The Endless Winter
Everywhere we went reminders of the surf culture taunted us from bar walls and beer labels while the actual ocean remained flat and still.
To make up for the lack of Hawaiian swell we went looking for surf tours at our next port of call – Alaska. If adventure-sport documentaries have taught me anything it’s that surfers are a determined and slightly deranged breed and, like seagulls, you can find them pretty much anywhere there’s coastline. Sure enough there were companies offering surf tours out of Anchorage but most involved a round trip by helicopter or float plane – which would have immediately blown a hole in our budget. Thankfully we found Ocean Swell Ventures run by Mike and Wendy McCune. Operating out of Homer they offered week-long surf trips aboard Mike’s converted fishing boat The M/V Milo. Mike offered us a discount rate for a one-way ‘pickup’ trip between the coastal towns of Homer and Seward on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.
There is not a lot of public transport between towns in Alaska so we hired a taxi service to take us south. Waiting at the departure point was a shaggy-haired Californian named Max who would also be joining us on the Milo. Confirming my theory of surfer derangement he’d spent the previous days waiting on the coast just south of Anchorage to see if he could catch a ride on the 10ft bore-tide that sweeps into the narrow inlet of the Turnagain Arm whenever there’s a decent tide differential. The moon hadn’t cooperated but Max was confident we’d find some swell along the peninsula.
Over the course of our travels Amy and I survived some pretty hair raising car trips. Basically every road trip we took in Sardinia felt like a Jason Bourne style car chase and most of the minibus trips we took around Georgia and Armenia felt more like a rollercoaster. Nonetheless the taxi trip to Homer still stands out to me as particularly harrowing. The mountains of the Kenai Fjords National Park are spectacular but it’s hard to enjoy the scenery when your life is flashing before your eyes.
We stayed in the one finished room at a hotel under renovation called the Red Door Lodge on the hillside above Homer. The next day Wendy and Mike picked us up and whisked us away to their place out on Homer’s ‘spit’ – a narrow stretch of gravel jutting out into Kachemak Bay. The spit looks artificial but it’s supposedly the last trace of an enormous glacial moraine left behind when the Harding Ice Field began its retreat at the end of the last ice age. Amy and I were thrilled to discover a bald eagle perched on the roof of the house but Wendy was less enthused. Bald eagles are a lot of bird and they leave behind a lot of bird shit. If we wanted to see more of them Wendy suggested the town’s dump.
Homer’s rock-walled harbour sits at the very end of the spit. While loading up supplies we were introduced to our fourth companion Ryan – another Californian – who quickly discovered some community connection to Max. Based on this I now assume that Los Angeles is actually a small town populated by a handful of friendly surfers. For her part Wendy has been all over the country and all over Alaska – including teaching in remote communities – ‘remote’ being a somewhat redundant qualifier for most Alaskan towns. She runs a gallery in Homer and acts as first mate on the Milo.
Her partner Mike is every bit the salty sea captain one would expect from an Alaskan fisherman. Well into his fifties Mike’s voice has a rasp like Moe from the Simpsons. A few decades of hauling fish and repairing boats in the Alaskan outdoors has done a number on Mike’s back and neck but it’s also furnished him with the sort of strength that makes every surfboard and storm-case seem like it’s made of polystyrene in his hands. When not in a wetsuit Mike’s uniform consists of pajama pants and thongs (flip flops for you Americans) and wraparound sunglasses. As the son of a naval officer Mike learned to surf growing up in Hawaii but, despite spending most of his life on or in the water, his sense of humour remains bone-dry.
Mike really only gave us one rule aboard the Milo – no whistling in the wheelhouse. I thought he was joking but then Max started idly whistling and Mike shut him down. ‘You can’t do that’ he said ‘you’ll whistle up the wind’.
The Milo’s wheelhouse reflects its captain. There’s a tide handbook still in its shrink wrap, a worn out mousepad with trim like a miniature carpet, a picture of Mike’s old man in uniform, a glasses holder pinned to the window frame and all manner of retrofitted switches and junction boxes. The compass and autopilot sit on a gimble just in front of the wheel and the whole apparatus sits between two ‘Navigators’s balls’ (technical term).
Amy and I lucked into our own little cabin towards the back of the boat. It turned out to be hallowed ground – having been occupied the previous year by the shark-puncher himself Mick Fanning. When it’s not being chartered out by surfing royalty the Milo occasionally ferries scientists and intrepid travellers to distant harbours in the Aleutian Islands but Mike tells me that the weather in the Bering Sea is rarely cooperative – ‘you’ll be out there for thirty days and only see the islands for two’.
The M/V Milo started out as a fishing boat designed to meet the 58’ Alaskan ‘limit’ on commercial vessels. Mike purchased the somewhat neglected Milo from shipyard in San Francisco back in 2009 and set about refurbishing it. A roomy cabin dubbed The Piggy has been installed amidship (yeah, I got the lingo) and the hold is now dedicated to wetsuit storage and accomodation. Mike has retained the net booms because some ports offer fuel discounts to any vessel that can pass as a fishing boat.
As we hugged the coastline of Kachemak Bay the radio provided constant, and somewhat ominous, weather updates. A robotic voice recited identical forecasts for each region along the peninsula: rain, iceberg production, 14ft waves and 35 knot winds. Clearly someone somewhere was whistling in somebody’s wheelhouse.
We’d come down from Anchorage a day or two early to avoid some harsh weather but we’d barely left Homer before it caught up with us. By the time we’d passed the tiny town of Seldovia the Milo was rolling over the waves and my lunch was following suit. To avoid making a mess of the galley I rode out the swell between the forecastle and The Piggy – watching the waves spill over into the boat and letting the forest slide past behind a thick curtain of rain.
The next day the sea had calmed and Mike took us to surf spot called Julio’s – named after the hurricane that had been raging in the northern pacific when he first noticed the break. The long chain of volcanoes that make up the Aleutian Islands mean that, like many parts of Hawaii, the beaches along the Alaskan peninsula are a mostly black – made up of basalt gravel. Finding good breaks takes a practised eye because, from the water, you can’t see the white tops of the waves – only the spray that whips off the back of them.
At Julio’s we kitted up and jumped overboard. It wasn’t as heart-stopping as I was expecting. In terms of water temperature summer in Alaska is like winter in Victoria – certainly cold but nothing a bit of neoprene can’t solve. We stayed reasonably comfortable in 4/3 hooded wetsuits*. Back on board there’s a hose connected to the engine’s cooling system that allows you to rinse yourself off with instant hot water. Sheer joy.
The waves at Julio’s were small but it was a great introduction to Alaskan surfing. The landscape is magic- with fir trees down to the waterline and snowy mountain ranges in the distance. A word on surfing; actual surfing is a blast but, if we’re being honest, the activity should probably be called paddling – given that’s what you spend most of your time doing**. Actually you spend most of your time looking at weather reports but meteorology is its own discipline. I didn’t improve my technique much on our Alaskan surf trip but I did learn that you should always leave something in the tank for the paddle back to the boat and, even after that, you still need a little blood-sugar to go mano-a-mano with your wetsuit.
Despite ferrying a lot of scientific types to various parts of the alaskan peninsula Mike’s expertise is mainly confined to fishing spots and surf breaks. When I asked about the little flocks of tiny birds darting back and forth above the kelp patches Mike took the question in his stride.
“Those?” Mike said “those are sea birds”
I’d never seen any stretch of water so alive with creatures. I saw a sea otter doing backstroke in the harbour before we’d even left Homer – it held a little polished rock in its forearms and snaked its head back and forth as if looking for an opportunity to lob it at someone. I found out later that otters generally have a favourite rock that they store in pockets of fur underneath their forearms which they use to to crack open clams and other shellfish. A day into our voyage we ended up following a pod of beluga whales through the narrow straits between the peninsula and the outlying islands.
Heading out from Kachemak bay there were loons and gulls circled overhead but I also noticed small puffins ducking underwater as the boat approached. Others tried to fly clear of the Milo but puffins don’t appear to be strong flyers. They remain airborne largely thanks to the ‘ground effect’ and, at this stage in their evolution, they seem to be halfway between a cormorant and a penguin.
At one point Mike noticed Max and I watching a pair of puffins doing their awkward dash for safety. Revealing his biological knowledge at last Mike told us that the success of this manoeuvre is largely dependent on how much they’ve recently eaten.
“Sometimes they don’t know to dive or take off” Mike says “They’ll be bashing the water with their little feet paddling away underneath. Sometimes they’ll hit a bit of chop and boom” – he mimed a puffin summersault. Max was beaming.
“I’ve found my spirit animal” he said.
At the end of Northwestern Fjord*** we finally got up close to our first real glacier. I was expecting something vast and flat – gently sloping back up into the ice field. But Northwestern Glacier was much steeper and more jagged than any of the glaciers we’d seen from a distance. Walls of ice hung out over the water and big sections of rock lay exposed between the seperate ‘flows’ but, without trees or any other familiar objects, it was hard to tell exactly how far away everything was.
The valley certainly felt immense but it was only when the first big chunks of ice peeled off from the glacier and tumbled down the cliff face that I got proper sense of scale. The ice seemed to fall in slow motion and then shatter on the rocks and ice below with the sound reaching us after a slight delay. At that point I realised we were still perhaps a kilometre from the foot of the glacier.
Mike took the boat a little closer while I examined the ice floating at the foot of the glacier through the binoculars. The little dark spots I had thought were debris turned out to be seals basking in the sun on their own personal icebergs. Amy, Max, Wendy and I suited up once again and we ventured out on stand-up paddle-boards. As we got closer the seals slid off their icebergs and disappeared into the water.
Up close the colours within the ice were incredible – different structures shone bright blue or white while other sections had scoured the cliff and accumulated big streaks of dark rock. We’d been warned not to get too close to the foot of the glacier – big pieces can occasionally break off and make a mess of anything in their way – but we still felt the waves generated by the smaller ice falls as they hit the water. Even those minor avalanches brought down chunks of ice the size of cars.
The seals we’d evicted popped their heads up every now and then to keep an eye on us as we paddled around amongst the ice. At some stage Max and I attempted to install ourselves on our own iceberg but two adults proved to be one too many. We felt the ice start to turn as soon as we put our weight on it and I almost donated my camera to the fjord trying to regain my balance.
Over the next few days we put in at other coves along the peninsula. After years in the seafood industry the only fish Mike is interested in now are the fibreglass sort but guests are more than welcome to drop a line. Homer lays claim to being the ’Halibut Fishing Capital of the World’ but I was more partial to the venison steaks and other hearty things that Wendy had stocked up on for the journey.
The highlight of the trip for me was the hour or two spent exploring a particularly eerie creek somewhere at the edge of the national park. While the others were surfing I went upstream – paddling across a wide lagoon and ending up on a creek at the bottom of a narrow valley. The place had a somewhat haunted atmosphere – lots of dead trees and rotting timber and dense forest on either side. The creek gave me a bad case of what I call ‘Schrödinger’s impulse’ – which is the feeling you get when you want to see a bear but, at the same time, definitely don’t want to see a bear.
Our trip coincided with the end of the chinook salmon run – when that particular species of fish heads upstream to spawn. Only a small percentage make it to the ocean. Most exhaust themselves on the journey and die soon after spawning. I came across one small pond almost filled with sad-looking salmon. The bodies of their less fortunate kin littered the edge of the pond – each with a single bite taken out of their underbelly. Apparently, during the salmon runs, the coastal bears end up with more fish than they know what they do with so they tend to just eat the tenderest part and throw the rest away.
Worried about my own tender parts I headed back across the lagoon where a seal took an interest in me and the paddle-board. The visibility underwater must have been poor because the seal would watch me from a distance, dive down, and then emerge a short time later staring off in a random direction. Once or twice it popped its head up right beside me and then quickly dove under again in a panic. I’d heard seals referred to as the ‘dogs of the sea’ but I always thought that was because they were furry and brown and barked a lot. Until then I’d never really thought of them as particularly dopey.
Sooner than we’d have liked Amy and I were at our destination in Seward and saying goodbye to our companions. It was a little strange to reach an inlet that looked like any other in the wilderness and suddenly see buildings and ships and machinery again. The whole time we were between the two ports I can only remember seeing one other boat – a small yacht we shared a cove with one night that had been moored close to the shore.
“Couldn’t afford a full anchor chain” Mike had said.
Back on land the world still seemed to sway a little underfoot but the effect wore off pretty quickly and we were soon back to trudging around under 20kg packs. In the end we spent 12 months on the road – leaving at the start of one Melbourne winter and returning at the start of the next – but the few days we had aboard the Milo stand out as some of the best.
You can book a trip with Mike and Wendy through their website Ocean Swell Ventures.
You can also see much better photos of the Alaskan surf on the website of Homer’s resident photographer Scott Dickerson.
*4/3 meaning the wetsuit is 4mm thick on the body and 3mm on the arms and legs. For the most part Americans use the imperial system for measurements but they appear to revert to the metric system for their favourite things – drugs, bullets and wetsuits.
**Likewise back-country skiing should be called ‘snow hiking’, downhill skiing should be called ‘chairlifting’ and cricket should just be called ‘standing around’.
***Northwestern Fjord and its corresponding glacier isn’t northwest of anywhere. Instead it’s named after Northwestern University in Illinois. Almost every elite university in North America has its own glacier including Dartmouth, Yale, Vassar and Harvard. The glaciers were named during the Harriman Alaska expedition in 1899 and the researchers apparently took great satisfaction in omitting Princeton.