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Sub-Zero surfing: Chasing waves in the Arctic

Whiteout blizzards, icy water that rarely tops 40 degrees and numb fingers and toes aren’t exactly synonymous with surfing.

But for a growing niche of hardy wave-seekers, those daunting conditions are part of a less-traveled journey to surfing nirvana: scoring that perfect, never-surfed-before swell in a remote cold-water place like Norway, Iceland, British Columbia, Newfoundland, Alaska or Russia.

“As a culture, surfing has always been rooted in the idea of going further and deeper and getting farther away.”

- Chris Burkard, surf photographer

“It’s so rare in this day and age that you’re able to discover a new wave, and it seems like all the warm-water places are all fished out,” said Patrick Millin, a pro surfer from San Diego who has been chasing waves in Norway since 2007. “When I first [arrived in Norway], I thought, ‘This place is so unexplored.’ And there’s so much to explore….

“We found like five waves that no one had ever surfed,” Millin continued. “It was like the Gold Rush. We were waxing our boards and saying, ‘I’m going to be the first one to surf it, and I’m going to name it.’”

A recently released, 8-minute film, “Arctic Swell: Surfing the ends of the Earth,” offers a thrilling peek into the triumphs and challenges of surfing in frigid conditions.

Part of a behind-the-scenes series showcasing photographers, the SmugMug film documents the work of Chris Burkard, a California-based photographer for Surfer magazine, as he shoots a group of three surfers, including Millin, along the shores of Norway’s far-flung Lofoten Islands.

“As a culture, surfing has always been rooted in the idea of going further and deeper and getting farther away,” said Burkard, a self-described “cold-water fanatic” who has spent a large part of the last decade chasing down waves in arctic climates. “That’s one of the raddest things about it, and I think that’s what we really tapped into.”

Though it contradicts the image of sun-soaked beaches, suntans and flimsy board shorts, surfing in non-tropical environments isn’t new. The invention of the neoprene wetsuit in the 1950s opened the door to cold-water coasts that had been previously impossible – or, at the very least, quite unpleasant – to surf for extended periods of time.

But in recent years, cold-water surfing, also known as extreme or Arctic surfing, has been riding a wave of popularity. Several factors are at play: improvements in wetsuit technology, the explosion of social media platforms to share dramatic images of surf juxtaposed with snow, and the growth of adventure travel in general.

As a result, tour operators that specialize in extreme surfing are seeing an uptick in business. Artic Surfers, which has offered custom surfing and outdoor adventure excursions around Iceland since 2012, now hosts surfing trips year-round. Customers pay up to $3,915 for a seven-day “Surf and Snow” tour that includes Arctic surfing and backcountry snowboarding. Co-founder Ingó Olsen says men and women from 15 to 65 have paddled with the group.

In places like Iceland, “where the weather is changing its mind every 15 minutes,” it’s important that first-time visitors find an experienced guide, he said. Equally important is being fit to handle the unique demands of cold-weather surfing: hauling a board over rocky, snow-covered beaches, for example, and having the stamina to paddle through frigid surf.

“To be comfortable, you need to know what you are doing or be guided by one that has the knowledge, be physically up for the challenge and use quality equipment that fits with the weather and other conditions you will be in,” Olsen said.

More people are participating, but Arctic surfing has a ways to go before it becomes mainstream. First of all, there’s that little matter of the cold air and frigid water. Even with the insulation of a neoprene wetsuit, “if you get flushed with water when you fall down, it’s like you’re getting electrocuted,” Millin said. “The water is so cold it feels like fire. It strips your air away.”

Burkard added that the mental aspect of dealing with the cold is as tough as – if not tougher than – the physical challenges.

“You’re managing your level of consciousness, because the colder it is, the harder it is to make good decisions and think through things,” he said. “There are so many elements to contend with.”

Then there’s the matter of expenses. Nordic countries are notoriously pricey: Norway, for example, was recently ranked by the World Bank as one of the top two most expensive economies in the world. And Alaska, another popular spot for cold-weather surfing, isn’t easy on the wallet, either, with food and lodging prices that are often double those in the Lower 48.

But despite the myriad challenges, proponents say the thrill of scoring a wave – or, in Burkard’s case, an epic photo of someone scoring a wave – in an ethereal landscape of glaciers, snow-capped peaks and snowy, empty beaches is unparalleled.

“When you’re in the water and it’s freezing and you have all these elements working against you, when they do come together, it makes it all worthwhile,” Burkard said. “You feel a little more alive. That’s what why we seek out these wild places.”

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