A man walked into the La Colombe coffee shop in the Seaport Wednesday afternoon and mumbled, “This weather could not be worse.” Spitting rainclouds lingered all day, seeming to target anyone who had just closed an umbrella.
But 100 feet away inside Icon Theatre sat a man who endured the worst storm to hit Iceland in 25 years. And he knew the weather could definitely be worse.
Chris Burkard is a photographer first and foremost, but he was at HubWeek as a filmmaker presenting a documentary called “Under the Arctic Sky.” The premise mirrors the preeminent 1964 surfing doc “Endless Summer” in its insatiable quest for the perfect wave.
A crew of sunkissed, easygoing, surfer bros mumble terms like “gnarly’’ and “mental’’ and pour whiskey into their coffees before crushing some sets. And while the weather conditions may seem endless, they are certainly not those of summer.
“Under the Arctic Sky” occurs in what I, a New Orleans transplant, can only describe as the Ice Age, but is allegedly just Iceland in December 2015. Temperatures typically hover in the single digits and creep into the teens on particularly “balmy’’ days. Wind gusts of 90 miles per hour send snow tumbling from mountains and onto roads already caked in ice. The film doubles as an ad for puffy down jackets and 4-wheel-drive SUVs.
“These aren’t the places that you go for surf trips,” admits a freckled-face Burkard as the camera peers through the frosted window of a sailboat traversing Iceland’s glacial seas.
I have the expertise of a tourist who has tumbled through a single Costa Rican surf lesson and I feel confident seconding that statement. But with the greatest risks come the greatest rewards.
So the surfers press on, in search of the perfect wave, a sea creature as elusive and symbolic as Ahab’s white whale. Tractor-trailers barrel by their creeping caravan of cars, which is forced to stop periodically to defrost headlights and crack windshield ice. They arrive at the ocean only to trade parkas for wetsuits and run into icy indigo seas with the glee of children on Christmas. One of the surfers, Timmy Reyes, voluntarily left a surfing competition in Hawaii to travel northwards, opting for a backdrop of snow-covered mountains rather than tree-covered cliffs.
They’ve already traversed a tundra, but Diddú has yet to strike. The storm, named after an Icelandic singer, threatens “horrible weather,” but “the surf forecast looks epic.” It turns out to be the worst Iceland has seen in over two decades.
It’d be hard to spoil the rest because most of what it offers cannot be described in words. Even at age 33, Burkard’s self-taught eye for the sublime has long been on display on magazine stands. Although he got his start shooting the California surf scene, he has since left the crowded hotspots and honed in on the isolated Arctic, specifically Iceland.
“I’m not trying to get a bunch of stamps in my passport for the sake of it. I want to develop a connection with a place. And to me Iceland is that place,” said Burkard in the seating area outside the two packed Icon theatres streaming his 39-minute documentary.
His photography has catapulted him into Instagram stardom, to whom millions flock for their daily fix of wanderlust. Regardless of his follower count — which jumped from 3.4 to 3.5 million during our interview — the California native said he doesn’t get caught up in the social media hype.
“It was just a platform where I could share shots from trips that didn’t make the final cut. There’s always more to a story or a shoot,” says Burkard. “I don’t bank my business on Instagram because social media is a house of cards.”
Burkard definitely doesn’t come off as a guy who lives for the ‘gram. Yes, his adventures nestle snugly beside ascending Everest and free soloing Yosemite in the category of the nonsensically extreme.
But he’s grounded enough to admit the water in Iceland was cold and will always be cold. The guilt and responsibility of asking people to join him on potentially deadly trips, like the one featured in “Under the Arctic Sky,” weigh heavily on him.
He talks openly of the struggle returning from Arctic exploration to suburban California living “where no one has experienced what you experienced.” And he realizes how frivolous surfing may seem in the grand scheme.
But ultimately, the Burkard spectacle is not about surfing or passport stamps or Instagram likes. It’s about reminding the public, or perhaps a moviegoer in Boston, how much the Arctic has to offer. And how much we all would lose if we let it disappear.