„Sometimes he pursued the call into the forest, looking for it as though it were a tangible thing, barking softly or defiantly… Irresistible impulses seized him. he would be lying in camp, dozing lazily in the heat of the day, when suddenly his head would lift and his ears cock up, intent and listening, and he would spring on his feet and dash away, and on and on, for hours, though the forest aisles.“
Jack London, The Call of the Wild
One of the most fantastic and spectacular sights the world has to offer is the Aurora Borealis. The first trip got me hooked, this trip was about chasing it again.
But let’s start at the beginning. After two trips to Iceland in our 4×4 pickup truck –the heavily modified Amazebra– we decided to set course to Scandinavia. And as the intention was northern light photography, it could only be a very specific time of the year: in the middle of winter. Which brings a whole set of small and large challenges and resulted in several months of planning and preparation. Not only we had to arrange all necessary transport and accommodation, but also we needed to complement our equipment and further modify the car. I will not go into details here, but the target was to have a fully redundant set for photography and being able to survive two or three days alone in the wilderness in case of an accident under harsh weather conditions as our route included several dirt roads leading to places where we could do our photography undisturbed from human light sources. That meant 2 DSLRs and 3 tripods plus lenses and accessories for both my girlfriend and me, a winch, park heating system, a heater for the diesel filter, spikes and additional headlights for the Amazebra and all necessary clothing sufficient to withstand roughly 40 degrees below zero. We ended up with close to 500 lines in our Excel based packing list.
To make sure we did not need to sleep outside (which we actually did once), all details of the trip were defined in advance, including booking the hotels and all sort of transportation. The cornerstones of our trip brought us from lovely Zurich to Hamburg and Travemünde in Germany, Helsinki and then Inari in Finland, Hammerfest, Honningsvåg, the North Cape, Alta, Tromsø and Bergen in Norway, over the North Sea to Hirtshals in Denmark and then via Wuppertal in Germany back to Zurich again. Including transport by ferry, railway and the amazing Hurtigruten, our major resting place and an opportunity to sort through the thousands of photographs we did. Well, not counting the time we had to cope with some nausea due to the storms we encountered. Otherwise, the agenda was totally tributing all requirements for northern light photography, meaning we slept when we had time available and drove all the necessary distances according to weather forecasts as a clear sky was not quite so common as we hoped and the road conditions were sometimes extremely difficult. In short, it was as close to an adventure as you can get today. At least to our standards.
Yes, we have been successful and had three wonderful nights with the Aurora Borealis. But showing only those pictures would neglect the many sights we encountered on this trip, so let us start with a few impressions we had on our route.
We arrived in Hamburg on the second day of Christmas and were rewarded with not only a fantastic evening, but also a beautiful sunrise on the next day.
After some struggles with the park heating system (which left me with a badly burned hand) in Travemünde, we took the ferry to Helsinki.
Not the ferry (still Travemünde).
This is it… at least a part of it. The Finnlady was pretty big.
One of the benefits when you arrive very early in the morning is the opportunity of having a sunrise available for your photography, but rarely did I encounter one so beautiful as this one which illuminates the fogs of the slowly freezing ocean.
I can totally recommend a trip to Helsinki, there is much to see. Although on this day the thermometer displayed a stiff minus 20 degree (-4 F). Not counting windchill.
By train, we arrived in Rovaniemi, characterized by an overly touristic display of all things related Santa Claus. Still we bought a couple of reindeer skins there – resulting in a remark from customs back on our way to Switzerland which I definitely cannot translate: “Rentiert sich das?”
In Inari we started our actual hunt for the northern lights. My questioning at the hotel’s reception was clearly irritating the staff, as it seemed quite obvious to them that yes, there is no problem going onto the lake and the ice is definitely thick enough. Shown is our largest tripod carrying the DSLR with a very special lens – an 8mm fisheye. More on this later. We had some northern lights, although weak and barely visible to the human eye. Still it was a great start to get used to all the equipment as everything had to be operated in darkness so not to disturb any of the other cameras. Also it resulted in all of the equipment being covered with a substantial layer of ice requiring quite a bit of cleaning afterwards when the cameras and lenses were sufficiently warm again (do not unpack a lens immediately in your hotel room, the condensing water will destroy it).
Up in Finland, driving through the landscape covered in freshly fallen snow one gets remembered how a proper winter should look like.
As expected, the Amazebra shrugged all of this off easily, although the death toll in Finland’s population included a cute snow grouse, certainly an undeserved death owned to the absurdly long breaking distance. Still we felt lucky that the Reindeers we saw crossed the street in a safe distance.
It also gave some protection from surveillance.
In Hammerfest we encountered a rapid increase of temperature due to the gulf stream. Which meant that the roads which were covered in thick ice got even more slippery with all the rain falling onto it – driving became hazardous. The next morning, we equipped all tires with the screw in spikes we brought with us. That gave us at least a minimum of control, still cornering was tricky. We also celebrated New Year’s Eve there, meaning we had a nice bottle of French Champagne we brought into the country and then went to bed way before midnight.
One of the major cornerstones of our trip was a visit to the North Cape, Europe’s most northern point. During winter, it is forbidden to go there individually, it is mandatory to join a convoy lead and followed by a snowplough (seen in the background). We also encountered two students from the Netherlands, they bought a car for 100 Euros just to travel to the Cape and do some northern light photography as well… equipped with some meager insulation and something resembling a bed in the back. Although they already had three accidents and their headlights were in the process of failing completely we suddenly felt well over-prepared. We wished them luck to make the trip unharmed.
The view at the cape was awe inspiring.
I can recommend a visit in winter time and that you avoid the busses, they had a very special kind of tourists which seemed much less interested in the landscape than in their “selfies”. And the looks we got were somewhere in between curiosity and pity… as we obviously were stuck in the medieval times with the huge and heavy equipment we brought. Instead of taking pictures with smartphones and tablets. But as their clothing lacked the necessary insulation it just took around 10 minutes for them to make their escape to the main building and we could concentrate on our photography again.
Although we had breathtaking views to the scenery up there, weather conditions did not allow for a clear night sky. And just to display the kind of ambient light you get when the sun does not rise over the horizon for weeks, this is a display done from the same spot.
First at daylight.
Then in the middle of the night just with some light from the moon (and long exposure time).
Driving down the coast of Norway gave us some more tremendous sights.
Still no northern lights in combination with acceptable weather and we got a little bit worried.
So we decided to upper the ante and we checked out of our hotel in the evening, just to continue driving until we would find acceptable conditions. Still in a direction matching our next target, but nonetheless a night without a hotel bed and no breakfast. And we have been rewarded big time, a beautiful Aurora Borealis from a spot high up in the mountains.
The next morning we somehow made our way to Tromsø, passing mountains lit by a shimmer of dawn and ice covered fjords.
With our base camp set for 5 nights in Tromsø, we had a good starting point for our excursions. First a trip going to some coastal region we knew from a previous vacation where we had some most impressing displays of the northern lights covering close to all of the sky.
As well, this was the night where the fisheye played it’s part. The lens is well over 25 years old and something comparable is not manufactured any more today. It covers an angle of precisely 180 degrees meaning that if pointed straight up, it can picture all of the sky including the landscape around. To better understand these pictures, you need to realize that they show a view straight up and display the complete sky. I made many of those photos, most of them in sequences suitable for timelapse movies. My intention is to get in contact with a planetarium and work with them on a proper show displaying these movies.
Two nights later, we have been incredibly lucky. We drove all night covering close to 300km and decided to call it a day (or night?) and then by sheer coincidence, we looked straight into the sky to find a wonderful and color rich Aurora. Still we had no place to park the car, so we raced through the night (naturally all within the speed limits set by local authorities) in search for an applicable spot. And found it next to a graveyard, there was no other building close, no street lamps and the inhabitants didn’t mind us taking pictures from the sky. Maybe they even found the Zebra an interesting diversion from their rest.
Leaving the northern part of Norway we have still been bid farewell by a very nice Aurora we could observe from the deck of the MS Nordnorge of the Hurtigruten.
Just including a few storms and a breathtaking display of the Norwegian coastline we traveled for three days on this ship. Some harsh winds showed what the sea is capable of.
And we were greeted with the first sunrise after two weeks without. Just thinking about this moment is still very emotional to me.
After all of this we have been quite happy to come home to Zurich, but would not want to miss one single bit of this fabulous trip.