Mar 20, 2017

words & photos by Chris Brinlee, Jr.

As the engine’s roar increased, a volley was released. Thousands of slimy, wet projectiles catapulted through space—coating each victim within a ten-foot radius in a fine spray of near-freezing mud. Alex Gray, surfer-extraordinaire, went to fetch some wooden planks. Nate Lee, a GoPro creative lead and one of the filmers for this expedition, had effectively sunk his ATV in two feet of mud—not five minutes after we departed our home-base to scout some waves. Within the next one hundred meters and twenty minutes, two more of us would get stuck. No one was making it out of this trip unscathed.

Earlier that afternoon, we had arrived in the Aleutian Islands via a small but capable single-engine turboprop, which transported the six of us, plus boards and gear, 900 miles west of Anchorage—nearly halfway to Russia. Alex, along with Australian surfer Anthony Walsh (affectionately called “Walshy” by his friends), had led us here chasing barrels down, in one of the world’s most remote—- and harshest—environments.

The Aleutian Islands are a chain of islands that extend west from southern Alaska; they’re known for their extreme weather and nasty seas—the Pacific to the south; the Bering to the north. For perspective, Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch is based out of Dutch Harbor, which was our plane’s pit-stop for fuel. The oceans in that show are responsible for the same waves that Gray and Walsh had traveled halfway around the world to surf.

Gray and Walsh didn’t just go there to surf though. The particular island that we were exploring is home to the single longest-settled community in the entire world. The Aleutians who reside there are descendants from a group that migrated from Russia across the Bering Strait over 8,000 years ago; they never left. The duo had traveled to the island with hopes of learning some indigenous practices firsthand—hunting, in particular—and teaching the locals how to surf in exchange.

A little muddier, but with greater collective stoke, we rode our ATV’s for another 30 minutes out to the Pacific coast. From the oceanside cliffs, Gray could see the wave he had come here for—a perfectly-shaped 10’ barrel, 300 meters from the beach. The wave, while textbook, wasn’t huge—however, the surrounding scenery was larger than life.

Hundred-meter cliffs jutted up straight from the sea. The two oceans were separated by swaths of golden rolling hills; those in turn were defined by massive lakes which nearly blended into one another save a couple narrow straits of land. In the background, a snowcapped volcano towered nearly 8,000’ above it all. The island was like a dreamscape—fitting, because it would also be a place where dreams come true.

Admittedly, I’m not much of a surfer. In fact, I’ve never surfed at all. However, for the last two and a half years, I’ve been circling the globe on adventure after adventure—most of them in cold, harsh environments, particularly in the alpine. The Aleutian Islands are cold, windy, and often snowy or wet; I felt right at home. The surfing part, I would come to appreciate along the way—thanks to Walsh and Gray.

From my vantage point atop the seaside cliffs, I had a birds-eye view of the barrels that Gray and Walsh were crushing below. On the shore, they didn’t look like much, but from above I began to appreciate the dynamic, fluid patterns that the ocean formed. A set would come in, break; then roll down the line. Some were cleaner than others; those were the waves that the two would inevitably ride.

Unfathomable power raged down below; somehow the two harnessed it—riding on the brink of destruction until they were swallowed whole, only to shoot out like a rocket on re-entry, fired up with perpetual stoke. A few fingers breached the watery wall, providing stability that prevented a fall—literally connecting each surfer to the barrel’s break. Rays of sunlight filtered down through dramatic clouds, backlighting the cyan spray that kicked up every time the guys caught a wave. It was pure magic.

Back in town ("town" being very relative here) we met up with Scott, an outfitter who had migrated to the island more than twenty years ago from the lower 48 and Danny, hisAleutian pal. They took us into the boat house, which was overflowing with kayaks, fishing rods, tools and gear—and near-infinite stories from throughout their years. It was a good chance to get some perspective about life on the island.

Scott, a former climber and guide, had landed there by chance in ‘78 after bailing on a trip to Nepal. The island’s jagged mountains, expansive seas, and tranquil peace (despite its gnarly weather) stole his heart. The next time he came back, he wouldn’t leave. Now the town is population seventeen. If any of us had our way, we’d make it population twenty-three.

 

Chances are that Chris Brinlee, Jr. wrote this from the road (or on a boat, plane, or train) while traveling around the globe. Wanna see what he’s currently up to? Follow his adventures and stories on Instagram.