Words: Brian Peech.
In his new film, Under an Arctic Sky, explorer, photographer, filmmaker, speaker and author, Chris Burkard takes audiences on a journey far from the safe routines of everyday life to one of the harshest environments on earth in search of the perfect wave and a deeper reconnection with himself.
As part of the Whistler Film Festival’s Adventure Film Series, Under an Arctic Sky will be introduced by Burkard, who will be speaking about the expedition through a slideshow and Q&A session. We recently caught up with Burkard to talk about the project.
Describe the film briefly for those unfamiliar.
Without giving away too much, the film takes place in the winter of 2015/16 in this remote national park in Iceland. Due to limitations of swell and weather and a lot of things, we had to go there during the winter. It was really the only time we could get the surf we were hoping for. Through a long process we found this captain that was willing to take us. He’s a really well-known captain up in that area, a ski mountaineer with a lot of first ascents and peaks, and he’s sailed all over the world. He was the key to access this place. We got out there, and what ended up ensuing was the largest storm in 25 years descending upon us. We kind of went head first and plummeted into this storm, and it was one of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever had in my life. So that’s essentially the story, but what ensues after that, well it’s something you have to come out to the premiere to find out.
What initially sparked the idea to go to the Arctic to surf?
Just the draw to going to these remote places. We’d looked on Google Earth, and saw what we thought were world-class swells. I think it’s that search of that perfect wave. This remote national park seemed like it was really promising to find a wave that nobody had ever seen.
Did you know this storm was coming in?
We had no idea. No clue.
Aside from the storm, what were the biggest challenges of the trip?
The biggest challenge was definitely staying warm. I mean, you’re in the arctic, in the middle of winter, and you’re on a boat—and then being in and out of the water. You can imagine, these are places you barely want to be outside in, so having to go in and out of the water was brutal. Access was the other big challenge. We had to be cautious of our time and the energy we were putting into this whole trip, because you’re never really sure that it’s going to be worth it in the end.
“You can imagine, these are places you barely want to be outside in, so having to go in and out of the water was brutal.”
This isn’t the first cold water trip you’ve worked on. What’s the attraction to these harsh environments?
That’s a good question. It’s not so much that there’s an attraction to these places, so much as I started to feel disenchanted by warm water locations that I had been going to as a photographer. I was just really becoming uninterested in the wifi and the fine dining, and the lack of a good story or adventuring. I think there was such draw to find something different, something new. That’s what led me to start looking at colder locations. As a creative storyteller, I really wanted to go to places that had a real, unique perspective to them and empty beaches seemed really enticing to me; the fact that they were cold just came with the territory. I think that often it’s important to leave a comfort zone in order to find a story worth telling.
Was it hard to find a crew of surfers to do this with you?
Absolutely. It’s definitely one of the hardest things. A lot of people like the idea of an adventure like this, but actually going and experiencing it and being willing to surf in those conditions, and perform where needed is challenging. And I find it harder and harder to find people who are willing to do it. That’s kind of the biggest bummer.
“It’s not so much that there’s an attraction to these places, so much as I started to feel disenchanted by warm water locations that I had been going to as a photographer. I was just really becoming uninterested in the wifi and the fine dining, and the lack of a good story or adventuring.”
The reality is people just wonder why would you go somewhere like that when you could go somewhere else that’s so easy, and so simple. It doesn’t make sense when you can go to Indo and surf warm water for 10 days, where you know exactly how many waves you’re going to get, and you can almost have a guaranty what it’s going to be like. But it’s that level of uncertainty that the film became all about. When you embrace uncertainty, amazing things can happen. By submitting yourself to nature, and leaving a space for growth, that’s when you learn the most about yourself, and the people you’re with and the places you’re in.
Going into the film, was there an over arching goal for you as to what you wanted the audience to take away?
I just wanted the audience to understand that uncertainty is a critical part of our lives, and that’s where we grow the most. If we can get out of the safe routines of our life, we’ll find a lot of joy rediscovering who we are as people. You have to force yourself into uncomfortable situation, with people who challenge you, or else you’re not really doing yourself any favours.
“Uncertainty is a critical part of our lives, and that’s where we grow the most. If we can get out of the safe routines of our life, we’ll find a lot of joy rediscovering who we are as people.”
How much planning goes into a trip like?
Years and years. We knew about the location years ahead of time; we slowly gathered information as the years went on, but it wasn’t until we found that captain that things really started to move along. Then one day he said, “I have a 10-day window, and if you guys can do it then, well go for it.” And that’s what happened.
So up until that point, you’re not really sure it’s even going to happen, and then it’s on.
Exactly, it was like go-time, we have to do this. We were just trying to rally all the guys. It was crazy.
How was this project different than others you’ve worked on?
It was the most expensive thing I’ve ever done. It definitely took the most of my personal attention. I had to give so much of myself to this project to make it come to life, and that was really overwhelming. I’ve never really done anything like this; I’ve put out 15-20 minute films, but this was totally different.
“One day he said, ‘I have a 10-day window, and if you guys can do it then, well go for it.’ It was like go-time, we have to do this.”
How does working in film differ than the still photography you’re well known for?
It’s a crazy thing, because when you put still imagery out online, you’re seeing it all really quickly. It’s a quick push, people experience it, and then it’s done. But when it comes to film, you’re working on it for months and months and months, or a year, year-and-a half. And in the end, you’re releasing it, and that’s a really scary thing. It’s like you put your heart on a plate; there’s just more emotion to it.
Do you have a most memorable part of the trip?
Yes, for sure, but it would give away the most important part of the film. So in order to hear that, I’d suggest people come out to an official film tour stop. Because my greatest joy is to share this in real time, in a slideshow format, where I can talk about the experience and answer these questions. It’s kind of an old-school style of showing the film.
As an artist and an adventurer, what were your takeaways? When you finally had a hot shower and sat on the couch, what were you thinking?
Basically, what I want others to take away from this, I’ve embraced it internally. That same storm that almost ended our trip—the biggest storm in 25 years—on the back end of that was one of the best swells we’d ever seen. So if we hadn’t gone through that storm, if we hadn’t endured that, we wouldn’t have ended up with what we did. It was a really eye-opening experience, to go through that trial by fire. And I learned so much about the relationships you forge in these wild places, and I think it’s important to realize the strength you find in other people. I just hope that everyone can feel that and experience that, because that’s what I took away in the end.
“That same storm that almost ended our trip—the biggest storm in 25 years—on the back end of that was one of the best swells we’d ever seen. So if we hadn’t gone through that storm, if we hadn’t endured that, we wouldn’t have ended up with what we did.”
Get your tickets to Under an Arctic Sky at the Whistler Film Festival here.
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