So there we were, flying north above a sea of clouds. I had awakened at 3.30 to catch an early flight to Oslo. There, I had met my friend Marci, and we had embarked on Norwegian flight DY310 to Kirkenes. The seat layout was a bit cramped up there, but my friend enjoyed the free wi-fi. Actually, I really saw no difference between this low-cost airline company and another non-low-cost one (except for the wi-fi). A good thing for travellers.
The trip was absolutely uneventful, until we arrived to the main airport of Finnmark. Under the clouds, we saw snow and sea pass by before our eyes, and just when we thought we would land directly with no fuss, the pilot pushed the throttle, and up again we went, for “a bit of sightseeing”, as he put it. Visibility was too low, so we tried from the other side, and managed to touch the ground (we assumed the crew used autopilot for the second attempt). However, the runway was kinda icy, and I felt the plane move from left to right after touchdown. The pilot had to add an extra bit of reverse thrust to take the plane to a halt. It was quite brutal, I had never experienced that, but it was effective: soon we were walking on the tarmac, trying not to slip on the ice while reaching the terminal. Needless to say, it was quite chilly. It was even snowing.
We left the airport in our shiny, blue, hybrid Toyota Yaris and aimed for the town of Kirkenes (can we talk about a city when there are only 4,000 inhabitants?). After some survival grocery shopping, we turned south, towards Pasvik Valley.
Varanger boasts three different kinds of habitat: the taiga, the tundra, and the arctic coast. The taiga is a coniferous forest that occupies the north of Europe, Asia and America, before the tree-less tundra takes over. It’s the largest biome on earth apart from oceans. Along the Pasvik river, which marks the border between Russia and Norway, you can see trees, trees everywhere.
And a lot of snow.
Initially, we were pretty cold, because we hadn’t dressed appropriately before leaving the airport. We made a few stops on the way, but we never stayed very long. At some point, we were reading a sign detailing the rules to respect along the border (especially regarding fishing on the river), when I heard an unusual call. I took me a second to realize that it had come from above… two Siberian jays (Perisoreus infaustus) were flying high, their tails a bright orange flashing against the white sky. That was a species I really wanted to see, and I had hopes of better sightings for the day after, but sadly we never saw them again. After missing them in Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park, I dipped again…
We arrived at our accommodation for the night, a settlement in the forest where they offer activities essentially based on husky sledging. We had booked a tiny but cosy cabin there, and we were finally able to put on ski pants and a few additional layers on the chest. We took a walk in the forest, but it was rather quiet and the day was starting to get dark. Varanger uses Norwegian time, which is the same as in Western Europe (one hour behind Finland), but it lies quite far to the East: Vardø, our last destination for this trip, is located further east than St-Petersburg and Istanbul. Therefore, in this period the sun rose at 5 in the morning, and set at 5 in the evening. As a result, our schedule for this week was a tad off, with an early wake-up call and sudden collapse of all life-force before 20.00.
On the way back to the cottage, we scared away a white game bird. I was not able to see the loral stripe, but the forest habitat was in my opinion enough to separate the Willow grouse (Lagopus lagopus) from the Rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta). Second lifer!
Our second day in Varanger was a story in black and white. Well, essentially white.
We caught a glimpse of the sun in the morning, but soon the snow started to fall again.
It didn’t stop.
We took a walk along the river. In the forest, I noticed a snow-mobile coming my way, and I started to shoot it with my telelens as it approached. Imagine my surprise when I noticed the camo clothes and the big guns as it pulled to a stop in front of me. Luckily, these border guards were friendly, and we had a cool chat before they set to further horizons. As a sidenote, it seemed like the snow-mobile is the favoured transportation means up there: we saw traces everywhere, in the forest, in the tundra, on frozen lakes… it might seem cool, but hearing 4 of these monsters roar through the valley when you’re simply enjoying the peaceful atmosphere is anything but pleasant.
We hit the road a bit later, aiming south, deeper into the valley. The scenery was wonderful, even though the visibility was rather limited, but as the snow covered the road, I wondered whether we would be able to leave. I wanted to see a bird feeder, but before we were able to reach it, we decided to go back.
It snowed all night, but in the morning the sky was blue, and the roads were clean…
Now, you should wonder, “when is he going to talk about birds?”. Indeed, Varanger is a major birding destination, and I didn’t choose it by chance. So no worries, we’ll talk about birds in the next article. Until next time!