Off Secluded Shores, Another Alaskan Rush
Published in the New York Times, March 2006

click here to see the NYT photo slideshow

YAKUTAT, Alaska — "I should get on with you," says a female flight attendant with a wink as I board a plane headed from Anchorage to Yakutat. "You're the only woman on here." I smile and wait for men with salt-and-pepper hair and bellies hanging over their belts to load fishing rods into overhead bins and take their seats. The man I end up next to smells of pipe tobacco and engine oil. He’s a local from Cordova who tells me about a Yakutat bartender who once blew away a patron with a shotgun for being "annoying." It happened about 10 years ago; I can ask anybody, he says.

So what's a nice young lady like me doing in a place like this, he asks.

Surfing, I reply.

The man startles and then laughs. Now, why would anyone come all this way for that?

Why, indeed. The price of a plane ticket to southern Alaska can rival the price of one to Indonesia or other dream surfing destinations that do not require a thick wetsuit, booties, a down jacket and rain gear. And, as World Championship Tour surfer Claire Bevilacqua nervously points out one afternoon by a beach bonfire made from soggy driftwood and gasoline, tropical beaches don't have bears lurking in the nearby woods.

Bears are a threat that none of the locals can tell us how to properly handle. Be loud, the locals tell us, but not aggressive. Wave your arms, but never look them in the eye. And, for heaven's sake, don't run. Attacks are rare, they say, except for that one incident three weeks earlier with the ranger who had to be life-flighted to Anchorage.

What Alaska does have (besides bears, eagles, wolves, whales, seals, otters, hawks, king salmon, old-growth forests, actively calving glaciers, the highest coastal mountain range in the world, and the northern lights) is thousands of miles of coastline, broken up by hundreds of river mouths and dotted with small islands. The coastline has untold numbers of surf breaks that have yet to be charted, much less ridden, by anyone.

In a sport where uncrowded spots are not only coveted, but fiercely guarded, and in a culture where the quest for pristine waves is an integral part of the experience, this alone is enough to pique the curiosity of hardy surfers. A reward waiting for those spirited enough to make this journey is water warmer than one would expect. The Kuroshio current flows north from Japan to southern Alaska, resulting in average temperatures in the mid-40's to mid-50's. Even armed with this knowledge, it is still surprising to enter the ocean in full view of the 18,008-foot, snow-covered Mount St. Elias and find that the water feels warmer than that off the coast of Northern California. The waves may not always be spectacular, but the scenery is.

Yakutat (population 800), a town with only two paved roads and no way in or out save by boat or plane, lies 212 miles northwest of Juneau and 342 miles southeast of Anchorage. It's at the midpoint of more than 300 miles of sandy beaches off the Gulf of Alaska, and it's home to about two dozen surfers. Friendly surfers. Surfers who are not only willing to tell you which dirt road leads to the best waves, but who also will help pull your rusted rental car, a 1980 Ford Bronco 4 x 4, out of whatever bog you manage to get stuck in on the way. For a small price, they'll even help you charter a small fishing boat or bush plane (or a neighbor's skiff) to hunt for breaks past where the roads end.

The self-named "Surf City, Alaska" has been called one of the five "best surf towns" in America by Outside magazine, and was rated 39th out of 100 adventure spots by National Geographic Adventure.

Whether these claims are justified is a matter of debate. The truth behind them, though, is that in an effort to find an economically viable, resource-friendly alternative to its staple sport-fishing industry, Yakutat has been promoting itself as a surf-friendly outpost.

Near the end of our trip, we hear that one of the surfers in our group, the six-time world women's champion Layne Beachley, is to be given the key to the city at a cookout in our honor.

The rumor is almost true. After a feast of game caught and prepared by various attendees, Casey Mapes, Yakutat's soft-spoken mayor, stands and reads a resolution endorsing surfing that had been written and adopted by the City Council.

It’s long, filled with seemingly endless "wherein" statements and somewhat hard to follow. But later, on the ride home, we agree that it meant essentially this: "We appreciate that surfers enjoy, rather than exploit, the natural resources of our beautiful home, and we would be very happy if you returned. You’re our kind of tourists. With love, Surf City, Alaska."