Four Weeks In the Arctic, 2013
There was certainly no intention to spend such a large chunk of precious vacation time in this small part of the world, but circumstances have a funny way of doing things. Circumstances usually work against me, but I have to say that this time everything came together. As I look at my images I am reminded of how fortunate I was to be there in those incredible weeks. Knut, the owner of the first house I stayed in, told me that up until the day before I arrived the winter had been kind to them. Now it had started to snow. In fact I don’t think there was a day it didn’t snow while I was there. It added up to what was described as: “the most snow Lofoten had seen in fifty years.” Snow may not be welcomed by those who live in Lofoten; but is something that a photographer, who rarely sees the white stuff, can only dream about.
Initially I had booked just a week there with Northshots and had booked it as early as March the previous year. Next: I’d had a plan to go somewhere with Claire for two weeks over Easter. At the time of booking/planning things I was suffering with a back problem and didn’t want to travel too far, so we decided on Lofoten. After all we’d had a blast there in the summer and both desired to see it in different conditions. Then it dawned on me that I needed to use up my vacation time, I’d not taken any for six months while suffering with my back. So, why not tag another week on and cut down on flights? There it was: two weeks in March, two weeks in April and only eleven days at home in between. When finally planned I was really excited to know I’d have such an extended period of time in one spot, something that’s not happened since my Scottish trips five years ago.
After getting my head around all the permutations the preferred option was to fly into Leknes. There seemed no way of getting to Lofoten in one day from home, so an overnight stay in Oslo was inevitable. On the March journey I stayed at the Radisson Blu Airport Hotel, just a short walk from the terminal. It has decent sized rooms and a really good breakfast. Pricey, as Norway is! I did eat there on the outward journey, but on the homeward leg I walked across to the terminal and bought a sandwich. For the April trip we booked into the Best Western Airport Hotel. Getting there necessitates a shuttle bus (approx £7 each way, very efficient and on time). Once there you are captive to their prices. The website images are the epitome of how the camera lies. We just about managed with the twin on the way out, but were close to suffocating in the small space of the family room (three of us) on the way back.
If arriving from an international flight you need to make sure that any duty free purchases go into a sealed bag at the checkout. Any flights into Oslo mean you have to go through customs, recheck your hold luggage and transit security. You need to allow adequate time for your transfers for this.
Having negotiated this step and having arrived at Bodo, the spot to hop to Leknes, be aware that you may not be able to find the flight. You might need to ask. When you do find the gate try to get in in the aircraft quickly. Seats are not allocated, the overhead bins are small, LOL the aircraft is small. The views as you fly into Lofoten are short lived, as is the whole flight, but on a clear day are memorable.
If you have any anxieties about arriving at Leknes, don’t! It’s tiny. From the car hire desk you can watch for and pick up your baggage from the carousel while filling in the paperwork!
Vehicles and Roads
As I’d originally planned to spend the first week of my trip alone I’d looked for something economical and was greeted at the airport with a Toyota Aygo. Had I known just what the weather conditions were going to be like I may have been more than a little nervous. At the end of the day it did the trick, though had we used this in April we might not have been as lucky. The studded tyres were great for slippery, iced over surfaces and compacted snow. They were not so efficient when there was a thicker layer of slush. In April there had been so much snow that the added ground clearance in our Hyundi ix35 helped us to drive on roads that were less well frequented. The main E10 and roads that service even the smaller communities are ploughed regularly and are drivable. It’s only when you get to the “end of the road” type spots that you will have difficulty. There were one or two places we had visited in the summer that we were not able to access, even on foot we’d have struggled. (Make note to myself to take up cross country skiing).
The stretch of E10 approaching Hamnøy from the north east was perhaps the worst bit of road. Tunnel and other avalanche protection measures were under construction. Combine heavy construction plant, narrowed roads, frequent heavy trucks from the Moskenes ferry and snow when driving the Aygo and you might get an inkling of what it was like. At least I didn’t get stuck in a ditch.
Driving while snowing was at times interesting, particularly after picking up one of our group from Leknes and driving in the dark back to Gimsøy and when not able to see even the bonnet (hood) of the car in daylight!
The range of vehicles available at Leknes is smaller than at Tromsø. If you want a 4X4 you will need to book well in advance and, perhaps, make a special request.
Finding your way around is not difficult but particularly useful to us were the Norge-serien 1:50 000 maps of the region which you can find in the petrol (gas) stations.
I guess this is the point where I hesitate before writing more. People’s tastes and requirements vary, and others may look for something different to myself. We had the experience of staying in four different places and looked at three others. Here I share my findings:
Based on the Northern shores of Gimsoy this may be a little further away from the photo hotspots many may be familiar with. I saw it as an opportunity to explore some different scenes. The biggest draw was that it looked north. There was a streetlight to the front of the house, but you could look into the sky and watch for aurora activity. You could also walk down the road and find spots from which to photograph the same. The house itself is typical of many independent rentals in the more rural areas. It definitely has charm, and I would stay here again.
Don’t let the appearance on their webpage put you off. We found this by looking around when our booked accommodation was unbearable. Based in Fredvang and over the “two bridges” from Ramberg it has a wonderful location. It looks over the harbour where: you can watch the fishing boats come and go, watch for wildlife (otters and eagles being the gems), and buy fresh fish. There are some great spots to photograph within an easy 5-15 minute drive. There are four apartments in all, two with two bedrooms and two with one bedroom. Very clean and warm and with wi-fi.
This is another spot I have on the “will return to” list.
The Sjøhus next door can sleep up to 50 people in more communal facilities. Rooms vary in size, there are 3 kitchens and bathrooms are shared. I think it is popular in summer, but little used in the winter.
This was the chosen accommodation for the Northshots trip. The cabin I stayed in was warm and very spacious, the bathroom a real luxury with it’s very heated floor. There were two bedrooms, one upstairs. Through the ceiling you could see the light from the upstairs room and soundproofing between the two was non-existent. The cabins are spaced out around the harbour and from those further away it could be quite a hike in inclement conditions to the restaurant. The restaurant is situated in a separate building along with reception. In the winter the restaurant will only serve meals if they have a certain number of bookings for it. I’d like to say six at least but I may be wrong. While we were there the place seemed to be staffed just by the manager Sarah, who did everything from getting the cabins ready, to serving meals and clearing pathways of snow. We had one quite prolonged power cut there during our stay, it affected most of the region. The unfortunate consequence was that it cut off the water supply too, this was slower to return soon.
Reine is a very picturesque location. You can wander from your cabin in the early light of dawn and find something to point your lens at. At night you can see the aurora, but you will be plagued by light pollution (that is unless there is a power cut). The downside to Reine is being close to the end of the road, it means you always travel out in the same direction and the more you explore the more you have to drive.
I’m not sure if this house has a name but it was one we found during the usual web trawl. We got a good price and some helpful advice from the owner with regard to alternative car rental options. I’m sorry to say that the house was well below any expectations. It was dirty, the bathroom was small and unventilated, and electricity was a nightmare. After arriving we set about getting a meal ready only to blow the main fuse when we tried to boil the kettle while using the oven. The fuse box was in the attic and we had no means of getting to it. The place did nothing to endear itself to us overnight and we spent the afternoon after our arrival hunting out alternatives.
This was one of the alternatives we found when disappointed with the house in Skjelfjord. The only thing that let it down for us was the limited self catering facilities – small kitchenette – and that we would need to book two cabins to hold three of us and gear. It’s right next to the beach in Ramberg though and the restaurant, surprisingly for the time of year, was open. A short walk takes you to the local supermarket and harbour.
Another of the places we found while looking for an alternative to Skjelfjord.
As we drove by I had a memory of seeing this during the summer. I jumped out and someone came to the door. The guy was looking after the place and answered in the affirmative when we asked if there were rooms for rent. It was lovely and I was told we would be able to use the kitchen. As he was staying there were only 2 rooms for rent and we would have had to share the bathroom, and we would likely disturb him by our weird hours. After some humming and ahhing we decided against it. The website does say that the house can be rented outside the “season” so it may be worth enquiring.
Gimsoy Church Cabin
Unable to drive down to the church (snow!) we had, we hoped, parked considerately. We returned to be stopped by a man who said he’d left a note on our car. It turned out he’d left a note telling us about his cabin just 50 metres away. Naturally when he asked if we wanted to see it we jumped at the chance. We helped him carry some building material down a 12 inch wide track he’d made through the snow and marked out with poles. The cabin was tiny. The bedroom was a kind of sleeping loft (not sure of the bed arrangement but you wouldn’t want to sleep more than two here) open to the downstairs. Somewhat primitive but there is: a bathroom, kitchen facilities, hot water and a view. I don’t think I would stay there, not in winter. In the summer though: the view of the midnight sun, to sit on the deck, to be able to wander down to the church and foreshore to wildlife watch is tempting. (No website just a name and phone number : Johnny Kløften, +47 476 21301).
This is my preferred option when away, as always it means you can come and go as you please. During the summer we got by on a very limited diet, and were dreaming about something other than lettuce leaves by the end. Within a very short distance from the airport you arrive in Leknes where you will find decent size supermarkets. Just beware: the prices, the limited fresh food and the Norwegian language. It can make what might normally be an easy task difficult. A little more prepared this time we armed ourselves with teabags and “packet mixes” to liven up our culinary repertoire.
The day I arrived in March was heart achingly beautiful. Covered in fresh fallen snow and with only a whisper of a breeze the place sparkled. The drive to Gimsøya was full of temptation, but at this point the tripod was deep in my suitcase along with my boots. Arriving at the charming house in Hov all I could do was unpack and take a short walk before darkness and snow fell. This first week was perhaps the least productive for I was really finding my feet with the conditions and the location. I was blessed with one heart stopping aurora display and like a kid in a toyshop I didn’t know which way to turn. The view of the barn outside the kitchen window was one I never tired of either in this first visit, nor in the second with Claire. The ever changing light was remarkable.
The ever changing light was the feature of the second week (Northshots trip). Between snow showers/blizzards we all jumped in and out of the bus, many times in places we may have ignored. The early morning was used to explore the area around the harbour at Reine, then after breakfast out we went, not returning until well after dark. Most days we had in mind where we would end up at sunset, but the journey to get there was dictated by the light. It did seem that the best light this week was during the day, nights were spoiled by cloud and attempts at aurora photography were hindered. I was pleased to see that somewhere in these attempts you can see the Milky Way!
The third week I arrived with Claire and I returned with her to the house in Hov. What utter joy to still see snow, what amazement to see just how much more had fallen since I left in March. Knut had been religiously digging the snow to keep the parking area open from the road and to keep a path to the door. I could not believe how deep the snow was. Some vehicles were literally buried, with people digging them out from above. When Claire went down to Reine she said it looked as if they had given up even trying to keep any semblance of normality. This snow was the backdrop to our images that week. Now with new enthusiasm we searched out new locations. Now with new enthusiasm we watched the night sky and we planned.
Despite a disappointing start with accommodation the final week was packed with activity. With a good aurora forecast and the promise of clear skies there was one item that was the focus of the week. We planned and we schemed trying to find a location free of light pollution. The window of opportunity was narrow as darkness does not truly fall at this time of year. We lost astronomical twilight while there, so the horizon kept the glow of the sun, the aurora was going to have to be bright to see it. But we did see it, and boy did we have to work to get it.
I now have a pair of Arctic Muckboots and I don’t know how I would have got by without them. They are impervious to water, so ideal for being in the sea and are WARM.
You have to accept that you are going to look like the Michelin Man and your mobility may be hindered because of it. A lot of the time, when photographing, you’re not moving much. On those really cold nights, when the aurora is up to its tricks you really don’t want to be cold.
My layers were:
Top: merino wool base layer, merino wool mid layer with a down jacket and insulated ski jacket
Lower half: again merino wool base layer, Polartec powerstretch fleece leggings, insulated ski pants and Paramo insulated over trousers.
Beneath all this I only needed one pair of socks inside the boots.
Hands had merino wool glove liners and mittens with fingers by Leki on top. Inside these mittens would be disposable hand warmers.
A scarf and a fleece lined, knitted hat topped the ensemble.
This was dressing for night time and at the end of one particular night even this was not enough.
I’ve spoken about this in a previous article as has Claire so you can see here and here for other tips. The most infuriating event this trip was frosting of the lens. On an extremely cold night on Gimsøy when the aurora was putting on a fantastic display I could see from the LCD images that things were getting blurred. I ignored it for a while thinking it was my breath on the back of the camera. When I looked at the lens my frozen look must have mirrored what I saw. As fast as you tried to clean it away it was reforming. In retrospect I think it was the moisture from my gloves in the magic cloth technique. We had been out of the vehicle for some time before this happened so I don’t think it was the transition from a warmer environment.
Whatever you do, try not to go by the LCD image for exposure. You are photographing in the dark, your LCD screen is going to appear bright. Use the histogram or you will end up trying to brighten your images up in post processing which will not always work.
If you are going to be with other photographers then really make sure you know how to use your camera. If you are having difficulty then get yourself right out of the way, where you can use your torch without spoiling shots for others.
It really does pay to scout out your spot in daylight and work out compositions. Be aware that if by the sea your composition will be altered by the tide so try to visit when tide levels will be similar.
There are, of course, iconic locations that you will want to visit. It really does pay to explore and find something different. This winter made it more difficult as so many spots that you might park and wander from were up to head height in snow with no parking possible. Wherever you can see somewhere to park it’s worth doing just that and venturing out.
Shoot on sight
How many times have you said to yourself, I must get one of that the next time I go by? There were so many unique scenes/sights left unrecorded by my lens that I could now kick myself.
It was painful to leave. We spent our last evening on the local beach with, once more, some amazing light. The next day saw us packing, cleaning up and heading back to Oslo. Here there was one final moment of excitement; the aurora forecast had changed, was a level 5. There we were stuck with no vehicle in the glow of the airport lights. We walked outside and tried but nothing to see. We walked back into the hotel lobby and consoled ourselves with a £10 beer, knowing that the dream was over and the thaw was on its way.
If you would like to experience something similar see Northshots, Winter @68 North
Online map useful for scouting out places before you go, has some terrific aerial detail.