Kiteboarding in the Alaskan Wilderness

“This might seem like an odd post,” began a message I wrote on KiteForum this spring, “but I am looking for a hard-working kiter to work with me as a crew member at my commercial fishing site in Bristol Bay, Alaska.”

by Traveler Terpening, owner of Desert Wind Kiteboarding, a certified F-One shop and also co-organizer of the yearly Kitefest in Alaska, whom F-One is a proud sponsor.

“This might seem like an odd post,” began a message I wrote on KiteForum this spring, “but I am looking for a hard-working kiter to work with me as a crew member at my commercial fishing site in Bristol Bay, Alaska.”

After commercial fishing in my home state of Alaska on and off since I was 15 years old, I decided this last winter that barfing, being screamed at by agro skippers and killing my body on boats out at sea for weeks on end was strangely becoming less appealing. Although I had “retired” from fishing just about every year, vowing never to return, there was something about commercial fishing that forced me back every year. It was money yes, but it was also the intensity and the vibrancy of the experience combined with remote, wild places, extreme weather and the knowledge that I, and others like me, were some of the world’s last professional hunters.

The romance of the sea going life was fine and dandy but after getting into kiteboarding in early 2000, my priorities began to rapidly change. I was finding myself increasingly less interested in spending Alaska’s short summer fishing and more interested in spending that time kiting. In short, I wanted to work less and play more. But even as kiteboarding threatened to edge out my livelihood it also created unprecedented expenses that made working a regrettable necessity. The question was never whether to give up kiting or fishing but rather how I could do both during Alaska’s short but glorious summers.
The answer came when a Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishing permit came up for sale last year. The wheels started turning in my head and I realized that if the stars aligned, I could not only fish and work for myself but kite as well. Even before I looked at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game stats on recent and projected Bristol Bay catches, I logged on to Google Earth and NOAA to check out the water and wind conditions in Bristol Bay. Although Alaska’s 44,000 miles of coastline are blessed with abundant beaches battered by wind and waves, the Ugashik district, where I would be fishing, was particularly endowed in this regard. A quick phone call to my buddy George, who had fished the area, confirmed, “Oh yea, its windy down there.” The words were music to my ears. “I think the name of the bay even means ‘windy bay’ or something like that.” Were there fish? It didn’t really matter, the kiting was going to be epic!

The loans came through, the forms were signed and I became the proud owner of a permit, a fishing site, some land and a little cabin that through a miracle of geography is lake-front, river-front and ocean-front. Now all I needed was a crewmember who could hack living in the wilderness for two months, picking fish till his fingers bled while standing waist deep in dead fish, working in the wind and rain and at all hours of the day or night then have the energy to go kiting afterward. As it turned out, there were lots of people as excited to do this as I was. Within days of posting the message to KiteForum, my email inbox brimmed with messages, some from deadbeats but many from interesting people from all walks of life. What we all had in common was a desire to make every experience count regardless of the cost to our bodies and pocketbooks. To see the raw untamed parts of the world before they’re paved over, and to push ourselves physically and mentally to prove that our breaking point is really much further than we thought––that and a wicked need to kite pretty much all the time.

A guy called from California who wished he could go but insisted he was too old and offered his son in his stead. Another guy explained that Sarah Palin was evil and brilliant and wanted to see her home state. The stories flooded in by phone and email and I spent a few marvelous weeks getting to know some of this county’s most interesting kiters. Finally, a guy named Tyler emailed from Salt Lake City, Utah. He had the right combination of skills and attitude and a week later he was signed into servitude at my Wilderness Camp of Endless Work and Kiting. Tyler didn’t know if he would like fishing and I didn’t know if I would like my new life-long commitment but we both loved kiting and that alone kept our nerves from shattering in the lead up to the season.

June rolled around and after putting on KiteFest in Homer, Alaska I flew from Anchorage to King Salmon at the base of the Alaska Peninsula, then on to Pilot Point on the Ugashik River by small plane. Although Anchorage is no small town and bears the brunt of the classic joke ‘you can see Alaska from Anchorage,’ five minutes by plane in any direction produces wilderness of the purest variety. This is one of the reasons I love Alaska. Most of the land is so gnarled by massive mountains, shredded by wild rivers and enrobed in steely blue glaciers that modern America couldn’t get a foothold there even it wanted to.

Flying from King Salmon to Pilot Point and my new fish camp was a smoothy of dread and delight. I was up to my neck in debt and commitment, two things I hated with a vengeance, and had no idea what I would find at the end of the flight. As the cloudy sky became partly sunny and the smoking volcanoes of the Aleutian Range became visible to the south, I began to breath a little easier. Below the plane was an endless carpet of treeless tundra studded with thousands of lakes and braided by rivers that would soon be swollen with salmon. Most importantly, nowhere were there any roads or towns and already wind was riffling the surface of the lakes.

With my father in tow for moral support, we learned the lay of the land and made the cabin our own. We righted my boats, affixed outboard engines, mended nets, repaired the outhouse and started to meet the handful of other fishermen as they slowly trickled in for the season. When Tyler arrived a few days later, the wind began to blow and our minds turned from work to kiting.

With 6-knot currents ripping in the bay and nets starting to be stretched for early-run salmon, we decided to explore the lakes behind the cabin. Jumping on Big Red, my 1984 three-wheeler, we charged inland on an old trail to see what we could find. The wind was honking 25 mph from the northwest, we had our 9m kites and small boards; all we needed was some water. Cresting a low ridge we saw what looked like a big lake shimmering clear and shallow to the south. We grabbed our gear and ran toward the lake through spongy tundra and wild flowers. Climbing a low fin of land we finally stood at the edge of the lake. At our feet was a perfect sandy beach covered in wolf and bear tracks with acres of waist-deep and flawlessly flat water just beyond. We had arrived. Not just to the lake, but to a culminating point in our lives, when things couldn’t get better and the quality of that moment would prevent things from ever getting worse. After a year of anticipation, it was safe to say that we now officially liked fish camp.

Needless to say, we tore it up. My board sang as I sliced the butter in the lee of a peninsula and Tyler boosted over flat tundra-covered islands. The water was warm, mountains filled the background and the wind was blowing 25 mph, gusting to 26. I practiced my board taps on the shore and realized the tundra was so soft that getting spanked onshore was about as punishing as being drug across a field of mattresses covered in carpet. We pushed even harder.

We had seen pro kiters in videos strap into their boards and launch right off the sand in offshore winds but we had never experienced those conditions ourselves. Here we had it in spades. I climbed a five-foot burm and saddled up. I yanked the bar and dove the kite and was immediately flying, sailing gloriously out of control over 10, 20, 30 feet of lake before I landed, butt-checked then rode away hooting with delight. Forget the pros and all those videos, we were living the dream right then and there. And when the fish started to come in, we would be getting paid to do it too.

The end of June came and went and the tundra and rivers rioted with life under 20 hours of sun per day. The red salmon flooded into the river and we formed a routine of fishing all day, then kiting until the sun went down at 11 PM. Some days we caught 6,000 pounds of fish and though we thought it might kill us, we were comforted by the recently announced price of 95 cents per pound and a simple routine that was our lives: fish, kite, sauna, eat, sleep, repeat.

Before the summer ended, we had logged 30-40 kite session in 60 days, learned some new tricks and caught a hell of a lot of fish. We were tired but grins were perpetually plastered on our faces.

There was just one thing left to do. Since I had started kiting I had always had the inexplicable fantasy of kiteboarding around fishermen–jumping some buoys, rail sliding some cork lines, tear up some boat wakes, etc. Although we hadn’t had one session in the bay where all the fishing takes place, the day was shaping up just fine, the current was mellow, the wind was up but light and the fishermen were lounging around in their boats without a lot to do. Tyler and I geared up right there on the beach in front of the cabin and took to the water on our 14m kites. We shot upriver and while Tyler sprayed the boats to the cheers of skippers and their crew, I was on a mission to rail slide a net and jump some buoys. I skimmed the coast heading downwind fast, carving through the moored skiffs like slalom gates. A friend and his crew were tied off at the end of their net and started cheering as I came in fast. About 100 feet out the wind backed off and I started to loose speed. With the tide flooding, I found myself up current of a net and the very real possibility of sinking and getting stuck in the net right in front of my friends was starting to become apparent. As I approached I dove the kite and edged as hard as I could. The kite’s wingtip skimmed the ducking crew and with that last little bit of pull I ollied, barely clearing the net. Everyone cheered and I body drug back to shore, glad to have fulfilled my fantasy and lived to tell about it.

Traveler is the owner of Desert Wind Kiteboarding and a F-One certified dealer. He is also the co-organizer fo the Kitefest in Alaska.