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Alaska: The Last Frontier

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This story was originally published in our Volume 10, Number 4 (Winter 2013/2014) issue, now available online for free. Written by Jason Slezak. Photos by Scott Dickerson.

Kiteboarding is an amazing and dynamic sport that has taken me to many distant places. But one place I did not expect it to lead me was Alaska. When Patagonia’s Jason McCaffrey and I discussed where we should go to test our new drysuits many far off, distant, and cold locations were laid on the table. Some of them were too remote or too expensive or too… well, just plain too cold. And then the idea of a kiteboarding expedition to Alaska came to mind and the planning began.

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As a child I had dreams of traveling to Alaska to snowboard the steep, deep, and stable snow of the Chugach Mountain Range. Year after year I watched my ski and snowboard heroes charge the most insane lines in each winter’s new video releases. But it was not just the riding that drew my attention. It was the awe-inspiring beauty of the landscape and the remoteness of Alaska. I read something the day we arrived that stuck in my head the entire trip. “Most places in the United States are surrounded by civilization with small islands of wilderness, usually in the form of parks or Forest Service land. But in Alaska there are small islands of civilization sparsely scattered amongst a vast amount of raw wilderness.” That is what we came here to explore.

On any adventure, especially in a place as untamed as Alaska, local knowledge and guidance is paramount. We contacted Tom Fredericks, founder of Alaska Kite Adventures for suggestions of where to start planning our journey. Alaska Kite Adventures is at the forefront of kiting both on water and on snow in and around the Anchorage area. Tom was more than happy to help us make the most out of our trip. Our objectives were simple. We wanted to explore the beauty of Alaska while getting as many sessions as possible. He directed us to photographer, boat captain, Alaska surf pioneer, and guide Scott Dickerson. Scott was born in Alaska and has been spending the better part of the past 15 years searching for and surfing new waves along the seemingly endless 34,000 miles of Alaskan coastline while also documenting the beauty of his surroundings through film and photography. After discussing our options we decided to go the water route and made plans to board the M/V Milo, a fishing trawler that has been converted for surf charters, to explore the coastline outside of Homer. Our plan was set. At least that is what we thought.

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“Plans are nothing; planning is everything” –Dwight D. Eisenhower

We quickly found that the weather in Alaska is in a state of constant change. It had been raining for eighteen days straight in the Anchorage area on the day we arrived. This same foul weather system was also going to make it very difficult for the M/V Milo to get to our meeting spot in Homer in time. The outlook was bad enough to make some of our crew drop out of the trip at the last minute. The rest of us were left questioning if continuing on with the trip was a good idea. But each time we spoke to local kiters Tom, Scott, Tony, Dan, or Albert they were not worried about the weather. Instead they were focused on how good it could get and how you just have to be there and be ready for it. So ahead we charged and I couldn’t help but smile knowing that we were about to embark on an awesome adventure of exploration and discovery.

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On the ground in Alaska the old plan went completely out the window. We traded in the fishing trawler for a land yacht (an RV), stocked up on supplies (coffee, food, beer, and bear mace), and began our journey along the Turnagain Arm towards the town of Girdwood and our first kiting locale, Portage Lake. One thing that became very evident from the very beginning was that the people who live and recreate here are hardcore outdoorsmen and women who truly love the rawness that exists in Alaska. We were getting emails, text updates, and plenty of communication from all different angles about the conditions and where to be and when. This kite community here is thriving and committed to sessions at each and every opportunity.

The main kiting area here is located along the Turnagain Arm. It’s the Alaskan version of the Columbia River Gorge. It is a unique body of water that is not an ocean, sound, bay, or river. Yet it surprisingly looks like it could be any or all of these. The Turnagain Arm gets its name from Captain Cook’s exploration through the area in search of the Northwest Passage in 1778. Cook’s men sailed into the Knit Arm, just slightly north of Anchorage. They were turned around at the mouth of the Knit river so they regrouped and tried what they felt was the only other possible route to the Northwest Passage. They were turned around again at a river mouth feeding into the Arm and simply named the body of water Turnagain Arm. As we drove along the shore we were in complete awe of the jaw-dropping beauty of the surrounding mountains. The size, scale, and distances were very hard to comprehend for the first few days. The Arm can only be ridden when the wind and the tides are opposing, which was not the case for us on our first day. We charged on past Girdwood to Portage Lake, a glacial lake at the base of the Portage Glacier. It was reported to have exactly what we came in search of: Cold water, floating ice, and wind.

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Portage Lake is nestled in a valley amongst numerous mountain peaks, each of which is home to various glaciers. The melting ice creates small streams of water that cascade down the hillsides like veins feeding into the heart of the lake. This was our first sight of floating ice and Alaskan glaciers. And as beautiful and powerful as it was there was a sense of sadness after learning that the Begich-Boggs Visitors Center we were kiting in front of was built in 1986 for visitors to view the Portage Glacier up close. Yet now there isn’t even the slightest glimpse to be had of the massive glacier. Today you may be lucky enough, as we were, to witness the chunks of ice that float through the lake as they melt on their way downstream. We knew about the receding of glaciers before getting to Alaska but had no idea of the scale until witnessing it firsthand.

After taking in the breathtaking scenery one thing filled our senses. We could all feel it, see it, hear it, and even smell it. Wind! Jason McCaffrey and I frantically put our boards together, rigged our kites, threw on our new drysuits, and hit the water so we could get a close up view of the ice and surrounding mountains. There is something undeniable and almost unexplainable about the feeling of freedom and true exploration you can get from kiting a new spot or seeing a body of water or coastline from the engine-less silent power of the wind. This Portage Lake session is one that will forever be in my memory. Riding around the ice, ollieing over chunks of it, jumping the bigger pieces, and even crouching down and riding through some ice barrels were all part of the fun. We were smiling, high fiving, and buzzing around the ice and shoreline for hours in complete awe that we were kiting in Alaska.

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So our plan, which had fallen apart the day before, was taking shape in a whole new direction and we were already reaping the benefits of pushing forward and not giving up. But this was still only the first day.

“Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.” -Captain James Cook

The Turnagain Arm is an interesting body of water. It is affected greatly by the tides and that is what dictates when kiters can and cannot go out. This was new to us. Sure, we have all ridden waves that are better on certain tides or ridden spots that are more fun at the right tide, but never had we experienced tidal fluctuation like this! The tidal range can be upwards of 35 feet and will generate a Gorge-like effect when it runs against the wind and increases your apparent wind and power. It can also run with the wind and literally take the wind out of your sails while taking you far far away. When we arrived earlier than planned at our meeting spot we were greeted with nuking wind and a huge beach, but no one else was out or even there. Scott filled us in that the tide was going out (with the wind), so none of the locals would show up until the tide changed.

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We took some time to hike around and explore the spot. The mud was a thick silt that was part sand, part dirt, and part sediment that would create a quicksand effect if you stood in one place for too long. It was interesting but scary given how quickly the tidal change can happen. There are stories, some true and some legend, of fisherman and tourists stuck in the mud who drowned as the tide rose. The more we learned about the magnificent and raw world of Alaska the more we realized that it is not a place for the faint of heart or the tentative, but rather a place that keeps you on your toes and forces you to remain ever present in the moment. There aren’t many places in the world where a simple walk on the beach could be life threatening.

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Almost like clockwork the local crew began to roll in at the same time as the tide. First to show up was Jim Chaplin, a bush pilot and kiteboard fiend. His license plate reads KITER and he told us his other vehicle’s plate says UNHOOKED. Then Albert, an Anchorage business man who excused himself from his work duties for a “meeting.” Next was Jeff Hoke, a fireman just getting off an all-night shift, followed by a few others. These guys wasted no time getting on the water, and we would later find out why. It was an amazing transformation at the spot. The water, which just an hour or so earlier was calm and gently flowing out with the wind, was now rushing back in and the current had created half-standing half-moving wave trains to slash and air off of. The upwind current was so fast that it was almost difficult to stay downwind.

There were giant mountain peaks on either side and the sun’s rays were breaking through small gaps in the relatively gray sky like spotlights on the hillsides. The scenery was accented by the small hints of color of the ten or so kites in the sky. I became so lost in the surroundings that I failed to notice that I was the last one on the water. I figured that must be a sure sign to head for the beach but there was one small problem. There was no beach! The area where we had rigged and launched, which was acres and acres of dry silt and sand just an hour or so before, was nothing more than a tiny strip of wet sand only a few feet wide. By the time Jason caught my kite and I rolled up my lines the beach was gone and we were running for the banks of the shore before we became part of the folklore of people who had been stuck in the mud and caught by the rising tide. The diehard locals base their lives around the tides and drop everything to make it happen. Their passion and dedication was inspiring and motivating to make the most out of each session every day.

With the kiting shut down for the day we joined Jeff and his crew back in Girdwood for one of my other favorite pastimes at the Aleskya Mountain Bike Park. Jeff, Lynsey Dyer, and a few of their friends were gracious enough to let me join them on a few lift-accessed and gravity-fed laps down some fun and challenging terrain. Just like everything else in Alaska the biking too proved to be extra grande. In the 25 or so years that I had spent dreaming of coming to shred the mountains of Alaska I had never thought it would end up being on a downhill bike! Our day ended in the bar at the lodge listening to a local band while sharing stories of deep winters, big waves, good dirt, and strong winds. As smiles grew wider and eyes grew heavier I realized we really are all from the same tribe in search of the same thing. It doesn’t matter if it is on snow, water, wind, waves, dirt, concrete, or something else. We all just love to shred!

We awoke the following day to a beautiful misty Alaskan morning. The ground was wet with dew and the morning fog lay thick in the cool valleys. We ventured first to Portage Lake hoping for another session there but found not a breath of wind and mirror-like glassy water. With no wind forecasted for the Arm we opted for a hike to Byron Glacier, one of the lower-elevation glaciers. It felt great to get amongst the snowfields and see the massive debris fields from past avalanches and piles of giant boulders from rock slides. One thing is for sure, which was said repeatedly on this trip. Alaska makes you feel small.

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We continued our no-wind exploration on a few-hour drive past the dead end that forced Cook’s men to “turn again” so may years ago to the mining town of Hope. Hope’s main industry is still gold mining, but a recreational whitewater rafting scene appears here every summer. The town itself is small. There is only one bar, a small café (attached to the bar), and a town hall (next to the café attached to the bar). It is so small that the town actually shuts down for the winter! But before it does the locals throw one raging party and we just happened to be in town for that special night. There were RVs lining the street, a small tent city near the edge of the river, and a rocking band made up of local residents that played until the bar closed its doors. Then the band and party continued around a fire under the clearest, most star-filled night sky I have every witnessed. We were honored to get to share in this night with the people of Hope, but the following morning would lead us onward towards more adventure.

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We got an early call from our friend Jim, the bush pilot, informing us that the conditions looked good in Seward about two hours south of where we were in Hope. Not only did the kiting conditions look promising but Jim was offering to fly us from the Seward Air Field to the glacial lake and ice field of Bear Glacier. There was no way we could turn down that opportunity so we pointed our trusty Sun Seeker RV south and headed for Seward.

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We made quick work of organizing our gear and loading the plane. Jim had to make two trips because of the amount of gear and people we had. Scott and I went first so we could assess the conditions and get set up. Videographer Buster Tronolone and Jason came on the second run. The flight was incredible with breathtaking 360° views. As we rounded a corner we got our first view of the Bear Glacier. It was stunning! A flowing river of ice descended down from the mountains all the way to the sea. The contrast of the deep blue ocean meeting with the grayish-green glacial lake with only a thin ribbon of black sand separating the two was highlighted by the bright aquamarine tint of the white icebergs and glacier walls. As we repeatedly circled the potential landing strip for our sea plane landing, of which this was my first, I asked Jim what he was looking for. He calmly spoke into the mic which resonated through my headset. “We need to look out for small pieces of ice. We don’t want to damage the pontoons or we won’t be able to take off again. And I have never landed anywhere with this much ice.” Before I could process what he had said we touched down on the surface of the lake as smooth as could be expected in 15-knot wind chop and taxied to the shore to unload our gear.

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The wind was by no means perfect. We were surrounded by mountains, some of which were covered in trees while others were shear rock. The river of ice that made up the Bear Glacier was super cold as was the water in the lake it fed. However, the ocean just on the other end of the lake was not nearly as cold as the lake water. Mix in the katabatic winds that are created by the glacier’s heating and cooling and you have a very strange mix on your hands. Needless to say the wind was not what I, or anyone else for that matter, would call steady or consistent. It provided a unique challenge and forced us to really read the spot and the ever-changing wind conditions. Not to mention that it was absolutely gorgeous and riding around giant icebergs in the frigid water made me us all feel, once again, very small in this very big land. We stayed at Bear Glacier until sundown while basking in the beauty and reminiscing about the endless adventures we had encountered over the past few days. As we watched the moon rise up over the mountains in the distance we solidified that this may have been our first trip to Alaska, but it surely wouldn’t be our last.

On our final day we headed north away from Seward, past the road to Hope, past the turnoff for Portage Lake, and made one last stop on our way to Anchorage before catching our flight home. We put on our drysuits again, grabbed a few stand up paddleboards, and joined Lynsey for a bore tide session. We were short on time and knew this decision could very well make us miss our flight, but we were too close to scoring one last unique Alaska session to pass it up. As Jason and I followed her into the chilly outgoing tidewaters of the Arm we couldn’t help but be a bit skeptical of what we were getting ourselves into. The bore tide is something that occurs in the Turnagain Arm twice a day with the incoming tide. Some days are bigger than others. It creates a wave six inches high to over six feet high depending on the tidal change and the moon phase. On this day the water was glassy and calm with absolutely zero wind and the wave was forecasted to be about waist high.

We waited in the mud flats in the middle of the Turnagain Arm as the tide went slack and everything became calm and still. Like clockwork and right on schedule we began to see water splashing against the rocks off in the distance and hear the rumbling of moving water as the wave rolled towards us. Our excitement grew as the water around our feet began to rapidly suck out towards the oncoming tidal wave. We waded our way into the middle of the channel until we were about knee deep as instructed by Lynsey. Now we could see the shape of the wave with a right hand open face on one side and a left on the other. We waited until the last second, pushed off of the bottom, and jumped onto our boards. We were all up and riding for what ended up being a 15-minute surf on a perfect peeling waist high wave! Then as quickly as it picked us up, it rolled out from under us and the ride was over, leaving us right back where we had hopped in the water.

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Quickly getting out of our suits we said our thank yous and goodbyes and began racing to the airport. It had been a whirlwind trip filled with adventure and exploration with great planning but little to no plan. Like a real-life “choose your own adventure” novel each decision we made opened up opportunities that otherwise would not have existed and each person we met along the way added his or her own special part to make this a truly remarkable experience. As we rushed through security and onto the plane with only minutes to spare we sank into our seats with smiles wide and heads filled with images of beauty and awe which will have to hold us over until we can return. And return we will because there is so much to explore in Alaska, the last frontier.


For more information on receding glaciers all over the world watch the documentary Chasing Ice (currently available on Netflix). If you are interested in kiting in or around the Anchorage area look up Tom Fredericks and Alaska Kite Adventures

 

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