Surfing in 30-Degree Alaskan Waters

scott dickerson
scott dickerson / scott dickerson

Photography by Scott Dickerson
Q&A by Kate Erbland 

Surfers will tell you that surfing is a state of mind. Take the mantra one step further and there’s nothing inherently Californian about the sport: Waves are waves. Even in Alaska. Even in 30-degree water. Even among the snow-capped mountains a helicopter ride away from civilization and its space heaters.

Compared to the air, the water in January along the Alaskan coastline is downright balmy at 28°F to 38°F, but the surfers Scott Dickerson photographed think conditions don’t get much better. High-tech wetsuits are somewhat cozy, so hypothermia isn’t the main worry. As Dickerson told GrindTV, “Help is not usually nearby, and the weather turns violent quickly.”

So why brave the wilderness and the harsh conditions? The beauty, for one thing. The landscape is salve for the soul. The rare waves created by Alaska’s bore tide are part of the draw, too. Bore tides occur when an outgoing channel pushes up against an incoming tidal surge. The waves that result can crest up to 20 feet tall and can carry a surfer for miles. But, as Dickerson puts it, “It’s not all about riding a wave; sometimes the journey there and back is just as exciting.”

The photos he’s captured are a reminder to indulge in the now: We can pine for sun-kissed coastlines a world away, or we can grab the opportunity before us—as inhospitable as it may seem—and embrace it. We spoke with Dickerson about his process—which sometimes includes diving right in to the frigid waters to get the right shot.

Your work is so varied—between these surfing shots where you’re clearly right there in the ocean and these much larger aerial shots—how do you decide what style is right for each project?
It depends on what’s available to me at the time, but just looking at the scene and trying to decide what would portray it the best. Honestly, a lot of times, I’m logistically constrained by not having access to an aerial platform or the current is too strong in the water or it’s getting dark too soon to get all the equipment out to do water shots, so there’s always a lot of kind of unavoidable environmental factors that influence what I choose to do. But really, it’s just trying to look at the scene and decide what is going communicate the experience, not only the best, but in the most creative or unexpected way.

When did you first become interested in photography?
I was home-schooled for half my school years, and we found a note from when I was probably in fourth grade or something and it said “I want to do more photography,” so I guess that’s when it really started! But I started taking it really seriously when I was a sophomore in high school, like sixteen years old. That’s when I was commercial fishing in southeast Alaska, and I was seeing so many beautiful things, I thought they were beautiful, and I wanted to share them with people, but I couldn’t really draw very well and I wasn’t really into writing, so I thought, Wow, I just have to take pictures of all this stuff. That’s kind of where the passion really got started, just documenting rugged beauty in Alaska and just sharing it.

What sort of training did you pursue?
When I came home from that commercial fishing season, I just kept taking photos of my friends, playing around, and then I signed up for a college photography class. It was a darkroom class, so I learned to develop black and white film in the darkroom, and I did that really obsessively for about two years. I turned to digital pretty early on, and started doing it as a business.

What pushed you to make the change to digital from film?
The Nikon D1 was first one that I was aware of. I remember reading about it in my college photography darkroom class, looking at a magazine, thinking, Oh, man, that would be incredible, I could take pictures and I wouldn’t have to develop them myself in this darkroom! I like the darkroom, but when you’re shooting a lot, it becomes really overwhelming, you’re spending all your time in there, so I thought, This is fantastic. I’m going to get one of those as soon as I can! And they were really expensive, but I went for it.

What other artists and photographers influence you and your work?
Most recently, the most influence I’ve probably received—and it’s more just inspiration—is, I was part of the Red Bull Aloom (SP) photo competition. I had a final image in there, it was one of the finalists, and there’s a book that they made from that and a show, and there’s just a lot of really incredible images in there from all around the world. What impresses me the most about them is the unique characteristics of them. The images that I like are the ones that are hard to take, that require physical dedication, as well as patience. It’s a combination of a photographer’s creative skill and, if there’s people involved, their athletic skill or talent, and then also the environment, interesting environmental settings, just strange natural things, or man-made, whatever it might be. The creativity to combine all those elements is what inspires me, and there’s a lot of that in that Red Bull competition.

What has your favorite project been so far?
I don’t know if you can call it a project, because I’ve been doing it for so long and so much, but “Surfing Alaska” is definitely really enjoyable for a number of reasons. I enjoy a really challenging subject and it certainly is a very challenging one. Over the years, that’s one that I’ve just really stuck to and keep working on and keep enjoying.

You can see more of Scott Dickerson's work here.