Ice Wide Open

When surf photographer Chris Burkard wearied of shooting at tropical beaches and extravagant tourist destinations, he sought out the world’s most remote, stormiest coasts—and found ultimate gratification in Arctic waves. Chris Burkard wouldn’t blame you if you called him crazy for finding absolute joy in surfing just inside the Arctic Circle.

Keith Malloy, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Water temp: 34° F / 1° C Air temp: 29° F / -2° C Photo by Chris Burkard

In his talk at TED2015, the renowned photographer shares a story that finds him in the near-freezing waters of Norway’s Lofoten Islands. Chasing perfect waves in the icy ocean with a group of surfers, he could feel the blood leaving his extremities, rushing to protect his organs. “Pain is a kind of shortcut to mindfulness,” he quotes the social psychologist Brock Bastian. The TED session is fittingly titled “Passion and Consequence.”

“Pain is a kind of shortcut to mindfulness.”

His parents didn’t think “surf photographer” was a real job title when Burkard told them at age nineteen that he was going to quit his job to follow his dream of working (and playing) at the world’s most exotic tropical beaches. The self-taught photographer set off in search of excitement but found only routine. A seemingly glamorous career of shooting in dream tourist destinations soon left him ungratified. Constant Internet connection and crowded ocean waves slowly suffocated his spirit for adventure.

Perfect waves in intoxicatingly unforgiving places

“I began craving wild open spaces,” Burkard tells his TED audience. Once he grasped that only about a third of the Earth’s oceans are warm—a thin band around the equator—he began to look for perfect waves in places that are cold, where the seas are notoriously rough. Places others had written off as too cold, too remote, and too dangerous to surf. Places like Iceland.

"I began craving wild open spaces.”

Brett Barley, Vik Iceland Water temp: 42° F / 6° C Air temp: 40° F / 4° C Photo by Chris Burkard

“I was blown away by the natural beauty of the landscape, but most importantly, I couldn’t believe we were finding perfect waves in such a remote and rugged part of the world,” he says. Massive chunks of ice had piled on the shoreline, creating a barrier between the surf and the surfers. “I felt like I stumbled onto one of the last quiet places, somewhere that I found a clarity and a connection with the world I knew I would never nd on a crowded beach.” The icy ocean his new muse, the artist was again intrigued by his subject.

Cold water always on his mind now, Burkard’s newly invigorated career took him to such intoxicatingly unforgiving environments as the frozen wilderness of Russia, Norway, Alaska, Chile, and the Faroe Islands. He spent weeks on Google Earth trying to pinpoint any remote stretch of beach or reef and then figuring out how to actually get to it.

Eric Soderquist, Höfn, Iceland Water temp: 47° F / 8° C Air temp: 30° F / -1° C Photo by Chris Burkard

Hypothermic yet happy

In a tiny, remote fjord in Norway, just inside the Arctic Circle, Burkard and his crew encountered a place where some of the largest, most violent storms on Earth send huge waves smashing into the coastline. He was in near-freezing water taking pictures of the surfers (who knows how he managed to push the camera shutter-release button), and it started to snow. He was determined to stay in the water and finish the job, despite the dropping temperature. He had traveled all this way, after all, and found exactly what he’d been waiting for. Wind gushed through the valley. Steady snowfall escalated into a full-on blizzard. Burkard lost perception of where he was. Was he drifting out to sea or toward the shore? Borderline hypothermic, his companions had to pull him out of the water. They told him later he had a smile on his face the entire time.

From that point on, the photographer knew every image was precious, something he says he now was forced to earn. The anguish out there on the icy water had taught him something: “In life, there are no shortcuts to joy.” △

“In life, there are no shortcuts to joy.”

Reid Jackson and Mikey DeTemple, Dyrhólaey, Iceland<br /> Water temp: 48° F / 9° C<br /> Air temp: 52° F / 11° C<br /> Photo by Chris Burkard