Saturday, April 30, 2016

Worshiping Waves from a Polyurethane Pulpit in Southeast Alaska

Gales to swells

Gale strength winds continued for a fourth straight day over Lynn Canal.  This 90 mile long, 2,000 foot deep fjord has always been associated with hellacious northerly winds flowing out of the frozen interior of the Yukon in northwest Canada.  The rotting remains of storm battered ships, including a few from the gold rush days of the late 1800’s, attest to the violence brought on by the northerly gales of Lynn Canal.  

I was experiencing these violent winds first hand during a cold winter afternoon in February.  But my purpose was not to reconnect with the gold seeking souls of yesteryear; I was here to observe surfers.  A byproduct of strong winds flowing across a long fetch of water is increased wave height.  Most people wouldn’t realize that Lynn Canal, due to its interior location, is a breeding ground for 10 foot waves when gale strength northerly winds are sustained for several days.  Such was the case during this February day, and surfers from Juneau, AK were well prepared to take advantage of mother nature’s gift.

Snow stung my face as I stood for hours atop a man made walkway connecting the mainland with a tidal island several hundred yards offshore.  The surfers were clustered to my south, where a cove focused wave energy, yielding waves that surfers could ride to shore.  Sea lions gawked from a distance at these men in black wetsuits, while shorebirds battered by the wind glided above.  The surfers waited and waited and waited, bobbing up and down in the water, watching for the perfect swell approaching from the north.  

And then, just like that, a surfer would take off, paddling with his arms in an attempt to gain speed that matched the momentum of the building wave.  Through natural intuition, the surfer reached a decision point—either ride this wave to shore or let it go.  If the wave was to his liking, he would pop up from a prone position, to an upright standing position.  Skill ingrained in the surfer took over from there as he maneuvered his body and the board to maximize his ride on the wave.  A complete ride to shore was followed by a long arm paddle back to the waiting zone, where his fellow surfers huddled in anticipation for another wave.  

This is Alaska surfing at its finest, and the environment is unlike any other.  Surfers in Alaska brave frigidly cold water that is a mere 5 to 10 degrees above freezing.  Without a wet suit, death would occur quickly in those temperatures.  In addition, the winds roaring through the fjords of Alaska are accompanied by bitterly cold air temperatures during the winter.  Add to that driving precipitation, and I soon realized that the tolerance for misery must be high for an Alaskan surfer.

The Shrine of St. Therese

Despite the harsh environment, surfing in Alaska is rewarded with immense natural beauty.  Mountains rise thousands of feet straight out of the fjords; and when clouds and mist open up, tall glaciated peaks shine bright on the horizon.  The white snowy peaks are contrasted by lush green fir trees covered in moss hugging the coast line.  And wildlife abounds, in the sea, in the air, and on the land.  There is a place 23 miles north of Juneau were all of these elements converge; the Shrine of St. Therese.

The vision of a Jesuit priest named Fr. William Levasseur led to the completion of the shrine in 1941, and it has served as a quiet spiritual retreat ever since (Burns 2011).  The shrine is also a focal point for surfers living in Juneau.  Waves up to ten feet in height break within a cove located adjacent to the shrine.  Surfers ride these breaking waves to shore, arm paddle back out to the open water, and then repeat the process.  

My vantage point of the surfing activity at the shrine ranged from an elevated gravel walk way, to the rocky slime covered shore.  Random surfers would occasionally take a break from surfing, trudge out of the water, and sit on a rock along the shore.  I was surprised that surfers could stay in the water for hours and not be overwhelmed by the cold.  It was February after all, the air temperature was in the 20s, and the water temperature was in the upper 30s.  I walked up to a beefy Samoan surfer taking a break along the shore, and asked him how warm he felt out in the water in his dry suit.  He quickly corrected me, “We don’t wear dry suits, we wear wet suits.  But yeah, it’s a little chilly out in the water, but we also generate a lot of heat maneuvering around.  That helps overcome the cold.”  Only later would I learn, from an older surfer, why wet suits are used.  “You never would assume this, but surfers don’t use dry suits because you can’t pee through them out there in the water.  Wet suits are porous and allow water to transfer in and out.  The trade off is that a wet suit is a lot colder.  When you are out there in 30-something degree water, it is just plain brutal.”

So far, my investigation of Alaska surfers established that they face brutal environmental conditions that are rewarded with beautiful wild settings unlike any place in the world.  I also discovered that in order to surf within this environment, wetsuits are essential.  I still wondered, how did surfing come to Alaska?  I assumed that people transplanted from the lower 48 must have brought the sport north.  I needed to find a surfer who was part of that migration.  I found that person in Joel Curtis.

We came from the ocean

A National Weather Service forecast office wasn’t the first place I expected to conduct a surfing interview; but here I was, working a swing shift with Joel Curtis, talking for hours about his life-long love of surfing.  Up to this point, I had spent many hours casing the Shrine of St. Therese, documenting the sights and sounds of that surfing hotspot north of Juneau, AK.  In contrast to the beauty of the Shrine, a National Weather Service office is filled with computers, stale florescent lights, and the clicks and beeps of monitors alerting forecasters to short term weather hazards and failing equipment.  Joel and I conversed in this environment multiple times during January-March of 2016.  Joel sat behind the five computers composing his workstation, and I sat behind mine, extending our heads just high enough above our monitors to see each others eyes.
Joel graciously engaged ever question I presented to him.  Topics ranged from surfing techniques, to surfing equipment, to surfing culture.  However, the stories that spoke to me the most were the ones that revealed Joel’s love of surfing during his youth, and how that love was renewed during middle age in Alaska.

Joel’s journey to Alaska surfing followed his career.  He first discovered the activity during his teen years in Virginia and North Carolina.  I asked Joel what attracted him to the sport.  His response transcended surfing, “We came from the ocean—surfing allows us to reconnect with our origins.”  Joel has always loved the ocean, but his response to my first question sounded deeply religious, so I dug deeper.  What makes surfing such a spiritual experience for you?  Joel expanded on this enthusiastically, “A good ride on a wave generates huge amounts of pleasure.  Being on the edge, conquering the risk, that is what gets you hooked.  It is the same feeling a snow boarder or wing suit rider experiences.”  I was perplexed.  Is surfing a way for Joel to connect with the ocean?  Or is it a way to experience an adrenaline rush?  Or is it both…
My initial assumption coming into my study on southeast Alaska surfing was that the sport was dominated by people in their teens and twenties.  Statistical data on the average age of surfers is sparse.  A slightly dated piece of research presented by Hull (1976) generally confirms my assumption on age.  Hull (1976) found that the median age of surfers in Santa Cruz, CA was 21, and 68.4% of the age distribution resided between 10 and 21.  However, I am not certain whether this age distribution is representative of the surfing subculture as a whole, and how that age distribution has evolved in modern times.

I especially question whether Hull’s study is representative of surfers in Alaska.  Most of the surfers I’ve spoken to in Alaska are in their 30s (or older).  Joel provides some elaboration.  “There are around 30 hardcore surfers in Juneau.  Most of them brought the sport with them when they migrated north from the lower 48 to Alaska.”  If that is true, then I assume surfers in Alaska had to have the monetary means to move to the state, which is more likely if they are older in age.  Thus, I suspect the dominant surfing age group in Santa Cruz, CA is younger than Alaska.

As we continued our conversation, Joel’s response to every question I threw at him was a mix of Dixie slang (y’aaall), combined with the seriousness of a Vietnam war veteran, topped off with a cool laid back west coast drawl (duuude).  Joel is known at work for speaking Joel’isms, such as “me thinks,” instead of “I think”.  And each word was accompanied by abundant body language.  His hands were in motion as he tried to drive his points home, and his face contorted with every syllable.  But sincerity could be detected in each word.  Joel speaks with directness and purpose; and these traits are, in large part, influenced by the many locations he has called home.

Joel’s life as an east coast surfer soon ended when he joined the Air Force and transitioned to the west coast.  However, Joel was fortuitously stationed near surfing meccas such as Santa Cruz and Malibu, CA.

Santa Cruz has a reputation for robust localism (Hull 1976).  Similar to certain beaches in Hawaii, surfers in Santa Cruz display a gang-like mentality when it comes to keeping outsiders away from their most cherished surf breaks.  I asked Joel if he ever experienced localism, Joel responded, “Sure, surfers don’t like outsiders congesting the good waves.  But the ocean belongs to all of us.”  He continued to elaborate; “Localism occurs when people don’t follow the rules.  A surfer taking off at peak wave energy has the right of way.  Someone who drops in is committing a grave sin,” and is a potentially fightable offense.

Joel was a smart surfer in Santa Cruz.  “I knew about the beach gangs, but never had any problems with them.  I stuck to surf breaks that were away from the locals.  Besides, I wasn’t good enough to drop in on those guys surfing the better waves.  That’s probably one reason why I never got harassed.”

The pop-up is always a challenge

Joel took a major detour away from surfing when he was shipped off to Vietnam.  He readily discussed his adventures in Southeast Asia; reminiscing about the last days of the war—flying into Saigon to transport Vietnamese refugees out of the country.  I suspect these experiences shaped Joel’s perspective on life ever since, and likely contributed to the loose free-wheeling style he displays in his job.  I mean seriously, after surviving the intensity of a war zone, everything else in life has to be a piece of cake.

Returning stateside, Joel put surfing on the back burner for 14 years.  However, his work as a wildfire weather forecaster in the interior of Alaska inspired him to migrate to the Great White North.  By 1994, Joel became a permanent resident of Alaska working for the National Weather Service, and through a twist of fate, returned to surfing after visiting Yakutat.  “I was fishing in Yakutat Bay around 1994 to 1996, and met this guy named Jack Endicot.  He owned a surf shop in Yakutat, and that spurred me to take up surfing again.”  Being a collegiate swimmer during his 20’s, Joel’s return to the ocean felt natural, but other aspects of surfing were more cumbersome.  “I’m not gifted enough to get good rides (on waves).  It takes me a few days to retrain my body how to surf.  I don’t have good coordination on land.  I’m a gifted swimmer, but the pop-up is always a challenge.”  The “pop-up” is the transition from lying on a surfboard to a standing position on the board.

Yakutat Bay has been a favorite surfing site for Joel ever since.  He frequently takes time off from work to relax in Yakutat, where he owns a small home, and surfs for a week straight.  Joel kindly revealed that spring and fall are the best times of the year to surf near Yakutat, but swore me to secrecy not to reveal his best surf breaks in the bay.

One of those secret spots almost led to Joel’s demise.  “I was surfing on a body board in Yakutat Bay, and the current pulled me out into the open ocean.  I had two choices, either start swimming back to shore, or else die.”  I asked Joel if he thought much about death while surfing.  “Naw, it is actually pretty rare for surfers to die out on the water.  A few have drowned, but yeah, it’s pretty rare.”
The bore tide

The Seward Highway bends southeast out of Anchorage, AK, hugging the Chugach Mountains to its left, and a water inlet called Turnagain Arm on its right.  On any given day, drivers cruising down the highway may be startled to see an assortment of individuals riding a 10 to 20 foot wave-front spreading east down the Turnagain Arm.  This wave is known by locals and scientists alike as a tidal bore, and forms due to the natural resonance between the inlet and 12 hour daily tidal interval (Molchan-Douthit, 2008). 

Of all Joel’s surfing experiences, riding the bore tide ranks first.  “I rode the tidal bore for 5 miles once!  Drivers along the highway were fascinated, so much so that traffic jams started to form while they watched me.  A state trooper was really angry at me due to the commotion on the highway.  She starred me down as I finished my ride, but never took any further action.”  Joel recalled how one surfer was arrested for nudity after changing out of his wetsuit along the Seward Highway.  I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if that anonymous surfer was Joel—he seems to love being the center of attention.
We are not Sean Penn

Joel Curtis has traveled from the beaches of Virginia to the sunny shores of California, then sidestepped from steamy Vietnam to the cold waters of Alaska.  Surfing has been a way of life for him the entire time.  It is something that he has carried in his pocket, even when he took extended breaks from the sport.  The siren song of the ocean has always brought him back.  “I just knew the communion with the ocean would be a deep part of my life.  Surfing is a religious experience; but most of all, it is fun!”  The religiosity of surfing is something expressed by many who participate in the sport.  In fact, the religious connection Polynesians originally had with surfing, which was then suppressed by white missionaries, is ironically now being rediscovered by the white’s themselves (Taylor 2007).

During my conversations with Joel, the assumptions that I used to define a surfer began to evolve.  I came to realize that surfers are meteorologists, and lawyers, and stock brokers, and yes, many are slackers as well.  But as Joel exclaims, “We are not Sean Penn.  Even though that is what most people think.  You know, the typical stoner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  That’s really not what surfers are like.”

Joel further explains, “I’ve seen more people drop back into life than out of life due to surfing.”  He admits, “I knew this one guy living on the beach near Yakutat Bay, selling drugs from his van, and surfing the rest of the time.”  But despite this, Joel is emphatic that the majority of surfers are respectable people.  He has mainly encountered smart gifted people; some of whom are pillars of their communities.  And even though Joel can be goofy at times, I would include him as one of the pillars of Juneau.  I believe the people of southeast Alaska recognize this as well.  Joel has befriended many people during his time in Alaska.  Including local artist Ray Troll, who used Joel as a model for a piece of eclectic art featuring a surfer riding a salmon through a turbulent ocean.

However, the most impressionable image, and the one that sticks with me the most, is a picture that made Forbes Magazine.  Joel is surfing a wave across the vast expanse of Yakutat Bay, with the Saint Elias Mountains looming snowy and tall in the background.  The immensity of this scene makes Joel look tiny as an ant.  But just like a devoted disciple of God, Joel is in his cathedral, worshiping nature from his polyurethane pulpit.
It’s evolution

Surfing is a sport, for sure, but it is also a religion to many.  The only formal rules in this religion, as Butts (2001) describes, are to respect another surfer’s right of way to a wave (“don’t drop in,” as Joel would say), and to maintain a cool sense of style and behavior out of the ocean.  Those are the quasi-official rules to surfing; but after interacting with surfers for the last six months, my intuition told me that a true surfer partakes in the activity primarily for the religious connection they achieve with nature.

Joel speaks of surfing as a return to our evolutionary origins.  That sentiment is also reflected in a Huffington Post article, which quoted Timothy Leary, an American psychologist, as saying that “surfing [is] our highest evolutionary activity” (Blumberg 2014).  I have never surfed, so it is hard for me to describe the emotions surfers must feel out on the water.  But I have been to the edge of an ocean, which is the first step in surfing.  Looking out on the waves crashing ashore, I can see the first inklings of life crawling out of the water, battered by the waves as they search for a safe piece of dry land.  Is that the religious connection surfers feel when they speak of “returning to our origins”?  Or is it stepping away from the safety of society, engaging the fundamental elements of the planet, and feeling satisfaction that these elements were harnessed through a surf board.

As Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”  Surfers dare.  They dare to ride death defying waves.  They dare to reject societal norms and find their balance in nature.  And like Joel Curtis, they dare to open their minds to new environs, bringing the sport they love to sub-arctic locations such as Alaska.

The act of surfing in southeast Alaska is no different than surfing in warm climates such as Hawaii or California.  Sure, the conditions may be harsher, but the connection with nature is universal.  It is that connection that binds all surfers.


Blumberg, A., 2014: The spirituality of surfing: Finding religion riding the waves. Huffington Post.  Found online at:

Burns, E. J., 2011: The Shrine of St. Therese. Juneau Empire.  Found online at:

Butts, S. L., 2001: “Good to the last drop.”  Understanding surfers’ motivations.  Sociology of Sport Online. 4(1), 1-7.

Hull, S. W., 1976: A sociological study of the surfing subculture in Santa Cruz, CA.  Found online at:

Molchan-Douthit, M., 2008: Alaska bore tales: A local guide to bore tide sightings.  Found online at:

Taylor, B., 2007: Surfing into spirituality and a new, aquatic nature religion.  J. Am. Acad. Relig., 75 (4): 923-951.

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