Dovrefjell in January
In the midst of a month long trip to Europe that had little to do with Wildlife or Photography, i managed a week long escape to Norway to revisit a place that i had discovered in September last year, but this time with a mid-winter backdrop. I teamed up once more with Arnfinn Johansen (http://arnfinnjohansen.com/welcome), and once again he took care of logistics and everything that matters. And logistics do matter when visiting Dovrefjell in winter, as a thick layer of snow covers the terrain, and temperatures can drop as low as -30 C. His plan was to use the Reinheim cabin, at the heart of the National Park, as a base camp, and to roam around from there in the search of Wildlife, that means Musk Oxen and wild Reindeers for the most part. Going there is no small feat though, a rather demanding 20km ski trek from the road at Hjerkinn, and given the weight of our gear he suggested that we hire a dog sledge for the trip and the pick-up, a fantastic opportunity to experience for the first time a very nordic way of traveling. It wasn’t cheap, nothing is in Norway, but it turned out to be a really fun way of making the journey while discovering the difficulties of maneuvering a 12 dogs’ sledge on a rugged mountain terrain. It took 3 hours to cover the distance, and then we could comfortably settle inside the cozy cabin, an amazingly luxurious shelter in the midst of rugged wilderness. We are in Norway and people still trust people : the door is not locked, bedding, fire wood and food (!) are all provided, and it is assumed that everyone will clean the place and pay the bill before they leave. It actually used to be like that in France in unattended mountain shelters, but that was 40 years ago.
In the evening the weather forecast proved reliable : a storm came with winds above 20 m/s and lasted for the next 24 hours. Blizzard can provide excellent conditions for wildlife photography, but that was just too much, and Arnfinn warned me about the risks of venturing too far out in such weather : with the wind and snow blowing the tracks away and the low visibility, one can lose its way very easily and be unable to track back to the shelter, even only a few hundred meters away. So we stayed in waiting for the storm to pass, and i was happy i had brought one book to read. The next day the wind had receded and we decided to go and look for the oxen despite the low clouds, the light snow fall and the layers of mist. It took over 2 hours of backcountry ski and 10 kilometers to find a small herd of 7 males, almost at the exact same place where we had taken most of our pictures in September, as if the animals had not moved at all ! As we had had a late start, 10 am, waiting for the sun to rise to better assess the weather, it was already late and we had only one hour to take our pictures if we wanted to come back to the cabin before night. Despite hurrying up, it took us longer than planned to retrace back and it was 5pm, pitch dark, when we finally arrived at Reinheim. Arnfinn’s GPS proved extremely useful as our tracks had at places been fully covered by snow. The next, and final day, i returned to the musk oxen while Arnfinn stayed around the cabin looking for reindeers. I had better conditions for photography with the clouds finally lifting up and uncovering the stunning snowy landscape. I made sure i kept my distances with the oxen : i had learned about their temperamental nature back in September, and I did not want to disturb them in the harsh winter conditions, when simply feeding can be a struggle. Feeding is indeed what they were mostly at, using their forelegs to dig the snow and uncover the vegetation beneath, but occasionally two animals would come head to head and practice a mock fight. During the course of the two hours i spent with them, i could walk a full circle around the herd, keeping my distance, and shoot them in different lights with different backgrounds, a great experience. The next day was the last one, and our dog sledge came to pick us up around noon. In the morning i had time to explore around Reinheim and i could find a small flock of Rock Ptarmigans, the only birds with Ravens that we got to see in Dovrefjell ! On the way back we had a great encounter with a large herd of reindeers that appeared just in front of us on a snowy ridge. I just had time to reach for my camera to get a few shots of the herd as it ran away along the ridge at full speed, keeping compact and soon disappearing into a ravine. The reindeers in Dovrefjell are said to be the only ones in Scandinavia never to have been domesticated, and as they are hunted at the season they are extremely shy and hard to find. A rare sighting and a lucky conclusion to an awesome winter escape.