Surfers visit Turnagain Arm in Alaska for unique bore-tide ride

Posted: Friday, July 05, 2002

BIRD POINT, Alaska (AP) -- Marc Wisdorf stole out of his car like an aquatic SpiderMan in a black, sun-worn wet suit. Without a word, he grabbed an 8-foot surfboard from the back of his compact station wagon, tucked it under his arm and disappeared over the rocks and down into the gray, murky water of Turnagain Arm.

Ahead of him was Colin Brown, one of California's noted big-wave surfers, who traveled to Alaska just for a bore-tide ride. Before Brown was Martin Leonard III, an Alaska kayaker, surfer and veteran of many Turnagain Arm tide rides and who now makes his home in Bethel.

It was that time of the month: the full moon, which theoretically means a five-day window of outstanding bore tides. In the parking lot, a crowd gathered. Lawn chairs were parked on the rocks' edge. The surfers were there to ride it, the crowd to see it.

A bore tide is an abrupt rush of seawater -- led by a wave that can be up to 6 feet high -- that returns to an inlet following very low tides, which correspond with a full moon.

For a bore tide to occur, there needs to be high and low tidal extremes and a channel. Turnagain Arm is about 20 miles long and one to two miles wide. It has tides as high as 34 feet and negative tides to minus 4 feet.

Upper Cook Inlet has the second greatest tidal range in North America, right behind the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, which reports spring tides more than 50 feet. They are two of only a handful of areas in the world with regular bore tides. Others include the Qiantang River in China, the Severn Bore in England and the Dorogne River in France.

Cook Inlet has daily bore tides, though they vary greatly in force and are sometimes hard to spot. For the calculating observer, the time to be along Turnagain Arm to catch the bore tide is about an hour or two after low tide is reported in Anchorage. It takes that long for the bore tide to ripple into the arm. Local surfers and kayakers know this.

Kayakers have been riding the Turnagain bore tide for more than 15 years, but its only in the last few years that surfers jumped in on the wave, starting with Lolly Moss in October 1998. Word has slowly leaked Outside.

Two years ago, Ben Marcus, a surfing writer and former editor of Surfer Magazine, got his first glimpse of the Turnagain tide while wandering around the state in his van with his cat, Ike. He made note to return with an army of California surfers. And that's exactly what he had mapped out for last week. Noted California surfers Brown, Adam Replogle and Peter Mel, and his father and his son, had all lined up tickets.

But because this is Alaska, things change.

''I would say, no rules apply,'' Wisdorf said. ''Those five or six days are the best odds.'' But as local surfers and kayakers have figured out, catching the best bore tide isn't as straightforward as checking the tide book.

The silty bottom of Turnagain Arm changes and moves around the channels that create the big waves; the force of wind in Cook Inlet wreaks havoc, playing with how quickly water comes barreling into the arm.

''Some think the biggest exchanges of water are going to bring the biggest waves, but that is not always the case,'' explained Wisdorf, a carpenter who began his surfing career in Turnagain Arm four years ago. ''Right now, it seems like it is hardly worth going compared to two or three years ago when we had some really good channels. Of course we hope for them to revert back.''

When California surfer Marcus arrived in Alaska on June 19 in preparation for the June low-tide cycle and realized the bore tides of his dreams were not materializing, he quickly phoned home. Team California canceled, except for Brown.

Turnagain Arm is a dangerous place.

When the tide is out, the silty, mud-flat banks have taken lives. Without the protection of a wet suit or dry suit, a person might last hour and half in the 48-degree bone-chilling water.

Brown found getting out into the water to await the incoming tide a little daunting at first. He relied on Leonard for coaching. On Monday afternoon, he alternated sitting atop his surfboard and paddling out with his hands and getting off and wading through waist-deep water.

''It was comforting to find out that the silt bars were pretty firm underfoot,'' Brown said.

Once out there, surfers find the center channel and try to hold that position. Then ''the sound of the bore tide coming is unmistakable,'' Wisdorf said.

''It is always really loud, that is one of the impressive things about it,'' he said. Being in the right spot to catch the ''clean'' part of the wave is the trick. The front end of the wave is white and foamy, he said. Leonard called this the ''soup.'' That is followed by the ''clean'' part, which raises to a point. In Turnagain, it moves along at 10 to 15 mph.

''Bore surfers are looking for the clean part of the wave to surf, because they can maneuver around on it,'' explained Leonard, who was out in the surf on Monday in a WitchWave, a hybrid surfing kayak that is about 10 feet long. Leonard was part of a Hawaii kayak-surfing team that used the boat to win the World Paddle Surfing Championships in Costa Rica in 1995.

The Monday afternoon bore tide was unremarkable. It snuck up and around Leonard. Wisdorf just barely caught it and Brown caught the longest ride. Still, his ride was probably less than two minutes. The wave fizzled fast. The show was over. Lawn chairs were folded up and the parking lot cleared before the surfers were able to climb up the rock bank.

Wisdorf said his longest ride ever in Turnagain Arm lasted about seven or eight minutes and carried him about a mile and a quarter. He told of other tides that pushed him on to the mud banks, but he was able to stand up, grab his board, run past the wave and hop back on it. But the minute and two-minute rides are more common, he said.

Later Brown described the bore wave as a lot less predictable and a lot less impressive than what he is used to surfing in the Santa Cruz area. On his first ride, he felt the 7-inch center fin on his board scrape bottom.

''I had hoped to ride a high-performance short board,'' said Brown, a veteran who surfs the Mavericks, about 25 miles south of San Francisco and with its 15-foot waves is the best-known big-wave spot in the world, and the big waves of Santa Cruz's Steamer Lane. Instead, he used a longer, flatter board with more glide and less speed.

''The novelty of actually surfing upstream in the arms was pretty amazing, though the waves I rode were disappointingly weak and small compared to the waves on a decent day in Santa Cruz,'' Brown said. Yet, ''it was worth it as a vacation experience and a starter trip to surf the bore.''

For Wisdorf and Leonard, it was just one of many bore tides.

''It's pretty trippy when the tide comes in, it's got a lot of power,'' Leonard said. ''Half the fun is just being out there.''

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