Learning/Beginning in Alaska
As part of our January theme of learning to learn, we caught up with Bethany Goodrich, an Alaskan surfer, hunter, environmentalist and photographer. We wanted to learn about the tough stuff someone’s made of when they decide to take up surfing and living in Sitka.
When did you decide you were going to surf in Alaska? What triggered this new journey?
It’s rare for me to be able to point to a single moment or reason for any particular decision in my life. It’s mostly been shaped by chance, curiosity, and circumstance but I can in the case of surfing.
I was in my late 20s, living and working in Alaska and I had just broken up with my boyfriend of many years and was simultaneously deciding to set my wandering roots down in Sitke permanently. So one commitment was ending while another was forming.
I had fallen deeply in love with this Island community, the enormous rainforest that embraces it, and how my body felt within it. I was learning to hunt and fish and forage and climb mountains and take extended camping and kayak journeys through Alaska - something I could only dream of as a youth - and I was becoming more true to myself in head, heart, and body. And with this new matrimony to place, and to help cope with the devastating pains of breakup, I bought my first wetsuit because I wanted to experience another dimension of Southeast Alaska starting with snorkeling. I remember that process of coping through floating, experiencing the stabby ice cold water, being so redemptive at that point in my life. I met all sorts of strange and peculiar, colorful underwater creatures that didn’t ask me anything about my breakup or life plans - I was just buoyant and free. Surfing was always a secret goal, but I had no point of entry.
Later that year, a four year old friend matched me up with a local SItkan. This May, six years later, we will be married. And that gentleman happened to be a surfer.
Why did you decide to help facilitate the Yakutat surf camp? What is it that you wanted to share with these kids?
I grew up outside of Boston in a landlocked suburb with a loving family of limited means. From early on, for whatever reason, I was drawn to surfing even as an awkward shaped unibrowed pubescent adolescent. I subscribed to Surfer Girl as a wee one and pinned up photos of a lifestyle that looked nothing like my own.
I knew I could never ask my parents for the money to pursue surfing and even if I could, I wouldn’t have known where to start. We never traveled and rarely went to the beach.
There are so many barriers that keep a person from paddling out - financial, psychological, physical, circumstantial, geographical - and that’s all before you get out to the lineup and realize that nobody looks like you and nobody wants you out there either.
There is community in surfing. But when it comes to catching waves, surfing is a radically independent journey. And I love it for that independence but it can certainly take a community to help overcome those boundaries to begin the journey in the first place.
Especially with regards to improving access and equity.
And that’s what the Yakutat Surf Club was all about.
I only played a small role with catalyzing the Club by connecting people, and resources and helping out in person with storytelling etc., but I was immediately drawn to it because of my experiences growing up without access to an outlet like surfing or snowboarding.
My dad calls my early teen years the ‘dark ages’ which is embarrassing and frustrating but accurate. I was a shithead. I was drinking vodka out of Listerine bottles, smoking pot, and slicing my wrists and body up just to feel anything visceral, anything physical that could match or overcome the mental anguish I was experiencing. I was full of outrage and depth and complexities and emotions that I didn't know how to interpret. I felt cloistered in the suburbs where people prioritize really trivial crap - like designer labels. We didn’t have the money for UGG boots and coach purses, and I found it all bogus anyway.
On top of that, I looked like I was 20 when I was 13. So I was treated like an adult by parents and men and found myself growing up rapidly without the grace and time to hone my emotional intelligence, so that created tensions. I had no real outlet where I felt physically and mentally challenged in a way that gave me the feedback that I so desperately needed. Something hard and out in nature to help develop my humility and resilience. I didn’t have that.
And so helping break down some of those barriers for others has been incredibly rewarding. And then when you factor in the lack of representation of Indigenous peoples in expensive outdoor sports like surfing, the work gets even more significant. Yakutat is a Tlingit community and so many of the kids there already have such visceral and powerful relationships to the lands and waters and were already running around in the water without wetsuits anyways.
On top of that, the first camp I really helped out with was in the thick of the pandemic in 2020 and the emotions were raging. Just seeing all these kids playing in the waves and all these adults together with this expansive wild Alaskan backdrop - it was unreal and a catharsis we all so desperately needed.
What has trying something new, like cold water surfing, as an adult taught you? How did it feel the first time you paddled out in Alaska?
Surfing is hard anywhere. Honing one’s ability to read and interpret the lips of the ocean, to understand her language and slip gracefully down her tremors, takes patience and a willingness to concede. Like learning to hunt, my first successful deer taught me that hunting isn’t all mist and majesty. Becoming a ‘provider’, like becoming a surfer, can be clumsy, bloody, embarrassing, a graceless kind of suffering that leaves you both defeated and thirsty for more.
Both are unique insofar as the skills, physical demands, and mental acuity you need to hone. Both are similar in the agony and beauty of the process. In my case, I look like a fool doing both - I shot a deer in my thong a few months ago because I had waded across a river with my friend and dog. I had a backpack on, a beanie, a camo thermal and puffy, and no pants crawling across the beach. When I surf, body parts are popping out of my bathing suit (when I’m not in a wetsuit) my hair becomes a mop in my face. I look foolish, but I feel my best and I love the process of not giving a shit about what I look like because society does its best to train women to do the opposite.
Hunting and surfing make me feel utterly ‘complete’ and connected viscerally to the lands and waters that have become the source of everything to me.
They teach you humility, they teach you resilience and how to overcome monsters. They teach you how to ask questions and for the help and guidance of others. They teach you what ‘exhaustion’ actually means and there’s no turning back. There’s no just leaving a pile of mountain goat or deer meat up over three thousand feet on a ridge you and your partner climbed because you are tired and can’t be bothered anymore. And that’s the outcome when you are lucky, half the time you are just hiking through shitty or exhausting terrain not being successful - like surfing. A lot of my sessions even still, I only have one or two successful waves. There’s no just hopping out of the water either. When you get into a break that’s over your ability and you are stuck inside being pushed down and beat up by enormous waves that you can’t escape and you are just sucking whatever air you can get and doing everything in your power not to drown and to remain ‘calm’ while you’re at it.
People can teach these concepts in books or inspirational social media posts or people can learn these character traits also through years of just ‘life’ because we all always are facing challenges we need to overcome. In my case, learning to hunt and surf and splitboard helped me learn how to ‘overcome’ quickly and viscerally because the challenges are urgent, in your face, and dramatic.
Both also taught me this duality of Alaskan lands and waters - that in one moment you can be embraced by abundance, brilliance, and ease and in the next moment, conditions may change and two things go wrong, and you are fighting for your life. Hunting and surfing in Alaska teaches you to stay vigilant.
Has learning to surf and hunt impacted any other aspects of your life?
All of those traits and skills are applicable everywhere in life. In my case, I was literally learning to surf the week that Trump was inaugurated and my entire world was changing. I work in conservation, sustainable development, and social justice and the shift in administration meant that my work went from a ‘proactive’ approach of building coalitions and developing and executing a common vision for Southeast Alaska to one of total defense and polarization. I was watching the programs and values we had worked for so many years developing being attacked.
Then, add in coming of age and entering my thirties and watching my body change and the way the world looks to you for leadership changes and then a global pandemic and economic and social crisis too. If it weren’t for outlets like surfing and hunting, I’d have no mechanism to stay sane and all that mental and physical strength the process of learning those activities has given me, are now tested on the daily in all areas of my life.
And while I stand by my belief that surfing is radically independent, it still brings people together and I’m sure plenty of couples have similar experiences. Hunting, fishing, processing and putting up nearly all the food we eat and learning to surf and splitboard have all forged the lasting relationship with my partner and have grown and deepened my community of friends here. And that matters for everything.
What has been your favorite memory of your surf journey to date?
Surfing in Alaska is inconsistent and a lot of work for often mediocre to non-existent waves, so it’s all about acceptance and love for the entire experience. My favorite memory of surfing was actually just a few months ago.
We had boated to my favorite island on the planet below the belly of a volcano. The first break we hiked to was too scary with high stakes over shallow reef. My partner got in and I watched from shore with my doggo for a while before deciding I’d go on by myself towards this beachbreak that I’ve never actually seen work well. I hauled my wetsuit and hunting gear, a rifle and my heavy wood board. I was hoping to maybe find a buck on the beach, and also brought the rifle for bear protection and I just remember carrying all this shit across these lava beaches just me and my dog, a gun, and a board, and just reflecting on how far I've come in my life journey from the suburbs of Boston to where I’m at now. I was already feeling strong and happy before surfing and this was during a month this fall when I, and many people around me were really experiencing some deep depressive lows.
It was a dark, creamy blue day. Jed caught up to us and it was just me, him, and Luna the dog on this beach I love so much. The waves were small but a perfect match for me and the wood board I’ve been struggling to learn the nuances of. It’s the shortest board I’ve surfed but on this day everything just clicked. The waves were fun, I was reading them, riding them, in the most brilliant place on earth and Luna came racing and smiling on shore. It was just a rare dream.
Luna chased off a buck which was a bummer and we got into a very scary situation when the weather turned, trying to get all our boards, our dog, us, and gear back to the big boat all crammed into this tiny dingy through some treacherous winds and then our outboard died and we couldn’t paddle back to the boat. I was literally gripping onto a kelp bed so we wouldn’t lose more ground, it was getting dark and dangerously cold, taking on water, and we barely made it to safety. Even still, the surfing buoyed my spirits for so long.
Surfing in Alaska comes with a unique subset of consequences and challenges in addition to the cold water. There are many things that can get in between you and catching a wave, including miles of terrain you need to hike through, mental hangups, the consequences of isolation, physical limitations, and this one time, a brown bear.
We had ATV’d across this island and were hiking all of our gear through forest and tidal flats to get to a remote cabin to spend a few nights and came upon a big ole boar standing between us and the trail we needed. I remember this being the only time I was happy to be hauling a 7’10 board with me. I felt pretty big and scary. He wasn’t too phased, stood up and wandered off.
Do you feel supported in your surf journey?
Women are often ridiculed, sexualized, or not taken seriously when it comes to surfing. And so, again, coming back to how surfing is radically independent, you just need to be willing to let that all go as you enter the water. Focus on yourself, your goals for that session, your board and the conditions and go. Don’t read into the thoughts of men, read the waves instead.
When it comes to representation, I do think surfing is a bit behind the times. I work as a photographer and writer and have placed stories in national magazines, worked with international brands, and regularly with Alaskan publications. So I know a thing or two about media. Despite that experience, my partner still has to mansplain to me every time the latest Surfers Journal comes out about why the pages are devoid of women and people of color as both the surfers and the people taking the photos or doing the writing.
There’s no excuse. We exist. All over the place. They aren’t unicorns and there are so many brilliant stories to be told and representation absolutely matters. Magazines and social media are not inert. Young people are absorbing this content and forming an understanding of what they can become. And it’s not just about equity or justice or doing what is ‘right’, it’s also about quality. Reading the same stories about white men shaping and surfing and traveling to exotic locations to battle ‘extreme’ conditions catching waves and smiling with the locals, gets real boring after a while. There’s so much more nuance and complexity to surfing than focusing on one demographic could ever show. And this is already changing.
Increasing representation will help diversify the lineup, but there are so many more barriers of access than representation. And that being said, there are also only so many waves in the world. Many breaks, our local one included being a reef break, can only handle so many surfers. It’s important that new surfers enter the water safely and with an understanding of etiquette, which isn’t always intuitive. It’s something you really need to be taught and it’s not just about respect and ensuring that everyone can have a good time. Understanding priority and protocol is absolutely essential when it comes to safety. So I’m a big proponent of surf programs focused on promoting access beyond the uber wealthy, so that we can diversify the lineup while also ensuring safety and respect for everyone.
In Alaska, surfing as a woman I have felt supported or at least tolerated. People in this state are surrounded by badass women doing everything for themselves, be it commercial fishing, hunting mountain goats, splitting firewood, splitboarding summits, breastfeeding babies on the back of bouncing aluminum skiffs - whatever, you name it. Local men were raised by, are married to, or at least surrounded by Alaskan women who don’t care what they think about gender roles - it’s more normalized although there aren’t many women in the lineup.
What motivates you to keep surfing in cold water? What kind of advice would you give someone you’d want to share this experience with?
Surfing teaches you humility. And it teaches you the outer limits of your physical and mental comfort zone and forces you to leave that. And oftentimes you are not rewarded for leaving that space. But when you are, the intensity of that joy and accomplishment and just how easy and graceful and wonderful it feels when things go right and you catch a wave and you make the drop and you turn down the line and you are playing – it’s beyond most anything.
And in the case of surfing in Alaska, which is often very inconsistent and challenging in so many respects, the rewards can be intense. I’ve surfed beside seals, and seal lions, with whales blowing on a horizon line jagged with mountains. In hail, snow and sleet when the sun breaks through for just a moment and illuminates the faces of your friends in a lineup below the storm.
But success and beauty will not just come to you by accident, there will be agony and you need to work.
There will also be fear. Some of that fear is absolutely warranted, and some of that fear is not. Part of learning to surf is learning to discern between what is actually dangerous, and what is just your own psyche holding you back. You’ll never catch waves if you aren’t scared shitless at least a little.
What advice would you give to someone aspiring to learn any new skill in adulthood?
Advice for learning anything new in adulthood would include that you need to prioritize it among all the other responsibilities and activities that society and you have already filled your time with.
You need to make that time because no one's going to give it to you. Period.
And surfing doesn’t wait for you. When the conditions line up, it’s a rare thing of beauty and other responsibilities may need to be rescheduled, and that can be another barrier for many people. Especially for women who are expected to be caretakers or always to accommodate others.
Next, leave your ego behind. You are going to suck and likely look like an absolute fool for a very, very long time. This is true for many new skills beyond surfing in adulthood. Adults rarely put themselves purposely in positions where they absolutely suck at something, and we should do this more. When you stop growing, you start dying. I think someone smarter than me already said that, but I believe it vehemently.
Also, expect that children as young as 6 are going to be dropping in on you and shredding sweet waves while you are gargling whitewater and flailing around like a seal. Don’t let this frustrate you, let it encourage you and make you smile. The journey is long, and radically independent. Don’t get caught up in where others are, focus on your own development. Your own body, brain, and barriers - break those bit by bit. Surfing looks different for everyone, just like life.
Also, stretch every day – especially those hip flexors.