Seeking Solitude

Solitude Resort Trail map

Aptly named?

Big Cottonwood Canyon is a recreational sweet spot for Salt Lake City. It has some stellar ice and rock climbing, hiking and come winter, serious powder. Landing yesterday found us waist deep in like minded folks from all parts of the country. Faint conversations about the conditions and resorts float past from a few rows back on plane or in the rental car line. The baggage claim is a show and tell of ski and snowboard equipment. Old school. Thrashers. All here to take in the same thing.

It is my hope that Solitude will live up to its name in just about couple of hours. A couple of inches of overnight doesn’t hurt. Plus, it’s a weekday. Things seem to be working in our favor.

The Alaia Project

Alaia image from The Surfing Handbook.com

Okay, so this is super freaking cool. I love surfboards. The calliope of shapes, the run of the rails … surfboards to me are like women to Hank Moody: there is something beautiful in every God damn one of them. Unfortunately, we’re quickly losing the art of their birth. Many of today’s boards are only worth pulling down from the rack to find in their lines the echo of a generation of shaping inspiration. A board may have been laser-designed, machine cut and spit into packaging for shipping but at some point, a guy with a planer and a vision for how to better ride his local break originated that board’s lines.

My friend Dan, who taught me to surf more than 10 years ago, is embarking on The Alaia Project, which will chronicle his mission to build an original Alaia surfboard, a man-powered watercraft of real, tangible beauty. He’s going to document his efforts here for us. Awesome. Here’s where it starts. Shape on Dan, shape on.

So I am an environmental kind of guy, I like trees and plants and little woodland creatures and being outdoors. But I also like to surf and unfortunately, surfing has a certain level of environmental impact that most people may not be entirely aware of.

We drive to the beach expelling carbon dioxide, using up gasoline and probably running over small animals along the way. (Well, that’s a little presumptuous, but the risk is there.) We wear wetsuits that are made from petroleum based products (most of them anyway). And lastly, we ride boards that are made from polyester Styrofoam and fiberglass. Not quite as environmentally friendly as you may have thought now is it?

In fact, the industry’s largest manufacturer of surfboard foam had to close a few of years ago because of countless environmental violations. We accepted it for years. We now know better.

Enter The Alaia Project.

My goal is to find a way to lessen my impact. To bring my passion for surfing a bit more in line with my passion for environmentalism. I began by living close enough to the beach to either walk or ride a bicycle to go surfing. (Yes, on occasion I still drive my car, but it’s rare. And I watch for small animals.)

However, I still ride the conventionally constructed surfboard. I opened my eyes a bit and found that there are surfboard manufacturers that are putting a lot of time, money and effort into designing a more eco-friendly surf craft. One such company is Grain surfboards based in the southern coast of York Beach, Maine http://www.grainsurfboards.com/. I first saw Grain at the Sacred Craft expo in Ventura, CA last year and their forward thinking and design blew me away. These guys are what a lot of folks might call “Grass Roots” but I prefer to think of them as naturalist surfers, which really isn’t so far from what many of us are. Or at least aspire to be. Grain builds their boards out of naturally sustainable products which largely include locally grown wood. This is where I got really interested.

Wooden surfboards are certainly nothing new, that’s what the ancient Polynesians rode centuries ago. Over time, those heavy, all-wood boards were chiseled away into to the lighter, more easily manufactured Styrofoam and fiberglass combo construction we see today. Even worse, that method has been commoditized. Now, the process is done on assembly lines, not only tearing away the spirit of a well-crafted wave riding vehicle but completely neglecting natural, more sustainable processes.

However I think that with modern technology and slightly more forward thinking, companies such as Grain are developing a product that suits the modern surfer while not only sustaining the environment but hearkening back to a bygone era.

Taking a cue from the folks at Grain, it is my mission over the course of the next year to build and ride a naturally sustainable, hand built surfboard that I can call my own. I will log every $$ spent and every impact the construction makes on the environment. From driving to gather supplies to electricity spent during construction and I will report it here with a full tally upon completion. Hopefully it will be less than a conventional surfboard.

Please follow my build and see what happens, who knows…with any luck maybe the thing will actually ride halfway decent!

Here’s to resort towns, direct flights and El Nina.

The Canyons in Park City, UT

Yeah, it'll be fun.

My first run of the season was over New Year’s weekend in West Virginia’s Snowshoe resort. Not a bad place for Southeast corn. Last year, Snowshoe saw more of the white stuff than a number of western resorts. No so this year. The first day of 2011 found the lifts smeared in fog and a 45-degree rain testing the limits of their riders’ DWR finished jackets.

I don’t expect the same come this week in Park City, where I plan to bounce along three of the major bumps that make up this spine of snow covered rock in as many days. Solitude, The Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort are all reporting pretty damn nice conditions with more on the way and when we’re there.

I’m not going to make a beeline toward the backcountry stashes, mind you. I’m just not there yet. I plan to work my way into some of the lesser bowls. I hope. It all depends on how hour five of day two decides to treat my quadriceps. Yet, for those skiers and boarders who still find plenty of reason to slash through the frontcountry, is there a better kind of pain?

Photo: Scott Markewitz, The Canyons