Ten minutes of ecstasy!!

For this blog post, we welcome back our intrepid Arctic correspondent, John Cumberland

Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca; Catholics visit St Peters in Rome; Hindus congregate along the Ganges; Jews wail at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; Mormons trek to Salt Lake City (apart from the one who hopes to become the next US President, he is too busy campaigning) and politicoes attend Party Conferences.

Northshots’ aficionados return to Ballintean and Glenfeshie for their Cairngorms refresher, their spirits to be revived  by the sight and smells of the Caledonian forests, the sprightly River Feshie, the confident golden eagle, the cantankerous capercaillie and the over- exposed red squirrel.

One looks forward to the reassuring welcome from Amanda, the creaking floor above one’s bedroom, the rustic Cairns-carved toilet roll holders, the wet wellies in the stone lobby and, of course, the celebrated red squirrel. Will one be accosted by his agent as one scrambles up to ‘his hide’ and will he demand an even bigger royalty this year as the prima donna squirrel wearies of all this media attention? These are the questions.

As the countdown to our next trip ticks by, the anxieties multiply. Should one  upgrade from the trusty 500mm lens to the ‘big bazooka’, the 600mm? After all, no less than the Prime Minister has stated that we need such a device to solve many of Europe’s woes. Maybe a 600mm lens would improve one’s wildlife reach, but will it focus close enough from the Northshots’ hides on a ‘Crestie’? Cairns always says that ‘equipment is not important’,  but of course, it is – just ask those frustrated amateurs with their diminutive  silver digithingy trying to capture a stork nesting upon a lofty church tower.

Has one prepared a suitable slide show for the after-dinner sessions? Will it all be an anti-climax?  No, Pete will make sure of that as there is always the latest 2020VISION escapade to report.

So much has happened on the photographic front during the past year and snow and ice seem to feature heavily.  Yes, there will be plenty to talk about during those after- dinner sessions.

The memorable experiences during the Northshots trip to Svalbard on MV Origo – see the Northshots blogs around August/September 2011. The tough but productive trip to  the winter mountains of Slovenia (not with Northshots) Perhaps one should be discrete about that one? Sorry Guy! The brilliant northern lights and fabulous arctic landscapes workshop on Senja with Northshots, lead by the charming, thoughtful, attentive and
articulate Niall Benvie and Charlotte Eatough.  I did not believe Cairns knew such nice people!

Our Senja group hit the jackpot on this trip with not only surprising shots of the northern lights on the first night but, on the second night at around 11-30pm,  ten minutes of such electrifying green light that we seemed to be on another planet! Yes, we had nailed it, including the famous ‘dancing curtains’.  At one point, the light burst above the mountain skyline as though a green volcano was erupting! Solar activity is at a high level this year and we had been blessed. The ecstatic cries from our group echoed around the snowy valley and the icy mountains. Niall and Charlotte caught one another eyes and shared a knowing smile. Mission accomplished!

Afterwards, bags  to pack, aircraft to board, stories to share, images to edit, captions to write, slideshows to prepare, Photoshop to curse, even blogs to create. It is hard work, this photography business!

Text & images: John Cumberland.

Does a suicidal gannet constitute a ‘Wildlife Workshop’?

In the second of our special reports from Arctic Norway, correspondent John Cumberland philosophises about philosophy in a philosophical manner.

Location: Still in Svalbard, still August ’11

Floating about in the Zodiac, before Pete’s ‘cold shower’ moment, I was deeply moved by the pinky – brownie – diffused – ethereal light, which softly bathed the nearby icebergs.  The serenity, the calm green water, the rich brown hills overlooking the enormous fjord, the crisp stripes of mist which wreathed around and in between them, the shafts of pale golden light sneaking between the peaks, our home, the M/S Origo, conveniently moored at the ‘golden mean’ for a perfectly composed shot.  It was a landscape photographer’s heaven.

“This is an excellent landscape workshop” I commented to Pete. In a miffed tone he snapped: “This is a wildlife trip, we start landscapes in the autumn,” (it had been a while since we saw our last polar bear; he was tetchy).  Now, we all love Glen Affric in its autumn finery, there is no doubt that it is a beautiful place, but this landscape, rather, icescape, is something else.

Pete twitched. “Fast starboard” he assertively instructed Captain Dan, our Zodiac driver. “Now slow, very slow”. We all strained to see what he was focused on. All I could see were kittiwakes. Now I like kittiwakes as much as the next man but they were hardly cause for the intense concentration that Pete was now displaying. He reached over the side (no, not yet, that was later) and promptly plucked a dead gannet from the water, holding it up triumphantly. It has to be said that it was a healthy-looking dead gannet, but definitely dead. You could tell. Yes, nice but dead.

“It’s a visual metaphor for life and death in the Arctic” said a philosophical Pete.  “You should photograph it with its head pointing towards the hills.”  (The word ‘metaphor’ was heard several times during this trip.  I think it is part of the ‘Philosophy Module’, which comes free with Northshots photo-tours.  Excellent value!)

I think by this time we’d spent too long at sea. As various members of our team leaned precariously over the side composing the dead gannet shot, Swedish Captain Dan (not a man renowned for his humour) piped up. “It reminds me of the Monty Python dead parrot sketch”. We all looked at Dan, then at each other.

‘Why is it here?’ asked one of our team.

‘It came here to commit suicide’ said an authoritative Captain Dan, even more surprisingly. Again, we looked at each other and pondered.

We saw what he was getting at.  After all, it was a ‘Scandinavian Gannet’ and they do that kind of thing in Scandinavia, don’t they?  It’s the long, dark winters. S.A.D. syndrome they call it…and too much Schnapps.  They commit suicide. And so do their gannets.

We returned to the Origo with dead gannet pictures in the can. Pete was happy we’d seen the potential in a sopping wet dead bird, Dan was satisfied that his suspicions of our madness had been confirmed and we all enjoyed coffee and chocolate brownies. The gannet had not died in vain.

This was John Cumberland, Northshots News, The Arctic. Again.

Cairns finally goes over the edge!

A report from our Arctic correspondent, John Cumberland.

Location: Svalbard: August ’11.

We’re happily bobbing around in our Zodiac in the middle of an Arctic fjord against a backdrop of three colossal glaciers that  ‘calve’ noisily and create mini tsunamis with blue icebergs the size of articulated lorries, bouncing around and sometimes rolling over. The water beneath us is a gorgeous shade of aquamarine and a chilly 10C.

Pete, one of our  so-called ‘expert’ guides, is in ‘Viking mode’ sitting on the prow of our flimsy vessel enthusiastically searching out a seal here, a bird there, was that a bear in the distance? Then suddenly, a splash. A very loud splash.  He’s in the water!  He’s actually in the bloody water! His camera and 500mm lens remain on the zodiac, somewhat lonely, on the prow. But Cairns himself is completely submerged!  His lifejacket automatically inflates, just as it should but whilst returning him to the icy surface, nearly throttles him in the process. Chaos reins.  ‘Belfast Annie’, sitting on the starboard side, is in no mood to see our Viking hero float off into oblivion.  Adrenaline pumping, she leans over the side and grabs Pete in the neck region clamping him firmly to the side of the Zodiac.  As her spectacles steam up, Pete is heard to say, over and over again , “Annie, I am trying to get my leg over!”  This sounds to Annie like one of the best offers she’s had in years and so her grip tightens on her Viking hero.  While those of us on the port side balance the Zodiac (and if truth be told take as many pictures as we can), calm Swedish Captain Dan intervenes and soon Pete is safely back on board.

Pete becomes the subject of great concern (that doesn’t stop us taking yet more pictures) but our bedraggled leader remains cheerful and Annie helpfully points out the similarity between Pete’s inflated lifejacket and a ‘Double D’ bra that’s somehow got caught around his neck. Spitting out several mouthfuls of Arctic brine, Pete admits to feeling somewhat foolish, or words to that effect. A hollow, unsympathetic, chuckle is heard from our sister zodiac which Pete immediately recognises as the voice of his (supposedly) best mate, Mark Hamblin. We all vow that he should be next for a dunking!

On returning to the mother ship, Pete is soon restored to warmth and his usual level of exuberance.  Never mind, you can’t have everything!

This was John Cumberland, Northshots News, The Arctic.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are not necessarily shared by Northshots and are clearly those of an individual who derives satisfaction from the misfortune of others.