As we hit the 30-hour travel time mark, flying between LA and Anchorage, the Boeing 737 captain’s voice cheerfully announced: “ You can now glimpse the Northern Lights on the right hand side of the aircraft ”. Still a little under the influence of a few Pilsners shared with some random crew at LA airport, our excitement went through the roof! An hour later we landed in Anchorage’s busy airport. It was 1am and we were planning to sleep in the terminal when the plane’s captain, Bob, walked past us with his crew. A conversation started. Minutes later he offered to let us stay at his place for the night! It didn’t take much convincing for us to accept his invitation. What is it with “captains” that they are always so hospitable? A few months ago in New Zealand, Tom, the captain of a cray fishing boat offered us his house instead of us sleeping in our van.
2 years ago, a friend I met in Nicaragua introduced me to his climbing buddy from Montana who informed me of a documentary about Mike McCune: a surf explorer in Alaska. I contacted Mike and asked to join him for a couple of weeks on his 50 year old decommissioned fishing boat, ‘the Milo’. Mike, a legend of a man, spends 3 months of the year looking for surf with his wife Wendy, his acolyte Scott Dickerson and pretty often the Malloy brothers and some other dedicated Maverick surfers join them. Luckily he didn’t expect me to surf as well as them, but I did need to find 3 people to join us and make the trip financially viable. Casey, my Montana connection, joined us along with his friend Jessy, and Tony from Torquay, Australia.
The plan was to explore a remote part of Alaska – the Shumagin islands. Tony and I left Melbourne to meet the rest of the crew a few days later.
We arrived at his house and quickly realised that his friendliness and generosity was matched by the size of his house. It was located in an airpark: essentially a landing strip with beautiful mountains in the background and gigantic houses perfectly lined up all along the runway. Each home owner had a plane, as you do. Bob had a couple and his garage and home was purpose built so he could park them inside! 800sqm house, i am guessing. Anchorage had 4000 inhabitants in 1945, and 300,000 today, with 4000 moose and a few hundred bears, one of which kept coming through his backyard to eat his neighbour’s berries.
Bob, and his lovely wife Gin (Gin, I am terribly sorry if this is not the right spelling, or not even your name) were exceptionally welcoming. After being given a room each, the size of my entire house back home, we woke up to a majestic view. The lovely couple dropped us at the airport for our next and last flight to Sand Point, down in the Alaska Peninsula, on Popof island. My travel buddy Tony was an aircraft engineer, amongst other occupations, so i pretty much understood nothing of their aeronautic jargon…apart from the fact that Bob was a Top Gun, F15 fighter pilot in the first Iraq war, a Cobra Helicopter pilot, and an A-10 tank busters pilot during the cold war. I thought my job was a little on the stressful side – not anymore! As we enjoyed a ginormous Alaskan breakkie at Gwennies, a quintessential old establishment which used to be a brothel, they shared their stories of flying and landing on the nearby glaciers to let their dog run around on the snow on weekends. Why not?!
Flying to Sand point was majorly exciting! It is a tiny fishing village (the only village actually) located in the middle of the Shumagin islands on the Alaska Peninsula. If your geography is not great, just picture the Deadliest Catch TV show…it’s around there! We walked off the plane feeling like explorers, puffing our chests, and were greeted by Keith Malloy and some other pro surfer ha! Well, at least it gave us some peace of mind since they confirmed that they just had 14 days of epic waves out of 15, and compared the area to the Mentawais in Indonesia – a surf heaven! We were to explore slightly different areas but it was promising. Mike, our boat captain (another ultra friendly one), had a smile on his face as big as Bob’s house, which just made us feel happier than we thought was possible! In 3 days we were off, and until then we were staying in what was quickly described to us as the most uneventful of all fishing villages. Carl the B&B owner where we were staying did confirm that tourists never come here…maybe because there is only 1 road, 1 shop, and only 2 flights a week to reach the mainland. He took us straight to a creek with 1000’s of silver salmons flapping around. It was spawning season. The rest of our time in Sand Point was a succession of hilarious events that only a good story-teller could explain. Not me. You had to be there! John the local welder made us drink some interesting caramel liquor pretty damn early in the day, whilst paying us out for trying to surf in Alaska. Toby the ex-sniper turned doctor of philosophy took us fishing, catching salmon bare-handed and cooking it on our improvised BBQ on the beach. Amber and Milsy made us party with all the local fishermen that just returned from a long season in the Bering sea. Logan and Amanda, young Marine Biologists from somewhere on the mainland, were our partners in crime around the bar of the tavern. It was quite a show. They were all worried for us, being under the impression that we would be surfing 30foot waves that roll through these parts regularly – no thank you! It was not long before we knew everybody! After one more solid night of partying with our new buddies, we got up early to trek to a long and not-that-narrow ridge from which we could see tens of islands, buffalos and a sunrise much less boring than the usual palm tree and white sand sunrise that you usually get on surf trips. It was now time to get on the boat, stop showing off and hope that our wetsuits would be warm enough.