves, while in the summer a 4/3 and booties are generally enough for even the pansies from the tropics.
Truth be told, Alaska is not for wimps. As Parmenter noted in The Land that Duke Forgot, “They call Alaska the ‘Last Frontier,’ but it’s more than that. It’s the last place where America, its true atavistic spirit, exists. It’s the America of John Ford, where accountability and self-reliance still mean something. It’s not the litigation-snarled America we have today, full of blame-shirkers and moral cowards. If you break down, you don’t call the Auto Club. If a bear looms up on the trail ahead, you don’t slap an injunction on him or sue the state because you weren’t mollycoddled with warning signs every 10 yards. And if you get into trouble surfing, you don’t flag down the rescue copter or whistle for Darrick Doerner to swim out and save your lily-white helpless ass.”
Clearly, however, there are two faces to Alaska, much like there are in Hawaii. If Captain James Cook were alive today, he’d be happy to find many parts of this wild coast just how he found them, untouched, pristine, and gleaming, with its harsh realities easy to see…but then again, there’s the other side, and if he were to be sailing along through the many sounds, there’s a good chance his boat would be rundown by a cruise ship full of blue hairs steaming North to Juneau for a sight seeing tour. — Jake Howard
To further research Alaska check out the SURFER Travel Report at www.surfermag.com/travel or dial 949.661.5147.