By Michael H. Kew
TWENTY-EIGHT: Feet, length of the black Lincoln Town Car limousine in which Daniel Jones, Nico Manos, Trevor Gordon, and I are driven for three hours, starting at 3 a.m., from the seedy Anchorage hotel to the port of a deglaciated valley town, population 3,000.
“Just driving through that place makes me feel hungover, man.”
Astride his broken captain’s chair, gazing through thick glass at the fjord waters, bushy-browed Mike smiles and sips strong coffee. He’s happy. I’m happy. We’re on his boat. The back of his navy blue T-shirt shows a goofyfooter pulling into a tropical, head-high left over the words Ride the Fury. Yes, we’d like to.
The port, groggy and foggy at 6:39 a.m., shrinks astern. Flanked by tall, white peaks, we’re southbound at eight knots inside the cramped third-story wheelhouse of this 48-year-old, 58-foot-long steel purse seiner. Built in Seattle, she spent her commercial life salmoning off the southeast Alaskan coast and off Washington, dragging for bottom fish.
We’re not going fishing.
“Don’t you guys feel that way, man? Hungover?”
No. The town was dead. I saw nil but the dotty headache of orange streetlights and their hazy glow on orange sidewalks and orange storefronts and orange parked cars, roofed with orange snow. No humans except the gaunt convenience store clerk who sold me weak coffee and a peanut butter Clif bar. She was high on meth. Thankfully, our fat chauffeur was not. Thankfully I was not hungover — just one Alaskan Amber Ale in the hotel pub last night.
Mike sips more coffee, swallows, exhales. Smiles again. Smug. The new floor heater is working. It’s warm in here. He leans over and taps a few laptop keys. On-screen there’s a tempting nautical chart. The Kenai Fjords look like shredded witch fingers. Eagle talons. Bold headlands, wide bays, beachbreaks, coves. Pointbreaks. Rivermouths — lots of rivermouths. Scenic grandeur. Attributing J. London, it’s to be an odyssey of the north.
FIFTY-NINE: Degrees of north latitude which we occupy inside beanies and down parkas, sitting on black steel gunwales, grilling lingcod. There’s ice on the deck. Holding strong ales in gloved hands, we admire the hallucinatory reflect of snowy cliffs across this tranquil, funnel-shaped anchorage that latitudinally drifts with Siberia.
Trevor is fly-fishing for his first time. Swish-swish-swish. Off the transom he whips the line to and fro but hooks nothing. The bottom here is hard mud. The water is deep green. The time is 10:30 p.m., but still the sky glows blue.
Pausing, Trevor looks shoreward and swigs from a bottle of stout. Halfway hidden on the forested beach, he sees three old wooden cabins waiting for summer.
“Somebody’s idea of a good time right there,” Captain Mike says from the barbecue, his chin bisecting the gray fish smoke.
“Lonely,” Trevor says.
“Yeah, unless you’ve got it packed full of Bush Company dancers.” (laughs)
The Great Alaskan Bush Company, Mike means. Look it up.
A shaggy white male mountain goat grazes fairly low above the pit of the anchorage, above the cabins, on that really steep cliff.
“It’s amazing where you see them,” Mike says, flipping fish fillets. “They do fall sometimes.”
“Why would they be there and not up where it’s not so steep?” Trevor asks.
“There’s snow up there,” Mike says, pointing at the top of the slope, then lowering his arm. “The grass is down here. Good munchin’ spot.”
In a month or two, this goat will laze in high alpine meadows, eating shrubs and herbs and grass at leisure. For now, though, he risks life to live. Like us. Sort of.
SEVEN: Millimeters of neoprene required to sheathe extremities whilst surfing. Hoods and black six-millimeter fullsuits seal the encumbrance.
THIRTY-SEVEN: Degrees, Fahrenheit, of ocean water temperature, the going rate of glacial-stream-fed sting. My hands burn. It’s bone-seeping cold.
We’re sitting rib-deep in black water at a playful, shapely spot that Trevor likens to Hammond’s Reef, one of his (and Tom Curren’s) preferred waves in California. Unlike sunny Hammond’s, however, no surfers will flock here. Unlike Hammond’s, no billionaires sleep within sight. Unlike Hammond’s, this reef is tucked back in a primordial fjord, fronted with crumbling rock spires and seal-flecked pinnacles, shadowed by dark mountains and licked by the longest glacial ice tongue in Kenai Fjords National Park.
Over there, behind the gray-boulder moraine beach and its gray till and low, serrated green line of spruce, white icebergs float in the lake. Two miles behind that lake is a massive white glacier, cracked and fissured, which means this wave experiences katabatic winds howling off the icefield, 5,000 feet up and 12 miles in. Brash ice chunks often float in the lineup, which occurs regularly, per page 91 of my kayaking guidebook: Stay in deep water and away from the beach. The bottom rapidly shallows and accentuates the swell and surf.
The windless morning’s drizzle has become rain and hail and the ambiance is a cold, drab gray, the black mountain trees melding with quiet browns of nude earth and smatterings of snow.
Downstairs in the boiler room, full of wetsuits, Daniel, a creature of warmth, labors from his. He rubs his nose and cheekbones with the back of his numb hand. Two days ago, he surfed Rocky Point in boardshorts.
“Yeah, we Hawaiians usually only come to Alaska to go snowboarding,” he says to bearded Nico, another creature of temperature but, as a year-round Nova Scotian, he thrives on the opposite scale. Nico’s already got his wetsuit/hood/booties/mittens off. He’s used to surfing with snow on the beach. He says the vibe here is reminiscent of home, if only home had spell-binding glaciers and 4,000-foot sea cliffs.
FORTY-NINTH: State of the U.S.A., its largest and most northern. Also an exclave. Spiritually, Alaska is another country.
TWO: Huge icefields, named Harding and Sargent. Somewhere behind each estuarine spot we surf, they coat the Kenai Mountains up to a mile thick.
ZERO: Feet, in height, of the swell. We glide along. The other gents are belowdecks, sleeping or reading or drinking coffee. It’s good coffee, from Homer, where Mike lives. He runs a fish-processing plant.
Above, the sky is huge and blue. The mountain snow is blinding. Aloud, I wonder if such weather is rare.
With a small rag, Mike wipes his sunglasses. “Maybe rare is not quite the word,” he says, “but it’s nice to take advantage of ‘em when you see ‘em. That’s for sure. Doesn’t really do much for swell, though.” (laughs)
The fjord water is silty green and glassy-smooth — a little too glassy, too lake-like. Last night, Trevor suggested we try wakeboarding.
“Are we going to get some big breakers today?” I ask Mike as he pulls the throttle back with his right hand. With yellow binoculars in his left, he’s studying the gravel beach we’ve approached.
Neighbored by a wooded peninsula and steep talus cliffs, this beach is bereft of whitewater but strewn with driftwood logs. The adjacent lagoon is serene. There are ducks and river otters and harbor seals, bushes of lupine and salmonberry amongst the moss-bearded spruce and alder. I’d like to stay and sunbathe and beachcomb, perhaps pitch a tent and wait for swell.
“Not a lot of confidence we’ll find big breakers today,” Mike says. “We’ll take a look here mainly to put some new info into the memory bank. I know guys have camped out and surfed along this beach here, but I don’t think we have the right swell conditions today, by any means.”
SEVEN: Million dollars, for which Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867. Two cents per acre.
FIFTEEN THOUSAND: Acres, densely forested, comprising the biggest island here. It is jagged and lung-shaped, rife with eagles and seals. There’s surf, too — peaky, punchy beachbreak, its black-sand shore poked with bear tracks among the driftwood and stray container-ship flotsam: orange basketballs, black fly swatters, blue aluminum water bottles. A ghost forest, immortalized after 1964’s four-minute, 9.2-magnitude Great Alaskan Earthquake, tops the steep beach.
The surf is fun before the sky bleeds gray and the air is seized by an onshore gale. We’re done. Tea and books in the calm anchorage. Cozy downtime again.
In the afternoon we buzz the skiff to the hidden entrance of a tiny cove. Along the shore are the skeletal remains of a bulldozer, a barn, and a termite-wrecked cabin. Through falling snowflakes, I see “Herring Pete” and Josephine Sather tending to their noisy fox farm here. But they abandoned this place in 1961, and the barn’s decay, scented with river-otter dung, makes me sneeze. Pete too was a reputedly ripe and eccentric guy, his rarely washed clothes afoul of rotten fish. His wife was an obsessive clean-freak, forcing Pete to take cold showers after his fishing trips, even mid-winter.
Admiring his view out over the cove, I picture Pete shivering wet in the bathroom while Josephine stirred a hot pot of fox stew. But, foolishly standing in snow, I realize I’m the one shivering.
TWO THOUSAND: Years ago, when the first humans migrated from the Alaskan interior to the Kenai Fjords coast. These were the Unegkurmiut, a hardy Eskimo breed of maritime subsistence who so excelled in boat-making that they were exploited by Russian fur traders to hunt sea otters. The Russians, who’d arrived in July of 1790, also brought smallpox, which trashed the once-harmonious Unegkurmiut population. Ensuing panic, starvation, and Russian bullying contributed to complete Unegkurmiut demise by 1912, one century removed from us.
THREE: Days, consecutive, which are too flat to surf. Vexing in a such a storm-washed place.
“Maybe we should go fishing or hunting,” Nico says over his oatmeal in the galley. “Get some deer or moose or something.”
“Most people do come to Alaska to kill things,” deckhand Scott says.
Fresh halibut sounds good. The inflatable white skiff is launched with tackle and Trevor and Scott aboard. Their bright orange and yellow rain jackets contrast well with the gray of the sea and the dark, conical headland, which flattens into a long gravel beach and berm supporting a large tree-lined lagoon and a foraging black bear. And topography for a perfect left pointbreak. Mike says he’s surfed it — slabby up top, ropey through the middle as it wrapped around the crescent-shaped barrier beach.
Later, black lingcod and rockfish are hooked, cleaned, and served as dinner. Alas, salmon season is two months off.
The next morning, Trevor confides to me that the west side of the fjord, three miles opposite the left point, has a long, tapered right cobblestone beach, also with a lagoon behind it. “If we had swell, that place might be just like El Cap,” he says, referring to another perfect wave he surfs at home.
“The El Capitan of Kenai Fjords” has a nice ring to it, I say. A dead ring.
FIVE HUNDRED NINETY-TWO THOUSAND: Square miles, surface area, comprising the Gulf of Alaska. Plenty of room to cause trouble. In winter, the Gulf is a weather kitchen, a sea of severity, a near-constant stream of cyclones and anticyclones. Sixty-foot waves with 100-knot winds are routine. Depressions twist east from Japan, stalling once they hit the Gulf and, trapped, they mutate and shove swell down to western North America and eastern Oceania. North swells deny the south-facing Kenai Fjords. We need south.
But this is a fjord and there is swell in this afternoon’s marine forecast, the charts showing a pair of modest, local low-pressure systems with favorable fetch.
“It’s a good reason to feel optimistic instead of just feeling hopeful,” Mike says, watching a bald eagle soar in the updraft, its spearing blackness against the white snow bowl of a hanging valley. Below the raptor are steep slopes and shale landslides, chalky brown, laced with thin snowmelt waterfalls. It’s late April — Alaska is beginning to thaw. Soon, bears will be everywhere. Post-Memorial Day until September, this fjord will be flush with cruise ships and fishing boats because Seward is a major fishing hub, America's ninth most-lucrative fisheries port.
A diehard surfer and ex-merchant marine, Mike isn’t thrilled about other dingy fishing towns — Yakutat and Dutch Harbor, for example — he’s had to work in and around since he moved from Hawaii to Alaska to work at a fish cannery in the summer of ‘76.
“What’s Yakutat like?” I ask.
“Small. Some good waves over there.”
He leans and starts steering the ship with its wooden wheel, the first time I’ve seen him do this.
“Don’t you always steer with the compass?”
He nods. “It just started acting funny. Maybe it blew a fuse, or a wire’s loose, or there’s a bunch of iron in that mountain and it threw the compass crazy. Happens sometimes.”
We approach the fjord’s entrance, or, in this case, the exit. Instantly the scene shifts. Out here, the wind howls from the east, deeply corrugating the open ocean. The boat dips and lurches.
“At least we’re looking at waves now,” Mike says. “It’s a start!”
ONE HUNDRED TWENTY-SIX: Feet, in height, of the rock pinnacle that looms at the reefy fore of this exposed bay, a two-mile stretch of black sand of which my guidebook states: Beach landings are difficult because of constant surf.
We anchor 100 yards out. The beach fronts another deglaciated valley and an icy glacier lake below a glacier. Mike has surfed in front of this, at a shifty sandbar west of the faux left point we’re paddling to. It looks good from behind, the whitewater tapering in the proper direction for an ideal length of time. Stroking shoreward, there’s a nice backdrop of spruce and alder. In the rockbound lineup, we’re looking at two big, horn-shaped spires which may or may not dilute the head-high sets as they hump in from the southeast. The waves are clean but soft, the sun warm, the sky blue, the air temperature mild — our exhaled breath is invisible. The scene implies Carmel, Monterey, even Big Sur.
EIGHTY: Times the crabber’s fatality rate of the average worker. On average, one crabber dies weekly during Alaska’s crab-fishing seasons.
TWELVE: Feet, in height, of the swell. A certain rivermouth cove could massage it, Mike says, the region’s “crown jewel” of the spots he knows. He’s been talking about it all week. Studying his poster-sized nautical charts, I reckon that, on the right day or hour, there could be dozens of crown jewels along the 250 miles of Kenai Fjords seacoast. Goodness knows there is ample daylight this month.
“We can get there at 8:30 p.m. and still have a two-hour session,” he says with a grin.
But first, it’s a rough ride. Huddled in the wheelhouse, we pound west through the rain, rounding an exposed cape, a balding head of granite with hairs of spruce trees and smears of dirty snow. Its base has 13 tall, narrow black sea caves placed like sharp teeth. Joy for a spelunker. Thousands of murres and kittiwakes swoop about. Three sea lions bark. We slosh past porpoises and a pod of orcas.
Out the starboard exterior, a large gray trawler steams east, likely for shelter as fishing today would be tough. Daniel, lounging on the couch aside Mike in an unzipped black hoodie, takes a swig from his bottle of Alaskan Black IPA. “You think that’s a crab boat?” he asks.
“Nah, not around here,” Mike says. “They’re probably out for halibut. Salmon in summer. Crab season doesn’t start till October.”
“How many crab seasons are there?”
“The opilio and the king crab are the two big ones, but then there’s a different king crab way up north, near St. Matthew Island, and there’s the Adak brown crab. Some years, there’s a crab I see that’s a cross between the king crab and opilio.”
“How do the dudes know which one they’re fishing for?” Nico asks.
“Crabs live in different areas and at different depths.”
“Do the same boats hit them all up?” Daniel asks.
“Pretty much. Some of them, there’s only a couple of boats that fish.”
“A lot of the boats aren’t on that one TV show, right?” Trevor asks, referring to Deadliest Catch.
“Yeah. For the most part, the dudes on that show are a bunch of real frickin’ idiots.”
“Really?” Daniel asks.
“Yeah. I’ve bought crab from all those guys.”
“Does the TV channel pay them?” Trevor asks.
“Why are they doing it if they’re not getting paid?”
“Just trying to get famous.”
“So why do they pick the dickheads?” Nico asked. “Just to make for a more interesting cast?”
“Yeah. A bunch of ‘em are crackheads. One night after the show was done taping, one of the guys was found dead in a hotel room.”
“Do a lot of those fishermen have to smoke crack to stay awake?” Daniel asks.
“In the old days, they were all cokeheads, when there was a lot of money, and nobody knew how dangerous it was. You had to pretty much go around the clock to catch your share, or more than your share.”
In three hours: Lumpy rivermouth tubes. Shallow and hard-hitting. East-wind slag bump. Rain.
Daniel: “Coldest session ever.”
ONE: Little-known fact: Two beachbreaks cradled by the ragged, most swell-exposed barb of the Kenai Fjords can be almost flat, like they are the day our marine forecast had promised a 16-foot southeast swell. Guidebook: Here, the surf is constant. The waters are renowned for their intensity.
Previously unknown: The largest Alaskan seas Captain Mike has faced. “I don’t know,” he says, chewing a bite of banana muffin. “I try to avoid them.” Later he reveals: “There were these white lines, standing waves, and all I could do was steer right into them. My pilothouse was 60 feet above the water, and for three waves in a row, I couldn’t see a thing.”
What you probably know: Sixty-foot waves are big waves.
Partially true fact: The Kenai Fjords possess many slabs and at least one world-class surf spot. This wave may or may not employ Jeffrey’s Bay, Mangamaunu, Malibu, Scorpion Bay, or Rincon Point.
Unequivocally true: I left Alaska with a hangover.