Early in August, accomplished American photographer Chris Burkard and his crew of three Canadian friends—which included two-time Olympic mountain biker Emily Batty, former professional mountain bike athlete Adam Morka, and adventure sports photographer Eric Batty—set out to bike across Iceland’s farthest eastern point in Dalatangi to the farthest western point in Bjargtangar. The itinerary looked straightforward, but never-before-attempted routes seldom are so. Burkard’s brainchild was put to test after a year of planning. Over the course of nine days, the team traversed 975 kilometres with a total of nearly 40,000 feet of elevation gain, while slicing through the heart of the Nordic island nation. They encountered impassable river crossings, gravel- and sand-filled rocky roads, glaciers, hot springs, volcanic ashes, lava fields and even a moon-like terrain that was once the site of NASA’s astronaut training ground—all while lugging with a 40-kilo bike each. The adventure enthusiasts charted the uncharted, and it was no mean feat.
Much like Burkard’s 3.6 million Instagram followers, I watched the journey unfold in real time, and caught up with the photographer soon after he returned to his base in the U.S. The 34-year-old was 18 when he first started documenting California’s coast on a camera he had borrowed from his then girlfriend, now wife. Since that time, his body of work includes multiple exhibits, nine books and his latest film project, Unnur, an Icelandic surf saga that is an official selection at the Tribeca Film Festival 2020—all of which portray dramatic expanses from different parts of the globe as captured through his artistic lens. In an hour-long telephonic conversation, the photographer discusses his Icelandic feat, the world’s best surfing destinations, and why Pismo Beach—where he is raising his two sons and a family of alpacas on a five-acre farm—will always be a place to call home. Edited excerpts:
What implanted the idea of the Trans-Icelandic bikepacking trip?
Iceland and I have a relationship. I have been there 43 times. About a year ago, I had raced along the famous Ring Road. It was something I had trained for, but I never thought I could actually do it. And then I did. I covered the 1,358-kilometre length while setting a new record for the fastest known time by completing the trip in 52 hours, 36 minutes, and 19 seconds. It was beautiful and the ride took me to some of the most gorgeous parts of the country. But the entire time, I kept thinking there has to be another route that takes you through the remote landscapes as opposed to staying on the national road. I started talking to friends and I got in touch with an Icelandic cartographer. I asked him if there was a route that one could hike, drive or ride along that would take them to the interiors, while allowing them to stay close to the glaciers. He put together a map for us. But ultimately, it was unproven and untested. He didn’t know if it would come through.
What were some of the toughest challenges you and your crew encountered on the journey?
Before we could even get there, we hired expedition guides to scout the place. They did all that they could, and they went to the sections we had been questioning. This is the scary part—there were a couple of rivers that were so deep and fast flowing that even super jeeps, which are designed to cross such terrains, couldn’t get past. How were we supposed to do it with 40-kilo bikes on our backs? That’s when we realised we had to build some workarounds and come up with a Plan B. The goal still remained to keep the route in the purest form.
Eventually, we completed the route we had set out to do. But it created a lot of anxiety. There were mornings when we would wake up without having slept well because we didn’t know which path we were going to take and if we were going to be able to do the line that we set out to do. But I think, in any type of expedition, there are a lot of unknowns. And in many ways, it’s the unknowns that truly keep the journey fun and interesting.
The ideation-to-execution stage took a whole year. How did you train yourself mentally and physically?
You know, luckily this year the pandemic has created one beautiful thing, which is time. In the past, I’ve done cycling events, where you’re riding 650-800 kilometres at a time. But this trip was different. It was all about going fast, and trying to conserve energy. There were a lot of decisions to be made and we didn’t want to ride at night. And so we weren’t pushing beyond 130 kilometres a day.
So, when it came to training, I was riding for about two hours a day, but I was riding with much less intensity, less speed and more weight. I was teaching the muscles to operate in what we call the Zone 2, which is the fat burning stage. You don’t really want to push super hard because you do not want to burn out. And you don’t want to burn up all your glycogen. I would also do a lot of yoga and an hour of strength training. That was mostly for the upper body and it was far more intense. Unlike riding on a smooth road, the terrain in Iceland is rugged. You never know what you’re going to get.
The nature of travel is changing in these unprecedented times. How can you get outdoors and ensure your safety, especially on an international trip?
To be honest, I had no clue if we were going to get into the country. We had started planning this trip a year and a half ago and then the pandemic hit. We had applied for a film permit. And because of my work with the Icelandic government, the projects with the environmental ministry and the tourism, and because of the time I’ve spent there in the past, they honoured it. I was blown away.
Before we left, we all took a COVID-19 test. And I think social responsibility is just the first step. If I had received access to another country, I don’t think I would’ve gone. But Iceland being as isolated and safe as it is, I decided to go a week early and quarantine myself there. I was aware of the testing protocol upon arriving in the country. They have apps to track where you go and then do another test six days later. I relied upon their protocols. I made sure those tests had cleared and I think that’s all we can do. Life and work is not going to stop. This is how I put food on the table for my family. Knowing that I could manage the risk was really helpful overall.
In one of your Instagram posts, you talk about growing up as a small town kid with a single parent who never owned a passport. Cut to today, the world has offered you places that sometimes felt so surreal that you thought they might fade away. How did the journey come about and which destinations have been the most humbling, transformative experiences for you?
(Laughs) You know, it’s funny. I had started my career as a photographer with the intention of just collecting a paycheck and getting stamps on my passport. There was no altruistic pursuit. I grew up right here in Pismo Beach, which is about halfway between San Francisco and L.A. in California, and all I knew was that I wanted to get out of this small town and see what was out there. Seeing my mom trying to make ends meet, I knew what struggle looked like. And I think that gave me a sense of drive, passion and compassion. I took that and I ran with it. My mom instilled a sense of work ethic in me and it is the greatest gift I could ever receive.
Speaking of humbling experiences, I’m going to steal a quote from Yvon Chouinard. “You have a whole life in the outdoors, you realise you have a sense of responsibility to protect these wild places.” And that’s exactly what Iceland has been to me. It’s a beautiful relationship to be able to offer a service in return. The older I get, the more responsible I feel to share deeply meaningful stories of these places. Over the last seven years, one of the things I’ve really put my time into is to protect Iceland’s glacial river systems and its interiors. I made a book about it called At Glacier’s End, for which I have closely worked with the country’s Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources. It aims at showing people what is beyond the six-hour stretch of the coast and why it needs conservation. It is what I am fighting for and something I have tried to add my voice to.
Alaska is another place that I feel strongly feel connected to. It has a really unique environment that feels like it is from another planet. I know it’s in the United States, but it might as well not be.
Your Alaska-based short film, North to the Future, deals with the constant struggle and pain of leaving behind the ones you love in order to experience something new. How has travel changed with kids?
Travel is always a topic of conversation in my house. Early in my career, I realised I could have moved and made more money. But once I started travelling, I knew Pismo Beach was the only place I could call home. It’s where I wanted to raise a family. Having kids and wanting to be there for them is where things have really changed for me. I realised that I needed to prioritise my time with them. I made that film because I wanted people to understand my thought process when it came to deciding to leave (for trips). We have this thought, where when we leave our kids behind, we have to tell them we are sorry, and we don’t really want to go to work. But the reality is far from it. I’m not sad when I leave. I’m excited. And I want for my kids to find something for themselves that they’re so passionate about, that when they leave, they love it.
What I realised with my kids is that being able to spend time together as a family, whether it is by our favourite little river or beach in the neighbourhood is enough. And when you’re little, everything is new and exciting. Introducing them to the world does not need to be an expensive process.
According to you, which are some of the most easily overlooked destinations for adventure and outdoor photography?
I don’t know if they’re easily overlooked. But what I crave for are places with a lot of vertical relief. And what I mean by that is I’m drawn to environments where the mountains meet the ocean. It has a certain degree of intensity which I love. Whether that’s Norway, Alaska, Iceland, or even the coastal mountains of California—I look for that drama, which tends to create such an impact.
Where would you point people towards for some of the best surfing destinations?
If you’re looking for your classic, warm water, beautiful surf trip, there’s really nowhere better than Indonesia, Mexico or Chile. But for me, in order for it to be a successful trip, you need to be going somewhere that truly provides a sense of adventure. It’s going to require a little more drive and effort to get the good waves. New Zealand and parts of Europe such as Spain, the Basque Country, France, and Scotland are excellent. Norway is perhaps one of the most overlooked places in the world for incredible surfs. The farther north you go—especially around October and November—the more rugged and beautiful it gets. You’re underneath huge granite cliffs that have been carved by the waves, and it is formidable and so dreamlike. As a photographer, there is something about the surfing experience that is really unique because what it does is it forces you to feel so insignificant. You’re at the mercy of the ocean, which, of course you cannot control in any capacity.
You had visited India a couple of years ago. Has an instance from the trip stayed with you?
Yes. I had been to Hampi, and had also spent some time in Kerala’s backwaters. And then just off the coast, I had visited the remote Minicoy Island in Lakshadweep. I had never before in my life been anywhere where one religion dominates the culture of that place. The local Muslim community there helped us understand how they built their boats, and it was just fascinating to observe how they lived their daily lives. The one shared experience that I probably won’t forget from that trip was playing with the local kids and surfing in the ocean with them.
Is there a place that you find yourself returning to?
I’ve been to Iceland 43 times. It is mainly because of the environmental issues and my relationships with some of the local people, and because I feel like I can make a difference there. I have been to Norway multiple times and to Alaska six or seven times. While I love the idea of going someplace new, I crave the ability to return to places that I know. It feels like you’re leaving some sort of a legacy behind.
What advice would you give to a budding travel photographer?
Anyone who tries to convince an editor that they can do everything well, often ends up alienating their strengths. As a budding travel photographer, what I would look for is how can I hone my skills into something where I’m a specialist and really good at one particular thing, you know? Because when you’re hired by most magazines, you are hired for your skill set and because you’re the best at something. Find and exploit that niche. That is how I have been able to excel in my career very quickly.
So what’s next on the travel front for you?
A lot of the work that I have is on hold because travel is up in the air. Although I’m limited to where I can go to now, doesn’t mean I’m allowing the stories to become any less meaningful. I’m focusing on the western U.S., the Sierra Nevada range, and Alaska.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.