Behind the Lens

Chris Burkard on shooting and shivering his way through Norway for our Photo Annual

| posted on December 13, 2012

A view reserved for the rare breed of surfer that hunts arctic waves. Photo: Burkard

The reason for putting out a Photo Annual every year is obvious. We have the best surf photographers on earth, and our office is flooded with more incredible images than we could ever fit into 12 issues. It’s a great problem to have. For the 2012 edition, our photogs went from the frigid waters of the Norway to the scorching heat of Mainland Mexico, and everywhere in between. In the third installment of our four-part “Behind the Lens” series, Chris Burkard breaks down the waves, people, and moments that keep him coming back to the isolated coasts of Norway.

A battle against the elements, a long way from home in Norway. Photo: Burkard

The Location:
Being from Central California, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what cold was. After spending some time in Norway, I realized I really had no idea. There’s cold…and then there’s cold. Not just the kind of cold where you can’t stop shivering or anything, but the cold I’ve experienced lately is the kind of cold where your body literally starts shutting down. When you’re shooting in the water in a place like Norway, it’s not about trying to stay comfortable, but trying to be smart and stay alive. It’s really a battle against the elements. But I think that’s sort of what draws me to shooting in really different and often times frigid locations. It’s the opposite of the Corona on the beach at sunset, and that’s what I think I love about it so much. The backdrops and setups you get there are like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Not your average surf check, the terrain in Norway was a new experience everyday for Burkard. Photo: Burkard

It’s been a crazy year for me. I’ve had a kid, but I’ve also traveled more this year than any other. I’ve been to Norway and Russia four times this year and I think I’ve seen the Northern Lights more often than a sunset. I’ve really just wanted to push myself this year and do my best work. And I’ve been lucky enough to have captured some really different moments that made it to the Photo Annual.

When the water is this cold, the wind is this strong, and the air is that chilly, the only safe place is in the barrel. Photo: Burkard

The Cold:
When you’re shooting in the water in a place like Norway, getting the shot becomes almost comically difficult. The first 20 minutes after you paddle out, you’re sort of okay. It’s cold, but your body can fight it off. But after that 20-minute mark, things start going downhill quick. You can feel the blood from your arms and legs moving to your core to protect all of your vital organs. That’s a really odd feeling. I remember this one session where my arms were so useless from the cold that I couldn’t hit the trigger on my camera with my fingers. I had to use my chin to set it off.

In a rough climate like Norway, a smile can go a long way in a traveling crew. Dane Gudauskas is always the man for the job. Photo: Burkard

The Crew:
Having the right crew when you go off the beaten path makes all the difference in the world. There are some people who are great to travel with to Mexico or somewhere a little more relaxed, but you wouldn’t want to bring them to Russia or Norway. When you’re in a really rough climate, you want to surround yourself not only with people who have a really good attitude, but people who can handle themselves in some real-world scenarios. We had a pretty crazy car situation in Norway where we got stuck in the middle of nowhere and it was freezing; had I not been with some solid people, who knows what could have happened. There was one session where I got so cold swimming that I couldn’t make it back to the shore on my own, and Keith Malloy basically had to carry me along to get back to the beach. You’re really putting your life in someone else’s hands out there.

There is a lifetime's worth of lineups like this out there, for those bold enough to search for them. Photo: Burkard

The Potential:
With the help of good wetsuits to combat the cold and how much easier it is to travel to far-off places these days, I think we’re going to see a whole lot of amazing coldwater setups come to light in the next few years. Just being in Norway recently blew my mind. I saw so many world-class setups and places that held so much potential that it was mindboggling. It would take a lifetime to discover them all.

An empty lineup in Norway, which is the norm. Photo: Burkard

Check out Part I with Todd Glaser in Puerto Escondido, Part II with Zak Noyle in Indo or click here to pick up a copy of the 2012 Photo Annual.

  • Ciaran

    Really enjoyed the Russia article in the mew mag, it really is great to see you guys pushing the envelope in cold water. Just wondering what wetsuits the surfers were wearing in Norway, 6-5 mils or did they have something thicker? Sounds like you need to get yourself a dry suit – I think you deserve it!
    P.S. after reading about Russia and Norway trips I have gained a lot of respect for the guys that go on these frigidwater trips with you (with the notable exception of Keith Malloy – I’ve known he was a legend for a long time!).

  • chris

    you mean for those who are given that chance

  • Lorelei Horry

    What type of wetsuit (thickness) and equipment was necessary to survive?!? ;D

  • Scott Dickerson

    Nice interview Chris! I know what you mean, people think surfing in cold water is cold. . . . I sometimes surf during the photo sessions just to warm up!

    Ciaran – I’m a surfer/photographer from Alaska. While I don’t know what the boys in Norway are wearing exactly, I can tell you that a mid range quality 6/5mm suit is usually enough for anything but the absolute coldest days. We often surf with ice and slush in the water, saltwater freezes at 28.5ºF so it’s got to be pretty dang cold to start turning to slush.

    I’ve tried a bunch of different brand 6/5mm suits over the years and have been pretty happy with most all of them. To my knowledge nobody makes a production model surfing wetsuit thicker than a 6/5mm. 7mm boots and 7mm mittens are key equipment. I also have a very nice goretex drysuit but never wear it surfing. It’s good for surf kayaking, but not for board sports in my opinion.

  • Ciaran

    Thanks Scott!

  • bhawk

    Makes me want to watch distant shores again!! Seeing stuff like this or the northeast even makes me feel like a puss for ever bitching about it being cold in FL

  • Baydreamer

    Def not shoulder-to-shoulder North Shore lineups where even Machado resigns himself to just watching. The price is made clear here though. I have surfed New England in conditions that may rival this. Your sesh’s are very short and a wood/coal stove is the remedy to bring your core temp back up! Especially if you plan to surf again that same day. I never used/owned a dry suit, but wish i did. I have used high quality, capaline (light-water absorbing), long underwear and socks made for skiing under my suit with some success to add minutes…

  • Falcao

    Billabong has a 7/6/5 SG5 suit out.I bought one but it is not as good as Xcel 6/5/4. I also use 8mm Xcel boots and sometimes when the water is almost sub zero I use a heated vest like the one from Rip Curl or even better the Thermolution vest. Our Northsea can get serious cold this time of year.

  • chris burkard

    Thanks guys!!