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The Alaskan panhandle delivers for the adventurous

Massive groundswell made rideable by offshore islands : photo Jack Endicott




Surf Travel

Ketchikan lies in a sheltered fiord at the bottom of the Alaskan panhandle

 'God damn it woman, I ain’t done drinkin’ yet!' and with that he slams down his fist of stone on the table in the bar. Shot glasses and coasters spin and  flutter post impact. His ageing partner, a kind looking woman in her 50’s politely rises from her seat and walks to the door, before she leaves she turns and bellows.

“Don’t expect to lay your filthy whisky hands on me tonight, NOT TONIGHT MORTY!”

The bar breaks up into hooting laughter as she slams the door…fade out to the odd couple music…just another night in the Iron Monkey Bar; Ketchikan, Alaska. I had three days in port here, not quite enough time to get up to Yakutat a little further to the north which has excellent surf, so I settled in doing a little exploring of my own.

Ketchikan itself lies in a sheltered fiord at the bottom of the Alaskan panhandle. Lacking the big glacial melt rivers of the north that carve such beautiful cobble stone points, its pretty much all steep too cliffs. I found a few short sharp bombing ledges doing an ‘Ours’ impression…no bra boys here though, no one in fact, you find surf you’ll have it all to yourself.

That’s why I ended up at the Iron Monkey that night. I had gone over the charts of the region and found a weird looking long tongue of land that seemed to be mostly sand, sitting around 2 miles north of it was a discoloured patch of  un-named reef. The setup looked like an inverted question mark. It was  around 100 miles to the south on the Canadian Border, this was Haida Indian Territory.  I was looking for a guy named ‘Ronnie’.

 


The perfect ingredients for an ice-cream headache : photo Jack Endicott


 


Ronnie ran remote fishing expeditions for tourists out of Ketchikan. All of the big cruise ships docked here and Ronnie would ferry them up the coast in search of Halibut, he had a seaplane in Ketchikan and boats in ports all over the Pacific North West. Ronnie was also a Haida Indian, which gave him and his customers access to all of the Indian Reserves.

I remember finding him in that bar, a stocky chiselled brave right out of a John Wayne movie, tomahawk and bowie knife on his belt. The thing I remember most about Ronnie though were his hands, he had these massive oversize hands that I pictured around the throat of a bear. As the night wore on I saw their alternate purpose, giving the bums rush to anyone that got out of hand in the Iron Monkey. All in all, Ronnie was pretty excited about the trip, I showed him the map and he said he had tribe family on the reservation near the point.

“I never heard of anyone going surfing there though” he said in that smooth deep tone of voice with the Indian echo on it.  “I think the seas are pretty high now, we can go around in a local boat from behind the island. I’ll put the plane down in the lee here..”

An index finger with a finger nail the size of a 20 cent piece pushed deeply into my map. “This will be fun, we’ll fly out at sunrise, so 08:30, okay?”  We shook hands and I knew the conversation was over. I had almost forgotten how short the days were up here now in late November and as I left the Iron Monkey at 3PM it was already dark.

The next day we flew down towards the islands. Here in Alaska so close to the Aleutians, I could see the massive swell steaming down the coast. There was some shelter where we were going but no shortage of swell energy beaming into the sound either. We touched down, grabbed a boat and motored out to the reef. It was so much bigger than it had looked from the air.

A massive groundswell ploughed in from the west. The islands further out cleaned and attenuated it enough to leave behind a 6 foot bomb that seemed to be breaking on the reef every 10 minutes or so. Ronnie watched me wax up my board with a great deal of interest, he took a little in his hands and rolled it around between his massive fingers. Back at the reservation when we got the boat I had heard some of the other men calling him a different name.

 


The perfect ingredients for an ice-cream headache : photo Jack Endicott

 

“Is that your real name Ronnie…what the guys back there were calling you?”

“Oh yeah, for you that  would translate to Trembling Eagle”

“That’s your name, Trembling Eagle?”

Ronnie nodded. I couldn’t hold back.

“Ronnie, that’s just about the coolest name I have ever heard”

He shrugged his shoulders and smiled as I jumped in the water and pretended that it wasn’t so cold that it was choking me.

The wave itself was a big thumping left hand bombie, nothing too technical – big drop, bottom turn, 50 feet of wall then fade out in deep water. I grabbed about 4 solid rides. Ronnie watched me like a hawk. It was hard for him to know if I was actually in trouble whenever I came off as he hadn’t really seen surfing before.

A few times I saw him start the boat up and begin making out towards me at full speed, at the last minute he would wave at me realising I was okay and back off.  A few waves later I lost my left glove and the session took a turn south. I just couldn’t bear to go in so soon, not with this wave to myself.

Looking back on it, I can’t remember much about my last wave at all. My left hand was completely numb and it was starting to worry me a bit. That was all it took to put me off, I got up and fell forward in front of my board almost immediately. There was a brief skidding sensation as the rubber kept me afloat and then a massive freezing blast  as the cold black water hurled me into the reef.

The rest is just flashes, mosaic of…translucent flecks of jelly fish…dark rocks with etched red lichen..white flash and neck jolt as my head bounces off the reef.  I remember floating up slowly, the pink water all around me and then the thrum of Ronnies outboard motor.

Initially I thought he must have picked me up with a boathook, one moment I was underwater, the next up into the cold afternoon gloom gasping like a stunned fish. Ronnie lifted me clean out of the water into the bottom of the boat with one arm. There was a silver flash as Ronnie’s tomahawk arced out of his belt and in one deft movement cut through my leash and embedded itself into the wooden guardrail like something out of a Daniel Boone episode.

We took off at full speed to clear the impact zone and hovered around to recover my board. I pulled off my hood, it was warm with blood and hit the deck like a piece of bleeding black flesh. Ronnie crouched over me,

“It’s just a scalp wound…nothing bleeds like a scalp wound.”

“You’d know I guess”

He broke up at that, the first time I saw him laugh.

“Naa, we don’t do that anymore.”

With that he placed one hand over the top of my forehead and the other onto the wound. In that second, those massive hands that served as wrecking balls on a Friday night at the Iron Monkey became as soft as my mothers.

“You’ll be okay…it’s going to be okay.”

He poured something out of a hip flask onto the wound that made it burn for a few seconds before it felt better. Then he gave me the rest to drink… I couldn’t feel anything at all after that, just a great warmth spreading through my chest. We picked up my board a few minutes later and Ronnie put his tomahawk back in his belt.

“Ronnie, what do you call that reef we were surfing?”

The Indian moonshine had me in its grasp, blessed

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