68 degrees North in the Arctic Circle is one of Norway’s most photogenic locations, the spectacular Lofoten archipelago. Adorned by breath taking mountain peaks rising majestically from the Norwegian Sea, the seven islands of Lofoten are strung together by a series of road-bridges and jewelled with brightly coloured rorbuer (wooden fishermen’s huts) nestling in sheltered inlets and shores. The rorbuer mark an economy that has for 6000 years been underpinned by the fishing industry, artic cod annually migrating from the Barents Sea to nearby spawning grounds, but are now often offered as holiday accommodation to enthusiastic tourists, eager to immerse themselves in Norwegian history and culture.
My husband John and I are two such tourists, who for some years have marvelled at striking images from esteemed photographers and imagined the thrill of photographing such an enchanting landscape. Eventually the lure of Lofoten won us over and in 2018 we booked the flights from Edinburgh to Leknes. We would travel at the end of January 2019, when the islands would be slowly pulling themselves from the dark Polar Night, the sun gracing the land once again with its soft warming light for just a few short hours in the day and giving (we hoped) ideal photographic conditions.
There’s something very exciting about the thought of visiting the Arctic Circle in the depth of winter, a frozen wilderness with a harsh climate that can make even the most seasoned of travellers feel like intrepid explorers. So, when our time eventually came to leave behind our familiar Scottish shores, we made sure we were well prepared for all eventualities, suitcases packed to the brim with everything from merino wool thermal underwear to balaclavas and hand / feet warmers. We laughed at our over-zealous preparations.
The first leg of our journey was from Edinburgh to Norway’s capital city of Oslo, where we would stay for two nights in an airport hotel before taking the final flight to Lofoten. Our intention had been to spend a day exploring Oslo, but to our surprise we were told that most shops and tourist venues in the city would be closed, Norway firmly holding onto the tradition of Sunday being a day of rest. So, we did exactly that. We rested up, relaxing in the hotel, reading and following the Social Media posts of photographers we knew to be in Lofoten already, whetting our appetites for the adventure to come.
As the day wore on however the Social Media jungle drums began to beat, faintly at first, before gathering in intensity and volume. The islands were being battered by one of the harshest winter storms in decades, two metres of snow had fallen in some places, all flights were cancelled, severe avalanche risk had closed the main arterial E10 road and whole villages had been cut off. The Arctic was in its most menacing guise, reminding all those around of just how forbidding an environment it could be.
Now being seasoned travellers, we are used to the odd set-back, but this situation was one of the most extreme we had faced. From our Oslo hotel we already knew that even if our Leknes flight did leave the following morning, we were highly unlikely to reach our ultimate destination of Reine in the south of Lofoten due to the E10 road closure. We needed a back-up plan and quickly to avoid being stranded in Leknes in such extreme conditions.
Without delay we got to work, scouring hotel sites in an effort to find emergency accommodation. It became apparent however that many other tourists in and around Lofoten were doing exactly the same, so we found just one small bedroom in a local house, although it really wasn’t our preferred choice. We retired to bed unsettled, wondering what the next day would bring.
The alarm woke us abruptly at 6am. Oslo was starting a new day with more heavy snow-filled skies. We quietly went into autopilot, repacking our suitcases and checking our flight documentation, before jumping on the hotel shuttle service to the airport. We were fully expecting to be told that our flight to Leknes was either severely delayed or cancelled, but no, the desk attendant checked in our bags with indifference and we were told to make our way to the boarding gate.
Now, not being a good flyer, I wasn’t entirely sure I was happy the flight was scheduled to leave on time! The runway was covered in ice and snow and I fretted at how this little Dash 8 twin propeller aeroplane would cope should the Arctic conditions become more extreme as we flew the 2 hours north. Wavering, I discreetly checked my phone’s internet for flights back to the UK – they were there, they were available and we could be back to the relative safety of Scotland by nightfall if we really wanted. John sat next to me, confident and excited at the prospect of getting to Lofoten, or so I thought. Torn with nerves, I reminded myself we were brave intrepid explorers about to discover a faraway Arctic land and this was to be part of our experience. We boarded the small plane which took to the skies with ease.
Two hours later the plane slowly descended through sunny blue skies into Leknes, giving us our first glimpses of a stunning white winter wonderland below. The flight had been excellent, hardly even a bump of turbulence, the little Dash 8 landing confidently on the snow packed runway of our final destination. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It mattered not that the biggest challenge lay ahead of us, finding accommodation for the days that the E10 road was expected to stay closed, I was just glad to be back on terra firma.
Leknes is a small Norwegian town, just 2.5 square kilometres and with a population of approximately 3500. It has only one major hotel brand, the Scandic Leknes, which for the past 24 hours had been showing as fully booked online. We knew we had the little bedroom in a local house to fall back upon if all else failed, but being a family home with small children, we far preferred to find more standard tourist accommodation if possible. On picking up our hire car we decided to take a chance and drive to the Scandic hotel, put on our most apprehensive demeanours and ask if there was any possible room at the inn.
Luckily for us, the hotel’s cancellation policy was such that they did now have a room they could offer us for 4 nights. After that we would have to find an alternative, but we hoped by then the E10 road south would be open. The relief that washed over us both was palpable and I could see then just how concerned John had also quietly been about the whole situation. Excitement crept back into us both, we were in the Arctic, we were safe and well, and we had two weeks of exploring to do with our cameras!
The E10 road north remained open so we concentrated our efforts in the first couple of days on landscapes between Leknes and Svolvær, almost 70km apart. Our little 4x4 hire car with its studded winter tyres coped remarkably well with the challenging driving conditions. We marvelled at how resilient the Norwegian people seemed to be, an army of tractors busy clearing the roads. Passing many small houses with vehicles still entirely buried in snow, we wondered when the arduous task of digging them out would begin. Locals fervently told stories of avalanche experts being drafted into the south of Lofoten to assess the ongoing dangers and stranded inhabitants being air-lifted to safety. The islands were still in crisis mode, fighting a time critical battle back to some semblance of normality.
In many respects it felt almost wrong to be enjoying the north as a tourist whilst being aware of the hardships being experienced in the South, but we also knew that everybody was safe and accounted for. It was only a matter of time before the authorities would bring the islands back to normal, controlled explosions already taking place to remove avalanche danger from the most precarious of mountain peaks. So, we pressed on with this adventure of a lifetime, adjusting our itinerary almost daily to accommodate the latest developments.
The north of the island was beautiful and expansive. We could have stopped every five minutes with our cameras, such was its charm. Our biggest challenge however was finding pull-in places for the car, the snow piled as high as 3 metres on the sides of the roads. When we did find somewhere to stop the car, the road and parking visibility were often obscured by the extremity of the winter conditions, such that we were never quite sure whether we should be parking there or not. On one occasion at Haukland Beach we embarrassingly suffered the wrath of an irate bus driver, shouting across the snow-covered beach for the owner of the car to move it. We tried to hurry back to our vehicle but the deep snow made the speed of our return equivalent to that of a snail’s pace, the bus driver’s anger building as he watched our weakened efforts. Thankfully we only made such a mistake once.
We had to be even more careful of where we walked when we did venture from the car. The landscape was unfamiliar to us and the depth of the snow varied considerably between locations, masking the ground beneath us. It would have been all too easy to step on cracked ice or find ourselves trapped in a deep snow drift. The islands were exceptionally busy with other photographers bravely venturing forth, so we tentatively tried to follow in footprints left in the snow to get to the photographic sweet spots we craved.
Despite all of the challenges, we instantly fell in love with Lofoten and started putting the cameras quickly through their paces. We knew the best was yet to come, the South of the island far more dramatic and photogenic than the North, but we waited patiently for the E10 road to reopen. We also took this time to reorganise our remaining accommodation, cancelling our lodgings in Reine completely and booking a beautiful 2-bedroom apartment in Leknes. With the unpredictability of the weather, we wanted the reassurance of staying in a central location, knowing we would easily be able to get to the airport for our flight back home, regardless of any weather fronts that moved in.
Three days later our wait ended. The E10 road to Reine was finally open! We wasted no time in packing the car and venturing south, well before the sun rose the following morning. Our destination was Hamnøy, Sakrisøy and Reine. The drive South was far from straightforward. Winds had picked up, whipping up snow and scattering it in drifts across the dark road. Just before reaching Flakstad the visibility became so poor, we contemplated turning back. Knowing the sun would come up shortly and make the driving conditions easier, we persevered.
The darkness of our surrounds intimidated us. We knew the road we were travelling had only just opened and was flanked with formidable mountain peaks covered in fresh thick snow, but all we could see was the headlights of the car illuminating white snow as it drifted in front of us. John drove slowly and carefully, often pulling to a complete halt when blinded by white out conditions. I sat nervously in the passenger seat, wondering if the challenges of this trip were becoming too great, willing the sun to break the horizon and make our drive less hazardous. Eventually the darkness ebbed away and dawn broke over Lofoten, both of us once again heaving a huge sigh of relief.
Finally we found ourselves standing on the bridge of Hamnøy, photographing the famous red rorbuer at the base of the majestic Festhelltinden mountain. The view before us was incredible, even more dramatic than the best photographs we had seen before making this trip. True, we were surrounded by hordes of other eager photographers, all staking claim to a space on the bridge from which to photograph this iconic scene, but there was simply nothing that could detract from the awesomeness of standing in this spot, taking in this view, soaking in this corner of the Arctic.
The hours and days that followed became a whirlwind of early morning rises and late afternoon finishes, daylight hours rapidly extending day by day. We put a lot of miles on our little hire car, venturing to the most amazing of viewpoints, trekking through deep snow, waiting for the light to be at its optimum. Trying to catch the best of the light in Lofoten is a 24-hour game for a photographer in winter. Sunrise is a sublime time to see the islands awaken, our memories of standing in Reine watching the mountains catch the first dawn light will stay with us forever.
The hour before sunset could also herald some nice photographic opportunities, Haukland beach being a favourite destination of ours. The most desired light, however was the dancing green light of the Aurora Borealis when darkness descended, something we were very privileged to see on two occasions during our visit.
Before we could say ‘it is snowing in Lofoten’ our two weeks were over and we found ourselves packing for the long journey home with some sadness. We had wanted an Arctic adventure and the Arctic has given us one we would never forget. We had gone through a myriad of emotions, excitement, fear, relief, wonder, happiness and sadness. We had wanted to be intrepid explorers braving the Arctic and that is exactly what we had become.