Ripping the Tide

On Alaska's most dangerous body of water, a rugged band of sailors lives to sail—and to tell about it

Looking across the water at the snow-capped peaks of the Chugach Mountains that loom 5,000-plus feet above Turnagain Arm, I realized that it wasn't the liquid smoke blowing from the tops of the 15-foot waves that was making me think twice. It was the flares.

Standing directly in front of me, Anchorage boardsailor Janice Tower gracefully balanced her tiny battered board and her tiny sail in the 45-mile-per-hour gale as she prepared to jump from a rock into a soft-looking eddy below. It was a drop of only a few feet, but after that the water turned ugly, and she was trading glances with Thor Kallestad—the guy who had talked me into this mess—over who would go first. Besides her helmet, her close-fitting drysuit, and a long coil of emergency tow rope, she had something I had never seen in 15 years of boardsailing: a set of waterproof safety flares lashed to her waist harness. Seeing these, I quickly surveyed the handful of locals picking their way down the steep, rocky launch and realized that everyone but me was packing for disaster.

"Bear off hard downwind once you get in or the current will suck you right up the Arm like you're on a conveyor belt," Kallestad shouted in my ear as he stepped forward next to Tower. "And don't sail out any farther than you want to swim, because if you break down and the tide switches, the next stop is Vladivostok!"

With that, he and Tower splashed one after the other into the eddy. They were gone in an instant. The bright colors of their sails flashed across the whitecaps before disappearing in the heavy swells.

"Looks like we've got a fine day for boardsailing the Arm," said Peter Toennies, a retired electrician who's logged 170 days on the water the last two seasons, and who, at 68, is the de facto paterfamilias of the crew of 12 or so regulars who sail the Arm. He was sporting a broad smile and gesturing for me to hit the water. "You'll see, there's nothing quite like it."

No kidding. Essentially a crack in Alaska's Chugach range that reaches ten miles wide at its broadest, Turnagain Arm runs inland from the Anchorage harbor at Cook Inlet nearly 50 miles to Portage Glacier and is home to the second-largest tidal shift in the world. (The Bay of Fundy, between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, sees the largest.) At low tide it's empty, a desolate moonscape of gray glacial silt dotted by glistening tide pools. But when the tide turns, water rushes in from the Gulf of Alaska as a standing wave more than ten feet high, a phenomenon meteorologists call a bore tide. Rising at a rate of about one foot every ten minutes, the shift between low and high tides is 40 feet with an undercurrent that can run anywhere between 12 and 20 knots.

But the bore tide merely sets the stage. Whenever a storm front moves in from the Pacific, wind gets sucked through the towering passes of the Chugach and shoots straight down the Arm. The mountain walls that frame it form a natural funnel, creating wind speeds that average between 30 and 60 knots. Combine the incoming bore with opposing winds of gale force, and it's no wonder Turnagain Arm has an enduring reputation as the most dangerous body of water in Alaska.

"High tide or low, it doesn't matter," I had been told over beers at the Great Alaskan Bush Company, a cavernous, open-timbered Anchorage bar that caters to the special needs of gentlemen who spend excessive amounts of time alone in the woods. "The Arm will kill you."

This wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear my first night in town, but my host at the Bush Company wasn't through. He promptly shared his version of the exurban myth of the tourist who wandered out onto the flats near Ship Creek in the early 1980s to go tide-pooling. She got stuck in the silt and found that the more she struggled, the deeper she sank. Quicksilt. A state policeman saw her and summoned a rescue helicopter from Elmendorf Air Force Base on Anchorage's northern outskirts in an effort to reach her before the bore began to flood. The helicopter arrived in time and lowered a line with a harness attached. She strapped it around her upper body.

"She was ripped in half when they tried to pull her out," my new pal said, signaling for another round. "That's why no one will go in there."

Well, almost no one, I thought as I eased the nose of my board into the eddy where Tower and Kallestad had just been. The shore fell away sharply and I kicked hard to push my rig out into wind, not sure what would happen next.

I had first heard about the Arm from some sailing buddies who had gone to college with Kallestad. After graduating, they stayed in Southern California (where I was living at the time), while Kallestad moved to Anchorage to work as an environmental engineer. One thing led to another and before long I was headed north to sail this place Kallestad described as "sort of like [Oregon's] Columbia Gorge—but on steroids."

Once I reached Anchorage I learned that Kallestad, 27, was the youngest member of a small band of watermen who take their rigs out into the Arm in late spring when the icebergs clear out and sail until the early fall when the bergs return. The water temperature never gets much over 55 and cools to 35. Lured by the high winds, powerful currents, and the resulting massive swells, these daredevils routinely face conditions that would overwhelm most boardsailors.

Of course, they aren't the first to reckon with the Arm. Originally believed to be the elusive Northwest Passage Europeans had sought since the mid-1500s, the Arm was discovered by Captain James Cook himself. In the summer of 1778, the seafaring Englishman entered what is now Cook Inlet with two ships, the Resolution and Discovery, to find a way through. A crew commanded by a young officer named William Bligh—later famous as the captain of the mutinous H.M.S. Bounty—put ashore at Fire Island, at the mouth of the Arm. Bligh found nothing of note, but an adventurous Connecticut Yankee named John Ledyard jumped ashore, likely becoming the first American to set foot on Alaskan soil.

By the time Bligh and his crew returned to their boats, Cook had located an opening at the northern tip of the inlet, which he hoped was the Northwest Passage. Cook and Bligh set sail for it only to be beaten back repeatedly by headwinds. To complicate matters, Cook, on one attempt, mistimed his reentry into the Arm and found himself beached in the middle of the channel. Frustrated by the wind and what he described as "a prodigious tide with a terrible appearance," Cook named the body of water "The River Turnagain," and after high tide refloated his boat, he promptly set course for Hawaii. To this day, no commercial or pleasure boat ventures into the upper reaches of the Arm.

"Part of it is the big waves and the wind, but what makes it really special is the fact that the tides change the sailing quality of the water on a minute-by-minute basis," said the 38-year-old Tower, the only woman in the group and the second-place finisher in this year's rugged Iditasport 100 cross-country bike race. "You can go from flatwater speed sailing to navigating mast-high swells at the same spot within a span of 45 minutes. Then there's the scenery—the mountains, the Dall sheep on the hillsides, the pods of Beluga whales passing by—where else can you find that?"

And despite the fearsome nature of the place, almost all of the Turnagain regulars defy the extreme athlete stereotype. Their average age seems well north of 40. None has tattoos or piercings. No one's sponsored; most have full-time jobs. In fact, there are no boardsailing shops in Anchorage, so there's no place to buy or repair equipment, or take a lesson, and you have to look hard to find a boardsailing magazine, even more so now that the sport is less fashionable.

"All our gear has to be imported via air freight from the outside or brought back by those who take windsurfing vacations to Maui or the Columbia River Gorge," explains Gary Randall, a 50-ish real estate appraiser who was among the first to sail the Arm in the mideighties. "Heck, most of us could care less about reading a windsurfing magazine. People don't come here for that. We're not into the image thing—that's a Lower-48 state of mind. We're here to sail."

Clutching well-worn tide charts from the local Kmart, the group rabidly tracks the wind via the Weather Channel, Coast Guard reports, barometric readings taken at two places along the Arm, and an impressive word-of-mouth network. "Since there's only a three-hour window between the height of the bore and the outgoing power of the ebb that can be considered safe for sailing, we've got to pay attention," Kallestad said, and then laughed. "We're the only people in Alaska who spend the summer praying for crappy weather, because it brings the breeze."

Two hours after I had plunged into the torrential murk, I was sharing a cold one and recounting the highlights of what had been an epic session. Seconds after I launched, I'd found myself overpowered and skipping like a rock across the frothing madness, my field of vision narrowed to a pinhole. Picking a sweet swell and tossing a jump was completely out of the question—I was desperate just trying to stay downwind against the pull of the current. But after my fourth reach, I started to feel comfortable and thought, I can do this. The speed went from scary to exhilarating.

Though I hadn't been wearing flares, I soon learned that the entire group had quietly focused on my safety. Given that the nearest rescue team is several hundred miles away in Kodiak, self-rescue is the only option if things get hectic. Everyone adheres to a strict code of conduct: No one sails alone; no one leaves while someone else is still out; everyone carries extra rescue gear.

Despite the precautions and constant communication, the unspoken still looms large within the group. Two sailors have died in the Arm in the last ten years—one body was found months later, 50 miles out in the Gulf, wrapped around the leg of an oil platform—and there is great reluctance to discuss such tragedies. Part of this reserve comes from a fear of being banned from the place by state police; another part is the inevitable sense of "that could have been me." Still, they keep at it.

"I just love it," Toennies said. "There are no crowds, no boats, no fishermen, no spectators, nothing. There's just this beautiful place filled with an awesome solitude and a small handful of us, sailing as often and as hard as we can. That's what we share."  

Tom Byrnes lives in Portland, Oregon, and writes for several boardsailing magazines.

Muck Rakers

Each summer, the Dutch like to get dirty—en masse

I'm in the midst of one of life's stranger moments: a 14-mile slog through the brown, blue, and green mud along the bottom of the Wadden Sea, off the north coast of the Netherlands. My legs ache, and I'm struggling to keep up with my 48-year-old Dutch guide, André Staal, whose baseball cap, shorts, and high-top sneakers contrast almost comically with his long white beard, windblown silver hair, seven-foot wooden staff, and penchant for quoting the Old Testament. He perks up when I tell him my name—it gives him license to recite the Bible story of the prophet Nathan,which, curiously, I've never heard before. The ancient Nate certainly never had to contend with muck like this back in Israel, helping Solomon ascend to power.

We've hoofed down a dike from a seaside pasture near the mainland town of Pieterburen into the Wadden seabed, where the tide has ebbed long enough for us to make our way to the island of Schiermonnikoog. Gulls swoop overhead and down beside us on the vast expanses of sea-packed sand, shin-deep pools, and saltwater channels. In six hours, the tide will return and fill in our tracks. It's just like the Israelites' Red Sea crossing, Staal points out, where winds made the tide ebb lower than normal. "It's in the book of Exodus this way," he tells me. "It's the same as here."

Staal is a guide in the Dutch sport of wadlopen ("walking across shallows"), and every Dutch wadloper I've talked to describes the whole thing as a cracked endeavor. Cracked, but popular. There are a hundred mudwalkers on this tour, and other groups, mostly Dutch, leave the shore daily throughout the summer. People have crossed the Wadden on foot for centuries, driving cattle to fresh pastures between the Frisian Islands, including Schiermonnikoog, Ameland, and Terschelling, all of which now have campgrounds scattered among 18th-century captains' houses on cobbled streets. The first tours began in the winter of 1962. The sport is such a draw now that you need to make a reservation a month in advance (for safety reasons, it's against the law to wadlope without a guide).

I split from Staal and ponder a question demanded of me early this morning by fellow wadloper Loek Stolwijk. "You're an American? What the hell are you doing here?" Few foreigners participate in wadlopen, and that's what drew me to it. But all I can think about now is that I'm a cold American. A cold, wet American. Tired, too. I don't know the name of the muscle groups that pull feet from muck, but mine are burning like hell. My hiking boots are full of saltwater and plastered with mud, and I start lagging behind, joining and rejoining various groups of walkers—most wearing enviously light canvas shoes and hailing from places like The Hague, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam.

The other walkers give me several explanations for why some 30,000 Dutch wadlope each year—as potentially dull, messy, and stinky as a walk in the mud sounds. For them, it's high adventure: In the Netherlands, there are no mountains to climb, no fierce rivers to run. "But we do have mud!" one wadloping physician exclaims. And in a culture that still embraces Calvinist austerity, an uncomfortable walk is gratifying. "We are Dutch," explains Klaas Krottje, an engineer and wadloper from Apeldoorn. "This is what we do. We are walking in the mud. We are cold, wet, tired, and we like it."

At my sluggish rate, my destiny seems to be appreciating the miles of unbroken flats. Earlier we glimpsed a seal, and we've seen bountiful mussels and clams half-buried in the mud and the sanderlings, avocets, and gulls that feed on them.

I fall in with Stolwijk, a dark-haired, bespectacled Dutchman in his thirties, and we lope across puddly and agreeably packed sand, and when an hour passes we step bedraggled onto the the island of Schiermonnikoog.My shorts soaked, I straddle the final obstacle, an electrified sheep fence, without incident. And then comes bliss. What could be more pleasing than lying in grass, looking across a filling sea I've just crossed, waiting for those even slower than I to jigger themselves past the charged wires?

When the last walkers are in, Staal leads me to a farmhouse where we wash up. Then it's a 45-minute ferry back to the mainland port of Lauwersoog where we dine on fried cod and raw, salted herring. "Fresh from the sea," Staal says, waving greasy fingers toward the filled-up Wadden. "Just like us."

 

Water Gait
You'll need a guide and a pair of really, really old sneakers

Dutch law prohibits self-guided mudwalking on the grounds that should one of the frequent fogs roll in and a compass isn't handy, you could be in real trouble. Such restrictions place tours in high demand, so plan on reserving a spot a month in advance. Trips run year-round, but the weather (and mud) is warmest from June through August. You'll find temperate weather and the fewest crowds in May, September, and early October.

GETTING THERE: You can fly from New York to Amsterdam for $750 round-trip on KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines, 800-447-4747), or get a cheap fare through a consolidator such as Missouri-based Canterbury and Tiger Travel (800-688-4909). Once there, it's easy to rent a car for about $30 per day from Hertz (800-654-3131) or Avis (800-3331-1212). From Amsterdam, it's a 110-mile drive north to wadlopen central, the ranching village of Pieterburen.

OUTFITTERS: Pieterburen-based Stichting (011-31-595-528-300)is the largest and oldest wadlopen guiding service. Stichting offers mudwalks of various lengths, from the 14-mile trudge to Schiermonnikoog ($15, including return ferry) to a slightly shorter trek to Ameland (also $15) to a quick out-and-back stroll to the sea bottom ($7). Dijkstra Wadloopcentrum (595-528-345), also in Pieterburen, offers similar hikes for $7 to $18.

WHERE TO STAY: Spend a night in Pieterburen at spare, tidy Het Wapen van Hunsingo on Hooffstraat, the town's central thoroughfare (doubles $60; 595-528-203); it's also the only place in town to go for a meal—such as traditional Dutch crepes called pannekoeken—and an Amstel. The campground just behind the main drag charges $5 per site. On Schiermonnikoog, camp at Seedune ($2 per tent; 519-542-398), about a half-mile north of the island's only town. Or stay at the Strandhotel Noderstraun ($125 for a double; 519-531-111), which overlooks the North Sea beach. On Ameland, the Duinoord campground ($3 per site; 519-542-070) has 700 sites in the shadow of 30-foot dunes.

Amazon Not Com

Bolivia's Chalalan Ecolodge

Yeah, that's my boy yossi," says jovial Tico Tudela, pointing proudly to a photo on the wall of his travel agency in Rurrenabaque. Located in northwestern Bolivia, Rurrenabaque—or "Rurre" for short—is a launchpad for backpackers and rafters headed into the Amazon. "My boy Yossi" is Yossi Ghinsberg, a former Israeli soldier who put Rurre on the backpackers' circuit.

Eighteen years ago, Ghinsberg and three others undertook a disastrous search for gold and Indian ruins in the jungle here. As Ghinsberg details in his book, Heart of the Amazon, first published in 1985, the four were eventually divided and lost along the Tuichi River. Ghinsberg's life was saved when a member of his party and Tudela found him and brought him to the village of San José de Uchupiamonas. In 1995, when the village, six miles upriver from Rurre, decided to capitalize on the ecotourism boom, Ghinsberg helped villagers win a $1.25 million grant from the Inter-American Development Bank, $200,000 of which went to building the Chalalan Ecolodge.

Opened in May 1998, the lodge runs on solar power, has plenty of potable water, and serves exquisite local fare. Its three traditional cabins, with chonta-palm walls and jatata-leaf roofs, house only 14 people at a time. Yet the principal attraction of the lodge remains its location: Chalalan is situated well within Madidi National Park, the most biologically diverse wilderness reserve on earth, according to scientists. Toucans, macaws, aracaris, trogons, and mot-mots abound.

The best time to visit is during the dry season, April through November. Chalalan Ecolodge charges about $150 per person per night during those months, and $80 during the rainy season, December through March. Several U.S.-based outfitters arrange tours to the lodge, including Explore Bolivia (303-708-8810; www.explorebolivia.com). Tico Tudela's Fluvial Tour (011-591-892-2372) offers jungle and rafting trips for $25 a day that stop at Chalalan on request.

Virgin Scuba

Steals

Virgin Scuba
The U.S. Virgin Islands are balmy year-round, but rates are about one-third as expensive in sum-mertime: Spend four days and three nights in St. Croix at the plush Carambola Beach Resort for $690, including round-trip airfare from Washington, D.C., through August 25. (From Chicago, the rate is $790, Los Angeles, $930.) You can mountain-bike, horseback-ride, hike, or dive from your villa. (Scubawest, at 800-352-0107, charges $75 for two-tank dives.) Packages must be booked by June 31 through Future Vacations at 800-456-2323 or www.futurevacations.com. 

Greek Week
One week, two friends, seven islands, $960. Now through October, Idaho-based outfitter Remote Odysseys Worldwide (800-451-6034; www.rowinc.com) reduces rates by 25 percent per person on its Greek Discovery Cruise—if you share a cabin aboard the 112-foot yacht with two others. You'll sail to and hike the rocky terrain of Tinos, Naxos, and Ios, among others.

Maine Line
Even in June, weather in north-central Maine can be a crapshoot, which is a boon for whitewater rats. Just when the Penobscot River surges with dam-released winter runoff, North Country Rivers (800-348-8871; www.ncrivers.com), based in East Vassalboro, Maine, slashes its rates. Weekday trips on the Class III, IV, and V Penobscot run $67 per person all month; Saturday slots, $87—compared to $127 per person in July.

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