YAKUTAT —When conjuring an image of ‘surf culture,’ people tend to imagine Hawaiian or Californian breaks with dark-tanned bodies in swimsuits dropping into bright blue barrels. But what about surf culture in our own backyard?
Surfing in rural Alaska comes with a unique set of challenges. The waters are cold and dangerous. Wetsuits are expensive. Surfboards are costly and difficult to ship. Accessing local instruction and safety training is hard to come by.
Recognizing the healing and empowering nature of surfing, a growing group of local and visiting surfers, culture bearers, teachers, lifeguards, and more are working to remove those barriers for youth in Yakutat.
For the last three years, Yakutat Surf Club has offered safety training, coaching, wetsuits, lifeguards, food, encouragement and more to youth 6 and older. Camps run periodically through the summer with a kickoff week-long camp in July.
Thanks to the efforts and support of countless volunteer individuals and organizations including Sealaska Corp., the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, Yakutat Community Health Clinic , Alaska Airlines, the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Patagonia, Xcel Wetsuits Icy Waves Surf Shop, Alaska Marine Safety Education Association and more, The surf club has grown into a burgeoning movement of tweens and teens splashing into Yakutat’s waves.
As a surfer myself, I made the journey from Sitka to support YSC for a second year during the kickoff camp. I sat down with Zoé Bulard to better understand why surf camp is important through the eyes, heart and muscles of a teenage participant.
Zoé Alliah Bulard is Raven from the Moon House. She is 14 years old with soft features that frame a fire behind dark eyes. Cross legged in wetsuits, we rest our bums on spongy moss below the canopy of devil’s club and cedar. Escaping the sheets of rain that scatter across surf campers in the swell, we chat about life and learning to ride waves in Southeast’s northernmost community.
Can you tell us about yourself and life growing up in Yakutat?
“I was born in Anchorage and then lived in Juneau with my parents until they split up. I now live with my grandparents, my Nana and Papa. My Papa is a guide that fishes the rivers and my Nana is a retired teacher.”
She lives closely with her extended family, her Auntie, Uncle and cousins.
“Growing up in Yakutat is hard but nice: the land, the space you get — the open. You can walk down the street and have a whole forest behind you and that’s really nice. But then it’s also hard being in a small town. You can go across every square inch of Yakutat within 20 minutes.”
Zoé reflects on life as a rotation of good days and bad days. Good days, when the sun shines and her friends tug her from her grandparent’s house to play basketball or pick strawberries. Bad days, when she’s cloistered inside from rain and the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting with her sister. Like most in high school, Zoé becomes anxious.
“My mental state when I’m not in the water is rough, I would say. I’m always worried, I’m anxious. I don’t know what to do in the next hour. Then, once you’re in the water, you’re just in the water.”
How’s it different in the water?
“Like, when you wake up and get an outfit on, you’ve got to make sure it’s right and make sure it looks nice. When you’re in the water, you’re maybe still anxious in the morning but there’s no right outfit you have to put on. You just put on the wetsuit and go. It makes you feel invincible like you’re Superman.
Entering the water, I’m more carefree, more open minded. It feels peaceful like you’re surrounded by everything but at the same time— nothing.”
I ask her what she means, though I know the concept well. Struggling to learn how to surf for five years myself, I recognize the feelings Zoé describes. Entering Alaska’s shocking cold waters with a surfboard can offer refuge from daily demands, and while surfing may tangle you up with a new suite of challenges, it releases you from others.
“The water is huge, you’re surrounded by blue and fish and whatnot, but you’re also floating. I mean of course you are physically floating, but your mindset is floating, your mental health is just there. Nothing’s bad. It just feels nice — it’s warming.”
What do you feel like you are getting away from?
“Everything: the bads, the goods. It’s just the water that you’re focused on.
“It’s unique out here every day. The waters are lower, higher, different, colder, warmer—it’s really nice knowing that it will be different. And there’s, you know, tougher times with the waves, but then there’s times when you can stand up and glide across the water.”
We talk about the grounding quality of nature. She beams about Yakutat’s wild strawberries and the pull she feels toward the water while swimming in lakes with friends during rainstorms. Her relationship to the water began when she was small.
“When I was little, hanging over the skiff in motion I would let my hand glide across the water. I’d wonder what it would feel like for your whole body to move across the water in that way.”
She describes gratitude for growing up on Lingít Aaní, and the freedoms of picking berries and being out with friends on lands that aren’t crowded with development and buildings.
I ask her if she can describe how that feels to someone, like myself, who is not Indigenous who might not understand? She pauses, chewing on her thoughts like they were strawberries until she finds the right analogy.
“Do you know when you get a whole bunch of dust on you and you’re all dirty and you’re feeling your hair?” She grimaces. “And then when you go take a shower, and you just come out cleansed and feel relaxed. That’s how it feels coming out here. Like coming out to the beach or going and hanging out with friends watching the sunset. It’s just relieving.”
Do you think that those feelings are strengthened by having an ancestral relationship, across generations, to these waters?
“Yes, and it’s nice to know that my family has always been here. Whenever I need help or anything, people will be there. Just being on the land and knowing that my grandparents and their grandparents have been here before, it’s really comforting, and it feels like they’re around.”
What would your ancestors think seeing you out here catching waves?
“I feel like they would be proud of me but also terrified. My family is so terrified of the water, they’re scared of waves because we’ve had family that had been taken out and died. But they would also be proud of me because they know that it makes me happy.”
For a second year, formal safety training with the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association was offered by Robert Emley. Emley is also an avid coldwater surfer and enthusiastic surf club coach. Community elders, local Yakutat surfers and volunteers also spoke during the initial two days of safety training to give cultural context and share important stories of risk and survival in the waters to prepare youth for the realities of coldwater surfing. Before the youth entered the waves, they spent several days practicing in the school pool with supervision. Locals Garrett James, who received lifeguard training specifically for surf camp, and EMT Brittany Johnson kept careful watch from shore with other adult volunteers keeping count and track of all the youth.
Today, the kids are bobbing around in the waters of Cannon Beach in their wetsuits. They applaud and cheer when any kid stands up and giggle as they roll around in the whitewater together.
In addition to safety class, youth work one-on-one with surf coaches from Yakutat, other parts of Alaska, and California, who support them in carefully challenging themselves in the waves. Zoé describes her time with Ryan Cortes, one of the original creators of the camp. Cortes is an enthusiastic surfer from Juneau whose energy is contagious among kids and adults alike.
“He explains it step by step. And then when you do it, you kind of forget the steps and then he reminds you and then the more he just keeps reminding you, you start to get it.”
Can you describe what it feels like out there, catching your first waves?
“You feel like you’re being chased, but in a good way. Waves are like snowflakes, there is no same wave. You kind of feel which ones are good, I guess. You can see how big they are, but you can also kind of feel an internal difference.
She describes numerous examples of face planting, nose diving, and mastering the ‘flippy dippy thing’ on the board. At one point during the morning she paddled out further than the other surf campers and a set of waves rolled in.
“Ryan was like: ‘You got this! Go, go, go!’
And I was like, ‘I don’t know, I’m scared!’
I was paddling and paddling and I was telling myself to stand up, stand up! And then I nose-dived and did a backflip underwater and went up for air and another wave came over me and I just got up and decided I wasn’t doing that again,” she laughs.
Surfing is as much a head game as it is a physically challenging sport. I empathize with Zoé’s trials and tribulations. Getting back on the board after being terrified and beat up by the waves can require serious determination.
“But then I got back on the board and Ryan took me out again and I stood up on the next one and it was really nice. It felt really giving. Because I wasn’t getting them, and then I caught that one and I was like, Yes!! I took it all the way to the beach.
So, are you proud of yourself? Her brow furrows.
“I didn’t expect myself to go way offshore or catch a wave at all. When I did, it was really, really sick. I was like ‘Whoa, what the heck?’ I was kind of proud of myself and it felt weird to be proud of myself.”
It is inspiring to witness Zoé progress at camp. But Zoé almost didn’t go to surf camp at all.
“Last year, I wanted to do it but then I was skeptical because of the water. Then, my Auntie took me out to Ankau when everybody was just hanging out there and surfing.”
Her Auntie changed her mind, encouraged her, and signed her up. All of us need a push sometimes to step over the threshold of self-doubt and Zoé’s case reminds us that we all have roles in supporting young leaders to challenge themselves.
“The first day I was like, I don’t want to do this. I was putting on the suit. I was like, ‘This suit is terrible. I don’t want to do this, it’s cold and raining. And then it started getting sunny. And then I was like, Oh, this isn’t too bad, and then we started surfing,’”she smiles.
On the final night of the kickoff surf camp, the community hosts a potluck and gathering for the families, volunteers, coaches, and participants. Each of the youth is recognized for their unique contributions to the camp. A small set of special awards balance at the front of the stage. Ryan Cortes crafted a series of handmade awards with the help of Tlingit language expert X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell and artist Rico Lanáat’ Worl, graphic designer Hannah Hamberg, and partner Kaila Buerger who helped begin the initial Yakutat Surf Camp.. The ‘litseeni aa’ ‘Strong One’ award is given to Zoé for her persistence and mental strength.
Walking back to her seat across the table, she starts to tear up. I tear up too because surfing is hard, really hard. It’s a head game and a physical game where women aren’t often welcomed. It’s uncomfortable and defeating with bludgeoning deep lows — the troughs — and incomparable highs — the crests. Zoé faced those highs and lows with grace.
The next day a group of coaches take Zoé and her friend Aurora out on the water for a final surf session. Her Auntie cheers from the beach as Zoé continues to surprise herself standing up on several waves that Ryan and others push her into. Conditions change quickly and it’s time to get out. I know Zoé ’s a surfer because she’s looking for one last wave to take her in. On her final wave, nobody pushes her in. Most people don’t realize that standing up is only a small part of the battle. The first challenge is reading the waves, positioning yourself in the right spot, and mustering the strength and timing to propel yourself into the wave to begin with. Zoé does this all on her own and glides seamlessly across her final wave far into the beach.
As her confident body shrinks into the horizon toward shore, I think back to what Zoé shared about gliding her hands across the water on her family’s skiff. Zoé now knows how empowering it can feel for your whole body to dance across that same coast, leaving your everyday anxieties behind.
About the surf club
Yakutat Surf Club is made possible through countless volunteer hours of coaches, local surfers, a creative team who is working on a documentary film that will dive in deep with surf camp, elders who came to share stories with the youth, cooks, parents, life guards, teachers, and so many more. Camp was supported by Sealaska, the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Yakutat Community Health Center, Icy Waves Surf Shop, Yeti, Xcel, Patagonia, Yakutat Seafoods, the Glass Door, Sitka Conservation Society and more.
• The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. We envision self-determined and connected communities where Southeast Indigenous values continue to inspire society, shape our relationships, and ensure that each generation thrives on healthy lands and waters. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly. SSP can also be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net.