Searching for Surf and Safe Passage in the Gulf of Alaska
A two-week boat trip through surfing's final frontier brings snow-capped mountains, icebergs and sea lions, hot springs and epic vistas
Conventional wisdom dictates that a passage across the Gulf of Alaska follows a cautious rhythm within a weather window to avoid frequent sub-polar storms and stick to no-nonsense objectives like commercial fishing or scientific research. This often leaving little room for exploration, though. And when you pack a boat full of jonesing surfers sharing a joint obsession over uncharted breaks and frosty tubes known only to local sea lions, you get the opposite—a wave centric escapade seeking what little true wilderness surfing remains within the United States.
Back in March I got a call from adventure photographer James Barkman with news that his skipper Michael Phand from a previous fishing season in Alaska's Prince Williams Sound just bought a swooning 54’ steel longline salmon seiner called Seaview. Captain Phand was looking for a keen crew of surfers to help bring her across the infamous Gulf of Alaska, a stretch of sea that lay between his home Port in Cordova and his current port in Sitka. Naturally I was interested.
The plan was to spend two weeks with our crew of five pushing 1,000 nautical miles North West along the exposed Alaska coastline ducking in and out of coves looking for waves or shelter from storms, all while dodging icebergs, logs, and the occasional other boat. A voyage ripe with potential for uncrowded breaks of every sort alongside snow covered coastal mountain ranges provisioned by Alaska-sized seafood harvests. Or it could be a complete skunk-fest full of rain and fog-socked views, riddled with tempestuous waters and churned stomachs.
Eager to find out which it would be, we flew into Sitka, just a week after my initial call with Barkman. We wasted no time and got Seaview underway out of Sitka Harbor and pointed towards the nearest outer coastline of Kruzof Island. Already we looked to cautiously investigate a powerful swell running across the entire gulf of Alaska.
Soon after rounding into exposed waters we met 15-20 ft seas and through binoculars spotted barreling waves so big we likely could’ve parked the boat inside of them. Without safe anchorage and the bravado needed to face that type of water we retreated to inner passages and set course towards the Northern leeward side of Kruzof Island a few hours away to fine safe anchor for the Seaview.
After anchoring and taking the dinghy to land we hiked through an old growth forest and over a saddle back ridge of the island to the seaward shore to capitalize on the last pulse of swell before sundown.
Admittedly relieved to not be paddling into the hydro chaos I had witnessed earlier, our strenuous hike rewarded us with offshore-sculpted shoulder high beach break peaks which turned out to be some of the best waves of the trip. And the most memorable.
Angsty adolescent 700 lb sea lions barked at me with bloodshot stares as I waited for sets while wind howled past my face as the sun dropped behind the mountains. Six millimeters of neoprene covered everything but my eyes and I still felt numb, but I was too psyched on my first taste of Alaskan surfing to care.
"Six millimeters of neoprene covered everything but my eyes and I still felt numb, but I was too psyched on my first taste of Alaskan surf to care."
After another wet and grueling hike back across the island with my 9’ log and a soaking wetsuit my feelings of exhaustion and hunger built as the last light of dusk fell. A relatively sketchy and even more wet dinghy ride back to Seaview and it was time for midnight quesadillas and beans.
Particularly exhausted in my bunk after our first day I thought in awe about the scope and power of the natural forces at work in Alaska and wondered how early steam ship explorers like Vitus Bering could’ve survived them.
The rest of our trip went quite smoothly with good travel weather—a rarity in the Gulf. For our crew the pleasures of calm seas came with the frustrations of less opportunity at shacking waves, a classic conundrum of a surf trip off a boat.
Nonetheless we managed to find surf everyday of the two week journey except one lay day spent hiding in Icy Bay from a cranky southwesterly storm. The novelty of surfing in Alaska never wore off. Even if it was on knee (or ankle) high waves the sheer uniqueness and unspoiled surrounding environment was such a pleasure to experience.
"Lituya Bay, home of the 1,720-foot-tall 'Apocalyptic Wave,' the largest ever recorded mega tsunami..."
Other highlights on our trip include some lucky blue bird days filled with views of the coastal mountains, including Mount Saint Elias and some of Alaska's largest glaciers, a cedar lined bath house built over perhaps the best natural hot spring I’ve encountered, and an all you can eat spot prawn dinner harvested only 30 minutes prior.
Not to mention all the humpback whales feasting on hearing in the South East waters and dodging/wrangling icebergs in the upper gulf.
Also noteworthy was a visit to Lituya Bay, home of the 1,720-foot-tall “Apocalyptic Wave," the largest ever recorded mega tsunami that made landfall in 1958, and also where I found a fully intact sea lion skull that I managed to smuggle back to California in my board bag. A unique souvenir to say the least.
All said and done, if you’re thinking of going to Alaska to surf, do it. For better or worse you'll end up with one heck of a story. Better yet, keep your eyes and ears peeled for when the good folks at Seaview Surf Ventures start running surf charters among the waters of surfing's Last Frontier.
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