To get to a remote beach on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, surf photographer Chris Burkard and six buddies boarded a 40-year-old helicopter that rattled precariously and reeked of fuel as it lumbered through the rugged, mountainous terrain.
“That’s probably one of the most sketchy things I’ve ever done,” says Burkard, an Arroyo Grande native. “They said every couple of weeks one goes down because they’re old Russian military choppers. It’s so scary to be inside — it feels like a tank taking off.”
Even if the chopper did make it, the gang of adventure seekers faced another uncertainty once they reached their desolate destination:
Would there be surf?
At just 27, Burkard, a photographer for Surfer magazine, has traveled the world, capturing waves, surfers and landscapes most will never witness.
Burkard and buddy Ben Weiland had researched Kamchatka for a couple of years. And while maps and photos suggested it might have surfable waves, that was just a guess. Arctic places such as Kamchatka don’t exactly appear on the surf radar for obvious reasons — including 42-degree water temperatures.
“For me the goal has always been to go farther,” Burkard says. “To go deeper and explore more and try to find something people haven’t uncovered.”
In his new book, “Distant Shores: Surfing the Ends of the Earth” (Ammo Books, $39.95), Burkard shows how far he’s gone with stunning visuals of surf breaks in unlikely places, including Iceland, Norway and Alaska. This month, he returned from his most recent trip to Iceland.
“I’ve been there 11 times,” he says. “It’s such a special place for me.”
Burkard published his first book, “The California Surf Project,” with buddy Eric Soderquist in 2009. Earlier this year, he also published “The Plight of the Torpedo People,” a book of mostly underwater photos made in conjunction with the bodysurfing film “Come Hell or High Water.” And his recent DVD, “Russia,” includes a 85-page booklet of color photos.
In each of his books, Burkard says, he invites the reader to fantasize through his lens.
“I don’t want a book that’s just there to celebrate my photography, but more like something that lets you escape,” he says.
Sitting in his spacious, two-story Grover Beach office a couple of days before Christmas, Burkard is barefoot, his hair still tousled from having checked out the surf in Cayucos that morning.
Surrounded by enlarged prints highlighting his work, he continually checks his text messages as his three assistants work upstairs.
“I’ve been on a crazy mission this year,” he says.
He starts to list some of the places he’s visited in the past 12 months — Iceland three times, Alaska twice, Nova Scotia, the Carribbean — then he struggles to remember others. “Sometimes it all starts to blur together.”
While Burkard has shot photos in exotic places surfers dream about — Bali, Costa Rica and Thailand, to name a few — he waxes most poetically about locations few would dare visit. And, to top it off, he prefers to travel to these places under more extreme conditions.
“A lot of these Arctic places, people have always gone in the summer,” he says.
He prefers fall and winter, when chunks of icebergs wash up to beaches, reflecting off the blue sea like glass art pieces.
“It’s a little more brutal, and the conditions are harsher, but it tends to give us better opportunities,” he says. In Iceland, he says, he and his surfing subjects had to avoid large chunks of ice just under the water’s surface.
“It’s almost like a purgatory,” he says. “Because you’re really suffering for the craft. But I love being at the beach when it’s negative 11. It’s freezing cold outside, and every part of you is cramping up because it’s so cold. And you feel like you’re really living it.”
The large-format book with no text (save for an interview with Burkard in the intro) features photos from six different places, including Japan, India, Chile and Nicaragua. But the icy locations provide some of the most visually intriguing images.
In a section on Norway, Burkard’s photos depict surfers trudging through snow, the surreal Northern Lights and a remote cabin surrounded by big banks of snow that Burkard stayed in.
“They had roads that go everywhere,” Burkard says. “But they had gotten, like, 12 feet of snow drifts, so the roads were nonexistent. So we rented snowmobiles, and took them on this 15-mile route out to these cabins and stayed at these beach places.”
Places like Iceland and Kamchatka, Russia, don’t offer cell phone or Internet options, and the closest hint of civilization might be an hour or more away. So whatever Burkard needs has to be packed.
“If you’re not prepared, then you really shouldn’t be there, you know?” Burkard says. “At least that’s my mantra.”
Thumbing through a copy of his book, Burkard smiles as if seeing the photos for the first time.
“It’s cool for me to look through it and see these little memories,” he says.
While some of those trips were commissioned by surfing magazines, during the past three years Burkard has transitioned more toward commercial work, shooting for companies like Jeep and Toyota.
“That’s really for me what pays the bills nowadays,” he says.
And the three assistants, who perform social media functions, process photos and occasionally travel to help Burkard on photo shoots. Even when working for ad campaigns, Burkard shoots in far-away places, appealing to consumer wanderlust.
“The name of the game for me has been documenting adventure travel and trying to appeal to that,” he says.
After a half-hour interview, one of Burkard’s assistants yells, unseen, down a stairwell. “Hey, Chris, remember that call you’re taking at, like, 11:30?”
“Uh, yeah — OK,” Burkard says. Then, apologetically, to his interviewer: “I’ve got a bunch of calls today. It’s just kind of a crazy schedule prior to Christmas.”
One of the final questions he answers is one he gets often: Where to next? He wants to return to Norway — perhaps in the spring.
But he and his wife just bought a house in Grover Beach, and they are expecting their second child. So for a while anyway, he plans to stay at home with family. None of his international travels, he says, compares to that.
“It’s the greatest thing in the world,” he says.