In late September I spent a week in Southeast Alaska on a surf/beach cleanup trip. I was there with surfer/artist Chris Del Moro and photographer Todd Glaser, both of San Diego, as well as three Surfing Magazine contest winners – a lawyer, a graphic designer, a coast guard member and a department of the interior employee – who wrote in a explaining how they’d done their part for the environment. The Alaskan brewery, a craft style brewery located in Juneau, sponsored the trip. Our goal was to bring awareness to Coastal Code, an environmental non–profit organization that encourages people to pick up trash at their local beach.
We arrived in Juneau under rainy skies. It’s usually wet in the Tongass National Forest where it averages 90 inches of rain per year. And like most towns in Alaska, its state capitol is isolated. In fact, there are no roads in or out as it is situated on the Inside Passage surrounded by ocean, impassable mountains and massive glaciers that come right up to the coast. Growing up in Southern California it was a treat to see bald eagles, which are as common here as seagulls are at home. We watched as they soared back in forth in front of the owners of the Alaskan brewery waterfront home. For dinner it was a real Pacific Northwest feast, with fresh Dungeness crabs caught in pots just off their beach and Alaskan brew IPA and stout to wash it down.
Before visiting the town of Yakutat for a big beach cleanup and hopefully some surf, we spent three days in Juneau which consisted of a brewery tour, a zip line tour through moss covered spruce and pine trees and heli glacier tour, which turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done.
The weather in Alaska this summer was really bad . The local helicopter tour had to turn away 7,000 clients. We figured a trip for us wasn’t in the cards. But, our second day dawned with clear skies and we bee-lined it for the heli pad. This was my first time in a helicopter. I was a ball of nerves-heights really aren’t my thing. But the experience was well worth having to face my fears. We flew over gigantic mountains and valleys, inside an ice cave and came up on a foraging black bear and several mountain goats. We flew over the Juneau ice field, a perennial expanse of snow measuring 1500 square miles that forms the areas many glaciers. We landed on the Taku glacier where we drank from a small glacier stream. It was far and away the best water I’ve ever tasted.
Before I left home, my friend who had been to Yakutat at least ten times said I would be lucky to see Mt. Elias, the giant snowcapped mountain that’s forms a backdrop to the many surf spots located here. The mountain is the 3rd tallest in North America and the highest coastal mountain in the world at around 18,000 feet. Most people come to Yakutat and don’t see it as it’s usually shrouded in clouds. Arriving in the small town of 700 people, once again luck was on our side as the weather was clear as a bell and we could see Mt St. Elias gleaming in the distance across Icy Bay.
We checked into our cabin where we met a couple Native Alaskan surfers, Sammy and Joey, who were born and raised in Yakutat. They ended up being gracious tour guides during our stay. They took us to Harlequin Lake, a beautiful glacier fed, iceberg filled lagoon. Our 2nd day in Yakutat was rainy so we deemed it beach cleanup time. You wouldn’t think there would be much trash on the beach in this part of the world, but Alaska’s beaches are where countless tons of marine debris stuck in the North Pacific gyre, or circular ocean current, eventually ends up. We collected bags upon bags of trash, the majority of it fishing nets and buoys and plastic bottles. The amount of plastic we found made me never want to use a disposable container again. At the end of the day, we were all very tired-I never thought picking up trash would be so exhausting. We loaded our rental van and took all of our trash to the local dump. It was here we saw the mighty grizzly bear, about ten of them actually, all living as dump scavengers. While it was sad to see them subsisting on discarded human food, it was exciting to see my favorite animal so close up.
Coming to Alaska I had a list of things I wanted to see: grizzly bears, bald eagles, glaciers, tall mountains, the northern lights, and if I was really lucky, good surf. It was getting towards the end of the trip and I was able to check off most of these attractions from my list, except for the northern lights and, unfortunately, good surf. I’d seen the northern lights in Norway but had never had the chance to photograph them. We had a cold, clear night on our last night in Yakutat, which are ideal conditions to see them. That night I slept with one eye open and kept peering out the window like it was Christmas and I was waiting for Santa Claus, but, it wasn’t to be.
As for the surf, at this point in the trip we had one session in knee to waist high wind slop. The quality of the surf wasn’t anything to write home about, but the scenery was postcard worthy, and hey, we were in Alaska surfing alone near an 18,000–foot snowcapped mountain. Of course we all wanted a bit more and all hopes were pinned on our last day’s forecast, which looked good. Our flight wasn’t until 6 pm, so we had time for one more surf. Early that morning, we made the drive to a break called Snappers, a fun peaky beach break typical of the area. The forecast was accurate-the surf was overhead and for now, the conditions were glassy. As long as the wind didn’t come we prayed. We ended up surfing for 4 hours that morning then had another two–hour session after lunch. The daylong glassy conditions reminded our new friends Joey and Sammy of summertime Alaska, not early October which is verging on winter. So, we lucked into good surf after all. I guess I’ll just have to go back for the northern lights. Thanks to Alaskan Brewery for putting together a great trip, one with great people and one for a great cause.