The Cradle Of Storms, Part II

The second of a three-part release on the Aleutian Islands epic

Last week, we kicked off the premiere of SURFER Films with Part I of The Cradle Of Storms – the award-winning 2014 movie directed by Ben Weiland and Bryce Lowe-White, and photographed by Chris Burkard. We’re continuing the rollout with Part II of the film and the second section from the SURFER 55.04 cover feature, where Alex Gray, Josh Mulcoy, and Pete Devries discover the cost of dreamlike waves in “The Birthplace of the Winds”: a harsh, severe climate that throws their travels, and their safety, into perilous question.

***

Countless far-flung cold-water expeditions have met their demise in horrendous weather. The trips themselves are a reaction to crowds, an attempt to find solitude. As crowds have swelled, surfers have been forced to go to greater lengths to find the type of space that was once just a short car-ride up the coast. The results have been mixed at best. Sure, the locations are breathtaking, but you don't surf locations. As a result, those who prize high-octane rides have dismissed these obscure far-flung trips as novelty—sightseeing rather than surf travel.

Pete can relate. He'd been to this island once before, six years earlier. He had surfed only once, a windy, small day. Eleven years prior to that, in 1997, another group of surfers had visited the island. A crew of seven, led by Steve Hawk and Mark "Doc" Renneker, had come across the same bay. They had surfed the short right slab, and had also seen potential in a left further down the beach, but the trip was remembered most for the extreme conditions. Now we understood why.

The storm started as a breeze that moved across the grass like a curtain. Soon the wind flared across lake surfaces, blotting them dark blue. The day wore on and the storm strengthened. Wind whistled through the tin edges of our roof and a ghostly drone possessed the lodge. The grass whipped violently back and forth. Rain slammed the windows from every direction. Streams of water poured from gutters like waterfalls. Trapped inside, we sat close to the glass and peered out, mesmerized by the forces on display.

Then the weather changed its attitude, as if it had grown tired of the fickle, spastic tantrum. It directed all of its fury into a continuous horizontal blast of rain and hail. The ghostly frequency dropped to a deep rumble that shook the entire lodge. It seemed to emanate from the foundations of the Earth. The grass bowed down, flattening against the ground. Waves formed on the lake and surged up the banks. The windows began to pulsate, on the verge of shattering.

***

Two days later, towering clouds crossed the sky like a time-lapse. With the storm passed, we were eager to find more waves. We sat around the kitchen table, eating granola bars and recounting stories from the right we had surfed on the first day. The surfers went on to discuss the finer points of tube-riding technique, an unusual conversation for an Alaskan surf trip. Suddenly a loud buzz sounded over the roof. Through the window we saw a small helicopter heading in the direction of the village. We put on our rain and mud gear, jumped on our quads, and headed toward town.

The village was quiet and empty. Small, wooden houses mingled with all kinds of exotic weather installations: radio antennas, satellite dishes, towers, rods, cones, cubes, spheres, geodesic domes—the kind of stuff you'd find on a moon base. Still searching for the helicopter, we headed over to check in with our guide.

Scott had moved to the island from the Lower 48 more than 20 years ago and had married a local. Early on, he had worked as a fisherman and also guided climbing expeditions to many of the surrounding volcanoes. We weren't sure what had brought him to such an isolated place, but it was clear that he was in his element. He rarely visited mainland Alaska, preferring the wilder wilderness of the Aleutians.

I knocked on his door, but found no answer. I opened it and peeked into a mudroom. Racks of camo jackets, pants, and boots lined both walls, a sort of Bat Cave for Aleutian hunters. I brushed past the gear and cracked the door that lead into the inner room of the house. Inside I could see someone, but it wasn't Scott. The man was dressed in black and wore fashionable, thick-rimmed glasses, which framed a weathered face. He sat at the kitchen table, eating something that looked like a soggy piece of coal.

Scott appeared around the corner and introduced us to Julian. He'd flown in on the helicopter from a private cattle ranch on the other side of the island. He was a photographer from New York City, who lived here part of the year, herding cattle and documenting life in the Aleutians. He said living on a remote island balanced the congestion of the city.

Scott shoved a plate of the soggy black meat into our hands. Julian was eating an oily slab of it, with an equal-sized chunk of blubber attached, an amber colored jelly. It was seal meat, Scott said, and they had killed it that morning. He warned it was an acquired taste.

"It's an insult if you don't eat it all," he said with a grin. "You cook it with the blubber to keep it moist," Julian explained. "Around here, nothing edible is wasted." He sliced off a glob and slapped it down as I forced a smile. If our food didn't arrive soon, we'd be eating this stuff for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

***

We followed a set of mud grooves the color of dark chocolate. Puddles pooled in the parallel gutters—rain had washed grime into them from the surrounding hills. Our wheels crashed through them, scattering thick, cold mud in every direction. Strands and fans of it spattered off our tires, spraying into the sky, filling the air with a constellation of dirt and debris. Our treads spun relentlessly, seeking something solid to grab onto in the congealing goo, plastering our pure white boards in mud.

We drove as fast as the track would allow, riding with intensity. I kept my thumb firmly on the throttle, my spine absorbing every jolt. My brain rattled inside my skull with each strike—I wondered whether it too would turn to mud.

A left spun into the bay below. Naturally, there was no one around. We darted down the dunes and across the beach. Another set loaded out the back and peeled down the reef. Alex already had his board in hand, but there is no easy way to wax a board covered in a layer of mud.

Eventually he waded over a flat, kelp-covered shelf and made it into the lineup along with Josh and Pete. The takeoff spot was waist-deep, and as waves drew water from the reef, it only got shallower. They took off behind the peak and immediately grabbed rail as they slid into the tube, traveling nearly 200 yards down the line. They made it look easy, but afterward the dings and dents on their boards showed the signs of an unforgiving reef.

Just then, something pricked my face like a needle. I looked up and saw a wall of clouds looming again, this time loaded with hail. Pete, Josh, Alex, and Chris ignited their quads in a flurry, and blazed off. My bike, on the other hand, wasn't cooperating—just a dead click when I pressed the start button. I looked up and everyone was gone. I couldn't even hear their engines anymore. I tried all the tricks Scott had taught us to start the quad, but to no avail. I was on my own, without transportation. I contemplated abandoning the vehicle to hike back.

Wind hissed through the grass and the dark wall of clouds grew taller. Would I survive a hike through the storm? How long would it take to get back? Where would I find shelter? I noticed the presence of the bones again. They littered the ground all around me, their bleached shapes poking from the earth like tombstones. It was all coming together, the storm, the exposed hills, the dead animals.

Then I remembered the cabin. We had come across it while scouting the coast. It had thin walls and a stove, and we had spent the afternoon in it to pass the time—but I wasn't sure if it could hold up in the storm. The walls inside were marked by hunters who, in years past, had also used it for refuge. They had drawn pictures and scrawled entire poems on the plywood. One primitive mural showed a gigantic wave at the foot of a volcano. The note next to it read, "3-11-11. Watched tide go in and out like a river, 4 times in 1 hr. Japan earthquake yesterday."

It's hard to believe, but the few Aleut people that live on the island trace their history back 8,000 years. Only two generations ago, some were still wearing waterproof clothing made from animal intestines and were hunting with harpoons. Excavations in the '90s uncovered ancient caves that the Aleuts had converted into tombs for their mummified family members. In one such cave, the mummies hung from the ceiling by a rope. The sight startled researchers when they first entered the cave because it looked as if someone were standing in the middle of the chamber and had been for centuries.

During winter, flames knit islander's lives together. In the restricted space of their subterranean huts, they would huddle around a fire, eat together, and tell stories that reaffirmed their long history. The hunting lodge, by comparison, was a mere blip in time, built less than 10 years ago, back when reindeer were introduced to the island and hunters from around the world began flocking to the lodge every year, obtaining a permit and paying lofty prices to take home a massive antler rack.

I wondered how the native Aleuts would have survived out in the open. What secret knowledge did they possess? I decided I would count to 15, then try one more time to start the quad. If that didn't work, I'd start walking. I rocked the bike back and forth violently, turned the key a few times, then slowly counted down. This time, when I punched the ignition, the quad roared to life.