Surfing in Alaska
What comes to mind when you read that? I bet there are a wide variety of reactions. Air temperatures well below zero (typically -5 to 30 Fahrenheit), water temps from 36 to 45 Fahrenheit and ideally, a nice offshore wind. Some of you will think it’s reckless endangerment of life, some will think it sounds miserable and wonder why people do things like this to their bodies. Hopefully there is a few of you that think about how you are going to come up here to see what it feels like firsthand. If you do make a splash in Alaskan waters in the winter, be prepared to do all your feeling in the first 5 minutes, because you probably won’t be able to feel your extremities for long.
For some of us who grew up in Alaska the idea of surfing here doesn’t seem crazy at all. When I was young I saw people surfing in pictures, looked out at the ocean in front of me, and that was all it took. I borrowed a ratty old wetsuit, layered up with the long johns, put on some waterproof commercial fishing gloves, and had mom drop me off at the beach. Since those early days my equipment has evolved, but not enough. I still get so cold that I shake uncontrollably and can hardly sit on the board. I feel myself losing cognitive function as I franticly wait for that last wave I have to catch before running to the car. I use my teeth to take off my gloves since my hands have lost muscle control and all feeling. In my old truck without an automatic transmission (or a heater that worked) I would have trouble driving home because my shaky legs couldn’t operate the clutch and gas peddle smoothly. It’s an interesting show watching a wet and hypothermic surfer struggle to get from the freezing ocean to a hot shower as quickly as possible.
One of the best things about surfing in Alaska is the great spirit out on the water. Some would say it’s because misery loves company. Whatever it is, we make quick friendships sitting out there in the water, freezing together as we wait for that perfect swell. It might be just because there are so few of us that we band together due to a preservation instinct. I think there is also an element that comes when you are in the water shaking with hypothermia, you definitely hope that anyone around is your friend, and will help you get out of your wetsuit if you are too cold to open the zipper yourself. We still call each other when the waves are firing, and try desperately to get at least one other person to share the experience with us. I must say though, I’ve heard rumors of crowds in one surfing spot in southeast Alaska.
For a few winters I’ve been throwing the camera in the car on my way to the beach, and until last winter that’s mostly where it stayed. It’s difficult to surf and photograph on the same trip to the beach. If I go surfing first, then my hands are numb, my body shaking, and the only thing on my mind is a hot shower. If I photograph first, then I get too cold standing on the beach and the last thing I want to do when I’m that cold is jump in the water. So needless to say, a lot of amazing surf sessions passed undocumented. This last winter though, I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I was finding myself out in the water on picture perfect days wishing I was on the beach with the camera. It can just be so overwhelmingly dramatic surfing here sometimes that I had to do something about it. So this winter I started leaving the surfboard on the car and just photographing. I think it paid off, though I missed some great waves, I’ve got photos to show how nice they were. And I’ve got some happy surfing buddies. Sure they missed my company in the water, but nobody minds seeing a photo of themselves getting barreled outside the ice pack with snow covered mountains in the background. (Thanks to Donna Rae Faulkner for the photo of me photographing surfers on the icy beach)
This last winter offered some great surfing photo opportunities with lot’s of ice on the beaches and some really nice waves. I spent most of the best surf days standing on the beach bundled up wearing a fur hat with holding frozen cameras. These photo shoots are not particularly technically challenging, it is mostly about being there at the right time and knowing the subject. The photographic challenges mostly involve keeping the cameras warm enough to operate and having enough batteries to make it through a good session. Mostly when I’m photographing surfing in Alaska I try to focus on what makes this special. People are surfing gorgeous green waves the world-round, so what makes Alaska so special? I try and show those elements that make surfing in Alaska unique – ice, snow covered mountains, snowy beaches, uncrowded breaks . . .
UPDATE 1/8/09: A good surfing buddy who goes by the name Iceman traded me a newer 6/5mm wetsuit for some photo work and I’m pleased to report that my hypothermic experiences are almost entirely a thing of the past now! I still get very cold when I’m out in the water photographing, but actual surfing is so much more comfortable thanks to innovation in wetsuit construction in the last 5 years. I was a little slow to catch up, yes, staying warm was never prioritized over having better camera equipment.