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Something About Alaska

Why hire a catalog shooter when you have a coldwater surf sleuth on speed dial?

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It’s a clear day. The day we’ve been waiting for. It’s our most likely shot at groomed surf conditions on the 14-day trip, and the crew is excited to check a left reefbreak deep inside a bay that opens toward the Pacific. 

It’s a dreamy cold-water setup. A waterfall exits into the ocean, cutting a perfect line through the shallow reef. Moss-covered logs lie scattered along the beach, driftwood from distant shores. A brisk offshore wind sweeps around the headland. 

But photographer Chris Burkard has his heart set on a specific image, and the rest of the crew isn’t aware that his artistic vision conflicts with their desire to surf the left. He wants to photograph a right pointbreak backdropped by a volcano. It’s the wave that got him a magazine cover in 2014, and he’s wanted to return to get a better shot of it ever since. A power struggle is brewing. 

After snaking along a muddy track through miles of Aleutian tundra, we park the quads on the edge of a cliff that overlooks the bay. For the first time since we’ve arrived, the sky is blue. The massive, snow-capped volcano looms over the island. Far down the coast, trails of whitewater peel cleanly at the left. But directly in front of us, a set breaks on the soft right point. A debate ensues. The surfers want to check the left up close. It’s likely perfect, they argue, as good as it will get on this trip. Burkard wants to photograph the right, with the volcano. It’s a rare and precious window. 

The surfers exchange befuddled looks. Why would the slopey wave and volcano shot be prioritized over the hollow left? But Burkard’s intensity outweighs their combined opinions. Over and over, he says how incredible the volcano is. When a set approaches, he almost shouts. He says that it’s better than he ever thought it could be. For Burkard, the dream of shooting this exact setup represents years of planning and strategizing. 

Finally, Harrison Roach raises his eyebrows and slowly nods, signaling that he is convinced. Burkard clicks his quad into gear and rips down a steep dune, heading toward the point. 

Eventually, the terrain becomes impassable by vehicle. So begins an almost mile-long hike along the shoreline beneath the cold shadow of a towering rock wall, through marsh, boulders, and slick piles of driftwood logs. Burkard leaves the crew behind, picking his way through the obstacles with single-minded intensity. The others struggle to follow, loaded down with boards, wetsuits, and drybags. Nate Zoller is in the front, with Parker Coffin and Roach close behind. Photographer Ryan Hill, who’s shot with Burkard for years, brings up the rear. The slow pace becomes agonizing when another set pushes through, urging them onward. 

By the time they arrive, suit up, and paddle out, the set they saw from the cliff feels like a mirage. Clouds move in and the wind shifts. The surf is tattered and un-shootable. The surfers return to shore, exhausted and frustrated. Burkard takes a seat on a log next to Coffin. He watches another wave crumble through. 

“It looks terrible out there,” Burkard says. “Let’s head over to the left and see what it’s doing.” 

*

The Aleutian chain comprises 14 large islands and 55 smaller islands that arc down from the Alaska Peninsula toward Russia’s far east. Part of the Ring of Fire, it’s volcanically active and dramatic in every way. A photographer’s dream. Because of its exposure to the Pacific on one side and the Bering Sea on the other, it sits in a prime position for swell. But because it’s also one of the largest storm-generating regions on the planet, it’s plagued by brutal weather. 

In 2009, I spent much of my free time searching for waves in cold and remote places. At some point, I found a weather cam located at an airport on one of the Aleutian Islands, which happened to be pointed at a perfect right pointbreak surrounded by steep mountains. I checked the cam first thing every morning from my home in San Diego. When it was firing, I would post the grainy screenshots to my blog. 

When Burkard and I met to plan our first trip to the Aleutians six years ago, it was my hope to see that wave break. But when we landed, the ocean was flat. At the time, we assumed the pointbreak from the cam might look good on rare occasions and from a distance, but that it wasn’t actually a good wave. We quickly left for an island farther out in the chain. 

On that first trip, Burkard fell in love with the area, saying, as he often does about his favorite locations, “The place is a studio.” 

This is why you go: a wave like an Indo reef pass, functional in a wide variety of conditions. Harrison Roach, leaning into one of the countless barrels in the late afternoon.

In the Aleutians, he was unchained from the restraints of civilization and face-to-face with some of the most raw natural forces on the planet. No guides, no roads, no infrastructure, no outside communication or people to restrict his movement. We hitched rides on prop planes, stashed surfboards down the middle aisle, flew between columns of volcanic smoke, and landed on gravel runways, all while Burkard photographed innumerable surf setups from the sky. He tore around on a quad and went anywhere he wanted. 

What happened on that first trip was unexpected. Perfect surf pumped for days on end. That barometric fluke produced a feature magazine article and a film. But the question remained: Was it just freak luck, or is the place actually consistent? 

Part of my research for that trip included contacting Bob Kemp, who had done a solo journey on foot through the Aleutian Islands in the early 90s. Some time later, he discovered the bay with the left, where he camped for a few months. A black-and-white photo of the surf was published online, which is how I found out about the place. And about Kemp. I often wondered how on earth he had found it. 

Through email correspondence, he shared general details about his trips. But when Burkard’s photos appeared on the cover of Surfer Magazine, Kemp grew irritated. Kemp was obsessed by the fact that we had documented the place and used Google Earth rather than topographical maps. And, it seemed, scored it better than he did. Over the next ten years, he sent me hundreds of emails. 

Even today, few photographs of these islands exist. The weather, high costs of travel, and restricted access pose a high barrier of entry. But for a photographer, the place is a rare canvas. And throughout Burkard’s career he has shown continuous interest in pushing the creative boundaries of photography in wild places, revealing images that for most are completely off the map. 

Coffin finds rare glassy conditions.

The islands aren’t just visually stun – ning. The scale and power of the planetary forces here elicit an almost spiritual effect. Burkard is drawn by the beauty but also by a deeper connection that he finds difficult to articulate. 

He tries to explain this as he methodically organizes his gear for our latest trip. Burkard packs the least amount needed for the project in order to be as streamlined as possible, while still being able to withstand the harsh elements of the Aleutians. In the weeks leading up to our departure, he references his first experience in the islands: how he’s preparing differently this time, the optimal way he’ll pack his camera gear, and the perfect piece of clothing to match the conditions—a weather-proof outfit that he will wear every day. 

By the end of a two-week trip, most of the electronic gear will have been severely tested (if not damaged) by extreme wind, fluctuating temperatures, mud, debris, and incessant jarring from driving miles of rutted and frozen tracks. 

When the team arrives in Anchorage, they drop off gear in a small airport hangar. Skies are clear, but a storm is brewing a thousand miles away in the replace with islands. Our flight plans are canceled. We’re grounded in the city, far from open-ocean swells. 

Burkard is restless, which means there’s no chance the down day will be uneventful. He contacts a few local friends who regularly surf the tidal wave in Turnagain Arm. Then he rallies the crew, who are thrown off by the sudden change in plans. Borrowing soft tops, they arrive in time for the tide shift, when a bore-generated wave breaks for miles through a narrow inlet surrounded by jagged mountains. 

Before any of the surfers are suited up, Burkard has a drone up in the sky, shooting the inlet from thousands of feet in the air. Hill sets up a second drone on auto-pilot to track the surfers on the wave while he takes stills on a traditional camera setup. There is only one chance at riding the bore, and where it will go is unpredictable, so both photographers push the limits of their gear to maximize coverage. 

“Let’s go! Let’s go!” Burkard yells to the surfers. “The wave could show up at any moment!” 

The photographs are dramatic. Compared to the scale of the surrounding peaks, the surfers riding the strange tidal wave look like ants riding a ripple. They are energized by this unexpected waist-high wave, and return to land with huge grins. 

The next day we get back to the airplane hangar before sunrise. Burkard is anxious to hear about the weather. When the pilot meets him outside, they make a plan to accommodate a new set of weather predictions. Rather than land in one of the harbors and take a fishing boat to the next island, Burkard decides to fly out to a farther island. The choice undoes months of planning, but it’s in these kinds of on-the-ground decisions that Burkard draws energy

We leave the right pointbreak frustrated. But with a few hours left in the day, Burkard fires up his quad and leads the way to the left, cutting through piles of washed-up kelp, splashing through a creek, and rattling across a cobblestone bank. 

As we’d guessed, the left is breaking flawlessly. Sets bump up on the outer section and fold over hollow, reeling along the reef line into the channel. 

The surfers rush into the lineup in a frenzy and the shooters assume their positions along the shoreline. Hill sets up a water housing on top of his quad and swims out to the wave. Burkard positions a drone in the air overlooking the entire setup, then rides his quad to the opposite side of the bay to shoot from an angle that looks directly into the barrel. Throughout the session he hikes the steep hillsides that frame the bay, constantly adjusting his vantage. 

It’s a catalog shoot that has brought Burkard back to this bay, but one would hardly know it. Over the years, he has pursued the subjects and locations that are most interesting to him, and in turn brands fit their campaigns around his expeditions. Symbiotic goals. 

Burkard is smiling. The intensity is gone. He seems at peace, savoring the moment. The surfers are cold and exhausted, eager to get back to the village and warm up after being in their wetsuits the entire day. 

Raw, real, and remote—one foul slip ends the trip. Roach doubles down.

The sun is setting as we leave the setup, and the temperature starts dropping. But the sky is still clear and the volcano is illuminated. From atop a cliff, Burkard spots another left farther up the coast. It looks perfect, but from our distance it’s difficult to be certain. His energy builds again. A set reels down the bank. 

“Look at that one!” he yells. 

He knows that he’s reached the limit of what he can ask of the surfers, but he heads down the dune anyway to scout it from ground level. He quickly lines up an angle that frames the wave with the volcano at its back. To his surprise, the surfers are close behind. They pull up, unpack their boards, and rush into the water as the sunset casts the snow-capped volcano in vivid pink. The wave is not a mirage. The surfers stay out until dark, taking turns air dropping into suck-out tubes that detonate on shallow boulders. 

We’ve scored the volcano left. But there’s also a right slab, which has so far eluded us. The wave was discovered on the trip in 2014. It sits on a waist-deep table of rock nearly 600 yards out to sea. It’s a wave of consequence, raw and unruly in a place where “raw and unruly” takes on heightened meaning. Burkard wants another chance at photographing it. But this leg of the trip is supposed to be over. We’re scheduled to head to the next island. There is debate on whether to stay here longer and hunt the slab, or stick to the plan and move on. We agree to prepare for both. 

That night the crew pack their gear for the plane, leaving aside the items they might need to surf and shoot the slab. Anticipation fills the air. There will only be a short window to surf the wave before the plane takes off. With just one flight a week to and from the island, missing our ride is not an option. 

Nate Zoller with no plan B.

In the morning, Hill takes position on a cliff overlooking the break while Burkard shoots from the shore. They communicate with radios, keeping track of the time. The surfers paddle far out to sea where the wave lurches over a rock, then grinds and spits. Most of the sets are mixed up and unpredictable. But a few break just right. The surfers throw themselves at it, taking on both the clean waves and the larger closeouts. Zoller breaks a board in the process. The shape of the waves becomes more organized just as it’s time to head to the landing strip. 

We barely make it. The runway on the next island sits on the side of a mountain. The weather is foul and we’re in a small prop plane. The pilot says he might not be able to land, in which case we’d have to return to Anchorage and the trip would be over. But he decides to loop around one last time. Then he instructs us to buckle up and hold on to whatever we can. The plane descends rapidly. It veers sideways in a nauseating wobble, skims the surface of the water, then touches down safely. 

We head out on a crabbing boat to pull up crab with Jimmer, an Aleut boat captain. The plan is to ride with him to a neighboring island, but horrible weather quickly kills this plan. As the boat leaves the harbor, the point (the one from my cam) is bending rights around the shoreline. The waves are glassy and clean. Ominous cliffs hang over the break. A rusted shipwreck marks the shallow reef. Burkard calls off the crab pots plan. He directs the captain to park the boat on the inside while the surfers scramble to get their wetsuits on. It’s an unexpected score. 

“Burky luck,” Hill says. 

Apparently, this place does actually get good after all. 

Burkard and Roach catch their flight out. The rest of the team is scheduled for the next one, but because of mechanical issues, the flight is grounded. A drunk man at the tiny airport is at the ticket counter, close to tears. He tells Zoller that he’s been stuck here for four days and just wants to get home. The surfers smirk. All the talk of getting stuck out here for weeks on end has always seemed like an exaggeration. We find a spot at the airport bar and order drinks. 

A few weeks before we arrived, a plane crashed on the runway, killing two people. The accident put the local airline company out of business, and most flights to and from the island were placed on hold. With air travel being the only reliable way to access the island, food shortages became a serious problem. 

By the time we try to leave, travel issues are still being dealt with. Passengers from previous flights are ahead of us on standby, putting us at the bottom of the list. The lady behind the counter informs us that we might not make it out for over a week, thus forcing us to spend Thanksgiving on the island.

The only hotel is called the Big House by locals. It puts up the saltiest fishermen from the area, who stay here before and after they get on and off commercial fishing boats. They work in 30-day stints, risking their lives to make lots of quick money. They are some of the roughest people on earth, complete with face tattoos and metal mouths. On our first night in the hotel, three fishermen overdose on heroin. An ambulance carrying them away wakes us up in the morning. The concierge says it’s a normal situation. 

A storm moves in, further delaying flights. The drunk man from the first day is still drunk. He’s in line, but the flight attendant tells him he’s too drunk to get on the plane. Ultimately, this flight is also canceled. Zoller and Coffin now understand the man’s plight. They all buy each other drinks. 

“Thoughts on this volcano keep me up at night,” says Burkard. “Back in 2000, photos of this wave literally changed my life. So when it popped out briefly, I begged the boys to paddle back out. They surfed until 9 o’clock, bodies aching and tired. But this is why we came here.” Coffin finds the magic frame.

After another four days, the storm finally clears. Zoller and Coffin are set to board their flight. But they check the cam at the right point, and it’s perfect. They drop their bags at the airport, head to the wave, and surf for two hours. Head-high sets curve around from the outside. Coffin compares it to the cove at Rincon. 

The drunk from the airport is in bad shape. He’s in the fetal position on a bench, clutching a bottle of Pedialyte and staring off into the terminal, muttering to himself. Something about Alaska.