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Blocks of ice litter the beach and float lazily in the churning waves of the Arctic coast. A surfer zips up his wetsuit and holds his short board by his side, staring at the freezing abyss that is the Arctic Circle.
As he enters the water, which is just above freezing, he feels a wind chill of about negative 10 degrees as his blood leaves his fingers, toes and face, rushing to protect his vital organs.
“Hands-down the coldest I’ve ever been in my life,” Chris Burkard, senior staff photographer for Surfer Magazine and project photographer for Patagonia, Inc., said.
The outdoor enthusiast continued: “But even with swollen lips, sunken eyes and cheeks flushed red, I found that this is a place you can actually find great joy.”
To Burkard, joy and suffering cannot exist without each other.
Burkard spoke at the San Luis Obispo Surf and Film Festival in the Fremont Theatre this past Wednesday night, relaying part of a TED talk he gave in March.
“Surf photographer, right?” Burkard shook his head and smiled. “I’m not even sure it’s a real job title. I know my parents definitely didn’t think so when I told them at 19 I was quitting my job to pursue this dream career.”
For Burkard, nothing sounded better than chasing surfers around the world to tropical tourist destinations.
But he soon came to realize the more time he spent in these tourist destinations, the less gratifying it was.
“I set out seeking adventure,” Burkard said. “But what I was finding was only routine.”
Being the college students we are today, there’s something relatable about Burkard’s realization.
We crave those liberating feelings of forging our own paths and finding out what we’re capable of, especially in college.
“I began craving wild, open spaces, and so I started to seek out the places others had written off as too cold, too remote and too dangerous to surf, and that challenge intrigued me,” he said.
Burkard exhibits the wild and free wanderlust we millennials all seem to possess. He wasn’t afraid to follow his intuition of wanting to go his own way.
“I realized that any career, even one as seemingly glamorous as surf photography, has a danger of becoming monotonous,” he said.
So Burkard did what he wanted to do and pursued joy in the most unlikely forms — swimming just inside the Arctic Circle being one of them.
“I realized I had stumbled upon one of the last quiet places. It was somewhere I had felt a connection with the world I knew I would never find on a crowded beach.”
Burkard does what a lot of us fear most: surrendering to the unknown.
Burkard became hooked on surfing and traveling to places with icy water because those places were most remote and unpopulated. Those icy waters taught him the most about joy, suffering and taking the road less traveled (or surfed).
“All the shivering in cold water had actually taught me something: In life, there are no shortcuts to joy,” Burkard said. “Anything that’s worth pursuing is going to require us to suffer. Just a little bit.”
And the most important part, he said: Move forward.
“In any job, any career,” Burkard said. “It’s so important to never get stagnant. Always move. That is the most crucial thing for growth.”