Midnight’s Day Dance
IT NEEDED TO BE A BEAUTIFUL PLACE WITH A PARTICULAR FEEL – PHYSICALLY CHALLENGING WITH A TOUCH OF DANGER.
★ Photography & Words : PlanetVisible
A stillness in the Arctic air warns summer’s long days will soon end and the cold northern breezes will call the winter in. But for the moment is endless light, and if fortunate, a midnight sun dancing with the horizon.
It all started with a daydream in the shower. Stand-Up Paddling in pure, untouched nature with unpredictable weather, no cruise-liners plying nearby waters, no wellness retreats or smashed avocado on toast; the only suite a tent with outdoor toilet. We would camp wild, fish for food and explore some of the regions beautiful mountains and lakes. Why not?
The chance to experience the midnight sun was what drew us three– French Photographer Jean-Luc Grossmann, Czech psychiatrist, Karel Kukal, and Australian Photographer Justin Hession– to undertake a self-supported 15-day, 250-kilometer Stand-Up Paddle journey in Norway, north of Tromsø, well within the Arctic Circle, around the islands of Rebbenesoya, Grotoya and Nordkvaløya.
Popular in Europe, Stand-Up Paddling is mostly on lakes and rivers, but hasn’t really branched out into the adventure or expedition world. We wanted to explore the boundaries of how these13-foot inflatable boards handle a multi-week pack trip loaded down with the weight of all our camping gear, food, water, clothing, not to mention our photography equipment all strapped down to the boards in waterproof bags.
At the 70th parallel, life can be tough and cold, windy, dangerous but it also offers a recreational playground for adventure and wilderness. Half a year of planning, training in freezing rainy weather, a weekend expedition to the mountains and much equipment testing later, we were finally facing the Norwegian Sea.
And the day was perfect. Standing on our SUPs, we were in harmony with the sea. As we paddled and confronted this rugged landscape riding the ocean swell, we couldn’t help but feel thrilled to be here. Silently, without a splash, our paddle blades cut through the crimson blue water. Life was good.
Little by little, the midnight sun and 24-hour-long summer days became the norm. Yet concerns still lingered. Will extra weight make paddling difficult? Will poor aerodynamics hinder our progress? Will the waves push against us? Will wind make paddling impossible?
Water temperature was a definite worry. Any failure of our inflatable boards while a few kilometers from land, meant the equipment weight would soon have one in the freezing water. But headwind is the biggest adversary of a Stand-Up Paddler. Seas can turn from still ponds to raging swells within minutes. A sudden change of wind direction could blow us offshore, where, if anything went wrong, there was nothing but empty sea for a thousand kilometers.
Luck was on our side the first few days as the weather was calm and mild. We covered some good distances, paddled side by side, chatted, joked around and finally felt free under the summer sun. This small archipelago of islands 50 km north of Tromso lay in a remote area with no road access. The westerly sides are exposed to the weather, and they are rugged and wild with stunning seascapes and vertical cliff faces. On many occasions we felt very small beneath these breathtaking ocean-sculpted landscapes. Being so far north, we had hourly puffin flybys, migrating Arctic terns, and sea eagles gliding off the vertiginous cliffs nearby. Dolphins and curious seals poked their heads out of the water, but in this region the seals have been extensively hunted for food (in fact Tromso owes its very existence to the trade), so it’s understandable they kept away.
When wind conditions prevented us from paddling, we explored the region on foot. The sceneries on land have nothing to envy the ones at sea. Our SUPs allowed us to get close to rugged shores and gave us access to some great camping spots.
Finding camping spots was seldom difficult. There was definitely no competition for the prime spots. Norway has an Outdoor Recreation Act which stipulates ‘freedom to roam’, so one can camp on private land as long as it’s not with 150m of a residency and if it’s more than two nights, one must seek permission from the landowner. Following our maps, we tracked landing sites for overnighting–a protected cove or sandy beach area. The many small islands held the most intrigue. Perhaps it was it the Robinson Crusoe island lifestyle or just the fact that it’s rare to overnight on an island no matter where it is, so best take advantage. After setting up camp, fishing was always the next priority. In this spectacular scenery, fishing was a source of contemplation and meditation. Eating a mussel starter and fish curry main was definitely one of our culinary highlights.
The islands in summer are covered in thousands of wildflowers fighting for their summer freedom. After a long winter in hibernation, the short burst of endless summer days was a steroid for photosynthesis. Colors varied from whites to yellows and subtle purples. Waking up surrounded by a field of flowers was a wonderful way to kick off the day.
Of all the islands, Sørfugeløya was dark and powerful and held one spellbound, staring at its vertical walls rising from the depths. When the sun shone, the cliffs texture exposed the scars from years of heavy winter winds. Its pyramid silhouette shimmered against the backdrop of the evening sky, as if sighted through a Sahara mirage. Images of King Kong and Skull Island fueled the mystery, and it was hard to imagine that Merian C Cooper wouldn’t have been instantly inspired. Apart from its sheer beauty, Sørfugeløya is an important bird sanctuary. An estimated 20,000 Puffin’s breed on the cliffs and razorbills and guillemots gather there to nest and rear their young ones, enjoying the warmth of the Arctic sun. The island has been designated a nature reserve.
Halfway through the trip, it became evident that the midnight sun was being elusive. As evenings fell, the clouds came and stretched to the horizon, creating an impenetrable wall. It was like staying up to watch a fireworks display in the fog. There were clear nights, everything was set for the big show, but then the sun got all shy and hid beneath the clouds at the last moment. Patient and cameras were at ready, we had 15 days, but nature was not interested in peacocking herself.
The photographers in our group enjoyed the creative challenge of capturing nature’s essence on film and found it nice to be part of a team as opposed to the usual solitary world of freelancing. We used both photography and a drone for bird’s eye aerial stills of the landscape and for video footage. Being behind and in front of the camera was unfamiliar, but exciting, as was ‘on-board’ photography. One slight tilt and our gear could end up in the water. Our photo studio and flashes spectacularly turned into a huge photography playground lit by the giant spotlight of the midnight sun.
More than taking photos, though, of all the activities, paddling consumed most of our effort. The stroke was without thought–balance an instinct. The sound of the paddle was the beat, not quite a Viking drum, but perfect for our ocean surroundings. Standing on our floating island, supplies strapped to her deck, emphasized our loneliness. We were fragile and nature strong.
While paddling our daily 5 to 10 hours, our thoughts would drift with the Arctic terns as they skimmed the swells. The ultimate travelers, covering over 40,000 miles each year as they travel from pole to pole, they are streamlined flying machines. These terns accompanied us on our short trip, always playing, always hunting. Norway always put on a show.
Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen made history and became a national hero in Norway when, accompanied by four men, he reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911. As if this weren’t enough, he was also the first man to navigate the Northwest Passage, and the first to fly across the Arctic Ocean. His travels were admired, written about and became legend.
We came to the Arctic with definitely less ambition but with a similar fascination to experience life under the midnight sun–to feel the 24-hour daylight. Till the end, it felt as though the weather never wanted to play its part as we had scripted it. But as we paddled to our final overnight, the blue sky built up the courage to fight off the clouds. As day was pretending to briefly bid us adieu, the elusive moment arrived. The sun finally danced with the horizon. As if nature decided to grant us a wish, our trip ended with just the element that made this journey an extraordinary memory between three friends.
Check our blog post – Half way on our stand up paddle journey in northern Norway. http://planetvisible.com/half-way-on-our-stand-up-paddle-journey-in-northern-norway/
Check our blog post – Be curious. Be adventurous. Be safe. http://planetvisible.com/be-curious-be-adventurous-be-safe
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