In far out Yakutat, surfers say community is key

A man squats next to a border collie-looking dog on a beach
Freddie Muñoz with his dog Chula on Cannon Beach (Tash Kimmell/KCAW)

There are few places in the world where world-class waves meet unobstructed views of a temperate rainforest. For Freddie Muñoz, that’s just a small part of what makes surfing in Yakutat so special.

“It’s pretty amazing when you can be in the water and you’re surfing, and you look down, and there’s salmon that are swimming underneath you. And then there’s terns that are flying above you,” he said. “I’ve surfed in Australia, in Panama. I’ve surfed in Hawaii. I’ve been to these places — and it’s been incredible.”

Muñoz paused and pointed excitedly at a cresting wave.

“There’s sea lions right there that are surfing a wave,” he said. “See that sea lion in the wave right there on the left?”

While the scenery is breathtaking, it’s the community itself which Muñoz finds most unique.

“It’s very welcoming here,” he said. “We wanna surf with other people. We know it’s hard to surf here. You’re in colder water, the currents are really strong.”

People waxing surfboards among driftwood on an Alaska beach
A group of surfers wax their boards before hopping in the ocean (Tash Kimmell/KCAW)

It was snowing sporadically at the beach, and a group nearby was trying to get a fire going.

“You kind of need almost, you know, local information, local knowledge,” Muñoz said. “If you plan on getting some really good waves, you have to be able to work with other people.”

Muñoz started surfing 15 years ago after relocating to Yakutat for high school. He says he’s watched the surf community skew younger since he first started.

“It’s just really amazing to see how these kids are just, it’s so intuitive. And they just naturally are just really good at surfing,” Muñoz said. “You know, they’ve looked at the ocean as a way of putting food on their table. And now you can look at the ocean and see it as a form of play.”

A person carrying a surfboard into the ocean
A surfer heads out toward mild waves near Yakutat in July 2021. (Jennifer Pemberton/KTOO)

The younger generation getting more involved in the surf community is due in large part to Yakutat’s annual surf camp, which will celebrate its fourth year this summer. That’s where 15-year-old Zoé Bulard first got on a board.

“I never really paid attention to surfing. I’ve never really acknowledged the waves and you know, everything about that,” she said, clicking her long acrylic fingernails together. “But I kind of had the idea in the back of my head, like ‘That would be, you know, that’d be cool. That’d be fun.’ And last summer, my auntie took me out to surf for surf camp. Like I never put on a wetsuit. I never anything until surf camp.”

Bulard says she still remembers catching her first wave.

“It was, like, the third day of surf camp. And everybody was all tired and the wetsuits were cold. And it was raining the night before. So we all weren’t feeling anything,” Bulard said.

A young woman carrying a surfboard in the forest
Zoe Bulard at surf camp last year (Photo courtesy of Bethany Goodrich)

Although learning to surf was challenging at first, Bulard says there’s nothing like the calming feeling of riding a wave.

“And it was like this big wave and everybody’s like, party wave! And like, nobody caught the wave. And I started paddling super hard. And then I was at the top of the wave, and it just felt nice,” she said.

As a kid who grew up in Yakutat, surfing fosters a deeper connection to her home town. But as an Indigenous person, it also brings her closer to the land her ancestors have been on for millennia.

“We’re tied to this land, Indigenously,” she said. “And surfing adds to that.”

Bulard says she hopes the legacy of surfing in Yakutat will continue for generations to come and open more doors for her community, but for now she’s just excited to get back to surf camp.

“I still see it as dangerous and scary,” she said. “But I also see it as a new door, you know. I see it more peaceful and more like a hug from the world.”

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