Last August, California sportswriter Tim Dowell did what he's done every summer he can remember: he surfed. Only this time, he wasn't paddling out with dozens of tan-backed youths to catch warm California waves. Dowell was in Yakutat, Alaska, population 800, where "town" consists of a post office and a single store, and bears roam freely along the few gravel roads.
Transworld Surf Magazine flew Dowell, a photographer and professional surfers Shawn "Barney" Barron, Homer Henard, Josh "Mulks" Mulcoy, Matt "Rocky" Rockhold and Darryl "Flea" Virostko, to Yakutat to investigate the spot's increasingly popular attraction: large, gray-green waves that curl in from the Gulf of Alaska.
"It's pretty similar (to surfing everywhere else), you just get your stuff ready and go," Dowell said. "But then when you are out on the line-up (waiting for a surf-able wave) and there is no one around, and a giant coho salmon jumps right by you. ... It was just amazing."
Transworld Surf Magazine: www.transworldsurf.com
Icy Waves surf shop:
The January 2003 issue of Transworld Surf, a magazine with a circulation of 100,000, features Yakutat as a prime destination for the adventurous surfer. Though some may see the village as an unlikely location for a scene straight out of the classic surf movie "Endless Summer," Transworld's surfers found the water's not too cold if you wear a wetsuit, the waves can be enormous, and Alaska summer days are truly almost endless.
No one understands Yakutat's potential as a surf destination like Jack Endicott. He and his wife, Laura, opened the Icy Waves surf shop in a 12-by-24-foot addition to their house in 1999. Endicott opened the shop mainly so he could save on the cost of gear for his sons, as it was getting expensive to ship it in and pay retail, he explained. At the time, only the Endicotts' six sons and a few other locals were catching waves in the spring and fall.
Since 1999, Yakutat has grown into a niche surfing destination attracting the attention of media outlets from Alaska Magazine to National Geographic. The shop even wound up on CBS News with Charles Osgood, Endicott said.
Over the last three years, store profits have gone from a few thousand dollars to $60,000. The number of local wave riders has grown "exponentially," Endicott said.
"Five times as many people surf now as they did," Endicott said. "I've seen them out there from 4 and 5 years old all the way up to their mid-50s, early 60s."
The shop doesn't formally advertise but the media attention has enticed tourists, numbering in the thousands, who coordinate their visits through the shop and stay at local lodges. This spring, Endicott plans to start renting gear.
"We get people that come down from Anchorage to fish and surf," Endicott said. "There are not too many places where you can catch a steelhead one day and a 10-foot wave the next."
Transworld Surf's visit was particularly thrilling for Endicott because the magazine brought in professional surfers whom Endicott considers to be the world's best. He and other locals went down to the beach and watched them.
"A good surfer is like a a professional skier or ice skater, they make it look really, really easy," he said.
The spread in Transworld Surf shows the surfers launching off the foamy tips of waves, and crouching on their boards as they ride through tight curls. The lighthearted, surf-lingo-heavy photo captions say things like, "Matt Rockhold executes a frontal grab as polar bears mate viciously on the snow-covered mountain range in the background."
Writer Dowell, who is 20, and studying English at the University of California Berkeley, described characteristically rainy Yakutat, saying, "the ocean and sky match each other's grayness, and the 5/4/3 (wet suit) slung over the rail of the porch seems like it didn't dry all night." Dowell found the surfing excellent and the townspeople charming and generous, he said.
"People would come up to you and be like, 'Hey, here's a moose roast,' or you could just go and pull a crab pot if you stuck in a six-pack," he said. "Whereas here (in California) lobster fishermen would, like, freak out and call the cops."