An up-and-coming sport is catching waves across the country and Alaska is one of the best places to dive in. On a windy day along Turnagain Arm, you may spot a group of kitesurfers -- men and women with boards under their feet and kites in front of them, riding the Cook Inlet waves. This extreme sport is a blend of sailing, wakeboarding, windsurfing, surfing, paragliding and acrobatics. Wearing harnesses attached to large kites, kitesurfers capture the wind to propel themselves forward on their board.
"There is a lot of force and power involved," said James Alborough, an avid kitesurfer living in Haines.
The sport started to take off in Turnagain Arm in 2004 and it's been growing in popularity ever since, according to Tom Fredericks with Alaska Kite Adventures. Turnagain Arm is the most popular place in Alaska to kitesurf because the largest concentration of kitesurfers live in Anchorage. While the sport is gaining momentum, it's still a relatively small and tight-knit community. Anchorage is home to about 50 kitesurfers, and there are a few sprinkled throughout Homer, Seward, Juneau, Valdez and Haines.
Alborough and his wife are two of a handful of kitesurfers living in Haines. An enthusiastic surfer, Alborough knew he needed to explore a new water-based sport when he moved to Southeast Alaska.
"My wife had suggested kiteboarding because we had seen it in Mexico. At first, I was resistant because of all that gear to deal with," Alborough said. "Surfing is so much simpler. As soon as I tried it I was hooked, and I almost never surfed again."
Gear is one of the biggest and most expensive obstacles for beginners. The most critical piece of equipment is a kite that is sanctioned for kitesurfing. People will also need a board, harness and drysuits or wetsuits due to Alaska's chilly water temperatures. Because of the cost of kitesurfing equipment, its sister-sport kiteboarding, also known as snowkiting, is more common among Alaskans. Most Alaskans have already invested in winter gear, including snowboards or skis, which leaves only a kite to purchase before getting started.
"It's the perfect companion sport," said Alborough. "It's like skiing without a chairlift or mountain."
Beginning kites cost several hundred dollars and most kitesurfers need different kites for riding varying conditions -- which brings us to the most important element of the sport, the wind. Kitesurfers have an edge on surfers; the right wind is much easier to come by. "It's constant action -- you don't have to sit around and wait for a wave to show up," said Alborough.
Ideal wind conditions for kitesurfing range between 15 and 25 mph. Stronger winds require smaller kites but there's a bigger risk of getting hurt.
"If you are inexperienced, it can be quite punishing," said Alborough. "If you wing it and give it a shot, chances are pretty high it will slam you ... and take you for a ride like you weren't expecting."
Kitesurfing is too technical to just "wing it," and you may want to think about a few things before testing the waters. "You've got to bounce well," said Alborough. "If you are the kind of person that falls and hurts themselves, it's not the right sport."
Experienced kitesurfers encourage beginners to take lessons and head out with a veteran. There are several resources in Alaska for people looking to try out the sport including local Facebook groups, forums like kitingalaska.com and Alaska Kite Adventures, a business in Anchorage that provides lessons.
"Once you learn the basics of how to ride the board and the rules about riding with the wind, then the opportunities for using the kites are unlimited," said Fredericks with Alaska Kite Adventures.
Before hitting the water, a beginning kitesurfer should learn about the weather conditions, equipment and technique. Unlike their cousins -- surfers, who are known to be protective over their surf -- kitesurfers say they welcome newcomers.
"If a new person shows up on the beach they are instantly welcomed," said Alborough.
Riding with groups allows kitesurfers to keep an eye on each other. "If there is someone in trouble that needs help or rescue, the kites are our power tools to drag each other back in and to assist with board rescue or gear retrieval," said Fredericks.
Because it takes the right gear, wind, conditions, training and friends, kitesurfing can seem like a lot of work, and it is. But when it all comes together, kitesurfers say it's an experience that will take you to new heights.
"The coolest part about it is you can actually fly momentarily, you can lift yourself out of the water and fly," said Alborough.
Jackie Bartz is an Anchorage freelance writer.