Recently, I had the opportunity to visit and photograph in Dividal and Rohkunborri National Parks in the Arctic Norway area, exploring them on teams of dogsleds. I live in a cold climate in Eastern Canada, but with forecasted temperatures dropping below -30 Celcius, plus whatever the wind chill is, I knew that I was going to face challenges that I had not encountered before.
Complicating this trip was the fact that I was not simply going up there to do photography. There was the added challenge of preparing and taking care of (and being taken care of!) a team of Alaskan husky sled dogs. These dogs needed to be properly cared for, twice a day. This meant feeding them, putting them on a night line when we finished sledging for the day, and making sure that they were warm. Food needed to be made each night, water fetched from frozen lakes, and all of this in mostly complete darkness with headlamps. It was impossible to keep your hands and gloves dry. In temperatures below -30, this meant that things froze nearly immediately, especially if you took your gloves off for some reason. Grabbing anything metal with bare hands was always a painful experience, because skin sticks to cold metal. Camera bodies are made out of metal.
Equipment Choices for Arctic Norway
The image below is a photo I took a few days before I left. It shows, at the time, what I thought I would be bringing. It looks like a lot of gear, but it all fit inside of the Rab 80 litre kitbag, or my F-Stop 2015 Tilopa. After I took this photo, I swapped a few things out, just camera gear really, and was generally okay with my gear choices.
If I can concentrate on the photography gear first. The photo shows a Nikon D800 body, and several lenses, a Nikkor 20mm/1.8, a Nikkor 24-70/2.8, a Sigma 50mm/1.4 ART, and my Nikkor 105mm/2.8 Macro. After I took this photo, I swapped out a few things and instead replaced the Sigma and the Macro with my Nikkor 16mm/2.8 fisheye, and my Nikkor 70-200/2.8.
The 70-200 proved very useful. I used it quite often, and some of my favourite landscape images from the trip were taken with it. The fisheye, not so much. I also brought a GoPro Hero 3+, which saw almost no use whatsoever. More on battery life in a minute.
The non-photography gear was mostly perfect. I was completely happy with my choice of clothing, Taiga Works sleeping bag + ground pad, Rab Photon pants (protected by Taiga Works Gore-tex shell pants), and various types of gloves. The Taiga products are brilliant, well thought through, and I was never cold at night, or wet during the day. Rab makes some really warm down jackets, and with the Nexus shell over top of it, I never felt more than chilly. What didn’t work? Ski goggles, which I thought would be helpful while on the sledge, were useless. I wore them once, for about 20 minutes on the first day, and once they completely crusted over on the inside with a thick layer of frost because it was well below -30, they spent the remainder of the trip in the kitbag. My boots, despite being perfect for the -20 conditions found in the winter in Eastern Canada, did not do the job while standing on a sledge, not moving, when blasting across a frozen lake at 30km/hour completely exposed to the wind. I left them in the Kitbag and instead borrowed (and have subsequently purchased) a pair of Härkila Inuit 15″ GTX boots that are rated to -90C. These things are absolutely badass, completely waterproof, and I could have gone barefoot in them and stayed warm. Ridiculous, and recommended.
On the subject of headlamps for a minute. While I am normally quite happy with my Petzl headlamp that is quite powerful and rechargeable via USB (the USB came in handy, wait until the battery section), I found that I needed more light when driving the sledge in darkness. The sun sets very early in January in Arctic Norway, and even on high output mode I could not see the front of my dog team very well. The Petzl worked fine for task lighting like ice drilling and camp work, but I think a Led Lenser XEO 19R is in my future.
Battery Life in Arctic Norway
The frigid temperatures murder batteries. First off, the GoPro Hero 3+ batteries lasted literally minutes before completely dying. I am not sure if anyone makes a remote battery pack that can be kept close to your body, with a backpac on the GoPro itself, tethered with a USB cable or something, but that would be incredibly useful. As for the Nikon, it fared much better, but I kept all of my charged spare batteries in a chest pocket on my fleece, inside of my jacket. They spent the nights with me in my sleeping bag. I would periodically rotate the battery in the body out with a warm one. Once the cold one warmed up, it would revive quite a great deal. I was impressed. I knew it was probably going to be fine based on past experiences shooting in cold temperatures, but I was still careful. The Petzl headlamp, despite not really being bright enough for sledge driving, was very battery efficient and only needed to be recharged once, from an Outdoor Tech battery pack that I brought with me. The Outdoor Tech was able to recharge the headlamp once completely and my phone several times without dropping to less than half capacity. Another recommend.
Gloves for Photography and Dogsledding in Arctic Norway
For this trip, you really needed three pairs of gloves. While on the sledge, you needed a down filled mitten that blocked wind. There’s really no other way to keep your hands warm. Gloves don’t cut it. And pro tip — wearing a liner glove inside of a down mitten is a shitty idea. Your fingers need to touch. When dealing with the dogs, you need a thin glove because you’re handling chains, small clips, and getting fingers under tight fitting harnesses and collars, so you need dexterity. It’s a cold, wet job. The chains are buried in snow, the bowls of dog food are wet and your gloves get soaked, and it just isn’t fun. So you learn to work quickly, and (important part!) you rotate those gloves out with your down mittens to thaw your fingers out again. When not wearing my wet liner gloves I would put them in a small plastic bag and then put them in an insulated pocket. This keeps my jacket from getting wet from the inside, and keeps the glove from turning into a block of ice, which would happen in minutes otherwise. Don’t put the wet dog gloves inside of your mittens. That just gets the second pair wet and then you have no place to hide.
For photography, I used a pair of Swany Toaster gloves that were freaking awesome. The Toasters have a liner glove that is e-tip, with a side zip overmitten that is water proof. When you want to use the camera, you unzip the side of the overmitten, stick your hand out, do your thing, and then zip them back up again. Worked very well, but it was really important that I kept these gloves completely dry. That meant no digging around in the snow for dropped lens caps, or messing around with locks on my tripod that were covered in snow from being buried in the ground. Only quibble is that the zipper is hard to zip back up again with your hand because the glove flexes. For walking around in the deep snow carrying a camera on a tripod, I found them warm enough. Not sweaty warm, but “comfortable”.
So much of this comes down to thinking before you did something. Before every move, I would ask myself if I was about to do something that would cause problems with a shot, keep me from shooting afterward, or make me cold.
Coming in from the Cold
This is pretty important. If you find yourself about to go into a tent that is substantially warmer than it is outside, put your camera (and anything else you want to keep condensation free), in a sealed plastic bag. Don’t go inside and THEN do it. The minute warmer air with humidity hits the camera, it will condense. This includes snow that might have gotten into your camera bag and begins to melt, especially if the bag is closed. If your camera is covered in condensation and you go back outside with it, everything freezes solid and you’ll be scraping frost off of the front of your lenses, or worse, dealing with frost on the mirror or sensor inside the body. This happened to me, and I lost a whole day of shooting because I wasn’t careful.
That’s about it. I need to thank FStop Gear, Bardu HuskyLodge in Bardufoss, and Vertical Shot Expeditions for putting the voyage together. Also, thanks to Altitude Sports in Montreal for their help as well. They are a great resource. If you’d like to see more images, follow DemitasseMedia on Instagram, or Like my page on Facebook. Fine art prints from this trip will soon be available on my website, at www.demitas.se.