Surfing sells in Yakutat

Posted: Tuesday, May 09, 2000

A surf shop in Alaska sounds about as unlikely as a ski supplier in Tahiti, but Jack and Laura Endicott say they saw a need and filled it.

A need? For surf boards? In Yakutat?

Yup, and so far Icy Waves Surf Shop is doing good business. Since opening the shop last June in a 12-by-12 addition to their home, the Endicotts' cash register has rung almost a thousand times.

``It actually really kind of surprised us,'' Jack Endicott said.

Some of the shop's business comes from tourists looking for novelty items. Larry Tonka of ESPN ``Outdoor Sports'' stopped by in August and cleaned out the entire stock of T-shirts with the Icy Waves logo. Yakutat customers swarmed the Christmas bazaar, snatching up sweatshirts as gifts.

But locals and visitors also buy the boards, wetsuits and other gear. Just having it available has popularized surfing in Yakutat.

``Once you've paid for the gear, you've more or less got a free thing,'' Endicott said. ``And they have something they can do beside basketball.''

Before the shop opened, there were only six surfers in town. Now there are about 20, including five of the Endicotts' sons. Most of the new surfers are kids.

``Before Jack had the surf shop, they were out there playing in the waves anyway, bodysurfing in just trunks,'' said Charles Russell, Yakutat's most frequent surfer. ``Now that Jack opened that shop there, a lot of kids are getting into it.''

Russell has been surfing in Yakutat since 1994 and became friends with California surfers, including rock singer Chris Isaak.

The Californians come up to the ``Far North Shore'' in the summer for fresh scenery and uncrowded water. On a nice summer day, up to 15 surfers ride the waves in Yakutat, a crowd by local standards. But in the winter, the few local surfers hardy enough to boat out have the pick of the crop coming in from winter gulf storms.

``We have fabulous exposure to the North Pacific. We get all the swells that come in,'' said Endicott, who runs the National Weather Service in Yakutat.

``We surf in snow, rain, whatever. It's just the wind we don't like,'' said Les Hartley, 41, a surfing convert heading for the breaks on a February afternoon. ``When the outside temperatures get down below 25 degrees Fahrenheit, I don't like to go out, but for the most part as long as you've got the right equipment you're toasty.''

Hartley had never swum in the ocean until he tried surfing in Yakutat last summer, but as soon as he did he was hooked.

``The first time I got a wave that pushed me along I knew that was it,'' Hartley said. ``The most impressive thing to me was just the power of the waves. What looks like a small wave on shore, when you're in it becomes a very large wave.''

After comparing prices with shops in Washington, he bought his gear from the Endicotts.

``Really their prices are very comparable,'' he said. ``I went down and started writing checks.''

Surfers in Yakutat need more gear than in California, especially in the winter when the water drops to 40 degrees. You just don't go in without thick wetsuits designed for the cold, booties, gloves and hoods. And they all have to be good quality, Endicott said.

``When you're in 70- to 80-degree water, you can have a rip in your wetsuit and it's not going to bother you,'' he said, ``but if you have a rip in 40-degree water, you're done.''

Even the boards used in Alaska are different -- thicker, heavier and more buoyant to make up for the lack of salinity in the gulf, Endicott said. The gulf waters are diluted by 150 inches of rain a year and a surfer riding a California-style board would sink to his waist, he said.

To find the gear, Laura Endicott just started calling manufacturers.

``When you say Alaska, their ears perk up because they really didn't have any shops in Alaska.''

The Endicotts are considering putting the surf shop online, but they don't want Yakutat to get too much attention for its 200 miles of surfable coast.

``We're trying to be careful, because Yakutat is getting a lot of exposure right now in surfing,'' Laura Endicott said. ``I had National Geographic call the other day.''

Russell's not too worried his secret beaches will be swamped. Only one out of every 200 people coming to Yakutat in the summer is a surfer, Russell said.

``It's not yours. The waves don't belong to anybody,'' Russell said. ``You can't keep people from coming here and surfing.''

This article first appeared in the Southeast Empire.

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