All Photos by Elli Thorr Magnusson
"It's an intriguing thought," an unnamed avatar punches out on a black screen at the outset of "Coldwater Journal," a new Ben Weiland and SURFER film chronicling 10 years of cold water trials, tribulations, and distinctive scores whilst gallivanting around the Arctic. "That perfect waves might be found in the coldest regions on the planet."
Of course, "intriguing" is a subjective term, as it takes a unique surfer-traveller to show more than a passive interest in strapping on snowshoes or jumping on a snowmobile in search of remote, frigid surf. Despite his seemingly niche fascination, however —which began in earnest via the modest blog (remember those?) Arctic Surf—starting with SURFER staff photographer and fellow globetrotter Chris Burkard, Weiland's found many a co-conspirator over the years, including surfers Dane Gudauskas, Sam Hammer, Justin Quintal and Brett Barley.
You were intrigued by the thought of finding waves in the coldest places, early on. Was there anything you’d seen, surf photos or clips-wise that piqued your interest? Who were some of the pioneers that might have come before you, if any?
There were a number of influences that got me interested. I remember seeing a photo in Steve Hawk’s book “Waves”, showing surf in Aleutian Islands. I also read Steve’s surf journal from his trip to Antarctica with Doc Renneker. There was a video about a trip to northern Norway lead by Yassine Ouhilal, Siggi Jonsson’s boat trip to Greenland, Bob Kemp’s solo hiking trip through Alaska, and Doc Renneker’s many recon missions. Reading about these trips opened things up for me. I hadn’t thought about surfing like this before, as having any connection with mountainous, snow covered landscapes. I grew up in a family of skiers, mountaineers, and climbers, and to translate that experience to surfing seemed like a dream come true.
Certainly “intriguing” is a subjective word when it comes to cold water surf exploration–certainly it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. What was the hook for you? Just curiosity? Or were you driven to be the first to scout a certain place?
The hook for me was the mystery of not knowing anything about the Arctic regions. It had a strange, otherworldly appeal, as if you’re looking for waves on the moon. It seemed so distant to what is usually considered to be surf culture. Exploring such isolated places was extremely interesting to me, and it still is. I love the idea of finding waves in a place no one would ever expect.
You found a kindred spirit for these adventures in Chris Burkard. And you’ve since brought more surfers along with you. Is it a special kind of surfer that’s typically interested in jumping on these missions? What kind of advice/warnings do you give newbies?
Exploratory surf trips are not normal surf trips. Overall I’d say there is very little time spent surfing compared to trying to access waves and waiting for the conditions to align. You can’t just be in it for the surfing alone. You have to appreciate the whole experience, the highs and lows. It can feel demoralizing after spending three weeks looking for waves and finding nothing. But that is part of the process. Generally the crew will start with a lot of optimism. But as soon as you arrive, you realize that it’s a lot more challenging than it would seem from looking at maps. It involves coordinating, careful planning, budgeting, negotiating deals with locals, team work, navigating around restricted zones and military bases, and making difficult, last minute decisions.
You’ve now done quite a bit of exploring in these remote areas. Any idea how much potential is left to be unearthed?
“At this point we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg” would be an appropriate cliché to insert here. But it’s true. Most of the trips I’ve been a part of have been 2 weeks long, and you can’t cover a lot of ground in that amount of time. The difficulty with finding surf in these regions is that there is almost no access to the coastlines. The only way is by boat or helicopter. It’s extremely expensive and time consuming to get there and look around, and with such a small window of time, you’re hardly able to make a good assessment of the surf potential in the area. There are still massive amounts of coastline that are still waiting to be explored.
I could see how, for some, after the novelty of this kind of surf experience wears off, that all the hurdles would make them likely to just say, “hey, been there. Done that.” What keeps you going back?
For me these trips aren’t a checklist. There’s something deeply appealing to me about looking for waves that I haven’t figured out how to explain yet. The process itself is what I enjoy doing. There are still so many remote areas of the world left to explore for surf, and I don’t see the draw of that going away any time soon.
“Coldwater Journal” stars Alex Gray, Dane Gudauskas, Timmy Reyes, Sam Hammer, Cyrus Sutton, Keith Malloy and more and is available now at the following sites: iTunes, Vimeo, Xbox, Vudu, Google Play, Amazon.