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Stay Wild

A Sitka Surf Adventure

You don’t hear much about surfing in Newfoundland. 

It’s not because there aren’t any waves. There are plenty of waves. And it’s not because it’s cold. It’s cold enough that great white hunks of ice float past the coast after shearing away from Greenland and being carried off by the currents. It’s mostly because Newfoundlanders are unusually suspicious of anyone from the “Great Away.” The few surfers of The Rock, as this harsh-weathered island is often known, have never felt inclined to set up surf schools or post their spots all over the Internet. If you want to find waves here, you will, but you’ll be on your own, which only adds to the allure of experiencing an adventure few have been on. 

Newfoundland, if you’re not familiar with it, is the easternmost landmass in North America and boasts the North Atlantic Ocean as its playground. It’s big—bigger than Ireland, almost as big as England. Newfoundland declared itself a self-governing colony of the British Empire, and remained so until 1949, when it reluctantly became a province of Canada. The glaciers scraped its bones bare in the last Ice Age, leaving what one nineteenth-century visitor called a “monstrous mass of rock and gravel, almost without soil, like a strange thing from the bottom of the great deep, lifted up suddenly into sunshine and storm, but belonging to the watery darkness out of which it has been reared.” 

Buffeted by storms and blizzards, Newfoundland isn’t an easy place to make a life—not then, and certainly not now. Sometime long ago, a group of people that archaeologists refer to as the Maritime Archaics settled on the island, surviving by hunting birds and seals. Later, it became the domain of the ancestral Mi’kmaq and Beothuk, an indigenous group who drew their life from the land. Around 1000 C.E., the ships of the Vikings broke into the waters of Newfoundland. The voyage was led by Leif Erikson, more popularly known as Leif the Lucky. It was he, not Christopher Columbus, who should be credited with the discovery of the New World. After a harrowing journey, he led his ragged crew ashore the beach of L’Anse aux Meadows, setting in motion a long chain of events that would result in the Beothuk’s unhappy ending. 

In the years following Leif’s landing, a group of Viking voyagers made a determined effort to establish a permanent habitation. One hundred and sixty potential settlers landed in plank-hulled ships and set to work building sod houses, workshops, a smith-works, and an iron smelter. To augment their stores, they traded with the island’s original inhabitants, who they called Skraelings, or Wretches. Unfortunately, the cross-cultural relationship eventually deteriorated, and after three hard winters, the Viking colony ended in violence and failure, becoming a little-known footnote of history. 

Almost 500 years later, the Europeans again breached the shores of Newfoundland and were able to successfully establish a permanent residence. In 1497, the seafarer John Cabot claimed the island for England, giving it the name it bears today, “New Founde Land.” The seas around the island were incomparably rich, and lore tells that the icy ocean was so thick with fish you could lower a basket into the water and retrieve it bearing an outrageously large catch. A lucrative salt cod industry soon developed, with seasonal fishing camps springing up in the island’s many coves and bays. In time, the English residents became year-round fisherman, providing life for their communities in what previously seemed a barren and unforgiving land. For the following centuries, Newfoundland remained a sparsely populated realm of fish ports and outpost towns, its people sturdy, resourceful, and always keeping a weather eye to the sea. The Beothuk, decimated by disease and colonial violence, died out completely. Shanawdithit, the last full-blooded survivor, died of tuberculosis in 1829. 

There were other industries that sprung up over the years, such as sealing, mining, and most recently, drilling for oil from giant offshore rigs. For the most part, fishing was the hard labor that paid the bills. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the cod fishing industry unfortunately collapsed; with stocks a fraction of what they once were, the Canadian government declared a moratorium on cod fishing in 1992, putting tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders out of work with the stroke of a pen. Like I said, it’s never been easy in this hostile region and probably never will be.

Subsequently, the Atlantic that bounds up against Newfoundland’s margins is a restless mistress, as I’m sure Leif and his shipmates would have attested to. It’s been said that a restless sea means waves to be found, so if you’re up for a surf trip that’s off the beaten path, here’s all you need to know: Get your warmest wetsuit and a few sturdy boards, book your passage to St. John’s, walk out of the terminal, get a cab, ask the cabbie to help you find someone who will rent you a used truck with a good set of tires, unfold the map, then… GO.

Once you’re out on your own, and chances are you will be, set up camp, wait for the waves to come and the wind to die, and then reconnoiter the glories of the shore. Take your pick of heaving slab, rolling point, or rampy beach break. If there are any locals out, show respect and remember that you’re very much from the Great Away. And, as I’m sure they’ll readily confirm, people from the Great Away have been imposing their ideas on the island and its inhabitants for a thousand years. And then, fucking surf. Surf until you’re so cold that your fingers won’t grab the rails anymore. Come in, put your sweater on, pack up the tent, and drive through the outpost towns, wind-warped shacks, and piles of weather-beaten lobster traps. At sunset, park the truck downtown and buy a couple of locals a round of stiff drinks. Then raise those glasses to everyone—from Skraelings to Vikings to shivering fishermen—all those who discovered Newfoundland and the secrets to taming that beautiful devil’s shores.