From Sea To Frozen Sea
Come with Oli Adams and Vincent Duvignac on a trip to a place where the water is cold, the air is full of white stuff and the food is on the filling side. (See the video on my Vimeo).
Surf trips are always fun. No matter where you’re going. Every journey is to be savoured. When this trip was suggested I was rather excited. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to go for a very long time but never got round to due to it being a) not cheap and b) fickle as all hell. It’s the big gamble, dropping a ton of cash on a flight, rental car and accom when the surf is less consistent than the British summer.
When it’s someone else’s coin buying the flights then this decision is easier. ‘Hell yes. Sign me up. When are we going?’
This was a winter wetsuit shoot for C-Skins; who were more than confident that we’d score the ultimate cold water fun park for our frolics. I wasn’t so sure. Much as I was frothing to go it’s one of those places that’s renowned for epic set-ups but long flat spells. Not to mention frozen seas.
It is the first photo trip I’ve done where the sea being frozen or doing the Slush Puppy wave thing was a genuine concern. And seeing as the slush wave photos that went viral earlier this year were shot at a latitude further south than our destination I wasn’t convinced we’d actually have liquid water to play in.
Leading up to the trip the daily check of the forecast made grim reading. Lingering in the one foot and onshore range with zero degree air and water temps and not a ray of sunshine. Still. It would be nothing if not challenging.
Packing was an issue. Whilst I’m used to running around in the fiercest of British and Northern European winter weather this was a different league all together. Especially when the week leading up to departure showed non-stop snow for the whole week. So with every thermal I own, thick socks, full waterproofs, various down things and a big polar jacket I was ready. For the land at least.
Come airport time Oli Adams and genial Frenchman Vincent Duvignac arrived for the first leg from Heathrow to New York. From there onwards I can’t confirm or deny the destination. But we when we did hit North American airspace the region we flew over had very much frozen seas … and that island was one of our possible destinations.
It was a bit of a wake up call to finally land where we were going at night and see snow … near level with the plane windows. Yes. You did read that right. The perfectly clear runway was like a ruddy big trench in a snowy battlefield. Walls of snow higher than a man lined the airstrip.
We looked at each other in bemusement. The C-Skins crew wanted cold looking photos. We definitely were going to get that.
We then proceeded to get mightily lost before finding our hotel for the night. Snow is cleared from the roads and piled up on the road sides. Making navigation tricky. The next day we sorted a cheap, but cheerful motel for the duration, one which featured a heating system which had one setting: nuclear sauna. Only tempered by opening the windows to sub zero night time temps. But. It would come in handy later on.
Stuff dumped. Boards sorted. Exploration begins. We had limited intel on one area worth checking. We rocked up to a beach car park covered in ice. The beach had three foot of snow on it. The surf was an onshore six-inch dribble and the thick fog made seeing any further than twenty metres all but impossible. Still. At least it wasn’t snowing and the ocean was liquid. Seems they’d had the worst winter in a long time and the affable locals were more than sick of the snow. Especially the 14 feet they’d had that week. For us it was like being in a Christmas movie. Pine trees dusted with snow and ice covered lakes. Weird how we associate snow with Christmas when actual white Christmases are as rare as unicorn poop.
One thing is for sure. If we had the amount of snow they’d had that week the UK would officially give up. Waved a little white flag, hard to see against the snow I know, and curled up in a ball and hibernated until it had melted. There it was no bother. Roads clear, services working, it was not the end of days like it is here when we have a few inches.
That said a plane did crash trying to land in the snow canyon later that week, which did prompt a flurry of worried, and expensive, texts from loved ones concerned about our well-being.
So we got our bearings in our little region of the frozen north and spied a few likely looking set ups. It had a definite glacial feel from a geographical point of view. Lots of low ice sculpted granite hills and bouldery points and barrier beaches backed by lakes. All framed by the endless pine forests. Which are just crying out for some candy canes. It’s a beautiful place in the deep winter, technically spring when we were there but winter wasn’t quite done, it must be stunning in the summer months when the lakes are liquid not solid. All we needed now was some waves.
Bizarrely even though the east side of North America isn’t exactly facing the prime swell window, the lows move away, rather than towards like here, we got lucky. A small low had brewed and the week of one foot and foggy began to look like we might get a few days of ocean going rollers.
Whilst waiting for the swell we mainly ate overly large food portions and drank coffee. It’s amazing how existing at zero degrees, way less with wind chill, gives you an appetite. Thankfully food is something the locals love and do well. We ate like kings.
Finally we got swell. Now we just needed to figure out where to be. Always tricky with limited intel. One point we’d scoped was onshore so we drove on in hope. Thankfully the coast road has ocean views in a lot of places so checking things out was relatively easy. Another potential point was ridable but not exactly worth the trip, looking more like a wonky day in February at home. Whilst debating the merits of this joint eagle-eyed Oli spotted a wave way up the coast. It looked, to his bionic eyes at least, to be offshore and reeling. So we jumped back in the minivan and tootled up the coast. A quick wade across a snowy field and a slow shuffle across a frozen pond, never fun that, and we were staring straight at a super fun left point break. Froth-meters straight to 11. We would’ve run back to the car but it’s really hard to run on either ice or knee deep snow.
The wind was thankfully still, which meant light fog, but lack of wind does wonders for the bearability of being outside all day when it’s arctic conditions. The boys frothed out. Super-long, mega-fun point break walls were rifling through. The hours of travel and days of cold searching were worth it. If we only had this session the journey would’ve been worth it.
The local crew, renowned for being on the heavy side, were stoked to meet us, once they found out we were British and/or French. Seems that two respectful pro guys coming for a wander isn’t the norm. American photo trips apparently get a different kind of welcome as they arrive mob handed and ain’t so humble. We also arrived in deep winter rather than wait for the classic autumnal window. Maps were broken out, other spots pointed out, Xs marked, areas of coast frothed about but plainly and honestly pointed out as being fine to surf but not to shoot. You couldn’t ask for fairer. It’s their place after all. The only request was not to name names. Which we don’t do with any sensitive spots anyway. And if the quality of waves we were getting was what we were allowed to shoot it really does blow your mind what lies in the deeper reaches of the coast.
One long day of surfing and shooting done we were stoked. We’d hit the elusive surf trip luck and got some gold in the can. Anything else would be a bonus.
Next day it was bigger, better and firing. Not just long smashable walls but barrels to be had as well. There’d been a fresh smattering of snow overnight so things were even more photogenic as well. There were a lot of high fives going down. Even the locals were calling it a seven out of ten day. Our response to this was a polite smile and a subtle flaring of the eyes to each other. A ten day must be off the scale.
To try and get a different angle from the day before I yomped up the headland that overlooked the point. Theory being I would just make my way along the ridge and through the small wood and shoot from the top of the point. Reality was very different. Waist deep snow soon put paid to that idea. The kind of snow that has a crust just on the verge of being weight supporting. So you can take a few steps then sink to your crotch. And repeat. I soon figured out I was never going to make the end of the point this way. So I tried the forest. Which had a ice covered frozen floor and impenetrable intertwined branches. Seeing as it was on the edge of the ridge starting to slope down I just slid into it uncontrollably. Suffice to say I did a swear. Or three. I’d wasted 45 minutes and many calories wrestling with the elements without taking a single photo. All I managed was to achieve a ‘dragged through a pine forest on my arse backwards’ look. I finally, sweatily, made my way back down to the point and got shooting. Whilst picking twigs out of my clothes.
It then started snowing. Just a dusting at first. Adding a picturesque icing sugar effect Mary Berry would be proud of. Every half an hour it notched up a level. By the time the boys were done it was a full blizzard. They had to get out because whenever they took off and hit warp speed the snow was blinding them, the brisk offshore carrying the flakes full force into their eye holes.
I couldn’t help but chuckle. I’ve surfed in snow before. I’ve shot in light showers in Scotland before. Never in a blizzard. Suffice to say it’s quite challenging. Especially keeping expensive equipment from dying. You couldn’t think about the cold either. Just appreciate the wonder of it all. Yes it was freezing. Yes we’d been out in it all day. But it wasn’t a problem. The boys were fine in their six mils. That and we had the sauna inferno room to return to. It was stifling but awesome for drying clothes and wetsuits. Not to mention a long day in the outdoors scoring crazy good waves meant a celebratory dinner. We’d nailed it. Such a rare thing to say on any photo trip.
Driving the coast road back was no longer pretty and wintery. It was getting dark. The road was snow covered making it hard to pick where the road stopped and the not road began. Blizzards are pretty and all but fugging scary in a car. We got back to the town we were encamped in and much as we wanted to go home we needed food. And the locals were all carrying on as normal. Not having the ingrained fear of snowpocalypse as we do. Even though it was a borderline white out cars were still turning into one of the joints we’d eaten in so in we went for a dinner of portions fit for giants. When we finally left there was three inches of snow on the van. On the way home we had to stop under a motorway bridge, in the fast lane as it was the place to be, and hack the ice off the windscreen. The snow was literally freezing on the windscreen as we edged along the motorway at 20mph. It was scary. When we finally got back our cheap motel boiler room was a very welcome sight.
The next day the whole place was in full winter wonderland mode. Snow blanketed the world. With one critical difference: the dank perma-grey sky had gone and been replaced by a fiery ball of light hanging in the blue sky. It. Was. Sunny.
Wonders never end. Once we’d dug the car out we raced to the right point we’d first checked as the wind looked likely. It was on. Small, but super fun, an outside peak with a Trestles vibe and an inside corner that was zipping like a mini reverse Manu Bay at Raglan. Only downside was getting out there. It was a long walk over either snow covered boulders, ice covered boulders or seaweed covered boulders. Ice boulders are not a thing you ever want to try and deal with.
It was a treat. Shooting and surfing in pleasant sunshine with not a breath of wind. You could even go so far as to call it warm. I didn’t even need to wear my full waterproofs for the first time on the trip. Gloriously bluebird the conditions may have been but when I went for a swim in the brine it was a different story. Now when researching the trip the zero degree water thing hadn’t bothered me. I thought the east coast of England in March was the coldest water ever. How much worse could it be? It was freezing. Literally. If it was freshwater it would’ve been. Now surfing in really cold water ain’t so bad as you’re not immersed in it up to your neck the whole time. Swimming is a different story. I managed an hour before getting out to lay spreadeagled like a rubber seal on a big boulder trying to warm up. The boys could’ve surfed all day. They were flying around all over the place in the fun park rights. The smiles were large. Especially so the next day when we had it to ourselves. Not that the crowd was ever what you’d call a crowd.
Our last day was spent searching for one of the Xs that were marked on our map. Now away from the towns roads become dirt tracks. And dirt tracks post-blizzard are sketchy. Especially in the middle of nowhere and you have a minivan that might have a remote operated tailgate but it sure as shit wasn’t a four wheel drive. So we got as close as we could before deciding that walking in was the sensible option. Abandoned holiday home hamlets didn’t seem like the most likely place to find a tractor to rescue us. We found a hellish looking slab but it wasn’t quite doing it. The adventure of wading through snow and forests to find an X on map was an amusing diversion though.
We’d been so lucky. Snow. Waves. Sunshine. Amazingly friendly folk. Awesome food and a week of laughs and fun times that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. It’s a hell of a trip. Wherever it was.
BIG THANKS TO: C-Skins for hooking the trip up, Oli and Vincent for laughing in the face of blizzards and the locals for being such a friendly mob.