When conditions allow, surfers and kayakers ride the waves near Homer

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Yakutat, Kodiak, Montague Island. All of those Alaska surf spots have been discovered and featured in glossy national surf magazines.

Consider adding Homer to that map.

The waves at the end of the road, about 200 highway miles south of Anchorage, are too finicky to earn this fishing community a reputation as a surfing mecca. But when conditions are right, Kachemak Bay can actually deliver rideable swells for surfers and kayakers.

Never mind that the water temperature hovers between 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit during winter when the surf is best or that air temperatures can dip below zero.

Wet and dry suits, along with neoprene booties, gloves and hoods, help ward off the cold. It also helps to keep paddling. Those who sit still too long waiting for waves often find ice forming on the top of their surfboards or kayaks. Wet hair freezes too, forming ice chunks that clatter against helmets.

On the coldest days, surfers and kayakers paddle out past slabs of ice. Snow-capped peaks rise in the distance. On shore, icy chunks roll and crash on the beach like bowling balls.

Despite all that, surfing is thriving in Alaska, even as close as Homer.

"Most people are uneducated about it, but surfing is a complete reality in Alaska," said Jason Gates, a professional surfer who lives in Anchorage. "Surfing is a reality in Homer too."

Gates, who used to compete in surfing tours growing up in Santa Cruz, Calif., said he first explored waves at the mouth of the Anchor River near Homer 10 years ago after seeing a photograph in a local restaurant of another surfer riding waves.

Gates said he was surprised to find a good break so close to home. He has returned multiple times since. Often, he said, the surf there is "mushburgers," a surfer's term for mild waves that pop up and dissipate. But on occasion, swells break clean and powerful enough to make for good surfing.

Don McNamara, a Californian who relocated to Homer, has been surfing locally since 1985. Nicknamed the "Ice Man" for his winter surfing excursions in the dark and cold, McNamara said the surf around Homer can be "epic."

McNamara used to be the only surfer plying Homer's waves. He was sometimes joined by Vincent Tillion, who has used whitewater kayaks in Homer surf since 1979. Tillion rides a surfboard now too, when waves form well enough.

These days, McNamara and Tillion are joined by a handful of other board surfers, plus a small but growing band of surf kayakers.

In many surf spots in the Lower 48, board surfers and surf kayakers fight for turf. But in Homer, the scene is small and amiable enough that everyone shares waves, looks out for each other and encourages each other in the sport, said Scott Dickerson, a 19-year-old Homer resident.

Dickerson, who learned to surf kayak a couple of years ago, said it's easier to catch waves in a flat-bottomed whitewater kayak than on a surfboard because of the thrust gained by a paddle. But it's not for everyone. Perfecting the skill of rolling in waves and currents can prove intimidating, he said.

Some people love it. Others try it once and hang it up.

"When you are being thrashed in the Maytag, it's hard to set up a roll and stay calm," Tillion added. "But once you learn that, it's easy."

Tom Pogson, a kayak instructor who moved to Homer in 1999, is partly responsible for the surge in surf kayaking around Homer. Pogson is teaching a surf kayaking class through Homer's Community Schools program. Most of his courses focus on kayak basics, like how to paddle, roll and perform rescues. But this particular class will also get people out playing in the surf.

Pogson said he is extremely cautious about introducing kayakers to ocean waves. While Homer's swells are relatively forgiving compared to big surf elsewhere in the state, Pogson said boaters must be proficient at rolling and comfortable in the water before they try surfing.

A kayak filled with water tumbling toward you in a wave can act like a 800-pound log rolling toward you. You must have quick reflexes and stay on the seaward side of the boat, he said.

Pogson said he moved to Homer in part because of the surf. Next to the bore tide waves that roll into Turnagain Arm after very low tides, Homer provides one of the few Southcentral Alaska surf spots accessible by road. Besides Homer's three breaks, there is also the Anchor River surf spot up the road. Farther north on the Kenai Peninsula, a few surfers have also tried Nikiski Beach.

Elsewhere in Alaska, favored surf spots include Kodiak Island, Sitka, Yakutat, Montague Island and Hinchinbrook Island in Prince William Sound and off Bear Glacier outside Resurrection Bay.

So much of Alaska's coast has yet to be scouted for surf breaks, Gates said. Part of the appeal of living here, he said, is that good surf can be found on remote islands only accessible by plane or boat.

"We're the last frontier, man. There's nothing like it," Gates said.

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