There are few places that hold as much surf mystique as the Aleutian Islands. The Alaskan archipelago is perfectly placed to soak up North Pacific storms. Imagine those systems, creating powerful waves that are set against a mountain-flecked back drop.
That's just part of the story though – it is raw up there, so at mercy to the whims of Mother Nature that travel can be grounded in an instant. You'll recall that a few years back now, Chris Burkard made documented one of the first trips there with Alex Gray. Now, a new project from Roark in the form of movie Arc of Aleutia has just dropped, and it sees Burkard return to the far north with the likes of Harrison Roach, Parker Coffin and Nate Zoller. And here, MSW's Matt Rode checked in with Mr Roach about the trip – talking travel pre-COVID, scoring and setting expectations.
Movie is out now. Click HERE to watch
MR: The Aleutian islands are a long way away from your home town of Noosa Heads, and about as different as two places can be. Was this your first trip to Alaska, and how did the trip come about?
HR: Yeah this was my first trip up there! I got a phone call from the guys at Roark, and, as they do, they were planning a wild trip into places that I knew very little about. It was my first trip with them, and when they first mentioned the Aleutian Islands, to be honest, I knew nothing about them.
I didn’t know where they were, I didn’t know they were part of Alaska. I’d maybe heard a little bit about them in some war history documentaries, but aside from the name I knew nothing about them. So straight away, that got me excited, because it’s pretty rare I get asked to go to place that you know nothing about.
A lot of people see footage of surf trips in Alaska and think it’s so beautiful and amazing—they see the barrels you scored and the backdrops, and it looks so ideal—but most probably aren’t aware that 90 percent of a surf trip to Alaska is just sitting around, surviving super windy, cold storms and waiting for a surfable day. Did you find the conditions pretty challenging?
Oh yeah, for sure. We were out in the Aleutian Islands, which are a stepping stone to Kamchatka and Russia and Siberia, and before we even got to the islands we were stuck in Anchorage.
The weather is so severe, and when big storms come in they just stop everything. There’s no getting out on boats, there’s no taking off in planes. I feel like half the time you can’t even drive a car down the road.
We were stuck in Anchorage for a few days before we even managed to jump on a plane to get out there. So that sort of set the tone for the trip and helped us understand that we were heavily reliant on the weather and mother nature.
But that didn’t stop us from having fun. Right from the start, Chris Burkard put the word out on his Instagram that we were there, and we ended up getting to surf a tidal bore at the Turnagain Arm that none of us had ever heard about. So while Alaska is a difficult place, it has a lot to offer. And that ended up being true about the Aleutian Islands too.
Rad, yeah I’ve surfed the Turnagain Arm bore tide as well, it’s a crazy experience. So you must have been there in the fall, if the bore tide was still surfable?
We were there in November, so it was before the insane depths of winter, but still freezing for a kid from Noosa. But it was so cool, because the surf culture there is so committed.
It’s so difficult and different to surf there, but they are fully dedicated. It was awesome to see the same enthusiasm and excitement. We surfed Turnagain Arm with a bloke who says he tries to surf it every day! That was really rad.
It’s pretty extreme up there, and the people who live and surf Alaska and around the Aleutian islands are pretty gnarly.
Yeah, it feels like freedom, and like you can get away from everything, but the reality is that you really have to take responsibility for yourself and watch out for yourself, because Mother Nature isn’t fucking around up there.
People up there live in solitude, they have to take bush planes just to get home and are very self-sufficient. It’s a crazy part of the world. I feel like I didn’t even come close to scratching the surface, and that’s what so cool about it.
Did you guys have an idea of what waves you were trying to surf, or were you just exploring and seeing what you stumbled upon?
It was a bit of both. Alex Gray had been out there before and scored that right-hand slab with Chris Burkard, and Chris instigated our trip and was telling us that there were these waves out there and that they were legit.
It turned out that, apart from being stuck inside during the peak of the storms, we scored waves everywhere we went
And I’m so used to not scoring surf—I’ve never been the guy who just flies in on strike missions, aside from a few trips to Indonesia—so I’m used to going places and not getting it firing. And when I looked into the area that we were going to and saw the waves that they previous guys had gotten, I just thought “Yeah right, this is too good to be true.”
So I went with the expectation that we weren’t going to get a lot of surf, and I’d just bring a longboard and sniff around and try to find new spots. But it turned out that, apart from being stuck inside during the peak of the storms, we scored waves everywhere we went.
Did you chase a specific forecast in, or just choose some dates and post up and hope for the best?
We just booked in for two weeks, because that place doesn’t really lend itself to strike missions. The island we were on only has 16 residents, and we were staying in a hunting lodge. You sort of need to have everything planned and organized in advance.
The locals had to be ready for us to arrive. The majority of the food there, aside from fish, is flown in on a US Postal flight once or twice per week, depending on the weather. So it’s not the type of place you can just fly in at the drop of the hat, which is why I figured we didn’t have much chance of scoring waves like that.
You know, storms originate up there, so there’s tons of weather, but also potential to find waves. The Bering Sea must have tons of setups that work once per year or whatever. But inevitably you get huge winds and storms that blow through, but in my experience, after every storm you’d get the wind blowing in the opposite direction and it would go offshore for a day, and we’d score surf.
And then eventually the offshores would blow the swell down, and we’d be back to waiting for the next storm. It was kind of mind-blowing, but maybe we were just very lucky.
We were there for around 14 days, and ended up getting three storms that lasted three days each, and during those storms you struggle to go outside because it’s so harsh and you had to get so kitted out just to get on a quad and go searching for surf
We were there for around 14 days, and ended up getting three storms that lasted three days each, and during those storms you struggle to go outside because it’s so harsh and you had to get so kitted out just to get on a quad and go searching for surf.
Maybe the locals are used to it and they go outside, but for us, we were mostly posted up inside, cruising, reading, playing music.
Then after the storms you’d get a day of pumping surf, and you just go all day and make the most of it. So in two weeks we got four really good days of waves, which actually seemed like a bit score up there. Those days counted for a lot.
For me, scoring waves wasn’t really a bit deal. Going to a place like that, surfing is really just the icing on the cake. Just experiencing the landscape and the weather, for me, was enough for me. But one of the other boys, Nate, knew all about the right-hand slab, and was intent on surfing and scoring it.
The crazy thing was that we didn’t score that wave until our last day there. We had a plane booked, but it got delayed a day, and we saw a little swell for the next day and thought we might get a chance to surf one more time since we were still stuck on the island. But I was pretty resigned to the fact that we probably weren't going to surf this crazy slab.
And to be honest, I was okay with that, because that wave looked pretty bloody scary. But Nate is a full mad dog and wanted it. And as it turned out, the only reason we got to surf it was because our plane came a day late due to bad weather.
It takes about half a day to get there from Anchorage, so that morning we knew we had until around noon to surf, and the slab was pumping. So we ended up lucking out and scoring that crazy wave on the very last day of the trip.
We had all of our bags packed, and zipped back after dealing with that wave all morning, stuck the last boards in the bags, and jumped on the plane, sort of freaking out about the morning that we had.
Sounds like a radical adventure. Who were the other guys on the trip with you?
Nate Zoller from Roark’s home town of Laguna Beach is a charger and hard worker and writer, and just a really good bloke. I knew him from friends of friends, but it was really awesome to finally get to do a trip with him. And then we also had Parker Coffin, who is arguably one of the best surfers in the world.
I’d never met him before, and just couldn’t believe how humble he was and how much of a legend he was. So that was the crew, plus of course Chris Burkard and Ben Weiland who have teamed up a lot in the past and created a lot of projects like the Arc of Aleutia.
They are experienced in cold-water climates and had been to that part of the world before, and that was essential to us being able to have a successful trip. So it was fantastic. And then we also had one of the Roark guys, Mikey, and another photographer, Ryan Hill. It just ended up being an epic group.
When you are on those types of trips it really matters who you are with—not just from a surfing point of view, but even just leaving the house on the quads, if something were to go wrong, you really want to be with people you can trust to take care of things.
And you have to be confident in yourself as well, that you will be there for your crew if things go bad. I felt pretty lucky to be with those guys. Especially on the slab wave.
There was one point where Parker Coffin and I dove a wave, and when he came up he wasn’t on his board. It turned out he’d been knocked off his board by a sea lion, and it was just zooming around us, like a huge pit bull thrashing through the lineup, bumping into us.
I’d never experienced anything like that in my life, coming from Noosa Heads, and I was just going, “What the hell do we do?!” I tried to paddle in, but it was this dry-reef slab, and I wasn’t sure which was more dangerous!
Then the next minute Nate came paddling by with his head down—he’d just been washed through and had to do a big lap to get back to the peak—and he paddled straight past us like nothing was happening and sat right on the peak. And I remember thinking, “Well it’s all good, we’ll just pretend that we are safe and it’s not happening, and we’ll all be fine!”
Those guys were just great to be with out there. I definitely would not want to be going it on my own.
Those types of experiences—waves notwithstanding—are the reason you go that way. It seems like that’s sort of Roark’s program, trying to have as much of an experience and adventure as possible, and also trying to score waves. Will you be doing more trips with them in the future?
Yeah, definitely. We actually had a lot planned for 2020 and even for 2021 that I have unfortunately not been able to do (due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions). But I am partnered up with Roark, and as a 31-year-old who never really expected to be making a living out of traveling and surfing, to be working with a brand like them and to have the experiences on the trips that they go on is pretty amazing.
They aren’t afraid to stick their necks out and have that purposeful misadventure that, when you reflect back on it, is what really adds to an experience, as opposed to fly in/fly out strike missions where you might score waves and remember some epic barrels, but it’s the same sort of adventure. The tubes are secondary to the whole experience when you go on trips like this to the Aleutian Islands, so I’m really excited to be working with Roark.
That seems to be something that’s sort of missing these days, in an era of instant gratification. We can become so fixated on scoring that we forget to take time out to have adventures and embrace the culture and local experiences wherever our pursuit of waves takes us.
Yeah, I think one of the biggest impacts of this trip was meeting some of the local people, and sitting in a little fishing shack with Danny Boy and some of the other elders and talking to them about what their life is like there.
It was just incredible to think that people can survive out there, year in and year out, and in fact have survived there for thousands of years. It’s just so rugged and gnarly, but it’s who they are.
For me, that was one of the most exciting things about experiencing that place, the culture and the people. I think there’s probably a lot of parallels between colonization there and where I’m from, with the indigenous people. I felt really lucky to be able to sit there and have conversations with them about their culture and their land.
Well it’s certainly a treat for us to be able to share that experience with you vicariously through the film. Thanks for taking the time to chat, and for stepping outside of your comfort zone to go somewhere amazing and gnarly and inspirational!
Cheers mate, thanks!