The Cradle Of Storms, Part III

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

Two weeks ago, 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 wrapping up the rollout with Part III of the film and the third and final section, written by Weiland, from the SURFER 55.04 cover feature (Click here to read Part I, and click here to read Part II).

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“So what does a professional hunter do?” Pete asked. “Just kill something bigger than most people?”

The plane had come and our food had finally arrived. Boxes of spinach, milk, orange juice, broccoli, eggs, and bacon sat piled in the kitchen. Scott had brought a bottle of whiskey, a rare treasure on the island. His friend Danny Boy came along too. We sat in the living room with our feet kicked up on chairs.

“Yeah, they try to shoot something bigger…and rarer,” Alex said. “Basically the same thing professional surfers do with waves.”

Scott pulled a topographic map out of a drawer and we huddled around. Danny Boy filled our glasses with another round. He was a native Aleut who worked as a guide for visiting hunters. He belonged to a group of 150 people in the island chain who still spoke the Aleut language fluently. Hunting and fishing still provides their food. Whenever he leaves town, he always takes his shotgun and rifle with him, ready to shoot a passing goose, duck, or seal. In traditional fashion he takes the meat to the elders in the village before distributing it to the rest of the community. He and Scott hadn’t eaten store-bought meat for as long as they could remember.

“We should check out that other bay,” Pete said. He pointed to a spot at the end of the treacherous trail we had avoided the first day. “It looks a little more exposed to swell.”

“The waves come in a lot bigger over there,” Scott warned.

“How do we get there? That track looks sketchy,” Alex said.

Pete had bogged down in a ditch on an excursion the day before, and Alex had tipped his quad over trying to pull him out with a rope. The accident nearly crushed Alex and his boards. It was a near miss that had rattled us.

“Never doubt yourself,” Danny Boy advised. “You can figure it out somehow—that’s what I believe.” It was a useful piece of advice, I thought, coming from someone whose people had survived in this brutal environment for 8,000 years.

The track was severe. Razor wire and sheets of rusted metal threatened our tires. On the hills, deep mud troughs ran down the center of the path, while in the flats the trail disappeared into marshland.

The new bay felt more exposed than the other. Whale vertebrae the size of airplane propellers littered the beach. At the far corner, a headland leaned over the water like the prow of a ship. In its shadow, a serrated reef jutted 600 yards out to sea, partially covered by the tide. As we drew closer, a massive wall of whitewater plowed across it. We jumped off our bikes and hiked a hill that skirted the cliff. From up high we could tell that the wave didn’t just surge—a huge section drained and spit. It looked deadly, not surfable. No one had ever ridden it.

Another wave blew its guts out. Alex ran down to his quad, ripped his wetsuit out of his backpack, and began changing.

The wave barreled on a slab as dry as a sidewalk. Pete and Josh observed its habits from the hillside as Alex paddled out and roamed the lineup. We hoped it wouldn’t end in catastrophe, since a rescue would require paddling to the end of the reef to retrieve him, riding back along the bumpy track, searching for a phone in the village, and calling for a helicopter to evacuate him.

Flurries of rain and hail swirled across the water. A set wave grew on the rock. Alex swung around at the last minute, paddled furiously, then dropped down the face. He turned at the bottom, set his rail, then stood straight up as the wave drew off the slab. It transformed into a cave as it drained water from the shelf, turning the bottom into an open grave. Alex stood calm in the green glow of the chamber. As he passed through the final section, spit blasted him onto the shoulder.

Pete and Josh suited up and trekked across the reef. Pete dropped in late on his first one. He stuck the drop, and as the lip collapsed over him, the wave warped over the slab and exploded. His board shot out in two pieces—the consequences couldn’t have been displayed more clearly. He popped up just as the next wave detonated in front of him.

Meanwhile, Josh waited patiently for the right set. His reward came in the form of a perfect, dry barrel that traveled the entire length of the reef. He flew out into the channel.

Pete returned to the lineup a while later. He disappeared into another tube through the back door—a heaving section—and this time emerged in a cloud of spray. After a few hours Josh and Pete came in, but Alex stayed out, shivering his way through cavernous barrels. Though he had never felt colder, he had the lineup to himself and couldn’t bring himself to paddle in. He shot out of barrel after barrel. As the day went on, he came out of more than 35 tubes. The session had entered the realm of absurdity.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone get that barreled in cold water,” Pete marveled.

The storm on the horizon brought another round of hail. Alex’s arms nearly froze as they dug through the water. Ice needles poured down but he stayed out. The rest of us shivered on our bikes with our jackets zipped and hoods pulled tight, ready to head back to the lodge as soon as Alex stepped back onto land.

His face was as pale as a ghost when he eventually came up the beach. His whole body shook but he didn’t bother to change. Instead he threw his jacket on over his wetsuit, strapped his board onto the back of his quad, pulled the choke, hit the start button, shifted into gear, and took off down the track, content that what he’d just surfed offered something more than just isolation.