Photography: Ingo Olsen and Elli Magnusson
The "Arctic Surfer"
Iceland is currently in-and-out of below zero temps, seeing just about five to six hours of sunlight a day (during the winter months). Not the ideal conditions for surfing? Ingo Olsen, founder of "Arctic Surfers," would beg to differ.
Hey Ingo, what’s happening man? Wait, is it pronounced “in-go” or “een-go”?
It's ingo, like bingo without the b.
Great (laughs). How are you holding up in Iceland?
Just enjoying a steady winter and storm season over here, trying to stay covid-safe and responsible, you know the deal.
For sure, what are you doing to stay busy?
Doing the most I can. Taking the time I have to fix up our hq and getting ready to travel, surf, and enjoy life.
Is the “busy season” right now, or closer to summer?
In the summertime there's much less swell, but stable weather and longer daylight, so we do stay preoccupied throughout the whole year. It kind of picked up last summer, running a surf school for the locals and building up our stand up paddle excursion in many amazing areas all over the island.
Are there a lot of people taking up lessons now because of the covid down-time?
Surfing is definitely turning on here, a lot of locals have plenty of time with nothing to do. A Costco opened here about three years ago, people are getting wavestorms for $180.
Wavestorms are everywhere, there is always somebody out there on one of them. Let’s backtrack just a bit, could you tell us about your upbringing as a surfer in Iceland?
I was raised by a middle class family, my dad being a police man and my mom being a nurse. Both of my parents were always supportive of my outdoor-based lifestyle. I got my first skateboard when I was ten years old, shortly after I got into ice hockey. With the abundance of snow over here, I always wanted to snowboard, and at the age of fourteen, I got my first board and fell in love with it. I actually got sponsored by the age of fifteen by local shops, later on getting sponsored by Burton Europe when I was nineteen. At the same time I was getting more involved with surfing, treating it as a summertime thing.
That is a lot of activities to be involved in. Was it hard finding people to surf with?
I had a few friends, we all slowly got the hang of it with time. Eventually we ended up traveling to various places in search of good waves.
Do you think the extreme temperature and location of Iceland made it harder to enjoy the waves over there?
Coming back home from surf trips abroad gave my friends and I the realization of Iceland’s potential for quality waves, minus the crowds. It is definitely much more challenging and complicated to score waves here, but the best days always make up for the bad ones. You definitely cannot be a weekend warrior in Iceland, flexibility is important for a surfer here.
I can imagine, especially with extremely volatile weather. So then what brought you to start Arctic Surfers?
When the economy crashed, it was actually affordable to come to Iceland. A few of my friends had various excursions for tourists at the time, from river rafting to glacier guiding. I then got a few qualifications to be a guide for different outdoor activities, simultaneously trying to surf as much as I could. Typically for guides in Iceland, it’s a lot of work with low pay. We made it work though.
Seems like you can’t just get up and go in Iceland. Were you guiding people on surf trips at that time?
I was, but it was not so easy, I still had another full time job. Some tourists would come here for two weeks and not even score a single wave. During our own travels in Iceland, we would occasionally bump into some of these travelers by chance and we would offer them some small tips and pointers; helping them score a wave and improving their technique on land. Afterwards, people would reach out to and thank us for our help and we thought to ourselves, “we could perhaps do this to help cover our gas.”
(Laughs). There you go.
I love Iceland, but it’s a really expensive place. We all work way too much to provide for our families. It’s the harsh reality of living here. So yeah, this was an opportunity for us to travel and to show others the beauty of our country.
Mutually beneficial, love it. I really respect you guys for teaching people how to enjoy surfing, even if all the cards are against you. What are some of the challenges in that process, lack of swell, cold temperatures, etc.?
Definitely not a lack of swell (laughs), we could have 20 foot swells in just a day or two. Also our weather is always moving around, mostly cold. When we were starting, our equipment wasn’t nearly as good. Our wetsuits would only give us enough warmth for an hour or so. Now you can surf in the high winter, you just need the right know-how and equipment. That is a challenge for many tourists, they underestimate the weather.
With a state of constant cold weather, do you incorporate other activities in your tours? Maybe snowboarding or snowmobiling?
You name it...glacier exploration, snorkeling caves, atv’s, overlanding, and all of that. We have way too many hobbies because you never know what the weather will do, it plans out our day like a, b, and c. While I’ve been doing this for a long time, working hard and getting shitty pay, it has shaped me into who I am today. You have to know your stuff definitely, it gives you more experience with people who are visiting. Surfing is just a part of it, the raw nature and culture of Iceland is what makes this place so special.
I can imagine, from dormant volcanoes to glaciers, you guys have it all. What kind of customers do you typically see?
My business model has always been for foreigners, travelers, and people who know how to surf. I haven’t worked much with beginners, mainly because I got into this with the hopes of surfing challenging waves travel and explore Iceland. So we take many intermediate and advanced surfers, get the best waves available, and show them around Iceland as we go. We provide nice accommodations, good food, and really get people to experience our culture.
Wow, I would love to fly out and participate in that. So Ingo, you told us about your upbringing, your day-to-day activities, and Arctic Surfers. Now, what does it look like to be “true to the roots” for you?
In a literal sense, being true to yourself. In my case, I think of this as not being a sellout and doing it for the right and noble reasons. Even though I run a surf business, I still look out for my friends and other people here. I don’t cross the line with the small community of surfers in Iceland, since all the waves are greatly cherished. Nobody has to tell me, I know when enough is enough. Whether it’s running small groups or sharing respect amongst tourists and locals, I make sure there is no bullshit. “True to the roots,” I don't know man. It’s just always been me, I'm just being myself.
And I'm sure everybody knows you as that kind of person. Appreciate the time Ingo, hope to catch some brain-freezing waves with you in the near future. For anybody interested in following the experiences of Arctic Surfers, check out their instagram and click the link below.