Surf Alaska

In the remote Kenai Peninsula, Chris Burkard found waves and landscapes that few, if any, have ever surfed. He brought back photos that showed this unique and special place.

Self-taught photographer Chris Burkard calls the ocean his muse. As a senior staff photographer for Surfer Magazine and a project photographer for Patagonia, Burkard has traversed the globe photographing waves, wind and water, and the people who live to work and play with those elements. In May of 2013, Burkard had the chance to visit Alaska, traveling with a small group of surfers by boat, as they explored the Kenai Peninsula for interesting and unfamiliar surf areas. We caught up with Burkard, who filled us in on that experience, his technique and how he kept his gear ready to go while working in that remote location.

Outdoor Photographer: Alaska is hardly the typical location many people think of when they think of surfing. Can you tell us how you got these photos?

Chris Burkard: We did a boat trip there to search for waves throughout the Kenai Peninsula. In Alaska, you’re always looking for opportunities where the weather and the swell are not too harsh. The conditions have to be calm enough to let you in. So for us, it was a matter of going to Alaska in May to get the tail end of the northwest swells that were coming through. We went on a boat called the Milo that’s anchored in Palmer, so we went from there with a captain and a crew, and myself and three surfers. We scoured the Kenai Peninsula looking for little nooks and crannies along the coast, searching for inlets or spots where swells might condense and then create interesting waves, whether it’s a reef or a point break. And (we) got several days of shooting, but when the weather started to deteriorate, we had to call it and come in.

OP: What areas were you in specifically?

CB: Basically we started in Palmer, and went around the Kenai Peninsula searching the coast. As far as the spots we showed up at, it was basically wherever the waves looked best. Some of the spots were on maps, some of them weren’t. Some of them were open. Some of the beaches you couldn’t access any other way than from the water. We’d have to get in dry suits, and get on surfboards and paddle to the beach, and punch the shore break and sort of walk around and explore.

OP: Was the experience gritty or…

CB: It was about as gritty as it gets. Luckily, when we were there, the weather was really nice, but I remember one time loading up and getting into my dry suit, and I had a backpack with $30,000 of camera gear in it, and I was jumping on a surfboard paddling in. There were eight-foot waves, and I was getting hit hard, and hoping nothing was broken and everything was staying dry. When I was going back to the boat, which was about a half mile out from the beach, I remember right as I paddled through the shore break—which is brutal on its own because the dry suit was full of air, which makes it really hard to swim—I saw two orca fins. So, I was just paddling right towards them and hoping they didn’t notice me. That was a little hectic.

OP: What were the shooting techniques that you used?

CB: I didn’t shoot in the water during the trip. I just had to paddle through the water to get to land. When I was there, I was mainly using telephoto lenses to compress the landscape in the background with the foreground. I really wanted to show the surfers in context. I wanted to give them a sense of place. So, whether it was a big snowy peak in the background or whether it was an icy glacier or just trees or something like that, I really wanted to shoot in a way that showed the landscape and created the sense of place.

OP: What did you use in terms of your gear?

CB: I use Nikon. I had Nikon D7100 and a D300s, as well as the 80-400. Typically, when I’m shooting on a trip, I bring a Nikon 600 or a 200-400, but I needed something light and a kit that I could bring to the beach in these conditions in a pack with all of my gear. The 80-400 was crucial for this trip. I also travel with a Sony NEX kit, always. It gives me something for lifestyle moments, and it’s a small camera that I can pull out and use all the time.

OP: I understand that you also used GOAL ZERO solar gear on this trip?

CB: Yes. They’re a sponsor of mine. Basically, any trip I do, I’m off the grid. Ninety percent of the time we’re camping or on boats, so for me, to charge equipment and gear, I have to roll out a solar panel and bring out a Sherpa 150, which works as a full power converter to charge a laptop, other equipment…pretty much everything. And so for me, it’s crucial to keep gear charged, so I can edit and back up images, and make sure my batteries are working, and generally just have everything powered up. So in Alaska, every time I paddled to the beach, I would bring the Goal Zero Sherpa 150, as well. I would just set it up while the sun was there. The only hard part was that in Alaska the sun is pretty limited, so I was using every second of it.