Of all the times I've dreamt of it over the years, I never imagined that my first time surfing I would be more concerned about being attacked by a bear than by a shark. But that was just the case as I paddled out into the frigid waters outside of Yakutat earlier this month and browsed back at the beach for brownies.
May is my favorite time to travel in Southeast Alaska, as I have been consistently lucky with patches of pleasant spring weather over the last several years. When my buddy Kevin told me he was planning a surfing trip to Yakutat at the beginning of the month, I was eager to tag along and try my hand at a board sport that hasn't really been available near any of the places I've ever called home.
Five of us, nearly all of whom didn't know one another, arrived in Yakutat on an overcast Saturday morning and began packing up a rustic extended cab rental truck for our several-mile ride out to surf camp. After retrieving some essential camping gear from a store, we made our way to Icy Waves Surf Shop. Talk about the quintessential mom-and-pop surf shop - in 1999 Jack and Laura Endicott started the shop in an addition to their house, mainly to offset retail and shipping costs of gear for their kids. A handful of years later the shop has generated national attention.
Telling us that we were the first surfers of the season, Jack and Laura seemed nearly as excited to see us as we were to be there. They hooked us up with rental wet suits and boards at very reasonable prices. Being that a gallon of distilled water costs more than a gallon of gas in Yakutat, I had no problem shelling out about 100 bucks for about four days of trial-and-error surfing in Alaska. But even better than the quality deal, Jack and Laura showed genuine concern and care about our safety and entertainment. Being a virgin surfer, I was very naive about what dangers lurk among those icy waves - I just thought it would be freakin' cold.
Arriving at surf camp was kind of like that cliché moment of first walking into a professional sports stadium and seeing and smelling the freshly manicured grass. It was like a slice of heaven seeing the waves crashing down on the beach with the Malaspina Glacier and the St. Elias Mountains in the background. The experienced surfers of the group were super stoked, leading the charge as we all jumped into our wetsuits and marched down to the water.
Being a complete beginner, and fully understanding that I was about to get worked, I turned to Kevin and asked him to tell me all I needed to know about surfing in 30 seconds. Basically it boiled down to, "Dude, paddle like hell."
Having a fair amount of experience on snowboards and wakeboards I figured surfing was the natural progression for me to make. Boy, was I wrong. Besides a time in Hawaii when I was about 12, I had never actually seen someone surf in the flesh, only on television. The thing about surfing that they never show you on TV are the surfers paddling out and waiting for "the perfect set." With the wet suit hood reducing my hearing to that of a 62-year-old punch press operator, all I could hear was the muffled roar of the breaking waves and the steady increase of my heart rate as I began paddling out to catch my first wave.
Being an absolute beginner I was advised to use a 9-foot long board, which seemed to be more buoyant than the LeConte. I quickly learned the importance of a good "duck dive," a move where you dive the nose of the board under an oncoming breaking wave as to not be pulverized by its momentum and be carried back to shore. The buoyancy of the board - and maybe a little bit of surfer incompetence - made it difficult to execute a proper duck dive and I found myself picking a fight with one of the greatest forces of nature. Let me tell you, it wasn't much of a fight.
I found that being a ways off shore of a beach that shares the same water as the terminus of a glacier - getting put on spin cycle by Poseidon - is a bad time to be blessed with a newfound respect for surfing. As wave after wave crashed down upon my head, sapping the majority of my energy, I thought to myself that if I died at least I would probably end up in one of those books about strengthening the human gene pool or something. And while others were shredding the Yakutat waves like they were the Ex-Presidents, I found myself inventing a surf move that I like to call "The Stretcher," as that's exactly what it felt like as I laid on the board completely motionless and let the waves carry me back to the beach. Over the course of the next several days I used that move quite a bit.
And over the next several sunny surfing days I got progressively better, but let's just say I went from doing "The Stretcher" to the morgue, to having some style, like when Michael Jackson was burned making a Pepsi commercial and got carried out with his infamous rhinestone glove waving to an adoring crowd. I had no adoring crowd witnessing the humbling experience - I didn't even have any gloves for that matter - but learning how to surf in Yakutat sure was a thriller.
And although there were some wild and crazy moments surfing with some sea lions, thankfully I didn't encounter any bears catching some waves. That might have been a little much for the first time.
Eric Morrison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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