Cleaning the coast

Two pros, four contest winners surf Yakutat for a good cause

Posted: Thursday, October 09, 2008

What do two pro-surfers, an art director, a forester, an attorney and a Coast Guard public affairs specialist have in common?

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Photo By Todd Glaser
Photo By Todd Glaser

Surfing, a passion for ocean health and a recent surf trip to Alaska.

The six surfers arrived in Alaska as part of a weeklong expedition put together by Coastal CODE (Clean Oceans Depend on Everyone), a nonprofit entity of the Alaskan Brewing Co. The organization sponsored an essay contest that invited ocean enthusiasts to write about their commitment to surfing and to ocean health and sustainability.

The winners were Rick Erkeneff, from Orange County, Calif.; Tara Molle from Seattle; Eli Saddler from the San Francisco Bay Area; and Mike Wheeler, from Port Angeles, Wash.

Besides getting to surf in Yakutat, the group participated in an extensive cleanup of marine debris along the same beaches where they surfed.

The Alaska trip kicked off at the Hangar On The Wharf, where pro surfers Joe Curren and Chris Del Moro met with the contest winners and the rest of the Juneau community. The fundraiser saw 100 percent of the profits for every Alaskan IPA sold go to the Coastal CODE fund, which grants money to projects promoting beach cleanups, water quality improvement, sustainable fisheries, ocean conservation education and coastal preservation.

The group then settled into three days of activities that included flightseeing over the Juneau Icefield, a zipline experience with Alaska Zipline Adventures and wakeboarding at Auke Village Recreation Area.

"The highlight would have to be the icefields," Del Moro said. "I've never seen anything like that in my life. It's as close as I've ever been to heaven, or whatever you might call that place, a perfection, really."

Del Moro, from Leucadia, Calif., surfed in competitions throughout his teens; he was on the U.S. surf team for four years and later traveled the world on photo trips. He also developed a career as a clothing designer and artist. A vegetarian from birth, he promotes healthy living and conservancy of the ocean.

Curren, from Santa Barbara, Calif., comes from a surfing family. His father was a big wave pioneer, and his brother a three-time world champion. Curren is a world-class surfer, world traveler and photographer. He also is active in environmental efforts that support the health of the ocean.

"Surfing (Magazine) helped us select the four ocean enthusiasts that we brought up to Yakutat and helped us find Joe and Chris as well. There couldn't have been a better six people to join us on the expedition," said Ashley Johnston, communications manager at Alaskan Brewing Co.

Johnston was the point person for the 11-member expedition, which included a photographer from Surfing Magazine, a couple of brewers and crew from the brewery.

None of the six, pros or amateurs, had surfed in Alaska before. All were excited about it.

"I plan to surf my brains out, number one," said Molle in an interview before heading to Yakutat.

Molle is a member of the Seattle chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a grassroots organization dedicated to protecting the world's oceans and beaches. Her essay talked about her efforts in Seattle and Mt. Baker to do trash cleanups with Surfrider and Snowrider projects.

"The main reason we were chosen to come up here and do this was because we want to pass the word on (about) working environmentally," she said.

Erkeneff is an independent art director. He surfs four to five times a week and lives five minutes from the beach where he grew up surfing. He is the chairman of the South Orange County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, works in schools to educate young people about the health of the ocean and does regular beach cleanups.

He's been on many surf trips and is accustomed to being patient and letting things flow.

"I'm trying not to anticipate really good surf, so if it happens it'll be a treat and if it doesn't, we'll just enjoy whatever else is going on. I learned that early on in surf trips," he said.

Saddler uses his background in law and marine science to bring together his passions for surfing and ocean conservancy. He founded and is the director of a nonprofit organization called, an organization that educates people about choices they make that affect the health of the ocean. He also volunteers with the local chapter of Surfrider to do beach cleanups.

"The ocean scientist in me is real excited about participating in the beach cleanup and activities that help remind us that pollution affects us all across the Pacific," he said. "I think it'll be very exciting to see what you find on a beach in Alaska."

Wheeler has been surfing for 20 years. He studied environmental science with an emphasis in marine ecosystems management and lives in northern Washington where he works as a forester for the Department of Natural Resources.

"I got invited on this trip and just came to see a different perspective," he said. "I'm pretty excited about the surf, but from what I heard it's a deposition beach and it gets a lot of marine debris that washes up. ... So hopefully we can make a dent in it."

From Juneau, the group flew to Yakutat and set up at the Yakutat Bay Lodge. Daily excursions took them to a variety of places where they alternated between surfing, sightseeing and picking up trash along the shoreline.

"We met some really cool people while we were here, a couple of the local guys," Curren said. "They were really nice and really interesting people, and we learned a lot about the culture and what it's like to be from here and grow up here."

One of those locals drove the crew to Harlequin Lake where icebergs float in the water year-round. Some of the group decided to investigate.

"Swimming onto an iceberg was pretty cool. I'd never done that one, swimming in 36-degree water," photographer Todd Glaser said. "And how friendly the people are. That was the biggest thing for me, was just how friendly and genuine all the people are."

Of course it rained for part of the trip, but they still got out in the water and surfed and scoured the beaches for trash as planned.

"The reason why we were here was to do the beach cleanups, and we did a really big cleanup on Thursday. I believe we collected about a ton of garbage," Molle said.

"In the pouring rain for a day we just hauled and hauled and hauled. It was a lot. It was the variety of trash that we found that was pretty interesting to me," Erkeneff said.

The group found stuff from all over the world, including plastics and fishing gear from the United States; drinking bottles from Russia, China and Japan; plastic eel traps from Korea; and even a motor oil can from Bahrain in the Middle East.

On the last day, good weather and waves finally came together for awesome surfing.

"The waves were world class," Del Moro said. "We finally got good ones. It took awhile, there's lots of elements going on, so it's not super easy, but we got it today, and it was beautiful. I can't think of a more beautiful place I've surfed."

"The water was surprisingly a lot warmer than I thought. I went out in a full suit, of course, but I didn't wear booties or a hood. I paddled out and it felt so refreshing to get in the water because it's so clean," Molle said. "It kinda felt the same as California in the winter, but cleaner."

Wheeler agreed the surfing was great, but the highlight of the trip for him was getting to meet other people with the same environmental interests.

"I've learned a lot from meeting people from all across the West Coast. Everyone brings their own perspective on things. It's great to have that kind of networking," he said.

Saddler also came away feeling good about the experience.

"I think overall we're recognizing that we can't continue to do business as usual when it comes to the environment and our oceans. I really respect a company that is willing to contribute any amount of their resources back to their communities, or to the environment," he said. "Taking time to give something back is really laudable and is something I'm very excited about sharing with other people."

• Teri Tibbett is a writer living in Juneau. She gathered interviews in Juneau, then joined the Coastal CODE expedition in Yakutat to record the group's final impressions.

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