Four hours ago I was stood barely upright on Stac Pollaidh, one of Scotland’s most characterful mountains. Such was the ferocity of the wind at my back, I almost needed to crawl into the lee of the hill to gain some respite and a chance to drink in the spectacular views over Inverpolly Forest. Of course ‘forest’ is an ironic and misleading term as there is barely a tree to be seen for miles and miles…and miles.
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”
It is entirely possible that Iceland will be unkind to you. Not that the Icelandic people are unpleasant you understand, far from it, but the island can serve up copious helpings of rain, snow and wind followed by more rain, snow and wind. Did I mention that it might rain? On the plus side, it is that very changeability that makes Iceland such an exciting place to photograph. Continue reading “Extreme Iceland”
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.
Now don’t get me wrong, most Americans I’ve met are generally very nice people. The trouble with America is that it’s full of Americanisms. That’s ‘isms’. Yes I know the bit about ‘when in Rome’ but some things just drive me nuts. Billboards! How much information can you actually absorb at 50mph? Cars that consider you incapable of making even the most basic decisions (like closing the boot without intervention from a too-clever-for-its-own-good automated system); carbohydrate-laden meals that could feed a country for a week; a gratuity system that defies all logic and that’s before we get stuck into the right to bear arms, and as was demonstrated recently, the propensity to discharge them. I could go on (and on) but my soapbox is giving way (primarily as a result of afore-mentioned carbohydrate overload). Suffice it to say that despite a common language, America and some of its ‘isms’ are hard for me to fathom (to be fair it could be as much to do with middle age as anything – mine not America’s).
Despite all of the ‘isms’ there is no doubt that America is a land of superlatives. It’s unique, as are its inhabitants – human and non-human alike. Moreover, despite the usual cultural and political divides that preside over any public asset, the US National Park system is one of America’s better ideas and none more so than Yellowstone. The thing with Yellowstone is its story. It’s one of historical foresight, pioneering thinking, a few ill-informed predator management decisions along the way and more recently, ecological restoration; that’s not to mention the geological processes that continue to drive and change the Yellowstone narrative. This place has it all. Outside of winter it also has lots of visitors and so it was we set off in January.
‘We’ in this case was two groups of hardy (and not so hardy – you know who you are!) tour guests. As ever the Northshots formula of serious photography and not-so serious downtime prevailed and seemingly, a good time was had by all (no doubt our feedback forms will reveal if I’ve read this incorrectly).
The northern part of Yellowstone is driveable in winter and is usually a safe bet for wolf sightings. Alas, this year it was not to be and both groups returned home wolfless. Photographic opportunities of this top predator are rare indeed but just a glimpse is enough to set the pulse racing. Wolves aside, we were treated to some wonderful photo opportunities. Bison, red fox, elk and moose all paid dividends, as did the surreal landscape cloaked in a mantel of white.
Lugging one’s carbohydrate-laden body around this mountain landscape is hard work – the air at 7,000ft. deprives you of oxygen – so its fortunate that most photo-opportunities are close to the road making Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks almost perfect photographic locations.
The story of Yellowstone in many ways mirrors the story of America itself and its many ‘isms’ are as apparent here as they are in the heart of New York. Much of what is great about America manifests in the northern Rockies, as do many of the country’s challenges. Differing ecological, cultural and economic perspectives drive debate over land use priorities in this area as they do elsewhere – in this respect Yellowstone is no different to the Scottish Highlands. The uniqueness of Yellowstone however, is that in recent decades, it has become a living laboratory. Ecologists and scientists from all over the world peer in on what many describe as the last remaining fully intact temperate ecosystem in the northern hemisphere. To that end what happens in Yellowstone is important to all of us interested in nature elsewhere. Already, ecological thinking about predator-prey relationships, founded in the Rockies, is emerging in Europe. We’re all part of a story in the making and it was a privilege for me, after an absence of several years, to spend some time with the story’s author despite the ‘isms’.
My thanks as ever to co-guide, top photographer (although I’d never say this to his face) and best buddie Mark Hamblin and to our 20 intrepid guests, most of who will now be on a diet (or at least should be!)
Regular blog readers might remember two postings from Svalbard guest John Cumberland. Well John is blogging again so keep an eye out for his Yellowstone musings in the next week or so.
Our tour for 2014 is already full but if you’d like to be infected by Yellowstoneism in 2015, do drop us a line to register your interest.
It’s barely light but already I can feel the heartache creeping through my veins. The landscape whistles past in a streaky blur but the tendrils of freezing mist stroking the white ground – attractive on their own – are made doubly so by the vivid pink of the dawn sky. It’s painfully beautiful and it’s painful not to be out there with my camera.
I’m on a train. I’m on a train to London. For a meeting. 9 hours there, 9 hours back and I’m feeling as far from being a nature photographer as I have since I first picked up a camera two decades ago. The last 5 years have seen me working on ambitious communication projects trying (and some might suggest for the most part, failing) to be a marketeer, an accountant, a business analyst, even a politician. In so many ways the results of these endeavours have been rewarding and certainly educational, but it’s not what I do; it’s not what I want to do.
The very kind waitress with a broad Northumbrian accent and a crisp ‘East Coast Trains’ uniform brings me sausage and mash, a perk of an expenses-paid first class seat. The sun is now up and the snow-laden Berwickshire coastline zips by glistening under an azure sky. My meeting is important, don’t get me wrong, but God I wish I was out with my camera, away from the inane chatter of slightly pretentious businessmen on their phones, away from first-class sausage and mash.
2013 is going to be another busy year but it will be my last busy year in terms of big photo projects with the attendant sitting on planes and trains. I want to go back to sitting in a cold hide, waiting for a creature, or shaft of light that might never appear; smelling the pine, tasting the peat. I want to craft new images, stretch my creative boundaries and tell new stories. I want to drink cold coffee from a cold flask not be served sausage and mash. And I want to laugh again.
As the train moves ever southwards towards the English capital, my heart drifts ever northwards to the Highlands and it’s my heart that I intend to follow in the coming years.
I’ve photographed squirrels many, many times but do you know what, the combination of this cute native rodent, pine forest and falling snow, is something that draws me back time and again and it’s just damned good fun. I’m not sure this is a classic image by any means but it recalls a winter’s morning spent alone in my hide…with no phone signal.
I think it’s fair to say that as a society, we don’t take kindly to being told what to do. We celebrate perceived democracy; we shun the social and cultural straight jacket. At best we’re mildly receptive to persuasion by the establishment. We pretty much choose to do what we want to do, when we want to do it. Yes we can think for ourselves thank you very much.
Until it all goes wrong. And last week it went spectacularly wrong in the form of unprecedented snowfall across the Scottish central belt. Suddenly, our independent, maverick society calls upon the state to ‘do something’. We’re not sure who should do what exactly but calls are heard to stop the snow falling, magic up some (very expensive) snow ploughs, muster the dormant snow police…just do something!
Well not surprisingly there was nothing much that could be done. But not content with resignation, even respect for the power of nature, we needed someone to blame. Someone that could have and should have rubbed the genie bottle and made it all go back to ‘normal’. Stewart Stevenson MSP resigned as Transport Minister after severe criticism over how he handled the difficulties. Overnight a capable (and elected) individual was deemed to be incapable and he became unemployed. Is our society enriched as a result?
Another Transport Minister will come along, and so will another blizzard. Shit happens.
Has another year really passed by? A full 12 months? Are we really staring down the barrel of another bellyfull of ritualistic over-consumption? It would seem so.
I’ve had a tricky few days – snowed out from home (rather than snowed in); freezing diesel and ailing parents on my mind. Against this backdrop I set off today to use my camera – it sometimes seems like a real novelty! Gingerly picking my way down ice-laden Glenfeshie, I met a neighbour who stopped to pass the time of day. “Have you done it all?” she enquired. “Done it all?” I asked. “Christmas!” she beamed. I politely avoided a response but later, whilst standing behind my tripod trying to make the most of this wonderful scene, I reflected on what my neighbour meant by ‘it all’.
I’m 48 next month and if I live until 100, I’ll never understand modern Christmas. By ‘it all’ I hoped she meant giving thought to relaxation; reflecting on a prosperous and varied life and looking forward to spending time with those I don’t normally spend time with. But I don’t think she did mean that, and the queue outside Tesco’s car park tonight would suggest not either.
Our Winter Wildlife photo-tours are all now fully booked but there is a possibility that we’ll be adding a further winter tour. Mountains & Moors will focus on the unique wildlife and landscapes of Scotland’s uplands – ptarmigan, mountain hare and red deer, as well as the spectacular landscapes of the Cairngorms and Inverpolly.
If you’re interested in booking a place, please do let us know as we’re presently gauging interest.
Dates are likely to be March 5-11 2011.