Force of Will

This was not the trip I had imagined.

For these two weeks in Lapland and Varanger, at the top of the world, I thought I would sleep during the day and enjoy the midnight sun to take pictures and watch the abundant bird life. Alas, the weather was not on my side, and I mostly saw clouds above. That’s not necessarily bad per se, for an overcast day brings soft and even light on my subjects. The problem is that, two weeks of cloudy weather, that’s long. And frustrating. Alone in a cold land, it would have been easy to give up.

But I kept going, to enjoy as much of the trip as I could, and I kept shooting but, quickly, days started to feel dull and “muddy”. I stuck to a normal schedule, because if it’s cloudy, “nights” will be much darker than days, for the sun, albeit shining, will be close to the horizon, and therefore weaker.

It had started well! After two days around Ivalo, where the sun shone quite a lot and where I added the Little bunting (Emberiza pusilla) to my personal list, I drove to Karigasniemi. There, I found my targets, waders in breeding colors displaying in the tundra. I crawled in grass (fun), mud (mildly fun) and reindeer poop (not fun) to approach the birds, time came and went, the sun appeared below the clouds, disappeared then showed again, and I continued making pictures. The sun set behind the hill, and then came back an hour later, veiled. I really wanted to wait longer, wait for better opportunities, but the long drive and the long day had taken its toll, and on the verge of collapsing, I walked back to the car, where I slept an hour, completely exhausted.

Temminck’s stint (Calidris temminckii)

That’s a learning from my expedition: the midnight sun, the endless days, the eternal light… even with clouds, it all messes up your mind. I had no clear schedule, no constraint, in the beginning I was camping, therefore it was difficult to keep a healthy lifestyle. Why spend time cooking when one can be out shooting birds?

Speaking about birds… there were so many of them, in so many places, it was difficult to prioritize them. When you’re just watching birds, it’s easy to spend some time here, some time there, see a lot and be happy. It’s a bit different with photography, since it takes a lot more time. Sometimes you spend half an hour crawling on the beach to close on a group of waders, sometimes you have to wait two hours for a Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) to perch on the right bush, close enough with a great background. In addition, I didn’t know the places, so I had first to figure out the appropriate approach, and then work on it. Now that I go through my pictures, I would have loved to spend more time with the small waders in Nesseby, but would I have got such a close-up on this Long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) if I had?

Long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis)

The scheduling issue I mentioned earlier became easier when I entered Norway, for the cold and the wind forced me indoors for the nights. Then, the challenge was more about finding cheap accommodation. That’s how I ended up couchsurfing in Vadsø, spending two nights in Nils’ house. It was pleasant to have someone to talk to about something else than birds.

I mentioned the clouds, but I didn’t mention the showers I faced, up there in Varanger. It rarely rained for a long time, but precipitations came in waves, with a few minutes of respite in between, sometimes allowing the sun to pierce the cloud cover. Instead of rain, more often it was hail, small balls of ice whipping my face when looking in the wrong direction; I got some snow as well, to complete the circle. Wind became the norm after five days, with some 40km/h blowing from the north-west. Conditions were glacial, especially on the high tundra, where temperatures almost dropped to 0. I was a bit too early to scout this fascinating area, so I drove down to the Varangerfjord. I thought it would be more sheltered, but that was just another delusion. If anything, it hailed less. What a trip! In the meantime, Helsinki still enjoyed summer vibes.

After a day spent in Varanger National Park in the company of Bluethroats and Ruffs (Calidris pugnax), enduring hard showers and basking in short sunny intervals, I was resigned to sleep in an overpriced hostel in Vardø, when I got a message that no room was available, that there was a problem on their booking system. I had no wish to drive to the inner part of the fjord only to come back in the morrow, nor did I want to set the tent in this open landscape (and rocky landscape as well, there were not many places where I could have placed it). I decided to sleep in my car, a less-than-comfortable situation but an easy one. I don’t know the reason behind that fact, but I found sleep difficult to find in the tent. I had never had trouble camping, but this time I just couldn’t sleep. In this situation, staying in the car for the night didn’t sound that bad 😉

That evening, I chased the sunset. I was set to sleep when I noticed that the horizon was glowing of a deep yellow, to the north. So I drove to Hamningberg, the end of the road, to be as close as I could. I was rewarded with a bit of sunlight to warm the car as I sought sleep. That episode brought me some extra energy to power through the last days of my trip, which included a new visit to Hornøya, the bird island.

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica)

I had got a bit depressed a couple of days before, when meeting French photographers. The weather forecast was “all sun”, which looked like that in practice:

It’s not blue sky you see here…

In addition, Ruffs didn’t show up, and I learnt that the number of birds was much lower than what should be expected from the region in this period… that set my mood very low, and I considered driving directly back to good old Finland, but I had booked my appointment in Kiberg already, and I couldn’t cancel it. Well, I saw wonders at the end of the fjord, so no regrets, but I drove straight back to Ivalo, a whole day trip, as soon as I could… I thought I would find some warmth down there. Fool.

Temperature dropped to 0 during the night. Only a few days before, they had almost 20ºC…
I guess I was just unlucky.

On that last cold morning, I ticked the Eurasian dotterel (Charadrius morinellus), and under the sun! Yes 😀

Then I flew back to Helsinki, where days are warm and the sun shines. Where I can now relax ❤

Stay tuned for more Arctic epicness!!


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12 thoughts on “Force of Will

  1. I was intrigued by your title when I came across it on Rachel’s Sunday Social and I’m glad I popped by…your post was thrilling to read, full of gorgeous photos and your struggle with the weather…I can hardly wait to read more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Kimberlee! There’s already a second article online, and more is coming soon. Welcome again 😉
      Also, you have no idea how much it means to me that a native English speaker says my posts are thrilling to read (it’s not the first time you write something of the sort), because I really struggle with the language, the vocabulary, I feel my sentences are “heavy”, cumbersome… I feel clumsy x)

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I can hear your voice as I read your words and the words you write flow well enough to thrill this reader…I’ll be popping by soon, I’ve got some catching up to do!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You are one intrepid bird photographer Samuel – facing so many challenges in this rugged terrain. You well deserve all the praise in ‘catching’ the birds. That long tailed duck pic has wonderful details and love those puffins.


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