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Yakutat Rising - Part I: Beyond the Edge of Nowhere by Neil Borecky  


Yakutat Rising
Yakutat Rising: an Alaskan surf tale by Neil Borecky

by Neil Borecky

Beyond the Edge of Nowhere :Part I
So how do you like small planes? :Part II
Rental Car :Part III
Search for the Break :Part IV
Heaven can be ironic :Part V

Beyond the Edge of Nowhere

Boreckyís found that itís often a slow boat that takes you to some of the most outworldly places of your life. Iím not sure how a Canadian found his way onto a mixed blue and red-state American research vessel, nor how itís possible to see 79 species of larger animal that youíve never seen before on North Americaís frontier, but you get lots of time to contemplate these things on a 20 hour boat crossing with a 16 foot sea smashing into the beam of the boat.

Yakutat Rising: an Alaskan surf tale by Neil Borecky

Canadians always get a bemused reception up in Alaska; like youíre the fun, naive cousin visiting. It never quite approaches a paternal feeling, but it is almost as if the Alaskans expect the Canucks to do something outlandish: Eat the bait ...eat the bait!; Jump the cliff ...jump the cliff!;

Go talk to the hot girls...and get them to our table with your weird accent and a few well placed Ďehís. Sometimes this naivety pays off. "Is this good? Did I do well? " Ė I asked as I pulled in a 100lb halibut after about 5 minutes of fishing. The crew just smiled through skinned teeth. Apparently the fishing had been rather slow up till then. Still, somehow I found myself onto the Bering Sea crab vessel "Ocean Cape" , all 100 feet by 30 feet wide of this floating hamlet.

I love maps. At the age of about three, I used to trace out Greenland over and over again on a piece of trace paper. Oddly I always had the map upside down. At three years old, an upside down Greenland looks way cooler facing south than if it points north. Later, I always thought that a strange feature was how Alaska managed to grab a decent chunk of British Columbiaís coastline. So I studied the boundary peaks that separated northern BC so incongruently from the ocean. Mt. Fairweather seemed like wild place and for years I dreamed of this mountain.

It was so remote....and as I happily found ...remains so. Sitting on the deck of the Ocean Cape, I watched this mountain for about 8 hours as it approached and then loomed in the twilight off our stern until it disappeared; lit by the red haze of an Alaska midnight sunset. The LaPerouse Glacier plunged from the nearby mountains straight into the ocean. It takes some time to notice this because thereís so much aggregate material entrained. Itís only when one sees the circular boreholes spewing clear, cold water from the side of the cliff face do you realize that it is ice that towers above your now tiny vessel, not the usual eroded diamicton.

It would be a treasure to find a place like California, or Tofino, or Oregon; as it was before people came to cluster on the shore like velliger jellies with their ostentatious homes, adopted surfer accents, and unique brand of hippy-consumerism. Some place that felt like youíd just rolled your chuck wagon onto the beach after crossing the country and lost half your companions to the ravages of travel, a cold winter, and local folk that didnít necessarily appreciate your vision of the future.

And this land was called Yakutat.

The reality is that I choose very carefully about the places I describe. Even in private conversations. But the wild coast of Alaska is unique. Itís been long since discovered by the outside world. Itís just that few choose to travel there. The fact is that Yakutat sits on the edge of the Pacific by itself and the scale of the place escapes normal description. It costs far more to get there than it does to stay somewhere warm for a few months. Economics and accessibility are its fortress. Unless you get there for free.

You should have been here yesterday.

Yakutat Rising: an Alaskan surf tale by Neil Borecky

When youíre on a fishing boat, astoundingly professional fishermen still love to fish in their time off. Itís a strange occupation. One never sees doctors performing leisure surgery at parties, nor dentists out cruising the streets for teeth to pull on the holidays. The one judge I know rarely sits up beyond his drinks to dazzle us with amazing feats of jurisprudence. But Donnie and Georgie, the first mate and the skipper; no matter what the occasion seemed to be in a frenzy to catch fish. It was an addiction. "Drop a line down...see if we can pull us up a big oleí Ďbut!"-Georgie boomed, all 280 lbs reverberating his imported Bremerton drawl. Watching people catch fish is fun....but itís miserable on a bluebird morning as you watch the last of a good swell stack up on the reef about a mile away on shore...with no way to get there and no sympathy from those already immersed in their element.

We anchored the big black mass of the Ocean Cape just outside of Yakutat Harbour and took a zodiak into town. In a town of only 800, a boat that size is fairly conspicuous. Set up as a research trawler, thereís a thin layer of resentment among fishermen who long-line or seine fish, although Yakutatís sandy bottom elicited more curiosity than the stink eye weíd become familiar with inside South-East. In the fishing world, bottom trawlers are revered as the scourge of the sea by other fishermen, although it seems the bigger the boat, the less shit one has to take. Pecking order is by size of vessel and the trawlers always seem to have that same huge, sleek look to them. We were on a Bering Sea crab vessel.

These are normally set up with a sizeable lifting crane to stack the 800lb crab pots, and a potent power-block (winch) to lift the pots into the boat. For our purposes, Donnie configured the deck with a hydraulic drum for reeling in the trawl net get name, and a set of 1000lb trawl doors that almost cost me my arm in a terrifyingly-brief second.

"You that dragger out in the bay? Whasíisíname...Ocean Cafe?" Ė asked a nosey, toothless fellow, peering down at us from the top of the pier ladder. He was armed with a pair of binoculars and poor eye-sight; squinting out at the Ocean Cape on the bay as he molested the last of a cigarette. After satisfying his curiosity that we werenít a commercial trawler, I enquired about "the surf shop". The directions were appropriate for a town of that size. Down the road...take the shortcut though...past the old steam train, past the boat graveyard in the forest..then thereís a path with some like old cars and stuff...and then you get to a road..and then another road and keep going until you see Endicottís house with all the boards in front.

NOAA meteorologist seeks friends to share 100ís of miles of open coastline and endless swell. Likes include past guest Jed Knoll and New Zealand. Dislikes...few if any.

Jack Endicott owns one of the more famous surf shops in the world; utterly disproportionate to the size or commercial aspirations of what is known as "Icy Waves". (See Interview with Jack). Iím pretty sure that Jackís main business is selling T-shirts. They kind of sell themselves really. Itís possibly the only souvenir in all of Yakutat, aside from the wax-covered cardboard fish boxes to pack home your catch. Yakutat is small. Really small. Main exports are sport fish (Silver Salmon primarily), moose-meat and bear pelts. Raw log exports are a year round staple. Recreation is fishing, four-wheeling, hunting, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, surfing and hanging out at the "Glass Door" bar on Saturday nights. No cruise-ships please. The last thing this place needs is a pasty Texan by way of Seattle waddling around the streets with his video camera asking "Whereír all the wayuls at?". You might as well stick them in a t-shirt that says "Bears eat here free". Itís hard not to be cynical when these folks ooze off the ship to shore tour bus point their video-machines at the unmoving glacier for 30 seconds and then drawl: "Well thatís enough of that shit", before scuttling back to the cruise ship. All you can eat buffets and non-stop casino. Always put your money on over-indulgence.

Yakutat Rising: an Alaskan surf tale by Neil Borecky The front of Icy Waves is a nondescript sign on a blue bungalow, which might as well just say "The Wilsonís" or "Welcome to Our Home". The boards stacked up on the porch look like itís just another surf-bumís part-time ding-repair enterprise, but walk around the dog, the wood pile and a down the gravel driveway to the back of the house and hit the bell to the sticker-encrusted back door. "Please ring to let us know that youíre here". When Jack opens the door, he looks like a great big teddy bear, more apt to programming computers than to starting a surf-shop. But dressed in his perpetual Hawaiian shirt and affable grin, he opens the portal to a fully bonnified shop with gleaming 7í9" sleek pin-tailed guns on the racks shaped "For Alaska by Jed Knoll". There are bat-tailed , quad-finned fish-styles from Santa Cruz, and all manner of board in between. Jack, clearly....has the bug.

"Oh you shoulda been here yesterday." ĖJack barely concealing that macabre delight one gets when telling other people what you scored and they just missed. "8 foot glassy peelers. No one out. It was a shame really... all that excess. Should be something in tomorrow though. I can give you a board to use and a ride out to the break if you feel like going. Itíd be fun to head out in the morning. What magazine did you say you were from again....?"

Yakutat Rising: an Alaskan surf tale by Neil Borecky

Forget it. Tomorrow I might as well be interviewing a flamingo. Our plans didnít include waiting in Yakutat so Borecky could score waves. We were destined to head north that night to a remote wonder called Icy Bay. It was to be one of the most amazing places to beam through my retinas. The lazy afternoon sun reflected in the lens of my camera...attached to the telescope...fixed in the distance on Ocean Cape and Point Carrew. It seemed pretty unlikely that Iíd ever spend the kingís ransom to charter my way back here. Sometimes things really are just too good to be true. The ocean melted the sky in the west as Knut, the 76 year old Norwegian deckhand made a perfect bow with his halibut rod. He pulled up a dogfish in yet another one of our frequent stops to "drop a line down...see what we get". Predictably the swell started back up on our broad side and the little green bubbles began to form above my head.

A loud boom threw me out of my berth. The focíscle is always pitch black. The heat and noise of the engines drone you to sleep in a second. Night and day are indistinguishable. Itís the pit of no return for even the most coffee-fueled soul. I threw on my clothes fast as the chatter above decks grew louder.

Yakutat Rising: an Alaskan surf tale by Neil Borecky

The sound of broken glass filled my ears as I climbed out of the noisy bowels of the ship and the shine in the air was like a diamond enema directly to the eyes and brain. The crew was all hanging off the sides of the ship. Faces of scientists and fishermen were wide and all eyes had a child-like stare as they gazed into the distance. It was as if weíd descended upon the shores of an alien planet for the first time. The sea all around us was filled with ice that clinked together in an eerie sound. All around us, thick sedimentary rock, thousands of feet high, was deeply cut by glacial streams. Blankets and rivers of glaciers sloughed a never-ending stream of crystal ice shards into the water from their lofty perches; pieces from slivers to buses to icebergs hundreds of feet long. It looked like the Grand Canyon had met Antarctica in some very distant past or optimistic post-apocalyptic future.

Yakutat Rising: an Alaskan surf tale by Neil Borecky
This is Icy Bay.

A line gets drawn. I suppose all of us are compelled to travel to a place that feels like the frontier. It was said that there was a time when the frontier was the place where another manís campfire smoke wouldnít taint your horizon. Now I suppose for some itís down the street smoking dope with the older kids. For others itís a road trip across the country to settle in Kitsilanoís hipster scene, or to live in the ski-bum-glory of Whistlerís tourism whore ghettos. Full-moon parties in Thailand or Margaret Riverís shark infested breaks. Where people stop is usually where it feels like culture or civilizationís last strong edge and from beyond that itís quite unexplored, or one can take brief forays into what is beyond before wrapping the warm blanket of oneís comfort zone back around them. The frontier is where the amount of friction needed becomes too great for the masses; either in spirit, physical effort, finances or logistical planning.

This world has shrunk so dramatically in the last three decades, that for many of us, conceptually, there are few frontiers left that a top-ten secret magazine article or extreme reality TV show hasnít seemed to have grazed. As I speak I become that whore and that laser beam.

ĎSay it once and say it with shame, all was beauty before you cameí- reads the plaque.

Yakutat Rising: an Alaskan surf tale by Neil Borecky

Icy Bay endeavoured to best our efforts in every way possible. This black hulk of a vessel trying to thread its way through the white shards of ice; the water so choked that eventually the shipís engine could not force us further into the vast fiords. Our mission to poke and probe at its waters proved just as difficult. The results of CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) casts flickered across our computer screens in an out worldly fashion, unparalleled by anything else that we had seen in Southeast Alaska in the previous three weeks. Our trawls, too choked with ice to yield anything of significance. Even the VanVeen bottom snatcherís jaws (sediment grab) remained pried open by the ice-rafted stone rubble that mixed so freely with the glacial rock flower; each sample slipping out the cracks so as to free whatever invertebrates that may have been living in situ. I couldnít imagine what creature might live in such a fine, ice-cold paste, with boulders raining down around it constantly; apparently ones that proved successful at evading collection.

And so, sandwiched far offshore between lurking bars and a heavy swell on our beam, we began our long voyage back into the comfort zone of civilization. A pod of porpoises occasionally riding the bow wave before blending into the rest of the ebbing twilight.

Northern lights of green and red blasting across the sky, the apex of Leonid showers and biolumincense in silver-dollar sized chunks. At once, nature can pound meaning to dust and rebuild it whole. The human fingerprint is a diminutive one and brief one indeed.

-Borecky Out.

 

 

 

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