The Writ and Writings of Kris Farmen

Body in Motion

In surfing, the act of catching a wave is a delicate dance of physical forces. A body at rest—say a surfer sitting in the lineup—tends to stay at rest. A body in motion—like a wave rolling in from the sea—tends to stay in motion. To catch a wave you point your surfboard toward shore and paddle. You’re not trying to match the wave’s speed, you’re just trying to break your inertia.

Cook Inlet surf in April is a rare occurrence, the kind of thing you pray for every year but never actually happens. I was astounded when I rolled up to a surf break I’ll call the Snake Pit (not its real name, but my fellow locals will know where I’m talking about) to find choice waves breaking across the sandbars. It was a sunny spring morning with a slight offshore breeze that groomed the breaking waves into rideable perfection. The mountains across Kachemak Bay stood in stark relief against the sky. It had been a lousy winter—an illness in the family plus some serious health problems of my own meant I had been stuck in surfless Anchorage since the previous November. Among the more disheartening aspects of this was that after working all summer in a landlocked town for the pleasure of being a surf bum in the fall and early winter, I ended up completely missing the surf season. There was also the dread question of whether or not I would have to give up surfing due to the pain that racked my body.

But I got lucky. I found a doctor who could fix me up, and for the sake of my sanity, if nothing else, I was given the go-ahead to keep surfing. It will come as no small surprise that I was climbing the walls by the time I got out of town. Now, to be confronted with this exquisite beauty, this thing that isn’t even supposed to exist, was nothing less than delightful.

I wade into the water and paddle out to a nice right-hand peak. It feels good to paddle a surfboard again after the long winter in town. There is the caress of the water and the rush of the oncoming lines of shorebreak. The sun hitting my black wetsuit. These are the subtle moments of surfing, the beauty and circular pointlessness of what a surfer does.

I make it to my peak and watch a nice chest-high set move in. Out of long habit I let the first wave go by and stroke hard for the second. To my surprise, I make it. I pop up and slide down into the pocket, but it’s not a very long ride—I came in a little late and the lip ahead of me crashes down just a couple seconds into it. Still, I come up smiling. Just being on a wave is a thrill, feeling that familiar lift at the tail of my board, like there’s something alive beneath me pushing me ahead of its unnamed mystery.

Usually on these clumsy, first-time-back-in-the-water sessions, I have an unbecoming tendency to get frustrated with myself, with the wave conditions, and with surfing itself. Surfing isn’t like riding a bike. You do lose your abilities if you’re not doing it regularly. Or at least I do. This can be utterly maddening when you’ve had a long, crummy stretch of not being in the water, because when you finally do get back to the water, you want a few waves more than anything else, including food and sex. You want waves so bad you’d sell your grandmother for a few. But because of the very fact that you haven’t been surfing, all the elements of catching and riding a wave become difficult to the point of impossibility. Your paddling fitness is way down; your timing of when to wait and when to charge is off. Even the really basic stuff like assessing which wave in the set is the most makeable becomes something of a clown show. On the worst days, I can almost step outside my body with a Zen-like clarity and watch myself acting like an ass.

But today it’s different. I’m smiling as I paddle back to my peak. Another set rolls in and I charge a couple of the waves, missing both. I should be getting pissed off, but instead I’m serene. I watch a sea otter drifting with the tide way out the back. I balance my palms upon the Inlet’s skin and feel the sunshine on my shoulders. I look across the water at the mountains, glaciers, and snowfields on the far side of the bay and I think to myself, I can’t believe this is where I surf.

After surfing Cook Inlet for five years, I’ve finally come to think of it as my home coast. There are no hard and fast rules on this, except that home is where the heart is. On your home coast, you know the spots, the benthic contours. You know what conditions are needed to make each break fire. You know where to be and when to be there. On your home coast, you know you’re one of the locals as you lean against the bed of your pickup, stuffing your hands into the pockets of your blue jeans against the chill in the clear air as you do the morning surf check.

South Australia’s Mid Coast is where I learned to surf, and for many years after my return to Alaska, I still considered it to be my home coast. Of course I knew Cook Inlet’s beaches from my childhood, but I didn’t know them as a surfer. The shape of the sandbars in the intertidal zone might not mean anything to the rest of the world, but to the seasoned surfer it’s a map of where the waves will break when the tide advances to the right level. Certain surf spots work at different tide stages. Too much tide and the waves get swallowed up and don’t crack. Too little and they break up into unrideable mush. Surfing has given me a whole new way to look at these stretches of sand and gray gravel that were so prominent in my upbringing. What was just so much boring beach when I was a kid suddenly became the stuff of obsession as I pored over tidebooks and marine weather forecasts, working out where there was likely to be a ripple.

But lately that obsession has mellowed into a sort of calm knowledge of the local conditions. I’m not exactly sure when or where this transition happened. It certainly didn’t take place overnight. It’s taken me several years to work all this out, to get the place wired, in the surfing parlance. There were a lot of miles put on my truck driving the highway along the lower Inlet, up and down, back and forth, searching for waves. There have been a lot of go-outs in less than ideal conditions, sessions that didn’t yield any respectable rides, and nasty currents sweeping me down the beach.

The pattern my life has taken in the last few years is one of working inland all summer, then migrating back to the coast for the surf season. This works well because there’s no surf to speak of on the Inlet during the summer months, and since there’s no waves I’d just as soon be up in the mountains making bucks. But when I’m in the high country, on hot afternoons when the cottonwood fluff comes floating along on the breeze to pile up at the edges of the dirt streets, it’s not the baked sand, saltbrush, red cliffs and bikini girls of Port Noarlunga that fill my fantasies. It’s the gray gravel beaches of Cook Inlet and the muddy waves that break there.

Back at the Snake Pit, I charge another wave and make the drop. This time I cruise along on the face for a good five seconds before it peters out. The tide is getting too high. I should have been out here an hour ago.

I hear a hoot from the roadside behind me as I’m stroking back to the lineup. I look over my shoulder to see a bunch of teenagers jumping into their wetsuits, waxing their boards and getting ready to paddle out. They’re whooping and hollering like a bunch of obnoxious tropical birds.
“Kooks,” I mutter to the ocean. But there’s no agro here. It’s not like, Fuckin’ kooks. Rather, it’s merely an idle observation. As in, Huh. How bout that. Kooks.

I know most of the local surf crew, but I don’t know these guys. They clamber down the revetment boulders between the road and the beach then sprint pell-mell into the shorebreak. From their nonsensical vocalizations I take them to be a pack of snowboarders from Girdwood who have come down to try their hand at surfing. As it turned out, I was wrong. These were the next generation of the Inlet crew, the local lads (and one lass) who were suddenly old enough to drive, afford boards and wetsuits, and ditch school for the day to go surfing.

On other days in other places this turn of events would have been enough to ruin my day, but my Buddha-like serenity continues unabated. When they hit the water and clamber onto their boards, it quickly becomes evident that these kids don’t know how to surf. They don’t know what tides work best for the Snake Pit or for the other spots up and down the coast. They don’t know what combinations of wind and swell to listen for on the marine weather forecast. They don’t know that you can mitigate most of Cook Inlet’s nasty currents by surfing in the lee of a long point. Or by timing your session so that the tide is running in the opposite direction to the waves. So many things they don’t know, but then again, I didn’t know these things either when I first started surfing here.

Another thing these kids don’t know is that at the Snake Pit, when one peak gets swallowed up by the tide, another one opens up somewhere else close by. I’ve been out for almost an hour, watching the variations in the swell lines as they stack up and break, so I know where to be. To put it mildly, I spend the rest of my session surfing circles around the kids. Truthfully though, it’s not even really a matter of outsurfing them. I’m just ignoring them and doing my own thing. They don’t crowd my peak or snake my waves, and I don’t crowd or snake them. We just give each other our space and it’s all good. Prior to this session, I would have maintained an aloof demeanor, vanity and pridefulness in the lineup being just two of my many shortcomings. I would have smiled smugly, watching them flail the water around them into whitecaps as they missed wave after wave. But losing something you love changes you, even if you’re fortunate enough to get it back. I was able to get my body fixed, and return to surfing, but many aren’t so lucky. I know of a surfer in Yakutat who had the ocean taken from him because of the exact same medical issue I had. No health insurance, and no universal health care.

I could have been him, but I wasn’t. I got healed up and given the go-ahead to continue doing what I love. Still, I suspect the day is coming when I won’t be able to paddle out any more. I’ve suspected that for a long time, actually. I used to stress out when I knew the surf was firing and I couldn’t be there to ride it. I used to get wound up like an eight-day clock worrying that there might be a wave I didn’t know about breaking somewhere within driving distance. I would get irritable, short-tempered and melancholy when there wasn’t any surf, because I knew I only had so much time left, and every minute that ticked by without a wave was a precious minute lost, never to be reclaimed.

Or so it used to be. I’m guessing that I still have a rendezvous with that fateful day, but the big difference is that now I’m okay with that knowledge. As I climbed up the beach from the water, it occurred to me that every day of walking upright is a gift from whatever gods there are left to believe in, as is every single moment spent on a surfboard in the waves.

The self-destructive image of the ticking clock is the worst possible metaphor here. And while a journey is a much more appropriate model, it’s also one of the most overused concepts in our culture, hackneyed to the point of meaninglessness. I much prefer surfer Herbie Fletcher’s notion: Surfing’s a trip. You better have your bags packed.

Every trip has a beginning, and, sooner or later, an end. Sometimes you don’t realize how far you’ve come on a trip like surfing until you watch someone new to it and remember how difficult it was when you first started. Of course, I was an experienced surfer when I first returned to Cook Inlet. These kids, on the other hand, were learning the ropes on one of the trickiest and most heartbreaking stretches of surf coast the world has to offer. My lack of resentment toward them caught me off guard at first, but before long it seemed just right. I had no way of knowing that this day would be the first in a four-week run of quality springtime surf. But as the days rolled by and my sessions blurred into one another with the sun and surf, with my bare feet on the beach gravel and the salt and the Cook Inlet mud caking up my hair, I gradually started to feel like myself again. I had broken through the wall of my own inertia, pushed my head up from the depths into the clear air above. I was, for the first time, both a body at rest and a body in motion.

© Kris Farmen