Article

The Birth of the Coldwater Gold Rush

"My Most Memorable Surf Trips Have Included A Fear Of Frostbite"

| posted on July 22, 2010

During my tenure as editor of this magazine I wasted many hours studying a big, multi-colored map of the world pinned above my bookshelf, imagining where the next J-Bay or Nias might be. When well-traveled surfers or photographers would pass through the office, I’d steer them to the map and ask what they knew about various uncharted surf zones, hinting that if a spot had potential I might arrange to send them there. I hungered for info about places like the Kuril Islands, between Japan and Kamchatka. Or Isla Socorro, below Cabo. Or a tiny dot named Europa in the Mozambique Channel.

For some reason, my internal compass kept pointing to Alaska. I was convinced that somewhere along the 2,500-mile sweep of inlets and islands on that cold Pacific coast there had to be a Klondike of good surf. But Alaska’s expensive, so we didn’t dare risk such a mission without reliable intel, and no one I talked to knew dick about the place.

Then in 1991 the mag ran a short piece about Dominic Rice, who’d been stationed there by the U.S. Coast Guard. “You wouldn’t believe the surf in Alaska,” Rice told writer Gary Lynch. “There can be 30-foot seas outside pushing swell 20 miles up an inlet into clean, mirror-smooth waters. Lefts, rights, points, and reefs.”

That did it. We eventually recruited one of the sport’s best wordsmiths, Dave Parmenter, one of its most reliable photographers, Bob Barbour, and two of its most versatile pros, Brock Little and Josh Mulcoy, and sent them north.
They scored.

“All of my most memorable surf trips have included a fear of frostbite.”

Barbour captured both the magnificence of the landscape and the quality of the surf in a single image from Yakutat, which ended up on the cover (January 1993): Mulcoy leaning into an easy green left with 18,000-foot Mount Saint Elias as backdrop. And Parmenter crafted a witty, informative, impassioned story that I still regard as one of the best articles ever published in any surf magazine anywhere.
“It resembled a small day at Third Point, Malibu, may it rest in peace,” Dave wrote about a pointbreak they found near Sitka. “Except Gidget would have some pretty stiff nipples here, and the bears have even less patience with the Vals than Dora did. This was as far away from the teeming mouse hole of surf culture as you could get in America.”

It probably would have happened anyway, but that article (coupled with ongoing advances in wetsuit technology) seemed to trigger a coldwater gold rush. In the 15 years since we’ve seen surf shots and video from pretty much every icy, gray outpost on the planet: Iceland, Norway, Greenland, Kamchatka.

Parmenter’s piece was one of the few in my tenure at SURFER that affected me personally. I have never been to Indo, but I have followed that first crew’s footsteps to Yakutat and beyond. I’ve surfed within view of white-tipped volcanoes in the Aleutians, thawed my hands in a smoke-scented sauna on Vancouver Island, heard the sound of ice bits crackle against my fins on a roping right-hander in Antarctica. I’ve had longer and better sessions in the tropics, but all of my most memorable surf trips have included a fear of frostbite.

So when I glance at a globe these days, the extreme latitudes north and south have lost much of their mystery. But then I look close and realize how much unsurveyed coast remains worldwide. Take the Kurils. I’ve been asking about the place for almost two decades now, Googling for maybe half that, and I still haven’t heard dick about the surf there. Part of me hopes I never will.