Photo: Northern Lights over Olstind, Lofoten Islands, Norway. Feb 18, 2013
[View part one of my February Lofoten travels HERE]
Last year, 2012, I spent over 2 months north of the Arctic Circle: about 6 weeks on Lofoten and 2 weeks in northern Sweden hiking the Kunglseden trail. While the purpose of my travels wasn’t exclusively to see the Northern Lights, I wouldn’t have complained if I was able to photograph some good displays. In my February 2 week trip, I simply had bad timing, with large Auroras both several days prior and after my time on the islands. I saw only one small display over those two weeks. In the latter half of the year, the skies were mostly quiet, even on numerous clear nights. That was until the night of Oct 8, my departure from Lofoten. As I was walking from the hostel to the Hurtigruten ferry at 9:00pm at night, I could feel it. I knew something was going to happen. And by the time the ferry was departing the dock at 10:00pm, the perfectly clear night sky was beginning to explode with color. It even thought about getting off the ferry and maybe trying to catch an early flight in the morning, but eventually decided against it. And had I been on one of the newer boats, I would have at least attempted to make a few photos. But alas, I was on the second oldest boat of the Hurtigruten fleet, with only a small outside deck area which is not very conductive to night photography. And so I watched, almost crying, for hours as the sky was filled with light from horizon to horizon. Epic, amazing, beautiful, and a whole host of other words that I’d have to look up in the thesaurus to expand my vocabulary. And why I love the North so much. If only I had a little better timing sometimes…
February 2013 was that better timing. On my second night on the islands, Valentines day, I was at Utakleiv to photograph a decent display. If that was all I had seen, I would have been happy. But then again, a few days later while down at Reine, the sky erupted for almost an hour, allowing me to get close to my long envisioned ‘Aurora over Olstind’ photo. And again, the following night once again, this time at Vik beach, a short but sweet display of the lights. Three times in one week, any of which alone I would have been more than happy about.
I hope to avoid sounding like two old ladies in the supermarket, but its time to talk about the weather. The weather more or less decides how photogenic any trip to Lofoten will be. And unfortunately, there is absolutely zero predictability. This doesn’t help much when having to plan months in advance and having to fly halfway around the world. Actually, if I were to give a general comment on the weather, it would be that two consecutive seasons are rarely the same. That is to say, if you hear that the islands had great weather all summer, such as the summer of 2009, do not plan a trip for the following summer, as it will likely be bad, such as the summer of 2010. On the other hand, poor weather in one season can often result in better than average weather in one of the other seasons.
With the unpredictability of the weather, I believe it’s best to give yourself as much time as possible on the islands. For me this usually results in about two weeks, after that I start to remember how expensive Norway is – there are only so many $100+ gas fill-ups I can take before my credit card starts to protest. Two weeks are usually enough time for you to at least have a couple days of good conditions, even if the overall trend is poor. And if the weather is good, then all the better! For example, arriving on February 13th this year, my first week was better than average. Had I stayed only one week, then I would have been completely happy with the images I produced. After February 20th, conditions deteriorated, with consecutive days and days of rain and warm (for winter), snow melting temperatures. Had I arrived on the 20th, then I would have been fairly disappointed by the conditions during the following week. But when I booked my tickets in December, there was no way for me to know which week to choose. At the end of the day, Lofoten’s weather is all just luck and a gamble, so try and hedge you bet by allowing as much time as you can afford. And try not to be jealous of someone who only spent a few days on the islands and returned with a beautiful set of images, they have obviously figured out a way to bribe the weather gods.
By day 4 of rain and wind, I find myself struggling against boredom. One of the benefits of sleeping in my rental car is that I can pretty much stay wherever I please. The drawback comes at the hours, or days, when waiting out bad weather. I find myself tempted by a bright spot in the distance, or maybe there might be better conditions in Reine. But I know the islands and myself well enough by now, not too chase pots of gold. It takes all my effort not to spend the day driving in circles chasing the ‘what ifs.’ It’s best if I just park myself at somewhere like Eggum or Unstad for the day, and night, and try to imagine better days ahead, hopefully having the time to do so.
For this trip, I more of less could have skipped the 2nd week and returned with a similar collection of images. I carry 3 things with me than need batteries: camera, iPod, and laptop. By the end of the second week, my laptop and iPod were both out of juice, while I hadn’t even used up a single battery in my camera. But to repeat myself for the xx time, there is no way of knowing when you’ll have the good weather or suffer from the bad. Time on the islands is your only insurance unfortunately. As sitting around for a week with little to do while burning through money (rental car) is not the most desirable place for me. Lofoten images can come at a high cost.
It is always easy to spot photographers newly arrived on the islands, as they haven’t yet learned that it’s pointless to fight the elements here. They must think I’m a bit odd appearing as well, sitting in the back of my car half way covered by my sleeping bag for warmth and reading or typing away on my computer, if I’m lucky enough to still have a bit of power after several days without a charge. I, in turn, think they are a bit crazy as well. And when they return to their cars sodden wet 20-30 minutes later, I can’t imagine they flat gray light and tripod-knocking-over winds were worth it. But maybe I’m just lazy…
It is stormy days like these that, despite the cold, I’m glad I’m on the islands in winter as night, and sleep is never far away. By noon, I know it’s only a few more hours until darkness comes and I can curl up in my sleeping bag for 15+ hours of restless sleep, sometimes the best way to pass the time I’ve found. Maybe I need to invest in a power inverter and put a few movies on my laptop so not to feel like such a lazy bastard. Or, if I wasn’t so cheap, I would go look for a coffee shop, milk a latte for a few hours to get all my electronics up to full power, and then return to my quite parking stop at Eggum. But I’d rather suffer from boredom than spend 40 crowns on a coffee that I probably wouldn’t even enjoy all that much.
And while I’m on the topic of quiet parking places at the end of long roads. What is up with the car that drives by at midnight on a stormy night, does a circle, then leaves? This seems to occur wherever I end up. Are they just local teenagers looking for a place to, uh, have some privacy. Random grumpy locals seeing who’s camping on their road? Or just some tourist who got lost on the way to their Rorbu? I don’t know, but I always get a bit paranoid when a pair of headlights wakes me sometime late in the night, more so because I’m often less than 100% legally camping.
For someone like myself who really likes wintry looking landscapes, but isn’t especially fond of the cold, the Lofoten Islands in winter are an ideal location. Or, as I like to say, the islands are not as cold as they look. Ideal conditions find the temperature hovering just a few degrees below freezing, with a layer of snow covering everything from the highest peaks to coastal rocks lapped by waves. But this is a fragile balance, and throughout the winter periods of warmer weather and snow melting rain sweep across the islands, bringing a near overnight transformation for a snowy winter wonderland to a soggy brown landscape.
The one counter to the (relatively) mild winter temperatures is the wind. I’ve never experienced a wind before that has such an ability to suck the heat out of you.
Photo: Northern Lights over Olstind, Lofoten Islands, Norway. Feb 18, 2013
Photo: Reine pink winter sunrise, Lofoten Islands, Norway. Feb 2013
Photo: Haukland beach in winter, Lofoten Islands, Norway. Feb 2013