A Photographer’s Dream

“May I give you a surprise for your birthday?” my husband asked. “Oh yes”, I thought. The last surprise he gave me for a birthday was also a lot of fun. I patiently waited until the morning of my birthday and then peeked into the envelope. A trip to northern Norway to see the northern lights!

It was hard to wait for the day we were to leave for Bodø, but when it did, we left Zurich in the snow, our take-off delayed because we had to wait for the plane to be deiced and arrived in sunny, snowy and cold Bodø. We then drove to the northwestern village of Nyksund, on the Vesterålen islands. The drive there was long, but while it was still light we were given the most beautiful views.

Enjoy it while you can, these days are rare. At one of the turnouts we stopped at to take pictures, we met a Norwegian man who was also taking pictures. We knew we had to savor the light while we had it, as the weather could change.

The Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands are known for fishing and exporting dried and salted cod. The bodies of the fish are shipped mostly to Portugal and Spain where they are then made into delicious Bacalao. The heads of the cod are also dried and shipped to Africa, where they are used to flavor soup. The cod is caught from January to March and hung to dry on wooden structures. The arid and cold sea air dries the fish without much of a smell. The heads are a different story… they tend to stink much more.

The 5 days we were on the Vesterålen, we only had one overcast day. The light at ca. 69°N is as amazing and fascinating and the reason why I took (too) many pictures. The views were fantastic and we stopped every few minutes to take pictures. There were beautiful sunrises and sunsets, snow covered trees, amazing landscapes and animals. We saw many eagles, seagulls, three fish otters and reindeer (domestic). On a hike with snowshoes, we even spotted snow hare tracks.

I was also to see a landscape I had until then only seen pictures of: a white world.

And at night the lights. On a plane to Japan several years ago, I saw them out of the window in the middle of the night. An eerie greenish glow. Now I was to see them in their glory. Would they dance across the sky? Would I see curtains or explosions? Different colors?

It’s actually easier to photograph the lights when they aren’t moving quickly. Because of the long exposure times, fast moving lights turn into a blur of light, which is nice to look at, but doesn’t catch the essence of what was happening. The dancing lights aren’t ones that I took pictures of, but rather the ones I savored as they rushed across and over my head in the night sky.

I also played around with longer exposures, to see if I could get the circular movement of the stars. But I didn’t have enough patience to wait long enough and singing songs to count the minutes (I didn’t have my watch on) probably bothered my husband more than he admitted.

We fell in love with the Vesterålen, thinking they would also be well worth a visit in summer. Our 5 days were soon over and we made our way to the Lofoten islands. In 2008, we spent a sunny week here, vowing to return in winter. Now we were back. Unfortunately, the weather decided to play a joke on us and as soon as we arrived, it turned foggy, overcast and windy. But at least the drive down from Nyksund to Hamnøy was sunny and we detoured down the Raftsund for a view of the famous Trollfjord.

Apart from fishing, the Lofoten are probably best known for the red fishermen’s cabins called rorbuer. These cabins once housed one boat crew for the fishing season. Today most have been restored and are either summer cabins or rented out to tourists.

The Lofoten seem to have more beaches than the Vesterålen. I have a soft spot for beaches and photographing them with snow was a new and special experience.

We only caught the Northern Lights once while in the Lofoten, due to the weather. But the ones we did get were beautiful.

We will be back!

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Travel tips:
When traveling to this area in winter, be sure to know that very little is open. Places to stay are hard to find and forget about eating at a restaurant or café if you are not in a larger town. The weather is fairly mild and due to the gulf stream, you can expect to have temperatures between -5 and +2°C.

We rented two places which had kitchens so we could cook ourselves. On our first day in the Vesterålen while photographing fish drying, a worker came to us and we started talking. Then he asked if we would like to have fish. We said yes and we were given not one but two cod fish, caught just hours earlier. These two cod fish were our dinner for 4 days, and I can tell you there is a huge difference in taste when eating fresh fish.

In Nyksund (Vesterålen) we stayed in Marihaugen, a lovely place with a view of the small harbor. Nyksund was once a bustling fishing village, the largest on the Lofoten and Vesterålen islands. In Hamnøy (Lofoten) we stayed in a cabin at the Eliassen Rorbuer, with a perfect view of the surrounding mountains and the Reinefjord.

We flew from Zurich via Oslo to Bodø, then rented a car and drove to Nyksund. From there we drove to Hamnøy. Traveling back, we took the ferry from Moskenes to Bodø and then flew back to Zurich via Oslo.

Photographing the northern lights was a first for us and we found a site which explained the procedure very well und helped us immensely. Thank you to Gabi&Gunter Reichert for the detailed description (in German).

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