Discovering and surfing a new spot is very rarely an easy feat. Sure, right place, right time—it can happen, but count yourself exceptionally lucky if you can stumble round a corner and onto something special.
The reality, more often that not, takes time and sacrifice. While swells roll in and break somewhere familiar, instead you find yourself trekking and checking one potential spot, attempting to time tides with the right period, size and direction. And for a lot of us, it could be in the knowledge that someone else already has the correct numbers in the memory bank.
This story from Norway however, takes the dedication and knowledge needed to another level. But it wasn't until we spoke with Australian, Joel Stevenson and local photographer Mats Khalstrom, that we realised just how much time and effort had gone into capturing the image you see below.
So Joel, from Australia to Norway, how long have you been living and surfing in Scandinavia?
I first came to Norway in 2009 after reuniting with a beautiful Norwegian lady I had met in Bali back in ’95. I’m honoured to say that she eventually became my wife. At first, I surfed the only spot I knew close to me, a cobblestone beachbreak but in recent years that all changed.
With the discovery of the Icebox? Talk us through that find.
After moving to Norway I re-connected with Dylan, a childhood friend and fellow Aussie. He also lives here in Norway and together we started surfing and searching for new waves as often as we could, in the tight space of time between work and family. The Icebox was actually discovered during one of our search missions. Quite soon however, Dylan had to leave the Icebox challenge for other commitments, leaving it my hands alone. The Icebox still had a ton of work left, to map and calculate whether or not it was actually surfable.
Soon enough, my perception of Norwegian surf had totally flipped as the Icebox slowly revealed her true form. I started to realise that the wave was as heavy as any wave I’ve ever surfed. It was just the type of wave I had been dreaming about since my full knee dislocation had limited me to a frustratingly conservative approach in average waves.
A mission to the Icebox will take me nearly 8 hours and then I’d spend only something like 1.5 hours in the water actually shooting photos.
Searching for new waves here in Norway includes hours of hiking with binoculars and missing out on good surf elsewhere at known spots. I spend hours studying google maps, wind charts, taking photos and using my GPS to work out all the right conditions for the different spots. Also, in summertime, I take the boat out to free-dive at potential waves, mapping the bottom depths and trying to figure out the swell size needed at that particular spot and if it’s even safe to surf.
And the name? We love it.
Icebox. It came to mind during the first winter season out there. I spent a lot of time doing solo-missions, hiking in below zero temps through snow-covered bush tracks and icy rocks. The wave reminded me of The Box in West Oz, so I suppose this was my own cold version of that wave. It's in a remote area with just a few summer cabins around that are only used during the warmer half of the year. It’s far from medical attention.
Talk us through the first time you managed to get out there and felt ready to surf it. What was that like?
My first surf out there was one of great caution. I only took about six safe-looking waves that day. It was frustrating as I watched crazy barrels go square across that ledge in knee-deep water but I had no clue which waves would suck dry and which ones would be makeable. I later figured out that your best shot of getting properly barrelled is to backdoor the wave, taking of deep behind the ledge. It sucks dry a few metres in front of the take-off, so if you don’t make the wave all the way into the channel, you will be slammed across exposed barnacle and shell-covered rocks. It’s full commitment right from the take-off.
So, difficult to surf and equally difficult to shoot, Mats?
Mats: In the water, my mind is set on two things only — staying warm and staying in position. I like to hang out at the end section where the wave really gets square on the ledge and bends into the channel. It’s a good angle for my 50mm lens, as I don’t have a fisheye dome for my water housing yet. Also here, a lot of water pushes onto and off the ledge, making it a constant effort to stay in place. From time to time, the good old swing-around set will come in wide without warning, forcing me to kick out hard into the channel so that I won’t get washed up on the rocks myself.
He has to be this picky as most of the waves either suck dry or close-out.
During a session lasting one and a half hours, Joel will only ride something like three to four waves… maximum. He has to be this picky as most of the waves either suck dry or close-out. He does his best to avoid a dance on the rocks, putting both his and my patience to the test. But when he finally commits to the drop, he makes it look so easy, putting all of his accumulated skill gained from years of fine-tuning this wave into work. With so few waves ridden per session, I can really feel the pressure not to miss a single shot. So many hours of effort put into those few seconds of action. But in the end, like always, I guess that is what makes it all worth it.
I’ve never shot anything this heavy before. It’s not really comparable to any wave I usually surf or shoot here in Norway. I’d rather compare it to some of the waves one might find in Ireland or Scotland — dark green, heavy water and with her own set of rules to play by. And she’s a real fickle one too.
So what about gear for both of you guys out there? Exposed rock, super heavy water and hours bobbing in the freezing cold.
Joel:In the beginning I was surfing normal PU boards that I was getting shipped over from my brother’s factory, (JS Industries) back in Australia but it didn’t take long before they were all in pieces. So, I decided to start shaping my own boards here in Norway, launching my own surfboard brand called Infusion Surfboards. As I couldn't find any materials in Norway, I imported high quality composites that wouldn’t ding or break so easily in the rugged conditions that Norway seems to dish out. I’m quite pleased with the result so far. Since I started shaping my own boards, I’ve lost plenty of fins and smashed the nose a few times on the ledge, but considering some of the crazy sessions I’ve had out there I still haven’t snapped any boards.
Mats: Gear-wise, I wear 8mm boots to stay warm on my feet, forcing me to use 2XL swim fins. They’re so big it’s quite the effort to just kick around. I wear full mitten gloves too, which is not very practical when I want to adjust the settings on my camera or something. But if not, my fingers numb out and then I can’t feel the shutter button anymore.
Mats says she's a fickle one? Does that mean you don't get too many sessions in Joel?
Icebox is a very fickle wave, that's for sure. It has a very small swell-window, and the chances of aligning a good swell with offshore winds is even smaller. Sometimes I’m lucky and get a good run of waves but other times it’s frustratingly flat for weeks and even months on end. I check the charts several times a day, heading out at every chance I get. There are only a handful of other surfers within an hour’s drive, so mostly I head out alone. My wife is forever asking “are you surfing early tomorrow”? I usually reply, “I’ll set the alarm to three hours before sunrise and make my decision then”.
It’s such a surreal feeling, getting barrelled in a remote area like that, only joined by a few curious seals.
I couldn’t describe in words how much I appreciate her tolerance. I’ve surfed this wave so many times I couldn’t give an exact figure. Hundreds, for sure.
Hundreds...That's a hell of a commitment to a wave I assume is pretty damn hard to get to?
When I started surfing this wave, I had to hike for quite the distance, enough to get a sweat. Then paddle the rest of the way, a good workout paddle. Fortunately, these days I got myself a motor-powered 8ft inflatable to make things easier.
And among those hundreds, are there any particular sessions that stand out?
Over the years, I’ve had some great sessions with a variety of visiting crews that I’ve asked to join me. However, the most epic sessions I’ve had out there are the ones where I’ve scored totally alone. It’s such a surreal feeling, getting barrelled in a remote area like that, only joined by a few curious seals. I’ve surfed Icebox in any condition imaginable, from double overhead barrels in perfect sunny conditions, to days when it was snowing so hard it was difficult to even see the waves. I’ve experienced fog so thick I had to use my GPS to find my way back in the boat, and days when ice-sheets floated in the lineup.
Alone sounds sketchy to say the least. Any close calls?
When I surf out there my senses are on overload, as I know that one mistake could be so critical. I’ve learned to be patient, only taking the waves I feel certain about. Many sessions out there have been through the winter season. The water temp will then drop down to about 2 degrees C and I’ve even had a beautiful clean day surfing when the air temp measured -15 deg C. It was so cold that the entire ocean was frozen from the shoreline and 200m out to sea. As I couldn’t launch my boat, I jogged out along the bush-tracks, adrenaline pumping, as I knew the waves were pumping too.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate not to have any major injuries. Mostly bruises on my ass and a good lump on my head where my board once hit me. I’ve started to wear a helmet in summer-time when I’m not wearing a winter-suit hoodie. Wearing 6mm rubber from head to toe has been a real blessing, giving plenty of protection against the sharp shells that cover the rocks. Since I’m mostly surfing alone out there, I always drop a pin on Google maps to my wife before paddling out. At least she will then know where I am.