Obey the Arctic
It takes a bus, a train, four flights, and a rugged drive for me to reach the northern ends of the world known as the Lofoten Islands. An archipelago arcing out of the Norwegian mainland at the 68th and 69th parallel beyond the Arctic Circle, this is base camp for one week in August while shooting Lufthansa’s "Life Changing Places" campaign. This is as far North as I may ever travel in life. And these are my accountings.
Obey the Arctic
The sky is indecisive, deferring to a sun refusing to slip low past the horizon. Beyond the blue black night, the swells of the Norwegian Sea pound up against the stony shores. Its dreadful sound floods the valley, sweeping in through the open window of our cabin. In the intervals, the winds carry the baa-baa of sheep popcorned over moss green. I rendezvous with my team for dinner and opt for a few hours of sleep before a dawn shoot. Far removed from the Equator, sunset is at 23:00 and sunrise at 03:00. Time is elastic, stretched independent of my watch. When I finally sink into a restless slumber, it’s to a disconcerting dream of losing my camera. The alarm rings far too soon. I dress in thermal base layers, cold weather wear, and thick woollen socks. We press piping hot coffee for our thermos and spread open a map under the dim cabin light to review the day’s shooting locations.
The Defender soon shudders to life. Cocooned, and faces pressed to rain dotted glass, we face the freezing dawn. From Latin, the words primus (first) and ordiri (to begin) bedrock the expression: primordial. And here, we are anything but primary; nature is set against us intruders. The Arctic air is brittle, crackling cold. It slices into my lungs with razor-sharp clarity. An endless sea of clouds roil out of the horizon, thrashing down sheets of whiplash rain. Fog flows to an arcane dance over Mordor peaks, fiendish and serrated. I feel measured and unwanted. As if to flee, we make for the southern coastlines of Lofoten. We arrive in Reine to our skipper impatient aboard his trawler; he’s been awake for hours, Viking heritage giving him no quarter. We round the harbour beneath ash grey skies and enter the sea into Kjerkfjorden as the dawn evicts the night rain in a screen of gold. We sail beneath the impassive gaze of sea eagles perched high on thrones of scaly stone that shimmer silver before plunging into the oily surface of the fjord. Lofoten is Jurassic in nature, prehistoric and untamed.
With coastlines rimmed by small houses painted in yellows and red, the shipyards are marked by wooden x-frames for drying cod from late winter to early spring. They are the skeletal memories of fishermen returned home, yet unclaimed by the sea. They are the sighs of relief for wives, mothers, and children. They are the sigils of people who dare to exist beyond the Arctic Circle. Over them, a Norwegian flag eerily flutters in the breeze. As we sail by, I ask myself: Will this place remember us? Far after we’ve disappeared, will the stones slowly recrystallise our memories into itself? I’m struck with an unnerving feeling of being consumed into dark densities, layered and hardened, to faintly glimmer as the sun strikes through the morning fog.
Lulled by the promise atop those heights, we decide on summiting Nonstind to overlook the valley of Unstad. A goat trail leads up the precarious ridge but we are forced to abandon against the slaughtering wind. Rerouting to the southern face, frosty waters of Lake Utdalsvatnet leer up from beneath our feet. Lichen, roots, and crumbling stone - grabbing fistfuls of earth at a time, we haul ourselves up the 45º incline. As the peak nears, the terrain turns craggy, threaded together by the gnarled roots of krummholz, stunted and deformed. Their solitude violated, the wind shrieks in response. In defiance, we stand at cliff’s edge, shouting down into the valley floor. The Arctic muffles our attempts, swallowing them away into its expanse.
Later in the week with the key shoots done, the team favours sleep. I did not however come all this way to forego Arctic surfing. With the clock striking 21:00 and hours of sunlight left, I reach for a wetsuit, 5mm thick, covering every inch of skin save for eyes, cheeks, and nose. The rain is a steady drone, comforting, as I trek for the coastline, board in hand, and wet gravel crunching beneath my feet. I paddle out on a 9’6” single fin. The waves are stained in black ink, shimmering silver in the half-light; dappled in the August rain, steamrolling skyward before releasing constrain. Crested in glacial emerald, they shatter in salt sprays, crystalline. And shifting in the Arctic wind, hammer down, dark and powerful.
The shore recedes and the crags of Unstad loom with eternal monstrosity. Against their backdrop, gulls wheel about like vultures. Somewhere down a rocky path lined by tall Arctic grass, a small wooden sauna will thaw me out. For now, I lurch over feral waters. The unleashed clouds twist wild and violent. I taste fresh rain on my lips, sweet. And I begin to laugh like a madman, uncontrolled.
Text & Photography: Mr. Vagabond
Lufthansa • Life Changing Places