AK: Surfing Turnagain Arm

AK for August 30, 2013
Robert Stormo waits for a wave to catch in Turnagain Arm. (Photo by: Dave Waldron. APRN-Anchorage

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Today we’re going surfing. Surfing is one of the few sports that most Alaskans haven’t tried. Our water is freezing, our beaches are rocky and there aren’t many places to catch good waves.

None of that kept Robert Stormo from doing it. He recently took up surfing in Alaska for the first time after being stranded on Saint George Island for seven days due to poor flying conditions. On the sixth day, Stormo and his co-worker thought they were finally going to get to leave, but their flight was full.

“So that Sunday at the airport after we see everybody leave and they’re happy to be going home, we decide to go surfing,” Stormo recalls. It turned out that surfing was exactly what the pair needed.

“We surfed about an hour and a half, and being out there made me forget about all the disappointment I had just experienced. And it was so much fun,” says Stormo.  That’s not to say it was easy. He said his hands and ears were freezing, and that the waves were intense. Also, he got pretty nervous after he spotted a couple of seals.

“Just two days prior there were killer whales swimming out there, and whales eat seals, and I was just like ‘I don’t want to be around the same area as you because you could get us both killed,’” Stormo says.

Stormo is going to try surfing again, only this time he’ll be riding the Turnagain Arm bore tide, a tide that is famous for its waves that can reach up to 10 feet. The bore tide is one of the biggest in the world, but it still doesn’t draw many surfers, mainly because it’s just a single wave. Also, the water is freezing, which is why we are going to rent a dry suit for this adventure.

For that, meet Bobby. Bobby is short for Borislav. “Borislav Paunovski, it means a peacock in my language,” Paunovski says.

Bobby works for Alaska Raft and Kayak, one of the few places in Anchorage you can rent a dry suit and board combo. The board Stormo will be renting is typically used for paddle boarding, but it’s more appropriate for our purposes. It’s large, and sturdy; two traits Stormo wants if he’s going to ride a bore tide. Unlike a standard board, this one is filled with an air pump.

“I’ve heard you can pump them up to 15psi, so they get really hard. I’ve heard guys say they’re better than regular surf boards,” Paunovski says.

When Bobby finds out Stormo will be trying to surf the bore tide, he looks slightly concerned. “You’re going to ride the boar tide? It’s rocky; if you flip…” says Paunovski.

“I could die?” interrupts Stormo.

“Yeah yeah. Well, not you can die, but you can get stuck.,” Paunovski replies.  Getting stuck in Turnagain Arm seems like it could equate to dying as well. At this point we are definitely questioning if all of this was a terrible idea, but later that evening Stormo is ready to go. The drive out to the arm is windy, and it’s pouring rain. Still, his spirits are high.

“I was thinking about it throughout the day, and yeah I’m really excited to try this out. It’s something completely different,” says Stormo. One thing we have to do is race the bore tide. We leave Anchorage about an hour after the tide begins to form, but we’re confident we can drive fast enough to get in front of it.

“None of the gear is ready, so we just have be NASCAR-team efficient. Also we have to keep an eye on the bore tide. So we have to be quick,” says Stormo. Once we pass Girdwood, we’re able to overtake the tide and find a place to park. Time for our best NASCAR impression.

Arriving just in the nick of time, we’re able to walk on the beach to witness the incoming bore tide. Stormo wastes no time getting in the water.

I don’t know if it’s because we’re closer to it now, but that tide looks pretty huge all of a sudden, and I’m glad I’m the one who’s safely standing on the beach. When Stormo gets hit by the bore tide he is swept up, and has to cling to his board to stay on. He’s able to get up on one knee for a few seconds, but when the tide passes him the water pulls him side to side and he’s forced back on his belly.

With the tide gone, it’s now a matter of paddling across the inlet against what is now very choppy water. For a minute it looks like he’s going to get dragged out further to sea, but he’s able to use his legs to get back to the beach.

“If I wouldn’t have kicked that last 30 yards I would have still been out there trying to paddle. My arms would have fallen off,” says Stormo. He looks a little sea sick. He says the tide surprised him. “It came so fast, faster than I expected. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I’m just so gassed right now. I’m glad I tried it though.”

Glad he tried it now, but after the adrenaline wears off and we make it back to Anchorage, he’s thinking his next surfing adventure will be some place warm. Somewhere far away from Turnagain Arm.

“It was cool paddling out there, and was really tranquil. It was beautiful. But I’m done with the bore tide. I’ve gotten it out of my system, and won’t be doing it ever again,” Stormo says.