What attracts us to faraway places? What compels us to load a car trunk, suitcase, or kayak, to once again brave marathon drives and convenience store fare, or airport queues before time warps of being crammed in with strangers like anchovies? It can be a friend’s recommendation. A tome by Pico Iyer or Paul Theroux. A name summoning wildlife, nightlife, culture, history, refuge, or recreation… In the age of YouTube and Instagram, the hook will likely be visual.

A photo the late Californian pioneer-surfer Bob Kemp took in 1993 drew the filmmakers Ben Weiland and Chris Burkard to a remote subarctic bay. 

Kemp had scouted Alaska’s “untapped liquid assets” for three and a half years total, island-hopping along the broken Aleutian chain, camping solo, without weather reports or communication to the outside world, marooned with enough supplies to last months, immersing in surf that numbs limbs and the mind, “real guru shit” to one devotee in his wake. The locals, visiting, ensured Kemp was okay.

surfer in the barrel of a blue-green ocean wave. In the background is a tall mountain that slopes gradually on one side, and is cliffs on the other.
“Slotted” inside a barrel in Umnak Island’s Inanudak Bay on a rare sunny day. Photograph by Chris Burkard and Ryan Hill. Courtesy 1091 Pictures.

Weiland, a former graphic designer based in San Diego, grandson of a crack skiing mountaineer, and fan of backwaters, has filmed aquatic first descents in the Faeroes, Kamchatka, Canada, and New Zealand, quests he compares to looking for waves on the moon. He’s chased arctic surges for over a decade, riding Icelandic combers under auroras before a storm shuttered that country. In The Cradle of Storms (2014) and Arc of Aleutia (2021), Weiland and Surfer staff photographer Burkard set their sights on cliff-bracketed waves Kemp watched feather holed up in an Umnak Island hunting shack. The duo and their freesurfer cohort study Google Earth and antique nautical charts for possible breaks and buoy and satellite feeds for updates like Roman augurs did bird flight. Intuition meets science in predicting where currents, tides, and winds will align rewardingly, fleetingly, causing swells to crest at just the right speed and angle. The best peak as A-frames, smooth-faced with even shoulders, before crashing or zippering shut in scrolls peeling left or right. 

Unlike competitive boarding’s big kahunas, freesurfers prefer vagabonding on jaunts athletic brands sponsor. They run adventure-travel outfits, assume beachboy lifestyles, dirtbag appearances, flashing the horned shaka “hang loose” gesture, leaking hydrography in a hammock-y lingo. From San Onofre or Waimea, they jet to Popoyo, Jeffreys Bay, and Siargao, checking on the action, parked beachside, gripping mugs of Kona, searing Dick Dale or Agent Orange riffs blasting from van speakers. Harrison Roach, an Aussie ace dipping his toe into free-ze-surfing, favors the “no-frills approach of a pair of boardshorts and a tube of zinc.” 

Three young men gathered around a campfire at dusk, tents in background. Camped on a beach.
Where surfing yarns are spun into legends after a good day on Umnak. From left to right: Harrison Roach, Parker Coffin, and Nate Zoller. Photograph by Chris Burkard and Ryan Hill. Courtesy 1091 Pictures.
Man wearing black beanie looks out airplane window
The setting’s remoteness awes Australian pro surfer Harrison Roach on the flight to Dutch Harbor. Photograph by Chris Burkard and Ryan Hill. Courtesy 1091 Pictures.

Now, housed in dome tents above driftwood, barefoot in an inch of fresh snow, they squeeze into quarter-inch hooded wetsuits, booties, and mitts—sporty frogmen, neoprene ninjas—or grab a few zees in raingear on foreshore shingle. They carb-load on spaghetti with reindeer meatballs and roar past ranch cattle, straddling ATVs an hour in muddy tundra tracks, parading bleached steer-skull hood ornaments, boards strapped crosswise to back racks, seeking nirvana, becoming mired, wheels spinning, slinging clods and one dislocating when a ball joint fails. They hose mud off their boards back at a cabin. They’ve swapped fist bumps in the lineup for goose bumps, “beach bunnies” for bachelorhood, flip-flops for XTRATUFs, white sand for slick cobbles, sweet palm-rustling breezes for campfire smoke. Awed by rain that 60-knot winds bearing kelp notes whip sideways, they surf two days of 10 in surroundings so wild that “in a weird way, you can find calm amongst the chaos.” The entire experience is “exotic in the exact opposite way” of the endless summer most water dogs try to live.

After a four-hour session, shivering, slurring his words, Alex Gray asks if his face is still attached. Captain Jimmer McDonald, a Dutch Harbor skipper with pirate earrings and a Mongol mustachio, ferried the pack to Unalaska breakers when fog and blizzard grounded them for three days. Watching his passengers launch from Miss Alyssa’s deck after they’d hooked some rockfish, McDonald wondered why you’d jump “off a perfectly good boat” in the Bering Sea. They’d begun acclimatizing in Anchorage, weather-bound the first time, a volcanic-ash flight advisory in effect. They’d dipped into Turnagain Arm whooping like school kids on snow days as its tidal bore buoyed them. 

Surfer jumps from top of boat into water, holding board and wearing drysuit
Launching off Miss Alyssa to paddle toward the lineup for waves off Unalaska. Photograph by Chris Burkard and Ryan Hill. Courtesy 1091 Pictures.

Umnak, their final destination, sits about halfway in the 1,200-mile Aleutian tail, its third-largest vertebra. Twelve Unangan families call it home, as did their forebears nine millennia ago. The Russian-Orthodox church’s turquoise-blue roof, trim, and onion-shape cupolas anchor Nikolski, population 39, one of the world’s oldest continuously occupied villages. Umnak’s fiery core bred beach hot springs and Alaska’s sole geyser field, bursts rich in arsenic, which projectile-vomits rocks. The sea took a bite out of the outcrop’s green, western flank—blond in the fall—a bight two miles wide casting reef breaks, an arena for Weiland & co. stunts: Inanudak.   

There our ankle-leashed nomads again get detained, feeding logs to a cabin’s oil-drum stove while gusts rattle windowpanes.

Burkard: “Hunkering down has a whole new meaning…you just have to be willing to suffer through it.”

Roach: “Nothing in this place comes easy.”

Travelers to the archipelago better not only have a plan B but C to G backups. Even on good days in November (when gales ratchet up, pushing billows), it’s too dark at 8 a.m. to head out, so the bros, carving dream arcs, nestle an extra hour in eider. They maximize joy, dawn-patrolling, returning at dusk.

Surfer rides a wave just outside the whitewash. Ocean is an emerald color
The emerald maw and whitewater “soup.” Photograph by Chris Burkard and Ryan Hill. Courtesy 1091 Pictures.

By not leaving during a lull, they risk weeks of delay from another storm, all for Kemp’s epic “score,” the rad whitecap they haven’t yet seen. Exhilarated, they mount in the blow’s aftermath “a world-class slab that breaks on just about dry reef,” very shallowly, the kind of upheaval scary to tackle with a hospital nearby. They drop into hollow ones, barrel through stand-up, spitting blown-glass tubes, the chilliest wet some ever encountered, dwarfed by Mt. Vsevidof emerging from clouds, a snowy cone that for Josh Mulcoy “might as well have been a unicorn.”   

Horses running across wheat-colored grasslands on a flat island landscape, bay in background
Horses descended from stock of a ranch now defunct roam Umnak Island. Photograph by Chris Burkard and Ryan Hill. Courtesy 1091 Pictures.

They joined the blue-lipped tribe eagerly for this inside passage, these stretched moments in the greenroom, a spinning crystal cavern whose hue shifts from sapphire to emerald depending on the light’s angle. They joined for albatrosses coasting on currents above, for sets haloed by offshore-wind spray, ranks marching shoreward and busting their spines in the rollers’ ceaseless battling of land’s fastness. Last though not least, they joined for companionship. United in ecstasy, they seal-play between booming mounds and hissing backwash—slaloming horizontally, unconcerned about sharp corals, landlords (great white sharks), or local surfers (who can be territorial)—till the scud lifts and evening sun turns the brine into hammered silver. 

“Sometimes it’s not even the most perfect wave,” says unicorn-smitten Mulcoy, sold on Yakutat and Glacier Bay surf since 1992. Like the point at which thrills jell into terror, the fascination is hard to nail down. Roach senses “freedom but also confinement on this tiny island in turbulent seas.” Kin to the late, boarding Sitka naturalist-writer-radio host Richard Nelson, they crave frigid highs, often compulsively, to feel alive. There are things to be said, Burkard thinks, despite cabin fever, for being where storms start, things that will stoke them into their twilight, arthritic years.

Surfer appears to be casually standing on a large paddleboard riding a wave moving up a wide inlet
Chilling on the tidal bore in Turnagain Arm. Photograph by Chris Burkard and Ryan Hill. Courtesy 1091 Pictures.

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

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