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Four days on the Milo: surfing and stand-up paddling near the Kenai fjords

  • Author: Matt Reed
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 23, 2015

Mike McCune spent most of the run up Aialik Bay sitting back in his captain's chair, keeping the M/V Milo on course with his feet hooked between the lower spokes of the ship's wheel while he chatted with whomever happened to be sitting on the makeshift daybed behind him. On the floor was a small hatch that led down to the captain's berth and galley, and as would happen for the better part of the four-day trip, there was a steady flow of people climbing up and down it, with snacks, and questions ("Where are we?" "Can you believe this?") and Pete's guitar.

It was our first surf day and we were a novice bunch. Of the six passengers, two had sailed on the Milo before and none of us had more than a passing familiarity with surfing or stand up paddleboarding. That morning we had woken up to snow flurries and were traveling in and out of patches of snow and fog and sleet, each with its own surreal effect on the water. Mike, whose captain's uniform that morning (as well as the rest of the trip) consisted of a sweatshirt, pajama pants and flip flops, seemed to take delight in his passengers' incredulity both at the weather (snow in April!) and the quirkiness of the boat's controls (among others, the ship's autopilot has to be tricked into steering north). Pete, a former neighbor of Mike's and a veteran of voyages on the Milo, rested his head on his guitar, playing Jack Johnson tunes that melted into made-up riffs and emerged as Beach Boys classics.

As the bay began to narrow and we closed in on the coastline, Mike was on his feet, steering with one hand, squeegeeing the wheelhouse's fogged up windshield with the other. Occasionally he'd pull out a pair of binoculars and make a closer inspection of the coastline. When someone asked what he was looking for, he explained that a big problem with finding good surf spots in Alaska was that it was hard to distinguish the white water of the breakers from the snow on the beach. The best months to surf in Alaska, we learned, are April and September (neither of which can be guaranteed snow-free).

Eventually, the Milo came to an idle about 100 yards off of a gravel beach frosted with snow. The evergreens and rocky cliffs that framed the beach dissolved into gray and fog in either direction. Mike and his business partner, a Homer-based photographer and surfer named Scott Dickerson, pulled down a side window and held an impromptu conference as they studied the surf. They spoke more in gestures and looks than in words, but they must have liked what they saw. Moments later, Scott was on the bow, letting loose the anchor.

Part treehouse, part bed and breakfast, part surfmobile, the M/V Milo (or just Milo) began life in 1960 as a North Pacific fishing seiner, but since 2010, when Mike, Scott and a cadre of like-minded surfers piloted it up from San Francisco, it has been refurbished and upgraded to accommodate the adventurer set. Above deck, they added a rear cabin, "The Piggy," fabricated from the wheelhouses of a pair of barges. On top of that, they installed a hot tub that was later removed to make more space for surfboards. Below deck, the hold, once used to store fish by the ton, now houses the Board Room, a heated locker room for changing in and out of wetsuits. There are also a pair of double occupancy berths—Igloo 1 and Igloo 2—named for their chief architect, a surfer who goes by the name of Iceman.

Originally, Mike had envisioned the Milo as a new home. Born in Hawaii, he began traveling to Alaska to work in fisheries in the 1970s. By 2009, his kids were grown and on their own and he was tired of paying property taxes. He'd met Wendy in 2004 and whenever they went on dates, she said, they would invariably find their way to a boatyard. Fittingly, Mike and Wendy married on the deck of the Milo in 2011.

Soon they were taking people out on the Milo to explore Alaska's bays and coves. When exactly they evolved into a business is a bit fuzzy. When I asked Mike and Wendy, they estimated around 2012, but both had to stare at the ceiling a while to divine a date. And it's easy to see why. The boat seems to be as much muse as vessel.

"It would be nice if Milo paid for himself," Wendy said.

Much of the momentum behind Ocean Swell Ventures, the charter company under which the Milo operates, has been provided by Scott, who along with his wife, Stephanie, formed Mike's original crew. Early one morning in the wheelhouse, I asked Mike how he and Scott came to work together. He explained that there were 12 surfers in Homer, only three of whom were ever in the water and he and Scott were two of them. Scott, who was laying on the daybed behind the captain's chair, half asleep, added, "Most people think he's my dad."

Like Mike, Scott hails from a commercial fishing background, but instead of pulling up nets and picking fish, he now triples as the Milo's other captain, a surf guide and Ocean Swell's official photographer. Scott's photos, together with the exoticism of surfing in glacier-fed fjords, have garnered interest in the Milo from professional athletes like the Malloy Brothers—a trio of pro surfers from California's central coast—as well as corporations like Patagonia, Mountain Dew and Alaska Brewing Company.

Down in the Board Room, Mike introduced me to my gear: 7mm neoprene mittens and booties and a 6mm wetsuit, which was so heavy it had to be hung from two plastic hangers fixed together with medical tape. He showed me the parts—the snaps, the zipper, the hood, the neck hole I was supposed to get my whole body through—then offered me his one piece of instruction, "To get it on, you have to kind of birth yourself in a little bit at a time."

Twenty minutes later, I was on the deck fully dressed for 40-degree water except for one mitten, which I couldn't seem to pull on no matter what sequence I rolled and unrolled the neoprene. I had come up as the boards were being loaded into the water, so I tried to stay casual about it, holding the mitten under my armpit or in my other hand as if I had plans for my free hand before I got in the water. (Eventually, Wendy would take pity on me and pull me aside to wedge my mitten on underneath the cuff of my wetsuit, sympathizing, truthfully or not, that this happened to her all the time.) Scott and Pete were on top of The Piggy, lowering down the boards, while the rest of us, with our arms raised above our heads guided the eight- and nine-foot behemoths past the edge of the deck and into the water, then lashed them to whatever cleat we could find on the railing.

One by one, we stepped over the railing and onto boards. Unlike the protected cove in which we had anchored the night before, the boat rocked up and down as waves rolled underneath us. I had stepped over the railing at mid ship, but with each wave, the board squirted out from under me. I was at the stern of the boat before I finally obeyed what everybody on deck was shouting: "Let go!"

And then, like Joe, and Mollie and Pete, who had all gone before me, I was all alone, hunched on all fours in the wind chop of Aialik Bay. The four of us, each on our own little island, wobbled between kneeling and standing and laying flat on our boards. We had all chosen to go out on stand up paddleboards, assuming that a board and a paddle would be easier than just a board, but I was having my doubts. Occasionally, I'd hear a plop and I'd look over to see an empty board drifting across the surface.

Sometime later, presumably after they tidied up the chaos we left on the Milo, Scott and Mike materialized on the water. Mike was laying down, doing the forward crawl on a surfboard. Scott was standing up, moving toward us on a cargo-laden board, paddling over his load like a gondolier. They acknowledged us with a quick wave, hi and hello, then turned and steamed toward the surf. It was as if they were playing under some other set of physical laws. In fact, for the rest of the trip, we would marvel at Scott, who would surf with his camera bag on the nose of his board and paddle out in water without his wetsuit, defying hypothermia.

I would be up and down all that day, on flat water, and in and out of the surf. I would paddle bravely into oncoming waves and judiciously around a gang of barking sea lions. I would talk tides and breaks with Mike. I would sit exhausted on my board and watch falling snow disappear into water. And the whole time, but especially in my better moments, I would feel the beginner's thrill of being late (but not too late) to someone else's dream.

This story appeared in the May 2015 issue of 61º North Magazine. Contact 61º editor Jamie Gonzales at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.

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