Warmer winters have pushed Sitka snowboarders and other adventurers out of the mountains and into the water. The ocean swell and rock breaks right near the heart of town create prime wave conditions. But locals are worried about revealing too much about their secret spot.
Art Freitas just moved to Sitka from Hawaii. He likes to take his mutt Finn for walks along Sandy Beach. And, on a recent afternoon, he was a little stunned to see people surfing there.
“I can’t wait to take a video and show it to my friends and family,” said Freitas. “This is crazy.”
Freitas didn’t bring a board with him but he’s thinking of getting one. And a thicker wetsuit.
“It’s gotta be cold out there but it’s got to be warm enough to be bearable,” Freitas said. “You even got a body boarder out there. It’s awesome.”
It may seem funny, but surfing in Sitka is no joke.
When the conditions are right, usually in the hour window before and after high tide rolls in, dozens of surfers and bodyboarders don their 5-millimeter wet suits and get out on the only wave in town. Sandy Beach is on a main road about three miles from the heart of Sitka.
And people aren’t the only ones who enjoy the waves.
“Seals surfin’, otters surfin’, humans surfin’,” said Kitty Sopow, a self-described surf bunny.
Sopow likes to hang on the beach with her dog when the surf is up.
Sandy Beach, known as Sandies to the surf crew, is a bit of a misnomer, though. Rocks on the coast create the surf break. The shore is full of baseball-sized rocks and a few downed trees, which the surfers use to stash cans of Rainier beer.
Sopow isn’t too sure why surfing in Sitka is popular, “but I think it’s because everyone here is super freaking cool.”
Well, Jed Delong certainly is.
The commercial pilot grew up snowboarding in Sitka on local peaks. He always wanted to surf but didn’t start learning at Sandies until about five years ago. But it has been a good thing to pick up, especially in Southeast, where the warming winters have made for poor snow conditions.
“It’s something to do,”said Delong. “We usually get better swell in the winter. This winter has been great for waves there’s been a lot of good swell.”
But Delong has a word of warning for those who are interested in Sitka surfing.
“You probably don’t want to do it,” Delong said.
The sport has grown here in recent years and those who enjoy the waves are concerned the beach may get crowded. Several surfers declined to speak to me because they were afraid of selling out the spot, even though it’s visible from the road. Cody Johns is a commercial fisherman based in Sitka who frequents Sandy Beach.
“Oh yeah this is a really bad spot I definitely wouldn’t recommend surfing here,” Johns said. “It’s really rocky people get their boards dinged up pretty bad and there are sharks.”
He’s joking of course, but that attitude is part of the surf culture. The one wave can only accommodate so many and they want to protect it. Unlike other beaches in Hawaii or California, there aren’t hundreds of people at the same break.
“Surfing in Sitka is probably one of the best kept secrets on the west coast,” said Charlie Skultka, who said he helped pioneer cold water surfing in Alaska.
It’s still a secret because the community has guarded it over the years.
That being said, he thinks the city could really capitalize on the adventure tourism market. He thinks the city should consider putting in a man-made break that is accessible by the road.
“It could be the first city in the nation with an artificial reef and it doesn’t cost any money because waves are free and it draws people in,” Skultka said.
The best waves in Sitka are only accessible by boat, Skultka said. Kruzof Island, about 10 miles west, is home to volcanic Mt. Edgecumbe.
“Of course the lava that’s all reef, lava reef, and it makes for a nice hollow wave, very typical to what you’d find at the breaks in Hawaii, just a little cooler climate,” said Skultka.
A lifelong Sitkan, Skultka began surfing after one of his friends found a board floating offshore. Skultka was doing some fiberglass boat work at the time so his friend asked him to repair it. After a while he figured he’d try it out.
“So one day I drug that board down to Sandy Beach and caught my first wave and rode it down to the beach,” Skultka recalled.
Then, he spent another six weeks falling off the board until …
“I finally caught another wave and I was literally hooked. Yeah,” said Skultka.
He says when he started surfing in the 80s he was one of only a handful of surfers in the state. Now there are dozens who catch waves daily in Sitka during the winter.
But on Easter Day, Skultka got the break all to himself and for an hour or so, it was just him and the ocean and some shoulder-high waves.