Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary

Wildlife photography in East Yorkshire

Archive for the tag “Arctic”

Ice-fishing adventure, Alta – Norway

Hauling the sled

Who would have thought that ice-fishing on a frozen lake at -15 C would be so much fun?

I’ve just returned to the warmth of my guest-house after spending the morning fishing, a few kilometres south of Alta, with my guide Børre from the local tour company Glød. I was picked up around 10:00 am from the town centre and we chatted as we drove the short distance to a snow covered golf course—a rather surreal location surrounded by frozen, fresh-water lakes.

Sunrise near Alta

Although the sun had not risen above the horizon it had turned the tops of the surrounding peaks a beautiful salmon pink. Børre gave me instructions on how to put on my snow shoes; not an easy task wearing gloves in the sub-zero temperatures. It felt very strange and distinctly unnatural walking with enormous plates of plastic strapped to my feet; I guess that I walked like a young girl trying on her mother’s high-heeled shoes for the first time!

Børre turned out to be an experienced and confident outdoorsman. He even has his own Husky & sled and explained that he much preferred that method of transport to the modern, noisy snowmobile. Although a native of Alta, Børre had travelled extensively and had just returned from an extended trip to Svalbard, an island between Greenland and Norway. It is famous for its Polar bears and thanks to its duty free status, a place where a bottle of Vodka is cheaper than a litre of milk.

Børre was playing the role of the ‘Husky’ today. I stumbled along in his wake as he effortlessly hauled a bright orange plastic sled on a harness behind him. He pointed out some reindeer tracks in the snow and the point at which a recent dog-sled had almost overturned, as I fumbled with the controls of my camera with numb fingers in the cold, clear mountain air. After a couple of kilometres we reached our destination; a huge twenty-foot teepee constructed of birch spars covered with canvas, with a hole at its apex.

The tent

Drilling the hole

We removed our snow-shoes and Børre and I strode out onto the surface of the frozen lake. Using a huge auger, he drilled a six-inch diameter hole through the thick ice. He handed me a tiny fishing rod and what looked like a large metal ladle with holes in for preventing our hole from freezing-over again.

Børre returned to the tent to light a fire and cook our lunch, whilst I sat on ‘Rudolph’, his affectionate term for an old reindeer hide, and dangled my plastic maggot in the vain hope of enticing a trout or perhaps an arctic char or two. I guess I must have looked like the proverbial garden gnome as I sat patiently and and waited for a bite.

Børre setting-up the tiny fishing rod

An hour our so later, I was summoned back to the tent for lunch of poached salmon and hot coffee. The fish was cooked to perfection and poached in little foil parcels with finely chopped red peppers, tomatoes and onion-grass which we ate with a wooden fork and was quite delicious! The strong black coffee, poured from an old soot-blackened pot that hung above the fire, was very welcome too. We talked about the traditions of the indigenous Sami people and mourned the loss of the traditional skills of fishing and hunting. It was good to see that Børre was doing his best to prolong these skills and educate the younger generation of northern Norway.

Børre cooking lunch

Leaving Børre to tidy up, I retraced my steps to my hole in the ice. Another twenty minutes of fishing and it was time to leave. The sky was still clear but the wind had picked-up and it had gotten noticeably cooler. This was indeed a unique experience and one I would recommend to anyone visiting this area. Børre was an excellent guide and teacher and like most Norwegians I met during my short trip, was highly intelligent and spoke perfect English.

Note: no fish were harmed (or caught) during the duration of this trip!

Please feel free to ‘click’ on any of the above images to see a larger (2048 pixel wide) version.

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Photographing the aurora – Alta, Norway

Aurora - Langfjord, Norway

It’s almost a month now since I returned from a wonderful trip to Alta in Norway. I travelled there alone with the sole intention of photographing the Northern Lights. In hindsight, I was extremely lucky. The conditions during my short stay were almost ideal with clear, star-studded skies almost every night during my ten day stay. I don’t believe that the weather over there has been quite as good since returning to the U.K. I guess those ancient Norse Gods must have been smiling down on me.

Perhaps some of you are wondering why on earth I chose Alta in Norway to spend two weeks of my well-earned, annual vacation? I suspect that privately, even some of my friends think I’m border-line certifiable. Well, there is sound (sort of) logic behind my decision. Let me explain…

Last year, I travelled to Iceland with my Squiver friends and enjoyed the experience. Even though we only got to see the northern lights on one evening, it was spectacular. Far better than the best fireworks display you’ve ever seen and without the smoke and the crowds! Perched precariously on steep and loose glacial moraine and watching the light-show unfold was an amazing experience but one I admit, for which I was totally unprepared. I fumbled with my camera controls in the inky blackness and failed to get a sharp focus on the stars. I struggled getting an adequate exposure and had no time to explore alternative compositions. I was so very envious of my Canadian friends to whom this was second nature and who effortlessly snapped away and produced some absolutely stunning images. I was angry with myself but at the same time, I was hooked!

So, during the past twelve months, I’ve been surfing the web, searching for a location that would be both accessible and scenic and with a stable climate, clear nights and with good prospects of an auroral display. The small city of Alta in the arctic circle appeared to fit all of the above criteria. It was further north than the popular Norwegian city of Tromso and and more importantly to me, it attracted far fewer tourists. Personally, I hate being distracted by large numbers of other photographers all getting in each others way and spoiling my images with the light from their head-torches.

I stayed at the wonderful Baarstua Guesthouse, some fifteen minutes from the centre of Alta. The owner Bente lives in a beautiful family home right opposite the guesthouse and was extremely helpful throughout my stay, giving me plenty of advice and organising taxis and car rental. There is no doubt that Norway is expensive but staying at this guesthouse, equipped with its own small kitchen, enabled me to survive within my budget. I even hired my car from the local franchise of ‘Rent-A- Wreck’.

Aurora streams - Alta

I pre-booked a couple of evening ‘aurora hunts’ through a local adventure company Glød, before I visited Norway. This turned out to be a wise move. The local knowledge and experience of the two guides Anton and Katrina, proved invaluable and gave me the confidence to hire a car and explore the landscape by myself for the remainder of my trip.

Winter in northern Norway is cold. I experienced a range of temperatures from an almost tropical -10 C down to -35 C near Suolovuopmi! You need to dress for the conditions. A down-jacket, insulated boots and thermal underwear are essential. Handling your camera in such temperatures can be difficult. I have never yet found an ideal pair of gloves that would give me the necessary tactility and insulation. At temperatures below -20 C, your skin will begin to freeze in minutes. I thought I’d escaped without injury until small blisters appeared on the pads of each of my finger-tips when I got home. Camera batteries are much less efficient in really cold temperatures. I kept a spare battery in my inside pocket each night, just in case.

Witnessing the aurora for the first time is an almost spiritual experience. Yes, scientists have researched the phenomena and can fully explain the physics behind the spectacle. Nevertheless, the feeling of wonder and awe still remains. I admire both its beauty, rarity and its ephemeralness. To me, photography is all about capturing that unique moment in time; so very different from other media such as film or video.

Visiting Alta has also given me the opportunity of experiencing the polar winter with its unique ‘blue-light’; albeit at the tail-end of the season. Winters back home have become boring. Snowy conditions and minus temperatures are rare and are considered a nuisance rather than an event to be embraced and enjoyed. I like the cold and the ice. Everything appears so much cleaner and brighter. Here’s an excerpt from my daily diary that may give you a flavour of my nocturnal adventures…

Aurora and moonlight - Duggelv

Last night’s aurora was a doozie! For a few minutes, I swear I could have read a newspaper from its bright, green light. It was fantastic to see the winter landscape lit by an alien green glow and see its reflections on the surface of the sea. For a short spell, there was so much activity that I didn’t know which way to point my lens. I even wished that I had a fish-eye lens so I could capture the whole sky! It was stunning.

I set off about 8:00 pm, heading south along the E6 to a previously researched location on the shore of a fjord: one of Slartibartfast’s* award winning designs. I set up my camera in the middle of a snowy field and waited patiently in the deep powder snow. I guess it was below -15 C as my nose hairs tingled with each intake of breath.

After about fifteen minutes, I heard a man approaching me from the local farmhouse. He was curious to know the reason I was stood in the dark in the middle of his field. Satisfied that I was a genuine English eccentric, we chatted about the Aurora and the local wildlife, mostly foxes and otters.

Suddenly, I saw a luminous green light out of the corner of my eye and turned to see the stunning arc of an auroral rainbow spanning the whole sky. I reached for my camera and began to photograph this cosmic spectacle. The farmer tried to continue our conversation but eventually retreated to the warmth of his house when he realised I was totally engaged with my photography.

Aurora over the new Alta Bridge - Norway

I stayed and photographed the aurora for about an hour, trying many different compositions and camera settings whilst the aurora continued to wave and shimmer across the moon-lit sky. Eventually, I returned to my car, fingers frozen; as was the grin across my face. I drove back towards Alta, stopping at several previously researched locations; each time the aurora continued to oblige. I even managed to photograph the auroral lights above the recently completed suspension bridge over the fjord at Kåfjorden—perhaps a first?

* A character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a comedy/science fiction series created by Douglas Adams.

Aurora over Langfjord - Alta

The whole trip was a wonderful experience. My camera equipment (Nikon D4 and D800) operated flawlessly despite the sub-zero temperatures. As I sit here at my desk, listening to the wind blown rain battering against my window, I really wish I was back in Finnmark, Norway.

Aurora - Langfjord, Norway

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