Sipping The Juice

posted by / Photos / October 28, 2008



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Two months notice. Three memberships to three different swell forecasting dot coms. Eighteen bookmarks piled into my Firefox browser. Sixteen Google Earth pinpoints. Twenty-three pages of scribbled, re-scribbled, sporadic notes. Fifteen contacts. Ten days. {{{Eight}}} planes. Five chewed pens. Four rides. Three surfers. And, oh, a hundred or two hundred hairs. But none of it means anything when the ocean goes quiet. When everything works in your favor except a good day of surfing.

Especially when you find yourself in the Aleutian Islands, ground zero for surfing’s most brutal storms.

***

“I don’t think there’s waves here,” Jesse Hines says, leaning on the handlebars of his mud-caked four-wheeler and looking across a wildly flat ocean, after another hour jaunt across the tundra. “Ever.”

I know he is wrong. All those notes and swell models and bookmarks and contacts told me so. Today, though, it seems he is painfully spot on. Indeed both the Bering and Pacific oceans have gone motionless. Literally. There isn’t even a pulse lapping one-inch lines onto the beach. Local villager Vinny Lestenkof has bravely volunteered his spare time — which is quite abundant out here, you can imagine — to show us every cove, beach and headland accessible on this tiny island some 800 nautical miles southwest of Anchorage. And so far we’ve come up with nothing.

The ever-optimistic Pete Devries is rumbling off down the beach to get a better look at a slab that “has potential.” Jeremy Sherwin has happily shifted his attention from the water and begun sifting through cobbles and shale, effortlessly picking up ancient Aleut artifacts that just happen to litter the coastline here like seashells. Nate Lawrence has found a parcel of soft, black volcanic sand to perfect his doughnuts in. Jesse sighs, fires up his quad, eyes Nate and fish-tales off to join him. Vinny sits quietly, staring at us one at a time, amused, obviously, and openly confused as to why we would pick his forgotten island of perpetual fog as a place to surf.

I am running over the swell forecast I was given the day before I left. “There is definitely a decent sized storm showing on the charts,” one of my trusty forecasters wrote in an email. “Long-range models show a serious — I would even say hazardous — system developing by next weekend.”

I look out over the Pacific. Hawaii is somewhere down there.

“Swell-wise,” the email went, “there is going to be a lot of S-SW windswell on the south shores of those islands, but a slightly longer-period W-NW energy on the north shores.”

Hazardous, huh? The skies are bluebird and it looks like you can reach out and grab hold of the nearest volcano, which is about twenty miles away. This is rare. It is completely unobstructed by clouds only a handful of times a year and never in late September. If that slab over there were breaking, we’d have this trip in the bag: Oil slick tubes in the foreground, green tundra and a snow frosted volcano in the background. It hurts to imagine such luck. But…

“Neat thing ’bout here,” Vinny says to me in a Sarah Palin-style Alaskan drawl, “is it can be rainin’, snowin’, blowin’ and sunny at the same time.”

I laugh.

He laughs, too, but only to be polite. He’s actually dead serious.

It’s true; that’s the Aleutians. It is a waiting game of yearlong proportions. In winter, the twenty-five or so villagers in this town hunker down in their plywood-patched homes for weeks at a time as hurricane force winds blow frozen chunks of ocean against their windows and along their pot-hole laden dirt streets. Snow falls daily. Fog strangles every precious minute of daylight. The wind never stops. The wind chill stays negative. Flights to and from here are all but suspended. There are no ports, so ships don’t come either. Folks wait weeks, sometimes months, to get a flight back to mainland Alaska and even longer for a newspaper. And when the weather does clear, there may be an impassable fog bank three miles away or a volcano that just so happened to erupt. Isolation is not a phobia here, or even an inconvenience — it is a way of life.

And it is here, in this isolation and unpredictability, that we find ourselves hopelessly optimistic. Each morning we sit, drinking cup after cup of coffee and staring out of the bay windows of our cozy hunting lodge, across the village and at each and every slab and point break littering the Bering shoreline. It’s a joke, really, at how incredible this place could be. But the “hazardous” systems that gave us so much hope before disappeared completely off the map, as if they were never there at all.

But when you have embedded yourself in the womb of the North Pacific storm zone, you quickly learn that most of what you’ve come to know about swell prediction should be thrown out the window. Pressure rises and falls like the tide. Cold Pacific currents clash with even colder Bering Sea currents. Wind howls then goes quiet. Quite simply, storms do disappear into thin, albeit unstable, air. Just as much as they appear.

***

And then — somewhere between the 8 a.m. dawn and our third cups of coffee on the eighth day of the trip — we found that illusive glimmer of hope.

Plane tickets were being changed. Arrangements were being made. Phone calls reeked of defeat and minds were drifting home. But out through the fog, the reefs were softly bleeding with whitewater. It was a beautiful sight. My God, Jesse just might be wrong.

“There’s swell out there for sure,” Pete says, walking through the door and shaking off the cold of a freezing Aleutian dawn patrol.

We gather at the window and focus in on a faint A-frame breaking far across the bay. Coffee cups empty. Boots go on. Wetsuits are packed. Boards are mounted. Four-wheelers are revving. And everyone finds their sea legs.

In all honesty and considering the flatness we endured, it was a decent surf session. There was certainly five feet of swell moving across the Bering Sea from the west swell that had pump-faked us all week. Sure, the wave bulged a little too much on the reef, then fell into deep water a little too fast. But it offered the occasional overhead wall of sheet glass — a wave that would be inundated with surfers on a good day if it were in Southern California or any other over-exposed reef on the planet. But it was undiscovered and void of criticism. So we tipped our hats, gracious for what we received, but slumped out at dusk, still wondering about the world-class potential of this desolate archipelago on the fifty-second parallel.

And still, two weeks after returning home, I can’t stop sneaking away from work for ten minutes to check the Aleutian swell models. Red and purple blobs are bubbling up everywhere. Half of them will come to fruition; the rest will be a nasty but familiar trick on the world’s best forecasters. But it doesn’t stop me from wondering — even hoping that at one of those coves, Vinny is lounging on his four-wheeler and chuckling in that drawl of his, finally witnessing the reason why we chose his island.

Special Thanks to: Dan Young at the Grand Aleutian Hotel; George Weaver at Nikolski Adventures at Ugludax Lodge (www.nikolskiadventures.com); Reid and Sarah Brewer; Roger Deffendall; Jessica at Penair; Reza at Cape Cheerful; Alexa; and the amazing residents and historians of Nikolski Village, especially Karen, Dean and Vinny.

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