Arc of Aleutia: Reawakening the Spirit of Surf Travel

Jessica Wong

Surf and travel have always been inextricably connected. Sure, you could surf all day at your local…but the dream is always The Trip. The passports stamps. The street signs in a foreign tongue. The layers of safety that shed unknowingly. The ferry rides. The calls to prayer. The profound and […]

Surf and travel have always been inextricably connected. Sure, you could surf all day at your local…but the dream is always The Trip. The passports stamps. The street signs in a foreign tongue. The layers of safety that shed unknowingly. The ferry rides. The calls to prayer. The profound and magnetic faraway-ness.

Of course, last year there was certainly more dreaming for most than baggage fees, and for a crew like Parker Coffin, Harrison Roach and Nate Zoller, that made things a little difficult. They did, however, slip one in before COVID shut down planet earth-travel. An exploratory mission to the remote Aleutian Island archipelago. In short, their most adventurous surf-endeavor yet.

Nate Zoller. Photo: Chris Burkard

They scored, by the way, and Roark made a stunning film about the journey. It’s called “Arc of Aleutia,” produced by award winning photographer and adventurist, Chris Burkard, and Ben Weiland. Featuring Harrison Roach, Parker Coffin and Nate Zoller, it’s radical, and at the very least, sparks an intense urge to get up and go somewhere far away…when TSA permits.

The following is a little backstory about this beautiful new film, from an interview with Parker Coffin, Nate Zoller, and Harrison Roach, Arc of Aleutia’s eloquent narrator.

The film premieres on iTunes on March 16th. Click here to watch.

Photos: Chris Burkard

Surfline: Tell me about that trip. What it took to get there, what it took to prepare, what the path looks like to get to some of those waves you scored out there…

Harrison Roach: Well, first of all, when I heard about the Aleutian Islands, I had very little idea about them at all, whatsoever. I asked other people, and they also had no idea. I literally had to get out a map and figure out where it was — and then after doing that, I realized how remote those islands were. I was just sort of shocked that we were even attempting to be going there. It seemed like that was where all the storms in the North Pacific were generated. Or, where guys on “Deadliest Catch” would die. They actually launch out of Dutch Harbor up there, which is one of the places we visited in the film.

No way.

Harrison: Yeah. But normally, you have some point of reference to a place you’re going. I knew so little about the Aleutians that I thought I’d try and do my research and figure out the history of the place. I spent weeks just reading and looking into it and learning that the zone had a really trippy history of colonization. When we finally got there, I was somewhat prepared, but when it came to gear and just the mentality of being in a place like that: It was so new for me. I was just kind of taking it as it came.

Parker Coffin. Photo: Chris Burkard

Parker Coffin: I definitely took my time packing my gear for this trip. I made a list of things that would come in handy and packed the entire two days before leaving. I knew we were going to be really remote, so I tried to pack quite a bit of medical stuff just in case. Right when we arrived in Anchorage, we were told to cut our amount of bags in half to be able to make weight on the charter plane… so I then reorganized all my gear into a backpack! That pretty much just set the tone for the trip. We were just adapting to stuff the whole time. The weather really dictated our trip, from start to finish — and there were constant curveballs. We would wait out three days of 50 mph wind and rain and then rip through the muddiest tracks down to the ocean and try to predict our best windows with the tide. It was soooo much fun doing our best to be in the right place at the right time.

Nate Zoller. Photo: Chris Burkard

Nate Zoller: On the surf days, we would put our wetsuits on in the cabin, then put our foul weather gear on over that, and ride our ATVs an hour through mud with boards, food and water strapped on. It’s weird, because at first I would be amping to get to the surf, but after 15 minutes riding the ATV, I’d get distracted by the beauty of the surroundings. Some days we’d pass packs of reindeer on the way to the waves. By the time we actually got to the ocean it felt like surfing was always a bonus.

Photo: Chris Burkard

And did you guys surf some waves that had never ever been surfed before?

Harrison: Yeah, maybe one or two? But, the majority of them, there’d been a few surf missions to where we went before us. I know that Chris Burkard — who really led the way with the trip — had been to the island that we went to before. But you got the feeling while you were there like you didn’t know what was going to be around the next corner. Maybe it’d be another perfect wave around the next corner. It was just a matter of getting to it and seeing it at the right time, you know?

Parker: We surfed a few lefts along one side of the island that were insane and we absolutely scored the right slab. I dunno if we surfed any new waves, but I do think we surfed the right bigger than anything I’ve seen in the past. I feel like I have been out in some pretty serious lineups in my life, and that slab is probably at the top of the list. We were probably 300-500 yards off the beach surfing a six- to eight-foot slab over dry reef in the middle of nowhere. The consequences felt really real if something were to happen.

Photo: Chris Burkard

Nate: It’s hard to say if we were the first to surf any of the more remote spots. We heard some rumblings of fisherman that surf the surrounding volcanic reefs.

Harrison: To be honest, I had little expectations before going. With some of these fly in, fly out, strike missions with surf travel, you get used to the idea that you might not score. Plus, I didn’t even think scoring was the point. It was secondary to the life experience and the travel experience and the adventure. It’s such a unique and remote location that you can’t just drop in there when you see a swell. But…like Parker mentioned, we ended up SCORING and I was blown away by it. It seemed like everywhere we went, there were waves. It was really difficult, still, though. We’d spend three days inside during some crazy big storm and then go out every now and then just to go a look around.

Harrison Roach. Photo: Chris Burkard

I can’t imagine…

Harrison: You’d have to spend 10 or 15 minutes getting up with full wet weather gear, gumboots, goggles and gloves. Just leaving the place was a hectic mission. Again, Chris was like our leader. So, we’d be sort of hiding out from the weather and all of a sudden Chris would be putting on his gear on and everybody would be like, “Oh, here we go again.” Then, you jump on a quad bike and go bounce around these little mud tracks and find the wave. I must say, we touched such a small amount of area with respect to the Aleutian Islands. It’s crazy to think of what might still be out there. But we were more than happy with what we saw and the waves we got, along with the experiences we had.

Photos: Chris Burkard

Does “Arc of Aleutia” have some type of theme or message you’re trying to convey?

Harrison: I’d say it’s just about the reward of doing things the hard way sometimes. Maybe trying a little bit harder than one normally would on a trip. But it was the people we met and the places that we saw that really made the trip. Nobody ever complains about scoring waves — but when I came home from that trip, and I think when you finish up watching the film, the landscapes really stay with you. Those are the things that hit home. Seeing people live in a different way, it’s really unique, but I don’t know, there’s no moral: It’s just a bit of a travel film that we have a bit of fun with. I suppose, sometimes when you go the extra length you’re rewarded for it. You’re always rewarded for it, and sometimes, even double.

Harrison Roach. Photo: Chris Burkard

Nate: If anything: Perfection comes in many forms.

I assume these islands were probably the most remote place you’ve ever been in your life. Was that scary at all?

Parker: Ya I would say it was one of the most remote trips of my life. It definitely felt apparent that we had to be careful and make calculated moves because of how remote we were. After watching Nate [Zoller] SENDING a few and having some bad wipeouts I had to ask him to calm down [laughs]. I was the most scared for him because he had this crazy look in his eye that day — he was going on everything that was coming his way, while Harry and I tried to pick waves we knew looked makeable. It was the good kind of scary.

Parker Coffin. Photo: Chris Burkard

Nate: I’ve been to a few places that rival this trip’s remoteness, but I’ve never surfed such heavy waves so far from a hospital. I think it was a five-hour flight to the closest hospital — if the plane could land in between storms in order to pick us up from the island. We actually got stuck on the island a few days extra due to weather, which allowed us to score the right slab. And, that was the scariest wave I’ve ever surfed.

Harrison: Yeah, definitely. I think when you end up in those environments, there are definitely a few sketchy situations, but it’s really nice when you look at a group of people that you’re with and you have full trust in them. I suppose as an individual, too, you feel that responsibility yourself — that the group you’re with is reliant on you, too. So, you also have to be responsible and not take stupid risks. Even on those quad bikes around the island, and just getting a plane out to the islands, it might take days because of the weather. So, if we were to flip a quad and hurt ourselves, no one can say that a plane is going to come Medivac you out of that quickly. So, every day you felt that and it definitely created a sort of camaraderie in the group that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. Even surfing that slab wave, you think about the risks and they were magnified in a place like that. It was totally overwhelming in some senses, but it really made the experience. But yeah, the risks were always there and we’re hyper aware of them because there’s no one coming to help us.

Photo: Chris Burkard


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