Article

What Am I Doing Here Alone?

The unbearable lightness of being Kepa Acero

| posted on August 27, 2012

Alaska

The 30-foot fishing boat motored upon an Alaskan island so remote, Kepa Acero doubted whether anybody had ever set foot on its wild shore. To the right and to the left, woodless green hills rose into the matte gray sky. The Alpen Glow came to anchor in the narrows of an odd, hourglass-shaped bay. At eye level, the well of the bay before them opened into a round bowl that terminated in a thin isthmus. This bridge of land connected hills at either side. Behind the Alpen Glow, the other half of the hourglass widened and spread into the North Pacific. It was September, and at that longitude the minutes of sunlight only grew fewer and the air cooler.

Two members of the four-man crew, Mike and Ben, set off to go hunting in the Alpen Glow’s only skiff. For Kepa, the dropping tide inspired a search for waves beyond the isthmus. The tide slipped out so quick and so far, however, that the Alpen Glow was soon left resting on its side in the muck. With the skiff gone and the vessel grounded, Kepa and the fourth boat mate, 23-year-old Chilean Nico Sutil, decided to dismount the deck and walk across the bay floor onto the island. They packed wetsuits and boards and cameras and Nico’s mammoth nickel-plated handgun to ward off bears. Instead of taking the shorter distance to the solid ground on either side of the narrows, Kepa and Nico opted to walk into the widest part of the bay because, as the crow flew, it seemed the shortest distance to the surf on the island’s far side. Thirty minutes later, as they neared the midpoint of the bay, they stepped into mud reluctant to hold their weight. Further on, it got worse. Nico and Kepa quickly found themselves knee- and then thigh-deep.

“When we realized what was happening, we were very, very far from the ship,” Kepa recalls. “I had the feeling that there was no bottom to my steps, as if pockets of air were opening up below and sucking me in. I knew that if I stopped, I would go down.”

The short hike lengthened into a battle to simply keep moving. Turning back was futile; the only way out was forward. And if they stopped, Kepa and Nico understood that they would sink—they would sink, and then the frigid Alaskan tide would rush back in—obscuring their presence from the Alpen Glow, their boat mates, and the world.

The smaller of the two, Kepa suspected he held a weight advantage. If he moved quickly and lightly—rather, if he thought his movements were quick and light—he could scuttle over the mire. Meanwhile, Nico continued to labor in hip-deep plunges. He paused frequently. The distance between the two friends incrementally grew.

Only a week or so before, Kepa had been milling about on Kodiak Island in an attempt to discover unknown waves and document them for his self-made series of Internet videos. This visit to Alaska was a first. The Basque countryman knew where he stood geographically, but his concept of Alaska as a place of consequence was still forming. He fished for his food, stored his gear in a tent, and slept in the rented 4×4. At camp on the beach one day, Kepa spotted a van approaching. And as loneliness had compelled him to do on his many travels around the globe, he says, “I just went straight to meet them.”

The van carried two American fishermen and the Chilean hunter, Nico. This unlikely trio met the day before at the wedding of Nico’s uncle. In the midst of the celebration they’d formed a plan to go surfing. But in the van a broader adventure was being hatched—an idea to cruise Alaska’s outer islands, to hunt and surf and fish and explore the coast. “They had wetsuits and surfboards, but were just learning to surf. I told them I knew about waves. They said, ‘Let’s go.’ In one hour, we had it set.”

The crew motored 15 hours from any scrap of civilization. Somewhere, they crossed a threshold into wilderness, and discovered island streams so thick with salmon, the fish could be snatched by hand. They contemplated pointbreaks below unapproachable cliffs. They waited out days of rain in the cramped cabin. They shared meals and stories and drove each other nuts. The strangers came to be friends. “You experience so much in such a short time, it’s impossible not to become close.”

So it was, that when Kepa reached hard ground after the slow motion terror of plodding through the mud, he looked back at a new horror. His young friend of a few weeks had barely advanced. “I thought he wasn’t going to make it,” Kepa says. “I could see it in his face. He was desperate, but Nico wasn’t going to ask for help. He knew there was nothing I could do.”

The Chilean did not utter a word. He sweated, his face went pale.

Kepa paced.  It wasn’t survival of the fittest, but something close.  The instinct for saving his own life versus the abandonment of Nico, and the logic of it all, swirled inside him.  Whatever happened, Kepa would be there to see it. Yet inch upon inch—two and a half hours later Nico beat the rising tide and crawled out of the mud.

“I would have understood it if he was angry with me,” Kepa admits. “This was a very intense moment, a situation in which you either split apart forever, or you remain as friends forever. There was no longer a middle ground.”

On a December evening in 2011, Kepa Acero parked his cheap rental outside a home in Southern Chile so he could poach from its unlocked wireless connection. Using a laptop computer, he pulled together scraps of video footage he’d captured of himself traveling by bus and by ferry on the way to isolated surf. He’d honed this part of the act, the storytelling element, over two years of travel, so that when a soundtrack and subtitles were added, Kepa felt comfortable with quickly posting the video to the Internet. He then leaned back to sleep in the rental’s driver seat. It wasn’t a big deal really. His clips had earned a following among friends. They knew he wasn’t polished, and neither were his films. When Kepa woke the next morning, however, he linked in to the stolen Wi-Fi to find that the video, “2 solitary lefts in Chile,” had been watched by 20,000 people overnight. “I was checking the hits, it was ticking in the thousands. Right next to me, there was the computer. I was in the same car, same place. Nothing had changed.”

It’s hard to know when a life’s work has arrived.

Still, it came as a surprise when a clip of his next adventure—the discovery of a perfect, barreling reef wave in Patagonia—went viral. Kepa crafted the five-minute episode, “Surfing in The End of the World,” on the ride back to Chile’s capital, Santiago, where he’d catch a flight for Spain. Once on the ground in Madrid, Kepa took advantage of the airport Wi-Fi to post the clip. Before completing the four-hour drive to Bilbao, that video was on its way to 200,000 views.

What exactly, were all of those people watching? YouTube is filthy with crude surf clips and astonishing feats. Recent years have seen the entire genre of surf filmmaking skip right over DVDs and onto the World Wide Web. Few, however, find an audience of any size.

Yet here was this lone traveler armed with a clutch of inexpensive cameras, some homemade music, and a knack for discovery. He wore pink rubber boots with hearts printed on them. He air surfed at bus stops. He hooted and groaned in anticipation of a score. He went fishing on Peruvian skiffs, rode a tidal bore, lived from bush huts, surfed with a colony of seals, and danced like a dervish in the African desert. In the videos, Kepa exclaims his loneliness and madness and longing for his mother. His arm is always in view, supporting the camera, a look defined by millions of teen Facebook stills. “Putting your eyes and mind in the camera, it’s the way you are, no?” he says. “Other people, they do it their own ways.”

A commenter online wrote, “This is amazing. I have always wanted to do this. It’s a dream of mine and to see someone get there and find such a perfect wave. HERO.”

Australian Surfing Life magazine compared Kepa Acero to the subject of another viral video: American Paul Vasquez, the man who went mush-ball crazy over a double rainbow arcing across the sky in “Yosemitebear Mountain Giant Double Rainbow.” That clip has logged over three million hits. In it Vasquez sobs, his joy uncontained. The force of the rainbow’s rays, he claims, knocked him down.

At a glance, the comparison between Vasquez and Acero is understood. The power of quirkiness, everyday truth, and the cult-of-personality to establish celebrity in five minutes or less has become a 21st century phenomenon. Think of Antoine Dodson in “Bed Intruder” or “Star Wars Kid.” Both garnered millions of views, and in Dodson’s case, a practical cottage industry.

And it is true that Kepa’s videos contain unmitigated emotion, an honesty that’s been bred out of popular surf culture.  One short called “Barrel Stocked [sic] at Mundaka” features Kepa driving through the Basque countryside, the greenery of the forest blurring in the side windows. He’s ranting and philosophizing and proclaiming a single wave he’d just ridden at the legendary river mouth. The misspelled subtitles say he’s, “stocked, so stocked.” The piece is just over two minutes long. It includes just 10 seconds of surf action. “And I have to live with this madness…” he raves. The fade to black leaves the viewer with a feeling that he too has just exited a Mundaka barrel—an intimacy that makes it impossible for a surfer to watch the episode and not connect—one good wave equating to temporary mania equating to the universal experience. This is the feeling Kepa has for his local break.

In Peru, he pontificates, “Sometimes in life you have to decide…sometimes it’s not easy…barrel or turn? Barrel or turn?”

In Chile, he bemoans, “All of this…just for some waves?”

Which is a point that makes these scraps of digitalia difficult to dismiss: they are hard won—more Naughton and Peterson than Momentum generation. Kepa endures five-month trips on shoestring budgets, sleeping on benches and buses or in a hatchback with a knife by his side. At each location, he learns to fish in the native manner. His openness invites adventure. “Yes” is the only answer. A bush pilot offered a flight to nowhere. He took it. Fishermen offered him all he could eat for a day’s work. Kepa worked it. And because he is exposed, the discoveries come to him in all of the ways that good things do.

For example, in 2010 he’d been traveling overland through Indonesia when he met a lone Australian passing time in a tiny village. The two became quick friends. They spoke English, which was rare in those parts. They surfed and filled long hours. One night, they drank a lot of beer and the Aussie just couldn’t take it anymore. He spilled his guts about the most perfect wave he’d found nearby, and he showed pictures and then bragged some more. More beers and vague directions followed. The next morning, while the bloke slept in, Kepa left a kind note, and hurried off to the coveted wave. You can watch the theft online.

Kepa somehow coached a fisherman – who’d never seen a video camera – into filming the session.  “Aim it at me like a gun,” Kepa said.   And as he surfs, audio picks up the fisherman laughing. “Bagus,” he says, “Super Bagus.”

Primary experience has but one language.

Acero convinced a local fisherman to film this wave. Although the fisherman had never seen a camera before, Kepa was able to instruct him by saying, "point it at me, like a gun."

“As you can see,” Kepa later admits, “I’m not that worried about aesthetic. The less I know, the more real it will be.”

He researches and ferrets and steals directions to secretive waves like a flea-bitten pirate, risking all of his time and most of his money to do what, exactly? Document? Make art? Is this a new way to be a professional surfer? Is it biography? Performance? The 21st century equivalent of wearing one’s heart on the one’s sleeve?

He tells the story of a time when he spent weeks waiting for a pointbreak to come alive on the coast of Southern Africa. Both the water and air were cool and the only creatures moving about were the birds, the seals, and the sharks. He lived on the barest provisions and never showered. He found a recess in the otherwise desert plain where parking his car and sleeping out of view felt safer than not. This recess he called his “castle of nothing.” One day, Kepa was poking around the point, watching the chaotic colony of seals bark and dip and swim when he heard the drone of a large vehicle approaching. On the horizon came the intimidating silhouette of an African overland truck. Soon, Kepa could see that it was one of those giant, all-wheel-drive buses that ferry tourists across the continent. The vehicle came to a halt in front of the seal rookery. But the heads and cameras of the Europeans inside didn’t observe the seals, they observed Kepa. Some clicked photographs. The wind blew. And without a wave or a nod from the group, the tour moved on.

To view, and to be viewed.

In the little beach town of Sopelana, you won’t find the Kepa Acero of the desert or the jungle. There, he is urbane. He co-owns an art gallery in Bilbao. He seems to live from a number of places. Everybody knows him, and not because of his videos. It is because Sopelana is a compact place where families live vertically in apartment buildings and the Basque culture unites them in spirit. People move into the streets at the same hours of the day. They retire to siesta together.

“Our culture is to strongly hold to the land,” Kepa says. An example might be the case of a nuclear plant the Spanish government wanted to build nearby. A politically fractious people in normal times, the Basques united as never before to defeat the plant. The country is so small, they believed, that one hiccup at a nuclear facility could easily evacuate the whole country. Without the land, there would be no Basque future. “It’s a miracle that the oldest culture in Europe has survived in this place,” Kepa says, “and I’m humbly proud of that miracle.”

He likes to take visitors to the oldest corner of the port, a huddle of Basque homes painted white with green trim from which fishermen have set out to sea for hundreds of years. There are a handful of pintxos bars and an expansive view of the city. There, in a slender alleyway, lives an old artist named Karolo. He wears long white hair and a beard. When he forgets his teeth, he talks in a philosophical sing-song. This wisdom is at the center of a number of Kepa’s films. “You are an artist until you die…” Karolo says. “I believe in nothing but God and art…” You might call him an inspiration to Kepa.

Karolo says he himself was born with a sensitivity, and fled this tiny village in the years before World War II.  He sang for his meals in the streets of Paris and on ships in the North Sea. He acted in Italian spaghetti westerns. He painted and wandered and thought. In the end, Karolo returned to his village to grow old.

“Imagine this place,” Kepa says looking around, “it was so traditional and closed back then, as an artist, he had to leave to survive.”

In their early teens, Kepa’s older brothers Iker and Eneko began skateboarding first and then surfing. They would end up leading the first wave of Europeans to make a go for the highest rungs of competition. In the early 2000s Eneko nearly cracked the Top 44. Both Aceros defined a new generation of Mundaka stalwarts. So it was natural that Kepa would come up in his brothers’ mold. He plugged away at the World Qualifying Series around the world. At the events, however, Kepa says, “You’re a zombie a little bit. You do it because someone is paying you to do it. I wasn’t focused on the beach. I still had that feeling: You catch the wave, but you don’t know the place.”

He tossed the jersey aside at 28 years old. About a year later he made his first film, “Little Talk Between Dersu and Me.” This clip earned just 968 views. But it is special in a number of ways. It documents a goodbye walk with the family dog as Kepa prepares to depart, not just to another place, but to another person.

He’d never see Dersu again.

A second look at Kepa’s hundred or so videos reveals that dynamism resides not in the surfing or the exotic locales—the dreamiest action, in fact, attracts the fewest views—but instead it’s the character portraits and interviews with the people he meets along the way that convey the most. “My focus is the waves, but I really wanted to just go walking and see how the people live.” And he does. Kepa meets a 116-year-old bachelor in Galicia, for example, and a crazed mystic of Pichilemu. On the Camino Santiago del Norte Kepa encountered an Italian millionaire who donated his entire fortune to orphans because he’s an orphan himself. Now he walks the Earth. In Alaska, Kepa picked up a hitchhiker, a 19-year-old Mongolian man who, it turned out, was on a 3,000-mile migration to look for work. “That made me think a lot,” Kepa says. “You realize there are people doing real adventures for a living, to eat. It puts you in your place. You realize you are a tourist.”

But the most central character in the body of work is the one Kepa becomes in isolation. Like Kafka’s hunger artist, who starves himself into altered states, Kepa denies himself the intimate contact of his country and culture and transforms into a person unafraid to confess the miseries and joys of a box of crackers. “It’s personal. I’m gonna tell the camera everything I’m thinking. Those moments are important.” It is necessary to know the person he is at home to understand the contortions made to become the one he is in the desert. This is the man we meet in Patagonia. This is the desperado we meet in Alaska. A creature so lonely that, when he finally spots a house, he decides to construct a lie; he decides to knock on the door and tell whoever answers that he is lost, just so that he can gorge himself on whatever crumb of conversation follows. “I really wanted to talk to someone,” he says. “I really needed to talk to someone.”

It is that willful separation from and reunification with people that creates the tension and through-line in both Kepa’s art and his life. To an extent that, as he waited on the shore of that Alaskan island wondering if his friend Nico was going to make it out of the mud—art, self, reality—everything was on the line. A man bent on documentation would have drawn a camera. But Kepa’s art depends on the union, and disunion of minds.

“The waves are important, but on every trip I have to say goodbye to a good friend I may never see again in my life.”