Movie News & Reviews

From Pismo to Iceland — This photographer is catching some cold waves in new surfing movie

'Under the Arctic Sky' to play at Fremont Theatre in SLO

Pismo Beach photographer directs the new surfing film "Under the Arctic Sky," which explores surfing in Iceland and will have a screening at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo.
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Pismo Beach photographer directs the new surfing film "Under the Arctic Sky," which explores surfing in Iceland and will have a screening at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo.

Blinding blizzards. Howling wind. Biting cold.

Believe it or not, wild, wintry Iceland is Pismo Beach surf photographer Chris Burkard’s idea of a surfing paradise.

“It’s been … a second home in many ways,” said the Arroyo Grande native, who has traveled there 27 times over 10 years. His latest surf documentary follows six surfers as they journey to a remote corner of Iceland in search of killer waves.

“Under an Arctic Sky” screens Friday at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo as the kickoff to the three-day Wine, Waves & Beyond festival.

An award-winning photographer whose images have appeared in GQ, Surfer and Sunset magazines and other publications, Burkard, 31, has been exploring hard-to-reach surf spots since his early 20s, when he took his first trip to British Columbia and “traded palm trees for pine trees,” he said.

He discovered Iceland about a decade ago while on assignment for Men’s Journal magazine. “I was like, ‘Wow … This is it. There’s nothing better,’ ” Burkard recalled with a chuckle. “I became a little obsessed.”

Shot in December 2015, “Under an Arctic Sky” finds Burkard and his friends — including pro surfers Sam Hammer, Justin Quintal and Timmy Reyes — braving intense cold, near-constant darkness and ice-choked seas in the midst of Iceland’s worst storm in 25 years.

“It was a scary experience,” Burkard said, but one with a bright side. “On the backside of that storm was one of the biggest swells we had ever seen.” “Under an Arctic Sky” features footage of surfers plying those perfect waves at night in the green glow of the Northern Lights.

Justin Quintal prepares to brave the icy waters of northwestern Iceland. Chris Burkard

Q: How did you discover cold-water surfing?

A: I spent most of my career early on going to the same old warm-water locations that most people would. … I realized it was things like Wi-Fi and TV and fine dining that were all of the trappings of places that were heavily touristed. That wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted adventure and I was being sold that but I wasn’t being given that.

So I started to seek out places that were written off as too cold or remote and dangerous to surf.

Q: What was the initial purpose of your trip to Iceland?

A: What we really wanted to do was explore this story about this amazing captain who had sailed the Svalbard (archipelago) and done all these amazing things. … That fell through. We only go two days in the boat with him instead of 10 days.

We basically, against his wishes, went through this storm that was one of the biggest ever.

All we were thinking about is we didn’t want to lose this potential to get something great. … We were kind of stressed. We knew we needed to do (it) so we didn’t come back empty-handed.

Q: Were there times on the trip when you had second thoughts?

A: One-hundred percent. All the time. (chuckles) You know it’s a good trip if you feel that.

Q: What gave you the strength to carry on?

A: If I wanted to be comfortable, I would have stayed home.

I didn’t set out to go to any of those places because I wanted to do things I had done before. I wanted to hopefully try and see something new, experience something new. That’s what we set out to do.

At times it was scary. … Especially after the storm, when Ben (Weiland) the (director of photography) and I were at our lowest – we had invested so much time and energy – it was the guys who said, “Let’s see this through. Let’s do this.” …

The film really shifted to being about the relationships you forge in these wild places.

Heidar Logi and Timmy Reyes ride a sailboat through the waters of Ireland. Chris Burkard Chris Burkard

Q: What was the hardest part of the trip for you?

A: Probably the darkness … and having to deal with (about four hours of) light a day. That was really stressful in many ways. … When you come from San Luis Obispo, California, (where) you have 70-degree weather every day of the year and sunshine, it’s really hard to deal with emotionally.

Q: What special equipment do you need for cold-water surfing?

A: You always need a really thick wetsuit – 5 millimeters or 6 millimeters (thick) with 7-millimeter gloves and booties. (When surfing on the Central Coast, he uses a 3- or 4-millimeter-thick suit.) … That’s where your heat goes the quickest, is your hands and fingers. …

The (surf) sessions don’t last (long) and you have to be so much more aware of your surroundings. The way you get frostbite is by not understanding completely how your body’s reacting. …

That’s one the biggest issues. Warming back up has to be a slow process. It can’t be something you do quickly because you get nerve damage. … (If) you go into a hot shower and you warm up really quickly, that can really be damaging.

Q: Cold-water surfing sounds pretty miserable. Why would anyone want to do this?

A: I agree, 100 percent, (that) there’s no advantage to surfing in conditions like this – other than the fact that you’re in a different place, a new area. The waves are not going to be any better, necessarily.

But that’s not why we set out. … If you’re an alpinist and you want to go climb an unclimbed peak, you don’t look at the peak based on how easy and uncomfortable it’s going to be. You look at it based upon how much a triumph is going to be if you’re able to do it. …

I think that pain is a really important way for us to ultimately get back to a sense of mindfulness. It forces us to be in the moment.

‘Under an Arctic Sky’ showing

6:30 p.m.; doors open at 5:45 p.m.

Fremont Theatre, 1035 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo

$20 (nearly sold out, very limited number of tickets will be sold at the door)

805-556-3306 or

Wine, Waves and Beyond

Proceeds from the festival benefit local nonprofits Still Frothy and Glean SLO.

Highlights include:

  • Barrel to Barrel, 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday: Sample locally crafted wine, beer and food while grooving to the music of Joe Koenig and the Homewreckers at The Cliffs Resort in Pismo Beach. Tickets cost $75, $30 for designated drivers.
  • 805 Surf Contest, 7 a.m. Sunday: Local surfers show off their shortboard and longboard skills at the Pismo Beach Pier. The entry fee for surfers is $30.
  • 805 Classic Beach Party, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday: This free event includes a beer garden, food trucks and a vintage Volkswagen car show, plus music by Boomer Surf Band and Shane Stoneman. (At 10:15 a.m., the vehicles will take an hour-long cruise through town.) Home base is the SeaVenture Beach Hotel & Restaurant in Pismo Beach.

For information, call 805-556-3306 or visit