Day Trip to the Big Island

14 January 2002

Burke Mees

Most people in the surfing community have never heard of Andy Morehouse or myself. That sort of anonymity perhaps serves to maintain the seclusion of some of our lesser-known spots. I imagine that will eventually change when Andy’s documentary, “Endless Winter” comes out, but for now we are able to surf sans crowds. We try to get surfing once a month, which necessarily involves a commute since we are both currently living in Anchorage, Alaska. We both make our livings as commercial pilots which in the past has provided us with the perfect vantage point for scouting. It currently provides us with airline travel benefits that allow us to utilize traditional surfer modes of travel such as freeloading and hitch hiking. Today’s safari will be to the Big Island, which at the risk of stating the obvious, is Kodiak.

The morning begins at the uncharacteristic hour of 0500. Traveling on a scheduled flight does not allow for the procrastination that would otherwise be inevitable. I pick Andy up in the cold darkness of the mid-January morning and drive to the airport. Suffering from an icy morning of sleep deprivation, neither one of us feel like embarking on this ordeal, but we both know the eternal truth that most great experiences are unpleasant, and it’s not a real adventure unless its really horrible. Besides, we’ll soon be in the tropics, where it’s reportedly a windy, rainy day. Note that non-frozen precipitation suggests reasonably warm weather. Today, the air temp and the water temp should be about the same, in the high thirties. As the twin engine plane climbs out over Anchorage, we are bounced around by turbulence generated by the deep Aleutian low that we were counting on to produce the required swell. Note that severe turbulence and great surfing are not unrelated, or even separable. So far everything was going our way.

We joke around about going to the tropics today, but me, I came here from the real tropics. That would be Dutch Harbor, way down at latitude 54, where I recently moved from, where I’ve done most of my surfing. What’s my story? Typical I suppose. I spent the better part of a summer with a woman from Malibu, an artist, a surfer, an extraordinarily beautiful woman. She taught me to surf in the warm waters, and then left my life. As I was getting over the resulting heartbreak, Andy invited me to go surfing in Kodiak, where he lived at the time. It was there on an overcast November day, that I broke the cold water barrier and realized that I could surf in Alaska. In those icy cold waters I made the important discovery that life goes on. An hour and a half in a good wetsuit and I wasn’t even numb. If love could only be so kind.

Several months later, in a dark room deal on the lower deck of a crab boat, I made arrangements to buy my first surfboard, which is a whole other story in itself. The end result was that I found myself with a used 8’4” Great White tri-fin longboard. It was an ex-Kodiak beater and had the appropriate assortment of gashes and dings to prove it. Under the guidance of my mechanic, I learned how to do fiberglass repairs, and custom sealed the Great White. It brought me many days of good Aleutian surfing, priceless sessions of sharing the waves with sea lions and cormorants, surfing the residual swell of the great Aleutian storms. Then one day, it disappeared. I had it stored at a friends house, wedged under his deck. He called me; “Dude, it blew a hundred knots here last night and your board is gone. I don’t know man, its just gone.” Hundred knot winds are a semi-regular occurrence in the Aleutians, and a surfboard has the camber of an airfoil. The wind may have deposited it high on a mountain slope, or equally likely, may have blown it out to sea where it might still be bobbing up and down in the waves, drifting to eventually wash up on a distant shore. What is certain is that it is gone, which illustrates the fact that companions with whom you share great experiences can disappear on a whim. Life is transient. Value your companions and don’t take them for granted. Nor should you mourn them too much. My second surfboard, I picked up in Seattle. It is ding free, aesthetically pleasing, elegantly smooth, and has not yet proven itself. But it too will eventually be smashed up against the rocks.

Enough about me. Andy and I are embarking on an adventure. The plane drones on through the early morning blackness, buffeted about by the winds aloft which are churning over the mountaintops upwind of us. Most of the Kodiak-bound passengers are dozing off. Andy and I were probably the first to discern the distinctive sounds and feel of an engine being shut down and feathered in flight, which we felt just before the flight attendant advised us that the crew had detected a fire in the left engine and that we would be diverting to land at Homer. Plans, destinations change abruptly. It is a winding road. The obstacles to a good day of surfing are numerous. The flight attendant had a tinge of nervousness in her voice. The crew made a nice approach to a good single-engine landing in the dark gusty crosswinds. We were the last to deplane as one of the pilots asked, “so, how’s the surf in Homer?” Safely on the ground, the dark night that had been so sinister just an hour before melted into daylight to reveal a pleasant day there. The pilot didn’t know if there was really a fire or just a false indication. We never found out. It didn’t matter. The darkest hour can be just before the dawn.

Only a brief setback. Within an hour, another plane arrived and uneventfully took us on to Kodiak where the weather was beginning to clear. By 11am, we had rented a car and were retrieving surfboards stashed at a friend’s house. Kodiak is debatably the nerve center of Alaskan surf culture, claiming a couple dozen resident surfers as well as a sparse surf shop that is intermittently open for business to people who are in-the-know. Others would argue that Yakutat is Alaska’s surf capitol. I can say with authority that some of the state’s best surfing occurs on inaccessible uninhabited islands, and remains undiscovered.

Kodiak’s curving shoreline has a complex assortment of deeply indented bays and protruding headlands. This allows endless combinations of beaches that are exposed or protected from swells of various direction, all of which break best at different tides. We selected the best exposure to the southern swell given the high tide, which occurred outside the U.S. Navy Seal Base. As we approached the stretch of beach adjacent to the base, we paused at the sign that listed several prohibited actions, no camping, no shooting, etc. Reviewing the list, we noted that it did not include surfing. An oversight? Perhaps, but not on our part. We walked through the gate, suited up in 6-4-3 full wetsuits with 7mm mitts and booties, and scrambled down about fifty feet of steeply sloping embankment that led to a boulder strewn beach with the south swell wrapping onto it. A quartering offshore wind was gusting to twenty or so. We scurried out into the water and had to paddle quite a ways before finding what we thought was the best spot on this inhospitable shore. We bobbed up and down on the swell, our legs dangling into its eerie green depths, treading in position between pinnacles emerging above the undulating surface, waiting for the right waves. The smaller waves would break too close, directly on the boulders that made up the beach. The larger ones would break in acceptably deep water but immediately shoot us toward the rocks and necessitate an early cut out. Under the handicap of an unfamiliar rocky beach, Andy caught a couple perfect rides. I managed to almost get a few half decent ones. No matter, it was a good day.

After a couple hours in the water, we got out. On some days we would have perhaps continued the session into darkness. On other days, the predominantly inclement weather might have prevented the evening plane from picking us up, and left us stuck on the island for an extra day or so. Today though, due to our late start, we decided to accept a brief session and head back to the airport in keeping with our original plan. Unfortunately, commuter surfing can involve a certain hit-and-run element.

We caught the evening plane back to the big city. Once again dressed in dry clothes, we managed to be in time for a modest performance of live music at one of the downtown coffee shops, a comfortable urban winter activity, a relaxing afterthought to a perfect day.

This article might seem as if it was written at 2 a.m. under the influence of a half-bottle of Chardonnay that I keep in the fridge for cooking fish. The events may seem slightly larger than life, but unfortunately they are not. They all occurred as described. Life follows no template and the eventful is as likely to occur as the mundane. Seize it. There is greatness beyond our shortsighted concerns, there is nobility in sacrifice. Get up in the early mornings, feel the lonely depths of the deep dark nights, do what is necessary to position yourself to catch the few perfect waves when they go by. Stay vigilant and paddle hard so as to not miss them. Their memory will make all the difference the next time you set the alarm for 0500 to go to work.