Heli Surf Bums
Written by Meghan Young
There are seven dirty ski bums in a Beaver searching for waves. This wasn’t our original plan, but it is happening. While working for a heli-skiing company in Haines, Alaska, the temperatures this March rose far above normal for the week. This isn’t unheard of, but it still sucks. The snowpack on the Chilkat Mountains is now unstable and making heli-skiing impossibly dangerous for the two Australian clients we have promised to take. It’s still possible for me to fly them up the mountains, but the avalanche risk for the skiers is too high. In our world, this is called a Down Day. For the two Aussies, Matt and David, who only have three days left on their vacation, this is called a Damn Travesty.
No one at our company wants to see the last few days of the Aussies’ trip come to an unexciting end. This is Alaska, the last frontier, we are determined to not let that happen. We decide to take them surfing instead. This is not something our company advertises, markets, offers, or has ever done before. It’s up to us to plan, organize, and facilitate this improvised adventure.
My boss, AKA Sean Dog, used to live in a place called Yakutat. This small village in southeast Alaska has around 600 residents and is one of the many towns in Alaska only accessible by air or sea. Most importantly, it has some of the best blue-face surfing in the world. The surf at Yakutat is even immortalized on the Alaskan Brewery’s Icy Bay IPA bottle label. Before moving to Haines, Sean Dog was a commercial fisherman in Yakutat. And when he wasn’t fishing, he was surfing. There are rumors that Robert Duvall’s character in Apocalypse Now was loosely based on him. I may have started those rumors.
SURFING IN ALASKA
I learn that surfing in Alaska is a possibility at the exact same moment that our clients Matt and David do: as Sean Dog is laying out the hair-brained plan. “Fuck yeah, mates. Let’s go!” The Aussies respond immediately beside me. I’ve never been surfing before but their enthusiasm is contagious. I’ve got an ear-to-ear grin and I am just as excited as they are.
Sean Dog calls up his buddy who owns a Beaver airplane, because of course he has a buddy with a Beaver airplane, and within just a few hours, we are headed to the airport. “Pack light” is the phrase the pilot uses. Being a helicopter pilot myself, I understand that term better than most.
There is an amazing six-year-old that I know named Juniper AKA Sean Dog’s daughter, one we have trained well, and just so happens to be the best skier on the mountain. Whenever I ask her, “Juniper, what is a ski bum?” She replies, “Smart!” “Well, why are ski bums so smart?” “Because they figure things out.” Juniper knows what’s up. She is right, we have this trip all figured out. Everyone on this trip is, at their heart, a ski bum - and this is a true ski bum adventure. No rental car will be waiting for us upon landing, no hotel bookings, no reservations for dinner. We show up to the airport having packed as light as we could. We all have the clothes on our backs, a camera bag with some gear, and only two sleeping bags. I am wearing my swimsuit underneath layers of my warmest down clothes and I have a clean pair of socks and underwear stuffed in my pocket. This heli-ski bum is truly ready for anything.
Being a helicopter pilot in Alaska has given me the opportunity to see more beauty and grandeur than most people see in their lifetime, but this trip is truly one for the books. It is a special pleasure to be sitting in the passenger seat and just enjoying the ride. Our flight is just over an hour. One second I am looking at beautiful glaciers that stretch on for miles and soon I am looking down at the beach and seeing the waves we will be riding.
Shortly after we are wheels-down in Yakutat, we easily unload the plane, and our pilot, Paul, gives us a, “See ya tomorrow at four.” Matt and David saw those waves from the air and they are more-than-ready to get to the beach.
They say, “it’s all about who ya know,” and Sean Dog knows a guy we can rent a van from to get us to the beach. We find a gate that says ‘Pilots Exit Here’ and make our way out of the airport to find our van man. There is hardly any snow left on the ground here in Yakutat which tells us that it has been unseasonably warm here as well. We find our van man and he points to a van and says, “leave some cash when you bring it back.” It is time for us to head to the surf shop to get everything we need for this wild adventure.
The Icy Waves Surf Shop sits without fanfare right in the middle of a few housing blocks in town. The surf shop’s sign hangs in what looks like just a normal driveway. As soon as we pull up, the owner walks out to greet us, “You guys must have the same shitty hot weather we’re having or you’d be heli-skiing right now instead of visiting me.” The owner and our boss instantly pick up right where they left off years ago, laughing and joking about the old days and talking about how the surf had been.
Apparently, the tides and surf have both been good. He is excited to see us and more than stoked to open his shop up to us and get us everything we need to go surfing...and we need everything. For some odd reason, our Aussie clients didn't bring their surf gear with them to Alaska. Shockingly, none of us have surf gear for our heli-skiing season. We grab some boards and wetsuits and head off to the grocery store to grab our dinner and breakfast supplies. We easily spend over $100 for these meals even though in the lower 48 it would cost maybe $40. Everything in Yakutat arrives by barge or plane and there’s nothing cheap about either of those deliveries. On the dinner menu, we have hot dogs, chips, and PBR. Truly, all a ski bum needs to be happy is some food in their belly, beer, and a wild adventure ahead.
We head to the beach that will serve as our campsite for the night. At the end of a dirt road, all of a sudden, the beach reveals itself dramatically from behind the thick tree line. I have never seen so much driftwood on a beach. We jump out of our 15-passenger van and take it all in. The air is damp and salty smelling and I can hear the waves along with some hungry eagles squawking. There is a cool makeshift hammock that someone made out of an old fishing net and we decide to pitch our camp right where memories of others have been shared. It takes hardly any time at all to round up some drift wood and build a kick-ass bonfire to roast our hot dogs over.
Now it’s time to scope out some waves. We walk the beach to find exactly where we will be surfing in the morning. The level of stoke we are all feeling is high even though the temperature is only in the mid 40’s. I can’t help but think I will be freezing my ass off tomorrow.
We sit looking out at our heli-ski-bum-surfer’s paradise. From the desolate beach, up the coast a bit, exists a truly breathtaking view of the Saint Elias Mountain Range, but because of the fog and low clouds we can’t see them. Just knowing that one of the most remarkable views on Earth is behind those clouds almost adds to the mystique and to our excitement. We hope more than anything those clouds will lift by morning.
That night we tell stories around the fire and drink beer. The sounds of our laughter echo across this remote Alaskan beach and I imagine it’s the eagle’s turn to enjoy hearing our squawking. I am surrounded by an amazing group of men that all have some true adventure under their belts. Matt and David tell us about different surfing trips they have been on and about Bali and how gorgeous it is. One of our employees, Jack, tells us about all the work and training he is doing to guide a group to summit Denali in the upcoming summer like it’s his day job - because it IS Jack’s day job. Our good friend Eddie is with us too. Eddie is the friend who is always in such a great mood and is usually yelling “POW!” No one loves snowboarding deep powder more than Eddie. He and one of his friends have converted an old school bus into their home. In the winter they chase pow and in the summer they chase whatever the hell they want. My boyfriend Cole regales us with stories about hunting mountain goats. Our freezer at home is never empty and it’s all because of him. I am truly grateful.
The guys ask if I had any crazy helicopter stories to share and I tell them about the time my chopper’s low-fuel light came on, which meant I only had one gallon of fuel left and five minutes to get my ass on the ground. Luckily, I was right next to the airport. I was definitely puckered on that flight. The owner of that helicopter definitely heard some words out of my mouth after that flight because it wasn’t the first time he was notified about the faulty fuel gauge, something that can easily kill a pilot.
As the night wears down, we all attempt to figure out where we will sleep. The Aussies decide to snooze on the bench seats of our giant van. Eddie and Jack sleep close to the fire, parallel with the big logs surrounding it. Cole and I curl up and spoon as much as a couple can while sleeping in two separate mummy bags. But Sean Dog teaches us all a trick that I will never forget. He digs a hole in the sand like a dog and scoops the hot coals from the fire into it. He covers up the coals with sand and sleeps on top of it, warm and cozy beneath the Alaskan sky. This isn’t Sean Dog’s first rodeo.
Morning finally rolls around and the breakfast menu consists of canned Chef Boyardee Ravioli and instant coffee heated up in cut-up PBR cans. Packing ski-bum-light doesn’t leave room for proper coffee mugs, but this is still five stars.
We finish our nutritional breakfast and it’s time to suit up and walk the beach to our surf spots. It is extremely foggy and we still can’t get a view of the mountains. Out of the seven of us, my boyfriend and I are the only ones who had never surfed. My first worry is still that I am simply going to freeze my ass off but we gather up some more driftwood and get a roaring fire going so we can all come warm up after a few waves.
After getting a few pointers from the guys, we run a few laps and stretch out before heading to the water. I am about to surf for the first time and hot damn am I excited. Maybe for the first time, I realize the pure joy and excitement of new adventure that so many of my ski clients feel each time we fly them up to the top of a snowy mountain in Alaska.
The moment that water touches me, I know I am about to have a kick ass time. It isn’t nearly as cold as I imagined. The guys are letting me use a giant paddle board to surf on because it should be easier to balance on and give me the best chance to actually stand up on a wave. I’m 5’2 and 130 pounds and am completely dwarfed by this giant board. With my wingspan, I can barely reach the water on the side of the board, but I paddle my heart out anyways. Cole and I are way behind the rest of the group who have paddled out to where we need to be to get set up for a wave. I look over and my boyfriend is right next to me, and even though Cole is a true mountain man, he’s doing about as well as I am. He can hike mountains with 100-pound packs and he can catch halibut weighing 250 pounds, but paddling through waves is a whole new muscle group for both of us. He looks at me with a frustrated face and asks, “Am I even fucking moving?” After a good laugh, he starts to successfully paddle out and luckily for me, some of my buddies ride a wave down to me and help push me out to get set up for a wave.
The pros make this look so easy. After a few failures, I really begin to visualize and imagine what it might be like to actually ride one of these waves. Once upon a time, I was an athlete and believed I had good balance, but catching one of these waves in Alaska was proving to be nearly impossible.
After Matt and David catch a few waves, we all head in for a breather and a beer around the fire. Then the magic happens. The fog evaporates. The clouds lift and the sun is beaming. There they are. We can see the mountains and all 18,009 feet of Mount Saint Elias is staring right at us. We all start cheering and laughing. Our Australian clients can’t believe what they are seeing. None of us can. Except Sean Dog, because this used to be his front yard, but he still seems to be in awe.
At this moment all I want to do is stand up on that giant paddle board. Those mountains ignite a fire in me and it’s not going to be burnt out until I am riding a wave. After a few unsuccessful attempts and some good wipeouts, my buddy Jack beaches his board and comes out to help. We wait for “the wave.” When Jack sees it approaching, he starts yelling “Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!” I paddle as fast as my tiny arms can take me and then use all my remaining energy to push myself up into a stance. I am riding a wave and Saint Elias is watching. It’s an adrenaline rush for the books. I like to believe that I rode the whole wave out, but realistically, what I imagine to be a 30-second ride is probably closer to 7.2 seconds. Every second counts in my book.
Surfing on this remote beach with fantastic company under one of Earth’s most beautiful mountain ranges is one of the best days I have ever lived. It makes me realize that this Seasonal lifestyle, time and time again, surprises me with adventures that don’t even register on a normal person’s reality radar.
What do the Aussies think about all this? Maybe they feel exactly the way I do. They came to Alaska with hopes and dreams of powdery white slopes and carving beautiful lines in the Chilkats. Instead, their plans were dashed against the shores of Yakutat in dramatic Alaskan fashion. Matt and David are so stoked about this adventure that they begin talking with Sean Dog about booking in for next season. Surf or snow they want to come back to Alaska Heli-Skiing. These Aussies are exactly the people we love to have as clients. They understand that we can’t control the weather and are just all-around solid human beings that want to have a good time. They could have demanded a refund, left a bad review, and missed out on the whole thing. Instead, they trusted us and gave us the chance to make something truly special happen.
Sometimes I try to picture what future unimaginable, unexpected, full-stoke adventure will come my way. It’s difficult to imagine all of the possibilities when the possibilities are endless. What I am left with is realizing that the truly remarkable thing about Alaska is that anyone can do, quite literally, almost anything they dream up. It’s why the prospectors and adventurers came to this land long ago. It’s what brings the Seasonals here. It’s what brought this amazing company and group of people together on this tragically warm week in March. So I can sit here, dream, imagine, and concoct the next insane, unreal adventure and wonder how I can make it happen.
…I bet Sean Dog knows a guy.