Alex Gray Talks Alaska
From Los Angeles, Alex Gray looks back on his cold-water surf expedition through the Aleutian Arc
It started with an Aleutian swell in November—that generally means Hawaii. Instead, you went to the source.
Early November for me is always Hawaii, but it sounded too intriguing for me not to go–a surf trip to Alaska. Burkard hit me up, told me Pete and Josh were coming, and gave me the gist of where we were going. Basically that it’s remote, there are no surfers, and the locals crab fish and hunt.
You don’t mind occasionally making holes in doe-eyed critters yourself; did you take hunting gear?
The thing is I couldn’t hunt. I love to bow hunt and I asked if I could bring my bow but was told no. It’s all controlled by native rights and there are 7,600 trophy animals on the island, the biggest deer in North America, but it costs, like, $10,000 to hunt up there. We got off the plane outside the village and as they were pulling our boards out they were loading in bloody antlers.
Tell us about the village.
The village we stayed in had only five people in it. They have boats, ATVs, and guns and that’s about it. They live in this little village with a snow-covered volcano as the backdrop. They shoot a seal a week, they shoot a reindeer every couple of months, and they live off that. A pleasant day for them is 25 knots of wind. It’s badass up there.
BUY: The Cradle of Storms
Did you do much hang time with locals?
We did. It was at the end of their guiding and hunting season and they would come over to our place every night. Their only contact with the outside world is one plane flight a week to the island and it was so cool. They’d bring beers over, reindeer meat, and seal meat.
What did seal taste like? Pork and lobster?
The seal meat was mooshy and I remember I shit black for two days. We had two guides and the native guy has no teeth and he’s bragging to us, “I can eat seal for breakfast, lunch and dinner, every day. I loooooove seal.” It was like he was in a commercial for seal meat. They shoot ‘em in the water and throw a line with a hook and drag it in. They’ve even trained dogs to swim out there and retrieve the seal like a bird dog. These dogs have webbed feet and they’re diving in to retrieve seals in 42-degree water. They don’t care. In California our dogs get carried around in handbags.
Had they encountered surferkind at all before?
Yep, twice. They had a photo of Jay Moriarity and Peter Mel there in the ‘90s. The guy pulled it out and we were like, “Holy shit, we know these guys!” And Pete Devries went there five years ago but surfed only one day in ankle-high waves. The local crew were really intrigued as to what we were doing and which bays we were surfing. There were a lot of duck blinds at this one place we surfed, and they’d head down there to shoot ducks so they knew the places we were going. Then one day we came back and told them we’d found a world-class wave on their island and they couldn’t believe it.
The place sounds wild. How were the conditions?
Most of the times we surfed it was sunny and offshore. But on two of the sessions these systems blew in and we’d watch the whole sky just black out like an eclipse. Pete and Josh travel a lot in the north so they understand how fast these systems move up here while I saw it coming and went, ‘Fuck this, I’m out of here!’ It was hailing and I ran to my ATV and the sky was just firing ice cubes at me and I’m just freaking out. Five minutes later–literally five minutes–it was sunny and light offshore again. We also had two big swells that came in while we were there–one of them was 28 feet at 27 seconds. We thought we were going to see a hundred-foot wave.
READ: Pete Devries Interview
Do those numbers actually exist in the real world?
It was a big Mavericks and Hawaii swell but it was just brewing up here and the storm literally pushed straight over the island. And here we were with just shortboards wondering what the hell we were about to see. That morning we jumped on the ATVs and drove down so excited, and we get there and it was flat.
Twenty-eight at 27 and flat?
Flat. Seriously. You could see the horizon just being chewed up but the swell was motoring past and not coming into the bays we needed it to. We were all sitting there and you could see the shoulders slump. With the forecasting I’m doing these days you can literally track the swell to the minute. It’s so easy now, but all of that went out the window. We had no idea what was going to happen…less than no idea. It dawned on us we’re going to have to wait this out and ride our luck and put a lot of effort into getting on our bikes and riding out every morning. There were no roads, just game tracks and it was kinda sketchy cause if you crashed the nearest doctor was days away. You could ruin your everything. But every time you rounded the bend and saw a new part of coast you wondered what was around the next one. The lure of another wave waiting for us kept us pushing on.
Did you have any idea where you going?
We had a map of the island in the house and that was what we plotted around. We were on the island for 15 days, and a 15-day surf trip on an island in Alaska is a long trip. There were four days where we got pinned inside the house by 100-knot gusts and the place was shaking. We go to Alaskan guys, “How’s this weather?” They go, “Weather? Man, you guys are lucky this is all you’re getting.”
OK—the slab. The real slab. Let’s talk.
Pete went on a mission before dark one afternoon and came back and goes, “It was howling onshore but I saw this wave detonating. I have no idea if it’s on dry reef or even surfable.” So the next day the wind was perfect so we drove over to this wave and every 10 minutes a little wave would come through and barrel. So I was like, ‘fuck it, I’ll guinea-pig it.’ It’s about a 20-minute walk to get out, and once I did I realised it’s a dry slab reef; it’s on the bricks. They were knee-high barrels but they just ran out of water. I thought this wave would be surfable for sure… probably right up until the point where it’d kill you. Two days later we had a little swell and I’m like, ‘We have to go and check that wave again. Entertain me. Please let’s check this wave.’ It was a two-hour ride but I had this feeling. We got there and the point where you get your first glimpse of the bay I saw it was howling offshore. Suddenly there’s a group of wild horses standing right there and I stop and take a photo and as I do I look out and see this wave just spit its guts out. Holy shit! It was just wave after wave. The other guys were five minutes behind me and I stripped naked in 40-degree weather and started suiting up. Pete and Josh get there and I just go, “I think this could be one of the best waves I’ve ever seen in my life!”
I just started giggling to myself. It’s real. This was a perfect wave, stand-up barrels, six foot and bigger. Josh has been to Alaska a lot and has the key to some city somewhere up there and was the first guy to surf in Alaska, and he’s like this blows the doors out on anything I’ve ever seen. I surfed for five hours. I thought, ‘I don’t care if I get pneumonia; I’m staying out here. Is my face still even on? They can tow me in as an iceberg, I don’t care.’ I couldn’t paddle in. I couldn’t walk away. This is the whole reason we were here. Guys, we just founda an Alaskan Backdoor and no one else is coming.
Did you get another look at it in the following days?
The last day we were there we had this huge Bering Sea storm and there had to be 60-foot waves on that side of the island, but I wanted to go and check the slab even though I knew it would be onshore. It was sending me mad. The boys were right. It was onshore and super dangerous, but I had my 5’7” with me and I paddled out. It was 10-to-12 feet, howling onshore and super heavy. I was by myself out there. I’m sitting out in the middle of a storm in Alaska all alone riding this tiny board in big, dangerous surf. It was a good way to feel very, very insignificant.
Did the trip change the way you view what you do as a traveling pro?
This was the first time in five years I’ve committed to a set-date trip, and I loved the fact that all the predictability went out the window; you just had to get out there every day. It was awesome, old school awesome. It sounds dumb but I never grew up in that era of driving to the beach not knowing what it’s going to look like. I was part of the first generation who could flip their phone and check from their bed, so this was so rewarding. It gave waves meaning. Once we got good waves it was so rewarding and it was genuine stoke–me, Pete and Josh just screaming at each other every time someone paddled into a wave because we put the effort in and we got lucky. I came home from Alaska for six hours and packed my Hawaii boards and took off. Suddenly, there I was at Pipe, and Alaska felt like a dream. I was surfing the same swell and I had this chuckle inside me that lasted a week.
See it all in The Cradle of Storms, a full-length film documenting their adventure through the Aleutians: