Wet Suits Necessary: Surfing in Alaska

Yakutat, a village along the Gulf of Alaska, is considered one of the best surf scenes in the country. It's remote, expensive to get to and the waters are very cold. KTOO's Anne Sutton has this postcard from Yakutat.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And to Alaska now, where reporter Anne Sutton of member station KTOO went along with a few brave souls. They ride the powerful waves that pound southeast Alaska's coast.

ANNE SUTTON reporting:

Tiny Yakutat, Alaska, is tucked into a sheltered bay along the Gulf of Alaska. Its only access is by boat or by plane. Upon approach, the jet flies over mile after mile of white sand beaches, where majestic waves curl and smash into foamy surf. `A surfer's paradise,' you think, until the pilot pipes up.

Unidentified Pilot: Temperature about 40 degrees; light winds out of the east at about 8 knots.

SUTTON: Oh, yeah, it's October and this is Alaska. You peer outside the airport terminal and realize...

(Soundbite of rainfall)

SUTTON: ...before you can surf, you'll be setting up camp in a rain forest.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

SUTTON: Camping gear, well-bundled surfboards in dry bags packed with wet suits tumble down the baggage chute. Then it's off to storage for more equipment, including an inflatable boat that will ferry the surfers and their gear to a nearby coastal island.

(Soundbite of boat engine)

SUTTON: Ken Huess(ph) mans the tiller. He's a dress man in his other life, but a surfer since he was a boy in Southern California. He's part of a small group of southeast Alaskans who've been visiting Yakutat for about 20 years, united by a single passion...

(Soundbite of waves hitting the shore)

SUTTON: ...surfing.

Mr. KEN HUESS: Just awesome! That's beautiful. It's just got to last until the morning.

SUTTON: First, they must set up camp before dark sets in.

(Soundbite of camp being set up)

Mr. DARRYL ZEO(ph): It's kind of like life, because it's just this eternal quandary.

(Soundbite of waves hitting the shore)

SUTTON: Hawaii-born Darryl Zeo is a union rep in his day job.

Mr. ZEO: You know, if I go surfing now, can I still get my camp set up and things done? Or if this is, like, the last time we go and we'll never know. And it's pivotal moments, you know, in a very short period of time; a microcosm of our lives.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZEO: Maybe I better go the bathroom. I think that's what it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SUTTON: To their collective relief, the surf lasts through the night. And come morning the first rays filtering through the trees spotlight an otter frolicking in the foam. Soon, the once-deserted beach where a solitary wolf has left its tracks is noisy with surf talk. TV station manager Jim Mahan(ph), state worker Ron Clair(ph) and Huess plan their attack.

Mr. HUESS: Look at this, a sweet little wall.

Unidentified Man #1: It couldn't be better. The sun's on the break.

Unidentified Man #2: I know. There's no wind.

Unidentified Man #1: See, watch the right. It's much more makable. It doesn't section out.

Unidentified Man #2: The left looks...

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, you'd have to be way over here on the left.

Mr. HUESS: That looks pretty ideal right there.

SUTTON: Finally, the moment of truth. Zeo and Huess, dressed for the chilly waters in Neoprene wet suits, gloves and booties, paddle their boards through the oncoming rollers and wait while a peanut gallery of fellow surfers lines up in folding chairs along the beach.

Mr. JIM MAHAN: OK. Here comes Ken's big wave. Everybody's here to witness it.

SUTTON: Mahan provides the commentary as Huess grabs a swell, rises to his feet and floats across the top of a wave.

Mr. MAHAN: He's got the insider section. Hey, a little floater! All right! A $50 wave that one.

SUTTON: You might say that floater was righteous. I'm Anne Sutton, NPR News, Yakutat, Alaska.

Mr. MAHAN: Man, it's looking good out there.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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