by Elissa Pfost
Heart of Winter 2009

An hour in, and I’m already starting to feel the cold. Even with the rare sun. Even encased in 6mm of neoprene. And booties. And gloves. And a hoody. It took a half an hour just to suit up. But it’s been well worth it: no one was out when I got in, and I needed that solitude to get used to this place without adding people to the equation. I’m literally testing the waters of the state I now call home: Oregon.

There’s a small crew out now, and I’m anxious about how they’ll respond to my presence. Droplets dent the glassy slick of the water nearby, and I look up, wondering at the source on this cloudless day – an osprey, shiver-shaking mid-flight and post-dive, grasps her squirmy cargo. My eyes follow her to a shoreline snag, and there, she settles in to breakfast in the company of at least 30 salmon-sated bald eagles, their white heads dotting the viridian cutaway shag of ancient trees. Encouraged, I position myself for the incoming bumps.

The wave is no prize thing, just a sweet little mid-set mediocrity that came right at me. An easy catch: a few strokes and I’m up. But someone is yelling at me. Shit. I glance back, nobody’s there, so I ride it out, my gut braced for the nasty exchange that’s sure to follow.

And sure enough, some guy is paddling towards me.

But now I’m thrown: His face is lit by this wide-open, totally genuine smile. “Nice catch,” he grins, “... and didn’t mean to scare ya, I was just cheering you on.”

Really? Shouting me ONTO a wave instead of OFF of it? It happens among friends, sure, but I don’t even know this guy. I can feel the look on my face re-arrange itself into a smile. And as we both push up to straddle our boards and wait for the next set, I notice a softening in the rest of my body too: the sweet ease of my defensive armor – honed by years of surfing crowded California breaks – dissolving into the water we’re suspended in.

The rest of the session goes like this: everyone rotating to the sweet spot, behaving like there’s plenty for all. It’s contagious, this goodness, each kind act making it more permissible somehow, to be nice. And helped today by something revered in the Northwest: a naked sun with no clouds to hide behind.

Emerging from the salt, I cross the cobble to the fresh stuff – a spring-fed creek perfect for rinsing – then trek the mile through the rainforest canopy to camp, where new friends have already built a fire to thaw by.

Two years now since that first day, and my hands reach towards the flames of a different fire, same spot. The armor is almost gone. And I haven’t traveled to any far-flung reaches of the world for surf. I’m a little shocked at myself. It takes effort here, to motivate through, and deal with, the cold. South, where the huge arc of the Monterey Bay snags swells from every direction, I would walk away from less-than-ideal conditions; another break to check, another day to go. Here, I get in. To join handfuls of surfers, not hordes. Where agro is the exception, not the rule. And a wild coastline keeps me awestruck. This place has my attention. And warms me from the inside out.

About the Author

Elissa Pfost has always straddled the art/science, right-brain/left-brain fence, so paying the bills as an artist and writer seemed a good way to stay connected to both worlds. “Science and art both require keen observation skills,” she says, “and when I'm bearing witness to wild things doing wild stuff in the wild, it doesn’t feel like work.” Happiest running mountain ridges, surfing dawn glass, and practicing acroyoga, she currently nests in a little town on the Oregon and Washington border.