IT'S SNOWING AS we pull our van onto a muddy turnoff on a two-lane coastal highway. With a gloved hand, Pat Millin wipes fog from the passenger-side window and studies the rugged shoreline of the Lofoten Islands, the southern portion of a remote archipelago in northwestern Norway. On the horizon, a storm is pitching 20-knot winds across a gray and tattered ocean. Fifty yards below us, waves lurch and fizzle against the black rocks of the bay's breakwater.
"That's surfable," declares Millin, a 22-year-old pro surfer from San Diego. He pulls a wool cap down over his ears, takes a deep breath, and throws the door open. Through the whistle and thump of freezing wind, I can hear him yell, "I'm going in!"
The ocean doesn't look even vaguely surfable. Millin knows it, but after ten straight hours of creeping over ice-covered roads with our photographer and expedition leader, Yassine Ouhilal, we're desperate. We didn't travel 5,000 miles to sit in a van and drink $7 cups of carry-out coffee (the going rate in Norway). We came to surf above the Arctic Circle.
A few minutes later, Millin and I are outside, shivering naked as we try to push bare feet into snow-flecked wetsuits. "This is stupid," I protest through chattering teeth. "Too late now," Millin smiles. Then he grabs his board, jogs off toward the exploding ocean, and dives in. I wade in behind him, jolted by the electric sting of 40-degree water seeping onto my skin. I watch as Millin drifts south toward the mouth of a 30-story fjord, his torso bobbing on the monochrome horizon. As we fight the current, I can feel the pull to open sea.
"Let's go back!" I shout. Millin nods. Since we got out here, the winds have picked up and the snow has turned to M&M-size balls of hail. We can't even see the shore.
Millin turns and paddles into the rumpled face of a wave, stands, and rides to the inside of a submerged reef before disappearing up the breakwater. I try to follow, but I'm swallowed by an errant wave and thrown into whitewash. We slosh out and run through snow back to the van, both of us with ice-cream headaches and brick-numb feet and hands. Key in ignition, heater full blast, a wrap of a blanket, an exhale, and a rev of the engine and we're back on the road to another beach.
"There are some world-class waves along here," says Ouhilal, who stood by the van and took pictures. "We just need to keep searching." Through the passenger window, I watch as the ocean disappears in a static of snow. Like a TV screen losing its signal, it slowly fades and then it's gone.
WE AREN'T MASOCHISTS, and we didn't come to Norway just to be cold and miserable. We were drawn to these coasts, at 68 degrees north, to hunt for what could be the most perfect, undiscovered cold-water breaks on earth.