Day 4 Review – Northern Exposure

Twenty years ago to this very day, I had the delight of seeing Paris for the first time. I was encapsulated by all the man-made structures and the beauty of the surroundings on that St. Valentine’s Day.
Now, exactly twenty years on, I am astounded by nature’s own beauty, here in Norway.
For me, life is all about days like these…

I am startled awake at 4am to the sound of my phone cheerfully indicating to me that I have received a text. I can almost hear it taunting me for being the first night I’ve forgotten to turn it off. I doze for a while and then wake just after seven by an announcement telling me that we’ve just crossed into the Arctic Circle. I clamber out of bed and look out the porthole to see a blur of a marker indicating this very fact. It’s barely light, and my attempts at photographing it fail in a mess of lights. I get back into bed and feel sick. My stomach seems to be playing up, and I get the feeling I might be ill today. Breakfast can wait…

A snooze later, and things are improving. However, the weather looks decidedly dodgy – plenty of mist and cloud. Not much use for seeing anything, let alone the Northern Lights tonight. I go to breakfast, after feeling a little better, have plenty of food as usual and decide to venture out to see what’s happening. We arrive at Ornes, a pretty little village surrounded by mountains. I take a few snaps and feel glad that I made an effort. As we leave, the increasing light and changing weather also makes for some good views.

With a wait until we dock in Bodo in the afternoon, I decide to upload my photos and blog for the other day, and try to find the manual online for my watch to set the time. It’s taking a long time, and I’m up against the hour clock ticking down until it disconnects me and forces me to cough up again for the privilege I now just take for granted back home. Facebook seems to be playing up, and everything is just like surfing through treacle. I try to work out the instructions to my watch while I wait for photos to be downloaded, but fail. How complicated does it need to be? I just need to set the hour forward and change the date that I somehow advanced. “Press and hold button A for approximately six seconds while it is the Timekeeping Mode, then press A and C together and then ensure that the minute hand is… “ oh maybe I’ll just put up with the damn thing being an hour out. For the first time in days, I’m stressed. I then realise how silly this is – technology is meant to help and I’m on holiday. The photos complete their downloading and, relieved that I made it in time, I go back to my cabin.

After calm and patience, the watch is now sorted, and Casio’s interface designers are off my murder list. It’s nearly time to dock at Bodo, so I gear up and head upstairs. The weather is still very cold and overcast. I suddenly realise that I don’t know what to do when I get there, and I have two an half hours to do it in. Maybe today won’t be that good after all.

I make my way to the first point on the map: the cathedral. After being spoilt by Trondheim, this is a major let down – ugly, plain and with little character. I take a photo of a statue of a walrus nearby, who seems more interested in looking good for everyone than to want to apologise for the building behind it. With that done, I have no idea what to do, so wander off aimlessly away from it. It’s then the photographer in me that reminds me that if I want some good shots, I have to look for them. Don’t concentrate on buildings and focal points, wander around and see what else is there that would make a good photo. Looks for shadows, reflections, interesting angles, people, things to depict Norwegian life. Suddenly, Bodo comes alive.

I find angles, even with the cathedral’s drab spire. I see colours – the reds and mustard yellows of the houses that are so common here. The odd bird in the tree is picked up by my zoom. There’s the postie girl, delivering today’s mail. Shots are leaping out at me now; I’m a man, with a camera with tonnes of potential around me. There’s an old bike in the snow, girls trying to dig their car out, reflections in a building, a precarious hang of snow just waiting to fall. Even the weather appears to be getting brighter. I see a small path leading to a hill in the mid-distance and wonder I should go up there. It doesn’t look particularly inviting, and yet something is telling me to try it out, so I do. The snow is deep underneath, and I like the sound of the crunch it makes as I ascend. A park reveals itself to me – just whiteness and trees everywhere. On I go, until I reach a small playground with some young kids playing. I snap a snowman, complete with twig hands, and feel good that I came up this way. As I descend, the slope now appears to be the sledging channel for the older kids now climbing up. Adults and children populate the mounds below me, and a piercing scream of a girl follows her down for a good ten seconds as she hurtles towards the bottom . A quick photo of the action from afar, and I’m off.

I round the corner and look up towards the back of the hill. No-one on it, just fresh, untouched snow. A road lies just beyond, and I can hear the cars go by. Mmmmm, untouched snow. A voice says to me: “Snow Angel!!” That would be a fun photo, I think, but then realise it would be too silly to do it on my own, so I walk on past. Then I remember the words my friend Alli recently said to me about being impulsive and losing one’s inhibitions. Just do it, Andy! Without thinking, I put my camera bag down, leap into the snow backwards and wave my arms and legs around, as if signalling to the heavens for help. I’m doing something that if anyone was watching would probably steer clear of me…but I don’t care!!! I leap up, grab my camera and mark the moment that I let go, just for a second or two. Hey, this day’s not so bad…

More photos, before I decide I really need a drink, so I pop into what looks like a suitable small shop. A kind customer tells me that I’ve dropped my cabin key card, so I thank him and go off with my drinks. A light flurry of snow fills the air, but I’m feeling refreshed. I turn the corner, look into the distance, and then experience a sight that left me breathless…

Where the heck did that come from? The dark grey tarpaulin that was covering the landscape in the distance was being dragged back and had now revealed a magnificently-shaped mountain. At first, it was surreal – like a Star Trek transporter room was materialising this from nowhere, beaming it down and fitting it into the landscape. Now, with the surrounding mist still framing it, it looked like a projection, a false background in a slideshow by the Nordic gods; an afterthought in the scenery design. As blue sky took over and sunlight started to pick out its features, it became solid, real. The whole view was transformed; I was mesmerised. My cruise ship was docked in the mid-ground, so I was standing in the perfect place to take a photo. I needed no second thought. Just when you think you’ve seen all a place has to offer, nature gives you that little bit more. I want to record me in this moment, this instant in time when I am astounded. No-one may understand my feeling, but the pictures will mean a lot to me, so I wait for someone to come by. Eventually, a friendly-looking local approaches, so I ask him nicely if he would take one of me. He does, and the moment is captured.

A few minutes later, I stroll down the road and I pass a shop selling saunas and showers. I glance down, and see several small gifts on sale quite alien to the rest of the shop’s content. One of them is a perfect present for Dad. I enter the shop, and after a quick lesson in Norwegian by some other interested shoppers, I realise it’s not as an extortionate price as most other things here seem to be. Via much hand waving, I deduce that the owner taking my money was the one who made it. I smile and leave.

It’s time to head back to the dock now, but not before more photos of the mountains in the background. I ask a French boy and his dad to take a photo of me, and I reply the favour. On board, I go straight to the top deck and click away as various scenes over the town. It’s been an excellent visit to Bodo. I switched on my iPod hat and Coldplay blasts in my ears as the ship started to move again. The emotion is building.

The sun is playing hide-and-seek with the clouds, creating magnificent illuminated golden edges. Rays of light spread from the clouds, and we swing round to miles of water dotted with low-lying islands as far as the eye can see. The music is lifting me even higher as the scenes just keep on coming. It’s everywhere you look – a photographers dream! There, on the crest of a mountain – see eagles!! They’re soaring above, sweeping down over the peak, wing span huge against the blue sky. The angle changes and they are silhouetted against beams of yellow emanating from the clouds resting softly on the ragged top. Could this be any better??!! The colours, the formations, shadows and texture. A whole 360 degree world full of wonder. I want to stay here for ages. I want this moment to never end. I want to be here and take a million photos until my hands freeze or my camera begs for mercy. Is this where I belong? Give me a camera, a place of opportunity and I am happy forever. Forget work; forget spreadsheets and plans; all that is meaningless. This is life. This is real. This is me.

I’m calmer now, but still up on deck. The sun is setting, and serenity surrounds me. A few others remain up here, but I don’t really see them. The landscape has retreated to the distance, just a low frame of the sea. To my right, the clouds are turning red. To my left, pale blues. An obvious photography expert appears, and I ask him to take one of me against this vastness. The sun has gone, but light is still strong, and then I get lucky with another great opportunity…

It’s a ship on the horizon, against a band of cloud, passing some distant islands. It’s beautiful; the stuff of posters. “Zoomy” lens almost jumps out of my bag – “This one‘s mine!” he says and away we go. It’s nearly perfect, as we take several, waiting for the right shot in between the chunks of land. To cap it all, a Norwegian woman appears next to me and starts to tell me about these Lofoten islands. She points out the islands I’ve just taken are in the shape of two people lying down, toe-to-toe – and I suddenly see it. I show her the photo and she loves it, telling me the names of all the islands we can see, adding weight to what I have captured. We chat about the colours, what she’s doing here (she lives in Trondheim but is hoping to see the lights) before we decide we’ve seen enough and head back in.

After a brief visit from someone dressed as King Neptune celebrating the crossing of the Arctic Circle, and a ceremony involving him pouring ice cubes down our backs (I think Grandad got some down his trousers in the same ceremony thirty years ago!) we are told that conditions for seeing the Northern Lights are going to be extremely good tonight. Excited chatter fills the air, as we head in to watch a presentation on them. We are told that they occur when charged particles from the Sun reach our atmosphere and react to the elements within it. Seen best within the Arctic Circle, they require good conditions but can appear at any time. The photos we are shown are magnificent. I’d probably give my left arm for one of those, if it wasn’t for the fact I might need it to steady the camera. They’ve built it up so much – can nature possibly deliver for us? People talk about friends who’ve tried and failed on similar trips. Even the locals aren’t sure of our chances. I had a strange feeling that today, Saturday, would be a good chance, given the forecast, position we’d be in and a bit of optimism thrown in. It’s been a great trip, and although this would be a bonus, it was really the reason why I’m here. I continue in hope.

After dinner, we stop at Svolvaer and visit the supposedly fantastic Ice Magic ice sculpture museum. After paying a lot of money for what is just a lot of frozen water, we were all pretty disappointed. Sure, it was unique in the fact that they stay frozen all day, every day, but we can’t help think it’s a little tourist trap. Still, there’s not much around here to make extra money, so I guess I don’t begrudge them too much. Back on boat, I go to the top deck and look at the stars. I did think I’d see more than I have done right now, but then again the boat always has some lights on somewhere, spoiling the sight. I pick out Orion and the Plough, but they’re too faint to capture on camera. The boat starts to move out of the little harbour, surrounded by mountains, dim in the weak light around. I fumble in my bag to check some of my camera stuff, before I hear the odd raised voice. I look to my right……….and nature’s theatrical display begins!!!

I’m seeing the Northern Lights!! They’re here!!! I can’t believe it – I fumble in my bag for my camera but I’m all fingers and thumbs and nothing’s coming out in the right order. I switch between that and looking at the spectacle developing as the boat inches further away. The sky above the mountains has turned green, and a mysterious swirl is forming above them. It looks like the mountain is a volcano, spewing out the whispery green light. Across it goes, spreading, getting stronger, then up. I grab my camera – what setting do I put it on? Why haven’t I prepared?!! Click. Nothing. Oh crap! Is it going to stay?? Another setting. Click. Just black. Dammit! I can’t come all this way and not be able to photo it! I know – video. Yes, video will save the day. Out comes the Ixus, into movie mode and… What? I try again. All black. It’s not good enough to pick out moving images in very low light, so it’s next to useless for videoing. I go back to my SLR and up the shutter opening time. A very faint green blur. Getting better…then I get a good one. Yes! I’ve got it! I take another look. I haven’t got my tripod with me (it was too heavy to pack in the case and we’re on a boat so didn’t think it would help much anyway) and holding still for 10-13 seconds a shot is very difficult, causing any fixed lights to go crazy and anything else to blur. I decide to watch it and take it in just for a few seconds.

Wisps of green appear, then fade, but the main swirl slowly comes at us, reaching out to us above our heads. It turns into a gas flame-like structure, and I try again. Legs spread wide, holding my breath, I freeze for ten seconds. I got a good one! I click and click away, down on one knee on the icy deck, always looking, always patient. Many people are gathered here now, having heard the announcement on the tannoy. The deck’s lights are now out and people are transfixed. The camera picks up some good detail – more than the eye can see – but no perfect shots yet. I send a few texts and update my Facebook status to announce this moment and, yes, show off a little. Well, wouldn’t you?

The boat starts to leave the town behind, as green smoke rises above it. The green continues, but it’s not moving or changing much. It’s getting fainter, and the photos aren’t picking up much now. We want more, but it looks like that’s it. Should I be disappointed? I’ve just seen an amazing natural phenomenon, so I shouldn’t be. But as we leave it in the distance, I feel a little…cheated. Is this wrong? I’m torn between delight and expectation of more. I speak to a few others who feel the same. Little did we know that the main course was just minutes away…

We’re passing steep mountains close to us now, and some house lights appear to our right. Lots of people remain on deck; some chatting about what they’ve just seen, others hoping for more. We look up, and the green starts to appear again. Oh wow! This is more like it! Bands of translucent green rain down over the mountains, magnificently silhouetting their peaks. Up it rises, causing gasps from its audience. I snap away and things are coming out well! How awesome is this! It’s changing as we look and then oh ….. my ….. word!! “It’s dancing!” I cry out, for it truly is. It’s not forming, not drifting, it’s actually flashing vertical lines, dancing from left to right as if to some music we can’t hear, music of the gods. This is classic Aurora Borealis – the ultimate experience for its viewers. Curtain-like trails light up the sky and everyone is astounded. We are witnessing an event indeed.; this is incredible. The music stops, but the show doesn’t. Over to my right, over the town, more lights appear. I dash over – “Look – there’s more over here!” I shout to a bemused couple, obviously not English or photographers. Never mind, I set up my shot and fire off a few exposures. It swirls, it rains, it glimmers colour and everywhere you see is a sight to behold. Did I get something? Only probably my best photograph ever!! Get in! It looks fantastic here on my small screen, and just hope it blows up as good. I kneel down in the ice and lean against the railings. I press the button and hold it again. In my fingerless gloves, my finger tips are starting to freeze. I may have to endure frostbite for these pictures, but they’ll be worth it. I look at the results: I am over the moon – on a moving ship, in freezing temperatures, a cold wind, no tripod and 13 second exposures I’m doing pretty good.

The show goes on for about twenty minutes, before leaving behind just a small glow on the mountain tops. Everyone is exhilarated; that’s all you can hear people talk about right now. I go through my pictures and show them off to several people. A fellow Englishman with the same camera and a tripod looks both disappointed and envious when seeing them. Those people with smaller, basic cameras also seem to be let down, as it’s clear you really need the ability for long exposures. A few men with bigger, better cameras have also picked up some good ones, but I don’t find any better than my best. Fish cakes are then served on deck, and everyone tucks in, still scanning the skies for more.

I spend another hour up there in the cold, with my body temperature dropping, even with several layers everywhere. Eventually, I decide I’ve had my fill and head to the bar with Rob and Chris, more than content with the night’s action. We chat about the lights, recalling again our reactions when we each first saw them. We know we witnessed something that will live with us forever. We continue till 2am, discussing their family and the world, and I feel grateful to met such a nice couple. We say goodnight, and I head back, eager to download everything onto my laptop. Finally, thrilled that I had achieved the main objective of this trip, I fall into a contented sleep.

It will take some going if am to top this twenty years on in Feb 14th 2029…




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