What’s it like to go surfing in Alaska?

Surfing in Alaska; photo by Scott Dickerson
Surfing in Alaska; photo by Scott Dickerson

The eyes of the surfing world are focused now on Hawaii, but not many people think about the area that generates the swell that travels southward to the islands. The state of Alaska has more coastline that all of the 48 mainland U.S. states combined, and the storms that brew off that massive coastline are some of the fiercest in the world. Scott Dickerson is an Alaska-based photographer and filmmaker who recently released the teaser for an upcoming video series called “Surf Alaska.” We caught up with Scott to get a sense of what surfing is like in such a cold, raw, and unforgiving place. For those with a taste for exploration and adventure, it seems that Alaska delivers in spades. And the surf looks pretty damn fun, too.

Are you from Alaska? How did you get into surfing there?
I grew up in Alaska, and it’s somewhat of a mystery how I became so passionate about surfing. When a friend and I started bodysurfing in the sloppy little waves hitting the beaches of our hometown, I had never even seen anyone surfing here. Honestly, I didn’t even really understand how surfing worked. I knew it was fun playing in the water, and even more fun when there were waves! It was a long, cold, and slow road to where I am today, but it’s been fun every step of the way. The level of technology we are using to stay warm surfing, and the incredible adventures involving boats, airplanes, and helicopters were all just dreams at one point.

Surfing in Alaska; photo by Scott Dickerson
Surfing in Alaska; photo by Scott Dickerson

What makes surfing in Alaska different from other places you’ve surfed around the world?
It goes without saying that Alaska is really in a class of its own for jaw-dropping scenery and extreme weather. Surf trips here are often more about the whole adventure and wilderness experience than the actual wave riding. Besides those two things, how is surfing in Alaska different? The most comparable difference is that as surf spots all around the globe become more crowded, we still surf incredible waves alone. Occasionally, at the few easy-to-reach spots, there might be 10 surfers on a sunny weekend, but most often for us it’s just a couple friends surrounded by an endless wilderness taking turns cheering each other on.

How did you start shooting surf photos and videos there?
Shooting photos and video is my main profession, as well as on of my passions along with surfing and flying. In 2008 I started a website dedicated to sharing photos, stories, and information about surfing in Alaska: SurfAlaska.net. Learning to surf here was not easy, and I wanted to help others avoid the years it took me to finally have the right gear and be able to forecast waves occasionally. I also just had too many surf photos that I needed a place to publish. In my photo work I’ve always enjoyed photographing unique subjects and surfing in Alaska certainly fits the description. As camera technology progressed it became easy to start capturing video as well as still photos so I’ve been collecting clips from our surf adventures for the last few years.

Surfing in Alaska; photo by Scott Dickerson
Surfing in Alaska; photo by Scott Dickerson

How do you get to waves in Alaska? What types of planning and precautions do you have to make?
Accessing the rugged coastline in Alaska is definitely the biggest challenge to surfing here. Without roads we really only have two options—by air or by sea. They each have their distinct advantages and disadvantages but our No. 1 tool for getting to the waves has become the 58-foot motor vessel Milo. With this seaworthy vessel we can be self sufficient for weeks at sea, and we’ve proven on more than a few occasions that we can endure the inevitable stormy conditions that go along with prospecting for surf this far north.

For every trip I head out on, I consider the worst-case scenario and then plan for that. I’ve found that if you plan for the worst you’ll be prepared to survive and maybe even enjoy most anything that nature dishes out.

How much of the coastline have you explored?  What are the best waves and set-ups that you’ve found?
I’ve seen a lot of the coastline in Alaska by air and from boats but with such extreme tidal changes and the ever-changing swell height and directions, there is always more to discover even at my home break. With the m/v Milo we have surfed all the way from Southeast across the Gulf of Alaska down to the start of the Aleutian Islands but we’ll never be done exploring. To keep things in perspective, Alaska alone has more coastline than the entire contiguous U.S. combined. We have surfed great waves in many places, but we are always searching for the next great discovery.

Surfing in Alaska; photo by Scott Dickerson
Surfing in Alaska; photo by Scott Dickerson

Does Alaska still have empty perfect waves that have never been surfed?
Yes. Countless.

Surfing in Alaska; photo by Scott Dickerson
Surfing in Alaska; photo by Scott Dickerson

What’s the scariest experience you’ve had on a surf adventure?
Boating in Alaska in winter is generally not advised. Especially not when there is a big storm brewing, exactly the time when we often head out. There’s been a few times that I wondered if we weren’t taking this surf pioneering thing a little to seriously. I’m not really trying to think about those times because we are leaving on our next adventure in the middle of the night tonight, trying to get to a safe anchorage before a big storm hits so we’ll be ready to surf the resulting waves when the wind has passed. The forecast has a lot of heavy, freezing spray warnings, so we are calculating how far we might be able to go before we need to hunker down.

What is the surf scene like there? What types of guys surf and how dedicated are they?
There’s a small handful of what I would consider dedicated surfers in Alaska. There are many more that might surf a few times a year when it’s convenient and not too bitter cold. Surfing here does not fit well with a day job. You pretty much have to be able to drop whatever you are doing to surf when the conditions allow, because the tide and weather are always changing so fast.

How did the web series come about and what is the schedule for releasing episodes?
“Surf Alaska” video series has been brewing for a few years now. Exploring the coastline of Alaska is an incredible experience that few will ever be lucky enough to enjoy. Photography is a great tool for sharing some of the moments, but it’s hard to tell the whole story in still images. I want to give people a chance to see what it’s like to go prospecting for waves in the far north. There is a very compelling story here of adapting to nature’s whims as we search for that elusive and euphoric moment of riding a wave.  I’ve been approached by many reality TV production companies wanting to make a show about our surf adventures, but generally they are looking to follow the same old tired and repulsive storyline of interpersonal drama and over-hyping the dangers and risks whether real or imagined. I know I’m not the only one who can’t stand that kind of crap, so I decided to just do it ourselves. In the “Surf Alaska” video series, we are going to keep it real and let nature create the drama. Our schedule for the shows is pretty rough. I’m expecting we’ll be able to produce an episode every three to six weeks depending on the weather. Generally each episode will be about a surf adventure, and so far I haven’t had much luck scheduling the surf in advance.

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