Adventure photographer Chris Burkard’s latest film, ‘Under an Arctic Sky’ is now available on Netflix. To celebrate the film’s release, we sat down with Burkard for an exclusive interview to discuss the hardships and dangers that went into making the film, if he felt that this was his most epic adventure yet, and how he recharges his creative batteries after an extended and exhausting time away from home.
Read Burkard’s exclusive article for Resource Travel, “Adventure is My Inspiration”
As our DHC-8 twin-engine noisily descends from a short flight across the Vestfjorden, the scene outside the window begins to resemble what I had always envisioned to be ‘the Arctic.’ Snow covered farms and cottages become larger as we break through the thick clouds. Our small plane begins to toss like a rag doll, leading even experienced fliers like us to grip our armrests as our stomachs churn. After what felt like an hour, the prop plane touches down and almost instantly the door is open and we are on the tiny airport’s tarmac. This harrowing endeavor marked the moment I first realized I had just entered the infamous Arctic with famed adventure photographer Chris Burkard. At the time, I did not know what these frigid locations meant to Burkard or how the cold, arctic environments had shaped his career and his personality. And most of all, little did I know what he had in store for us all just three short years later.
While Chris Burkard’s work today can be best described as ‘adventure’, there was a period in the California native’s younger years when his primary focus was mainly on surfing and the loose, frantic culture that surrounds the sport. His love of the outdoors and willingness to do anything to get a great photo began to resonate with the people who flocked to his Instagram for their daily fix of wanderlust. Today, that Instagram is approaching three million followers who hang on to his every word, as Burkard is a master at finding the right inspirational caption for his photos. Some of the most popular images on his Instagram come from the Arctic, the same place I found myself with Burkard back in 2014. I was there to help film a short documentary for SmugMug called ‘Arctic Swell,’ which followed Burkard as he documented three pro surfers battling the extremes at the 68th parallel. This is where I saw Burkard at his finest: “Having cold fingers, brittle skin and chapped lips. Really putting yourself out there in the elements. That’s when it feels like you are paying the price, but the greatest rewards come from it.” And he was right. Burkard’s shots from this expedition, as well as his other cold-weather surf adventures, are legendary, and I got to experience his passion firsthand. We were indeed frozen and our skin brittle, but it was one of the most exciting and educational weeks of my life.
Under An Arctic Sky
When we heard Burkard was in Iceland making a film with the production studio Sweatpants Media, we knew he must have something incredible up his sleeve. Sure enough, he did. ‘Under an Arctic Sky’ follows Burkard and surfers Justin Quintal, Timmy Reyes and Sam Hammer along with local surfers and guides Heidar Logi, Elli Thor Magnusson and Ingo Olsen as they travel through Iceland in search of rideable waves in the remote Westfjords. Their plan is to meet up with a sailboat captain who seems to be the only one willing to take the risk that the expedition involves. Almost immediately after landing in this nation of 334,000, the team finds themselves battling what would become the country’s worst winter storm in over 20 years. The filmmakers perfectly capture the terrifying scenes unfolding in front of them, making the audience’s heart race as the surfer’s SUVs battle through a blizzard, trying to get to their destination before they’re stranded, a situation with potentially deadly consequences.
It’s impossible to describe more of the film without giving too much away, but it’s safe to say that Burkard and his team made it through unscathed. Not, however, before finding what they were looking for, along with an unexpected surprise that truly made this trip a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for both Burkard and his crew of surfers.
A Conversation With Chris Burkard
After watching the film, the team here at Resource Magazine was ecstatic. Inspired and eager to hear more about its production, we reached out to Burkard, who graciously agreed to sit for an interview. We asked the husband and father of two about his zany projects, his buddy trips, and how he gets back into a work/life balance after returning home from one of his expeditions.
No matter what the project, it seems like the thing you get most excited about is team camaraderie; it’s like your favorite movie genre is buddy-comedy or buddy-adventure. What inspires you to keep making these crazy ideas come to life along with your pals?
The reality is, I find that the closer you are to failure and the closer you are to not getting what you came for, there’s more risk involved. And I think that when you have a group of people that are all engaged in that same activity, it just becomes so much more raw, and your relationships become so much more real. You’re experiencing something where you have to rely on each other and I feel like I’ve fostered the best relationships on experiences like that, so I guess that’s the reason I’ve always aimed to have people along for the ride. It’s not always about me, it’s really never about me, it’s more about the relationships with the people you’re with.
“Regardless of how much you plan, Mother Nature is always in charge”: wise words from your boat captain. Is not being able to surf that break in the Westfjords something that will stick with you forever? A “what if” moment? Do you think there was a time in your life, maybe in your younger years, where you would have fought the advice of the seasoned captain in order to get the shot you had envisioned, no matter the cost?
I definitely think about it quite a bit. There were a lot of sleepless nights and I was pretty bummed and stressed out about it. I didn’t want to come back empty-handed to my editors. But what I realized (and it took me a while, I’m not gonna lie), was that in the end, the reality is that we made the film and the whole point of the film was about uncertainty. So I think if I’m really gonna follow my own advice and believe in this uncertainty then I needed to realize that. “Hey, we embraced uncertainty and this amazing thing happened”. I think what ended up happening with the film, where we ended up finding northern lights and being able to surf beneath them, that’s greater than any weird wave in some random bay in the world, and that’s what’s so beautiful. The best trips, they answer questions that in the beginning you didn’t think to ask and that’s a really special scenario to be in, where you go for one thing and you’re given something completely different. Definitely, at one point in my life when I was younger, I probably was a little more bull-headed and maybe I wouldn’t have heard that advice as loudly.
There are some points in the film where the discussion of actually cutting your losses was brought up. Knowing you, I never thought I would hear you even entertain such a thought. How close were you really to giving up on this idea because of the hardships you endured?
You know we probably over dramatized that. We always really did want to stay but at the same time, we had to ask the guys because what ended up happening is we were about a 6-hour drive from Reykjavik and in the winter time that’s more like a 12-hour drive. We all had flights we had to catch and so we all had to extend those flights, so it was kind of this group decision. If somebody had to go back to the airport, or if somebody wanted to leave, we would have all had to leave because we’d have to get them to the airport. So it was kind of this thing where it was like either we all stay or we all go and as much as for myself I would have stayed 100%, I knew that I needed to make this a group decision. I feel like that’s one thing about being a trip leader or a group expedition leader, you learn to include other people’s opinions. It can’t always be about you, which is really critical.
You’ve done a lot of pretty cool adventures, including filming ‘Arctic Swell’, that awesome 10 day trip with me. Out of every crazy adventure you have done, where does “Under an Arctic Sky” rank?
Oh yeah, that Norway trip was easily one of the best ones I have ever done! Well, I would say that it’s an interesting question because ‘Under an Arctic Sky’ probably had the most peril, the most risk, as well as the most success in the end. I guess the reality is I would put it near the top, because I’ve never been in an experience where the risk has been so high and the chance of failure so high that you just feel like your hearts on your sleeve and your entire body and mind and all your creativity is really out there, exposed. That’s kind of critical. That’s a really important aspect, just to be willing to give everything to a project and I feel like that’s why this adventure was most meaningful to me.
Do you think you will ever get tired of the frigid Arctic?
To be honest, the Arctic is such a critical place for me. I’ve learned to love it, I’ve learned how to speak its language, and I’ve learned how to be a steward for this place and try to speak about it and that’s been a really important thing. It’s given me much more than I’ve given it and I really want to spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how to pay it back.
What were you using to light up the wave under the Northern Lights?
That’s a question that a lot of people ask. We ended up using a flashlight! It was a 50,000 candlepower flashlight on the beach, and the funny thing is we didn’t even bring it there to light up the wave. We actually brought it there to shoot some of those scenes at night of the guys driving. We knew there were 18 hours of darkness in Iceland at this time, and we wanted something to light up some of those scenes. And then, as everything started to come together and we were there surfing under the northern lights, we realized the guys couldn’t even see the waves breaking in front of them, so we used the light to basically illuminate the waves as they started coming in. Lo and behold, we realized this was actually a really, really incredible source of light in the footage and it’s creating contrast and allowing the viewer to see what’s going on, so it ended up being this blessing in disguise.
No doubt this project was intense. After such a mental and physical challenge, how do you re-balance yourself once you get home?
I put the camera down. I find it’s critical for me to be with my family in the places that I love. That helps me to become inspired again. It’s really hard on these trips to be continuously inspired because you’re running on empty. You’re giving so much of yourself that you have to kind of fill up this reservoir of inspiration, and usually, for me, that happens when I’m at home. I’m surrounded by people I care about and I’m filling up that reservoir and that’s a really critical thing I’ve had to learn over the years. It took me a long time to learn that you can’t always ‘go, go, go’ or the quality is going to suffer and you’re going to suffer if you don’t find the time to rebalance yourself. For me, that usually involves being in the ocean, doing yoga and climbing. But most of all, being with my family.
Read Burkard’s exclusive article for Resource Travel, “Adventure is My Inspiration”