Like any coastal Alaska town, Yakutat attracts thousands of tourists each year looking for their next big catch. But while most of them are looking for Halibut, and King Salmon, a select few are looking to catch something else: Waves.
It’s my first day in Yakutat when I stumble upon a group of surfers. It’s early, and they’re still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, milling around their to campsite when I approach. A tall, friendly looking man greets me with the signature surfer “shaka.”
He tells me his name is Eddie. He’s a helicopter ski guide from Haines here with a group of coworkers. They’d flown down the day before on account of bad snow conditions, to camp on Cannon beach and, with any luck, ride a few waves.
A woman names Kia emerges from one of the tents. She says she learned about Yakutat’s surf scene from the rest of the group.
“They do their year end, kind of, staff party all the time, and my boyfriend works with them. And so I was like ‘Awesome. Always wanted come to Yakutat,'” she says.
There’s even two kids, Juniper and Miley, seemingly unfazed by the cold as they run around barefoot, in their pajamas.
It’s worth noting that it’s snowing sporadically, and the group is collectively trying to get a fire going. When I ask Kia if the cold bothers her, she causally replies…
“I love winter…I love the snow. Just gotta dress for it.”
There are few places in the world where world class waves meet unobstructed views of the temperate rainforest. For local surfer Freddie Munoz, that’s just a small part of what makes surfing this break so special.
“It’s pretty amazing when you can be in the water and you’re surfing, and you look down and there’s salmon that are swimming underneath you. And then there’s [Arctic] terns that are flying above you,” he exclaims.
“It’s one of the most incredible experiences that I’ve ever had, and it’s really connected with nature and understanding that it’s working with nature and being able to share a place.”
Munoz says the connection to nature is unparalleled, although at times it can be a little distracting.
“So I’ve surfed in Australia, in Panama. I’ve surfed in Hawaii. I’ve been to these places. And it’s been incredible,” he says, then pauses, pointing excitedly at a cresting wave. “There’s sea lions right there that are surfing a wave. See that sea lion in the wave right there on the left?”
But while the scenery is breathtaking, it’s the community itself which Munoz finds most unique.
“It’s very welcoming here. We wanna surf with other people. We know it’s hard to surf here. You’re in colder water, the currents are really strong,” he says.
“You kind of need almost, you know, local information, local knowledge,” Munoz says. “If you plan on getting some really good waves, you have to be able to work with other people.”
Munoz started surfing 15 years ago after relocating to Yakutat for high school. He says he’s watched the surf community skew younger since he first started.
“It’s just really amazing to see how these kids are just, it’s so intuitive, and they just naturally are just really good at surfing,” says Munoz.
“You know, they’ve looked at the ocean as a way of putting food on their table. And now you can look at the ocean and see it as a form of play. And so it’s really addicting to see so much joy and happiness in the younger generation,” Munoz says. “It puts a fire in the older generation.”
The younger generation getting more involved in the surf community is due in large part to Yakutat’s annual surf camp, which will celebrate its fourth year this summer. That’s where 15-year-old Zoe Bulard first got on a board.
“I never really paid attention to surfing. I’ve never really acknowledged the waves and you know, everything about that,” she says, clicking her long acrylic fingernails together.
“But I kind of had the idea in the back of my head, like ‘That would be, you know, that’d be cool. That’d be fun. And last summer, my auntie took me out to surf for surf camp. Like I never put on a wetsuit. I never anything until surf camp”
Bulard says she still remembers catching her first wave.
“It was, like, the third day of surf camp. And everybody was all tired and the wetsuits were cold. And it was raining the night before. So we all weren’t feeling anything,” says Bulard.
Although learning to surf was challenging at first, Bulard says there’s nothing like the calming feeling of riding a wave.
“And it was like this big wave and everybody’s like party wave! And like, nobody caught the wave. and I started paddling super hard. And then I was at the top of the wave and it just felt nice.”
As a kid who grew up in Yakutat, surfing fosters a deeper connection to her home town. But as an Indigenous person, it also brings her closer to the land her ancestors have been on for millennia.
“We’re tied to this land, indigenously,” she says, pensively. “And surfing adds to that.”
“And it’s really nice,” she continues. “I mean, I still see it as dangerous and scary, but I also see it as a new door, you know, [a] new open door and I see it more peaceful and more like a like a hug from the world.”
Bulard says she hopes the legacy of surfing in Yakutat will continue for generations to come and open more doors for her community, but for now she’s just excited to get back to surf camp.