Lofoten 2015

Any tour guide with even half a conscience will recognise the gut-wrenching feeling of lying in bed listening to the wind howling and the rain pounding outside. If it happens once or twice on a tour, the guests will likely sympathise but night after night and I start to stress. Arctic Norway is never going to be straightforward in winter and that’s why we go, but a constant near-gale south-westerly with all that it brings, isn’t good news.

Continue reading “Lofoten 2015”

Languid Lofoten

You would think that even in these days of meteorological uncertainty, snow above the Arctic Circle could be relied upon in February. Alas no. The normally snow-laden Lofoten Islands in northern Norway were bare this year; naked; bereft of their white mantle; lacking in the wow factor that I’ve become accustomed to. Still, there’s no point in griping (although I’ve always found it helps), one has to do one’s best. Continue reading “Languid Lofoten”

Lofoten in winter…and some!

The look on his face said it all. Fixing the icy strap to the front of his icy bucket, his eyes rolled as he climbed back in the icy cab of the monstrous snowplough before pulling my little tin box of a van from the snowdrift in just a matter of seconds. I wanted to explain about the fantastic light and the need to seize the moment; I wanted to tell him that the bus stop was the only place to pull off the road but I decided just to shake his hand and offer a sheepish “tack”. Bloody tourists.

The Lofoten Islands are part of Norway’s rugged northwest coastline, hanging out into the sea catching all manner of weather full in the face. If you don’t like weather – all sorts of it – don’t come here. It’s a roller coaster: snow that stings your face one minute, sun that blinds you the next. But then that’s the deal and if you accept the terms, this can be one of the most exciting landscape photography locations anywhere. Saw-toothed snow-cloaked mountains rise vertically from the sea; secluded coastal inlets cosset sandy beaches lapped by aquamarine waters and most of all, arctic light. At times, arctic light like I’ve never seen before.

Any landscape photographer worth their salt (that’s me out then) will tell you it’s all about light and that’s because it is. I told our tour group this as we travelled the blizzardous road from the airport to our base in Reine but at the time, even I didn’t expect four days of such intense photographic drama and sublime light.

This tour booked up quickly, no doubt due to the potential for some spectacular aurora photography. We weren’t that lucky in the lights department if truth be told, but the drama that unfolded each day more than compensated. I don’t think I can remember as productive a short period in a very long time.

I hope you like the images and they offer a glimpse into one of the rising stars on the landscape photography circuit. Lofoten smells of fish (obsessed with cod, the Norwegians) and fried cod tongues are definitely not for me but then, I can live on a diet of light, drama and mood – real fuel for the soul. This place is straight up my photographic street. Don’t expect fancy hotels and cosy coffee parlours but do expect drama.

My thanks to our hardy group who were deprived of sleep but still managed to maintain good humour and in a separate incident to the bus stop drama, the energy to help dig the van out of a ditch after a near miss with a 40-tonne Scania. Bagman Alex, Arla, Jackie, John, Kin, Dangerous Mel, Paul and Pauline – all top people and damned fine photographers. We’ll be doing it all again next year if you fancy joining us for a winter bout of wild and wonderful. Book here.

Svalbard Photo Tour 2012

Surreal. It was 3am and I’d been up all night scanning the sun-kissed horizon for bears. Alongside me, Jean, one of our hardy group, with binoculars glued to his eyes. The sea was calm, the sun playing with the ocean’s surface and all was well with the world. “I think I have a bear,” said Jean and he pointed far across the ice. Although tiny at this distance,  the familiar cream-on-white combination revealed it was indeed a polar bear. With the rest of the group sleeping we delayed an announcement until we were sure we could get close enough for picture-taking. An hour later all hell broke loose. “Bear on a seal kill” I yelled through every cabin door. In 15 minutes the sound of motordrives echoed around the arctic. Like I said, surreal.

Polar Bear in snow, SvalbardPolar Bear rolling in snow, SvalbardPolar Bear in snow, Svalbard

‘Surreal’ is certainly one word to describe this arctic wilderness. Another is ‘fickle’. Moody, broody, mean and cruel; bright and giving, humbling, cool. Svalbard is an emotional and physical roller coaster and the Northshots tour group of 2012 rode it to its full extent.

Sea ice, SvalbardSea ice, Svalbard

I know from previous experience and from that of other operators in the area that even 260 hours of daylight during any one trip is no guarantee of photographic success. The weather, the light, the vastness of this place and the relative scarcity of wildlife – these all conspire to make Svalbard what it is: a demanding place that rewards infrequently but rewards well. Our rewards included 23 polar bear sightings, around the same number of humpback whales – some just metres from the ship, close encounters with walrus, calving glaciers, dramatic icescapes, little auks, fulmars, ivory gulls, blue, fin and minke whales and a delightful arctic fox family. Not a bad haul from a tour that had its fair share of less-than-ideal weather.

SvalbardSvalbardSvalbardArctic fox, SvalbardWalrus, SvalbardWalrus, Svalbard

What makes this trip unique amongst its competitors is our good ship M/S Origo with its ever-obliging crew. It might not look like a luxury liner but its homely and more importantly, accommodates just 12 passengers giving everyone their own cabin and lots of room for on-deck photography. Zodiacs can be launched in the blink of an eye allowing complete flexibility. In my view, along with its sister ship M/S Stockholm, there is no better way to photograph Svalbard than from Origo.

SvalbardNorthshots Photo Tour guests on M/S Origo, SvalbardCaptain Gill, SvalbardCaptain Gill at the wheel.

And so our arctic adventure for 2012 comes to an end. 80gb of images is the obvious produce from 10 days at sea but perhaps more than the digital images, it is the mental images that will leave the strongest legacy. The arctic is perhaps not for everyone but if you like the unpredictable, the surreal, the silence, the noise, the peace and the pandemonium, get yourself to Svalbard – it will get in your blood.

Arctic fox, SvalbardSvalbardSvalbardSvalbardPolar bear on sea ice, SvalbardHave you spotted the bear?

Thanks as ever to our guests on this tour, thanks to Chris Srigley for his invaluable help and thanks to the crew of Origo – top job!

Our 2013 Svalbard tour is now open for bookings – looking forward to more arctic adventures!


Helena Spinks was one of four intrepid photographers who recently attended our ‘Arctic Icons’ tour in Norway. Here Helena relates the roller coaster of emotions that is wildlife photography in extreme conditions.

When I first considered the Northshots Musk Oxen tour to Norway I was concerned it would be too tough. However, I was desperate to photograph these iconic animals so I convinced myself I had plenty of time to improve my fitness and prepare myself for my biggest challenge yet.  But, as the weeks and months went by and the intended visits to the gym didn’t happen, it dawned on me as our departure grew closer that I should have been a LOT fitter.  I was apprehensive to say the least!  To make matters worse, whilst traveling on the Arctic Odyssey tour a week previously, Niall Benvie mentioned he’d been on a similar trip.  Excellent, the chance for some inside information and hopefully my mind put to rest. “How was it?” I asked.  “Great” he replied “but it nearly killed me”.  At first I thought he was joking but I soon realised he was not – my stomach churned.   This time perhaps I really had bitten off more than I could chew.  However, he went on to explain it was due to the lack of correct clothing rather than fitness.   So, I kitted myself out with some extra warm gear and worked on my mantra “I can do this”.

We all arrived safely in Trondheim, but unfortunately my baggage (with all my nice warm gear) did not.  And, as it became clear that it was not going to be with me until late the next day my apprehension grew – this was not a good start!  However, as we arrived at our destination in the Dovrefjell National Park my concerns were quickly forgotten.   The location was stunning, our accommodation quite unique and luckily for me the Hotel Manager’s daughter was my size!  Bring it on I thought.

This tour is not recommended for the faint hearted.  We had to master walking with snow shoes on snow up to 4 ft deep, endure the extreme cold winds for many hours, climb up long steep hills carrying heavy gear (500mm lens recommended) and be ready and willing to scramble back down again fast if the musk oxen decided they didn’t like the look of us.

I was not used to this extreme environment and therefore pushed to my limit – both physically and mentally.  But, I had absolute faith in our guide Roy Mangersnes who knew this area and the animals well.  With his excellent encouragement, support and leadership the experience was truly amazing and the rewards immense.  To be in such a pristinely beautiful location so close to these awesome animals was special beyond words.

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.

Polar bear press.

OK OK, I couldn’t let it pass without throwing my tenpenneth into the ring. Actually I’m not going to talk about the recent polar bear attack itself (some interesting dialogue to be found on colleague Andy Rouse’s Facebook page here) but rather the inevitable press coverage.

The death of any young person yet to experience the myriad opportunities that life offers is always sad and an impossible ordeal for family and friends. But it’s the press coverage of how this young man died that I find both bizarre and distasteful. Had the lad been knocked over by a car or stung by a wasp or had a fatal asthma attack, or any one of hundreds of less ‘dramatic’ ends, he would simply have become an anonymous statistic to the outside world; the press wouldn’t care and neither would we – because we simply wouldn’t know about it.

This story has everything that the vulturine press live for. It’s a heady cocktail of human endeavour, heroism and ultimately an untimely death. But the cherry on the cake is fear – not any old fear but the most powerful, deep-seated, primeval fear of all. The ingredients are the stuff of journalistic dreams.

But let’s put aside the predictability of sensationalising a predator attack, the salivating over the most lurid details. The objective is to sell papers/airtime. And the best way to do that is to goad an audience into the irrationality, the ill-informed anecdotal outpourings, which pitch people against each other – providing the fuel for a fire that once lit, will burn of its own accord for days. Job done.

I’ve not yet read a report which gives the reader any ecological background to the polar bear. I’ve not yet read a suggestion as to why this bear might have attacked the campers, or contextualised the danger posed by polar bears at large. Nothing about the shrinking ice cap which ironically, I’m guessing the expedition had as part of its study. Here was an opportunity to use this tragic event to educate an audience and perhaps alert it to the challenges faced by the polar bear, its arctic habitat and ultimately, how this will affect us all. But then we wouldn’t want responsible, objective and informative stories to get in the way of good old-fashioned scaremongering and a verbal punch up.

An engine without oil?

I’ve recently read two very interesting pieces – the first specifically about wolves; the second, a book about the impact of predators on global ecosystems.

A friend of mine sent me a very well pitched report he’d written following a visit to Norway to follow a hugely controversial wolf hunt. In it he describes both extreme hatred and fear for this most symbolic of animals, amidst a rural community that whilst in the minority in terms of national feelings towards wolves, are nevertheless vocal and committed. My friend is himself an experienced game manager so knows about Scottish wildlife politics, but even he says: “I have never experienced such an atmosphere. For many there, an evil had been cleansed from the valley.” This following the shooting of a large male wolf.

Another friend sent me a book (which I would heartily recommend) called Where the wild things were by William Stolzenburg. In it Stolzenburg documents scientific research not into the impact of large carnivores as such, but the ecological chaos found in their absence. Stolzenburg, an American wildlife journalist, offers a convincing science-based argument that alpha predators are the primary regulators of the world’s ecosystems and that their removal, far from being a good thing for unburdened prey, provides the building blocks for long-term ecological decline. Space doesn’t allow for examples – buy the book and listen to the penny dropping. It’s compelling stuff.

I’m often asked about my feelings towards wolves and whether I think they should be returned to Scotland. It’s far from a black and white issue, but it really comes down to whether you answer the question as a rural economist, or as an ecologist. The wolf hunt in Norway underlines a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between prioritising traditional rural practice, and a new and increasingly popular paradigm based on ecosystem health. Like my friend who followed the Norwegian hunt, it’s tough when you can see both sides, and I can. The only caveat to me having the fence well and truly wedged in my nether regions with one foot either side of it, is that if I look 100 years hence, I sometimes wonder whether we will ultimately pay the price of an ecological engine running without oil.