Heart of Darkness
Chris Burkard’s latest film puts surfing under the aurora borealis spotlight
By Linda Koffman
Photos by Chris Burkard
It takes a lot to shock the person who gave the TED talk on “The Joy of Surfing in Ice-Cold Water.” That challenge (er, addiction) to meet fierce elements in risky places drove Chris Burkard to the earth’s unforgiving edge. And while it’s typical for nature to play a starring role in much of the photographer’s work, his latest film showcases surf feats against stunning extremes of darkness and light, chaos and calm.
Under an Arctic Sky documents a two-week no-man’s-land expedition to search and surf the shores of Iceland for a session beneath the aurora borealis. With surfers Sam Hammer, Timmy Reyes, Justin Quintal, and Heidar Logi in the mix, Burkard and co. are lashed by neoprene-slicing cold temps and 160-mph winds nourished by a beastly blessing and curse to the cause: Iceland’s biggest storm in 25 years. Was it worth it? At 31, the well-worn explorer has called the ensuing grace on water and in sky “one of the most insane things” he’s ever seen.
With the surfers’ lithesome dance across steely waves mirrored by the slow pulse of the northern lights unfolding overhead, Under an Arctic Sky captures a transcendent marriage of motion between man and nature—ephemeral and ethereal. But it’s more than simply eye candy. At the heart of the film, and the director himself, is an intention to get people to know the unknown—in themselves and in the environment. Having shot the project with only three hours of light a day, Burkard talks about delving into darkness, literally and figuratively.
You’ve said, “Living on the edge is where you learn most about yourself.” What did you learn about yourself by going to the edge of the earth?
Honestly, this trip pushed me physically, mentally and financially more than any other trip I’ve ever been on. The process of getting there and actually finding waves is so stressful to start, but as the trip continued to unfold, my team and I worked so hard to capture everything. When something that special is happening it puts you at the end of your wits because you want to do the best job you can to get the shot. Walking away from the trip, I’m reminded that I need to just let the moment happen and remain confident in my ability to capture what’s in front of me.
What took you by surprise the most while making the film?
The night we surfed the northern lights. There were a lot of sleepless nights to make that happen. In fact, we had one rule: Never sleep. Ever. If there were clear skies, somebody was always standing watch. I’ve never been so stressed out and excited at the same time trying to document something. It was a long week, but to see waves roll into the secluded bay just south of the Arctic Circle, and my good friend Justin Quintal surfing it all while under the northern lights—I couldn’t help but holler as I clicked the shutter. A lot of cold sleepless nights went into making that singular session come to be, but like most things, a little suffering is what makes them worthwhile.
How was shooting at night under the aurora borealis?
It was difficult, to say the least. I knew the gear we brought was pretty essential; I shot everything on the A7sii, which was the only camera for the job. The reality was we were shooting something that was on the fringe of what’s possible to capture in a single still image. Shooting moving surfers with minimal light is incredibly difficult and we needed a camera that had the ISO capabilities to freeze their action but still be sensitive enough to capture the northern lights.
Looking back at just how many things had to come together to make that session a reality is mindboggling. The tide. The swell. The wind. The weather. The northern lights. And the biggest factor: the moon. We ended up staying longer to wait for the full moon. … Having moonlight to help illuminate the surfers and the waves turned out to be the biggest factor in documenting it.
What was the biggest fear you faced during the trip?
Weather. Easily. It was such a huge unknown and to get to a lot of these waves you might spend 10 hours driving across the country when the weather is good. We ended up getting stuck in the worst storm to hit Iceland in 25 years. … There were hundreds of telephone poles that were broken by gale-force winds in the region where we were alone.
What limit would you like to push next?
I just want to keep exploring wild places and inspire people to see them for themselves. More specifically, there are a couple remote Russian islands I have my eyes on that I want to visit.
Lastly, what would people be surprised to know about you?
I’ve spent a night in a Russian jail—but we’ll save that story for another time.
Learn more at underanarcticsky.com.