There is a saying in Norway that, “most of it is North”. So much of the country exists far beyond the art museums of Oslo, and beyond the fabled line of the Polar Circle. The Arctic is that latitude where, for a period of each year, the sun does not shine in winter, and the sun does not set in summer. It is an extreme climate that has been tamed by the Scandinavian mastery of style and practicality.
Modern lifestyles in Arctic Norway offer extreme comfort against the elements, but it has not always been this way. Fishermen’s cottages in the past century were cloistered and cold, just a place to sleep for a shift before heading back out to sea. Those same cottages today have been upgraded to offer cosy warmth for visitors and capitalise on the stunning views of a rugged coastline. In places like Lofoten, Senja and Tromsø the topology of the mountains plunge dramatically into the ocean. Beaches of fine sand are hidden in winter by ice sheets and snowfall.
The roads are kept clear in winter by ploughs, and rental cars all come with ice-tyres. It takes a little extra concentration on the roads but the Arctic is genuinely accessible even in the darkest months of winter. Only a decade ago you needed to be self-sufficient when travelling this far north, but now there are great places to eat that rival the scenery for serendipity. Dried stockfish, fresh cod, farmed salmon and smoked reindeer meat feature heavily on the menus. Potatoes are on the table with every hot meal – it is as if they outnumber the snowflakes. Cafes in the Arctic are infrequent but worth going out of the way for. In true Norwegian style, they are warm in spirit and generous with cinnamon scrolls and savoury sandwiches. Most offer their own twist on the basic recipe, such as custard-filled centres or a caramel melted core. All of them are served with a big smile and copious amounts of coffee.
Fishing, hiking and auroras are the main industries here. Solar activity falls across an arc that matches the coastline between Lofoten and Tromsø, making this an exceptional part of the world to experience the wonder of the northern lights. At times they are so bright the entire landscape is painted green or purple beneath a fluorescent sky. They are unpredictable, which is why they are so special. Smartphone apps offer broad forecasts but you never really know when or where the moment will happen on a given night, if at all, or if clouds will steal the show. An aurora event can last for a few minutes – or the whole night. ‘Aurora Storms’ happen some years when solar activity sends showers of high energy across the night sky for several days.
If you don’t feel up to driving the winter roads at night, there are plenty of guides who will chase the auroras for you. Tromsø is the home of aurora chasing in Norway, where colourful characters such as Guide Gunnar will cook up a hot meal on the beach while you wait for the night to light up. On some nights it never happens and he offers a free seat on the next outing as compensation. The city of Tromsø not only ploughs roads but also ploughs parking spaces for the aurora chasers, making room for dozens of busses each night. It’s a big landscape though, and an even bigger night sky. There is plenty of room for a few more guests next winter.
Ewen’s current Arctic kit is a Lumix S1R full-frame mirrorless camera, with a 50mm and 24mm lens. Prime lenses offer the best possible image quality and access to very shallow depth of field. For aurora photography, the 15mm Zeiss f/2.8 is his preferred lens. Aurora events take place on such a massive scale, sometimes covering 360 degrees of the sky above. Even at 15mm, the true scale of the action can be impossible to capture. Aurora photography demands a fast lens (low f-stop) and can push the limits of your camera’s ISO ability. A tripod is essential for Arctic night skies.
Guide Gunnar has been running aurora chases for over a decade and will drive as far as Finland on any given night if it means finding clear skies for his guests. His aurora season runs from September through to March and can be booked directly on his website. guidegunnar.no
Ewen Bell runs bespoke photography workshops every year, to places such as the Himalayas, Outback Australia and Arctic Norway. In 2021 he will be heading to Tromsø for a 14-day adventure to chase the northern lights and share knowledge of slow shutter photography. Most of his workshops run for 14 days and are limited to eight people. He also runs an annual four-day food photography workshop in Victoria’s Daylesford with Shellie Froidevaux, a professional stylist and food event photographer.
This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, spring 2019, issue 112