Veteran coldwater surfer Josh Mulcoy has spent the past three decades chasing an elusive lefthander on the coast of Alaska. On a recent trip back to the Last Frontier, an unfortunate turn of events led him to his most surprising discovery yet.
This article is part of the Mountain Life Isolation Reading List
words :: Ashtyn Hayley photos :: Mark McInnis
Josh Mulcoy had run into obstacles before while chasing waves in frigid, remote areas of the world, but as he watched the rising tide creep closer and closer to his stranded Chevy truck—stuck in the sand on a completely isolated Alaskan beach blanketed in snow—he realized this specific hurdle was minutes away from turning into a very big problem.Just hours earlier, he and his good friend Aaron Bierman had arrived in the small fishing town where they would be staying for the next week. After unpacking their board bags, stuffed to the brim with various surf craft and wetsuits thick enough to withstand the wintry Alaskan elements, Mulcoy and Bierman hopped in their rental truck to see if the storm they were chasing had produced any swell.
As they made their way down a long, empty dirt road, the gray sky above them darkened and raindrops began pelting the windshield. Mulcoy peered out the driver’s side window at the rows of spruce trees, likely hiding whatever wild animals took refuge in their shelter.Mulcoy is no stranger to this road, the trees, the skies, the hidden fauna. He had first ventured to this area of Alaska back in the early ‘90s, alongside fellow pro surfers Brock Little and Dave Parmenter for a SURFER magazine trip. Back then, before social media feeds became clogged with images of surfers toting boards across snow-laden beaches, hunting waves in a place like Alaska was the surfy equivalent of Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic. But Mulcoy felt at home. While there, they found a coldwater treasure trove of waves, including a particularly rippable, seemingly-never-ending lefthander that fronted the most majestic, snow-capped mountain range Mulcoy had ever laid eyes on.
When Mulcoy was 15 years old, his dad put him on a bus heading for the Oregon border, where he and his teenaged friends for four days, alone, at a shark-infested river mouth.
Growing up in Santa Cruz, CA as professional surfer, a part of Mulcoy was always drawn to waves that sat on the fringe of conventional surf travel. When he was only 15 years old, his dad (legendary Santa Cruz surf outlaw Harbor Bill) put him on a bus heading for the Oregon border, where he and his teenaged friends camped for four days, alone, at a shark-infested river mouth. Since that introductory adventure, Mulcoy has done whatever he can to keep venturing north in search of rarely-surfed waves. Over the past 30 years, he became a regular visitor to the refrigerated lineups of Canada, Russia, Iceland and beyond. It was a combination of the raw, beautiful elements in these locales—and their subsequent empty lineups—that kept Mulcoy hooked on coldwater surfing.
He returned to Alaska time and time again, bringing with him other surfers excited by the idea of looking for waves in the backwoods of the surf world while donning thick layers of neoprene. Unfortunately, each visit proved that the perfect lefthander he had once stumbled upon wasn’t quite the same as it used to be.
As the sands of time shifted, the wave started to return to its true form. So when Mulcoy saw this storm pop up on the charts, he called Bierman and photographer Mark McInnis and urged them to buy plane tickets. If the sand was built up in all the right places, the point was going to be firing.
They arrived, this time, before the swell did. Veering off the dirt road, Mulcoy turned onto the beach, frozen solid by the Alaskan winter. The storm he had been tracking was moving in, whipping up a cold, agitated wind and completely obscuring the normally visible mountain range in the distance.
In order to get a better look at the waves, Mulcoy steered the truck onto softer sand, closer to the water. Then, suddenly, they heard a loud “bang” beneath Mulcoy’s seat. Their vehicle immediately started sinking in the sand.
“…sometimes you get what you came for, but sometimes you might take a little unexpected detour along the way.”
Mulcoy furrowed his brow and exchanged worried glances with his friend. They hopped out of the truck into the biting wind. After a quick assessment of the vehicle, it looked as if the differential had snapped, leaving them suddenly marooned on an expansively empty beach without a working 4WD vehicle.
They let the air out of the tires—that didn’t work. They then bunched up towels beneath them in an effort to gain traction and get the truck onto firm ground, but that proved fruitless as well. They were stuck.
As the rain turned to ice and their fingers became increasingly numb, Mulcoy started to worry. Walking back to get help would have been an uncomfortable two-hour journey through wolf and brown bear territory. There was also the issue with the location of the truck, which wasn’t far from the water’s edge on an approaching high tide. Watching their rental truck float away in the ocean wasn’t exactly what he had envisioned for this trip. He grabbed his VHF radio and called the coast guard for help.
As they sat there waiting for rescue, Mulcoy stared out at the ocean in front of them. A barely breaking righthander caught his eye. Out of all the years he’d driven up and down this coastline, he had never seen anything break at that specific spot. It didn’t look great, but he figured the sand must have filled in enough to create a little novelty wave. Mulcoy’s interest, however, was quickly eclipsed by the problem currently at hand—and, of course, the encroaching tide.
“It just so happened the people living at the house we were staying at wanted to watch us surf so they were driving out and found us,” remembers Mulcoy. “Luckily they had rope and pulled us back on the frozen beach. No joke, within ten minutes, the truck would have been underwater.”
On the drive back to town, Mulcoy couldn’t help wondering if the whole truck debacle was an omen of things to come. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow did we get greedy to want to come back here?’” he says. “I considered that perhaps it was a bad sign and maybe we wouldn’t see even the left get good again.”
The thing about travelling to far-off regions of the globe to surf untouched waves, Mulcoy realizes, is that there’s always the chance of getting skunked. No matter how much you plan out your trip or how vigilantly you study the swell, wind and weather patterns that work for a specific coastline, there will always be things that fall outside the realm of your control.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, did we get greedy to want to come back here?'”
The next morning, the storm had cleared, and in a new truck, the duo (plus lensman McInnis) set off once more to see if the storm had brought with it the swell they were expecting. On a whim, they decided to return to the place where they had gotten stuck the day before. When they arrived, Mulcoy couldn’t believe his eyes. The novelty wave he had spotted completely transformed overnight.
Beneath a clear, bluebird sky was a glassy, head-high wave most surfers dream about uncovering. “It was just unbelievable,” remembers Mulcoy. “It looked like a reef wave. We freaked out, ran out, surfed it, ran around and picked up a ton of waves. I had never seen anything break there and there I was, standing at one of the best sandbars I’ve ever seen in my life. We were truly shocked.”
In a way—as many coldwater surfers come to find out—searching for waves along the shores of far-flung coastlines is a lot like navigating through life: sometimes you get what you came for, but sometimes you might take a little unexpected detour along the way. For the most part—whether it’s on a surf trip or chasing a specific career path—it’s best not to dwell on the fact that your plans veered off course. Because oftentimes, what you think is a bad omen or a wrong turn might actually be leading you to an experience you’ll never forget.
“If we didn’t have the unexpected, life would be boring,” says Mulcoy now. “It’s these challenges that make us individuals. [That day] was the biggest shocking surprise ever. It’s so much harder to get good surf in these types of climates and so much work goes into it that when it finally happens, it’s those types of days that I will never forget. Being in the water with just the friends that you came with and beautiful mountains, snow and wildlife all around you—that is what makes me feel alive.” — ML