Visit Trondheim recently brought me back to Trondelag, Norway, to photograph the area in all its winter glory. My friend and guide Eirik Mjøen, who runs Mid-Norway Adventure, took me to stay a night at a cabin (the ubiquitous Norwegian ‘hytte’) that has been in his family since the late 1800s. The trailhead to the cabin is a short ferry ride and drive from Trondheim, following a scenic route that hugs the curves of Tronheimsfjorden on the north side. Under several feet of snow, the best way to reach the cabin at this time of year is by snowmobile, skis or snowshoe.
Loaded down with the lion’s share of the supplies in an intimidatingly large Norwegian military backpack, Eirik opted for skis. They’re quick and easy, he said. I chose snowshoes. I’ve cross-country skied a handful of times, and while it is a truly exhilarating way of seeing the backcountry in winter, my experiences involved a considerable amount of falling and some frustration with not being able to swivel around 180 degrees at a moment’s notice. I knew that my camera gear would be much safer on snowshoes, and that I would feel freer in body and mind. I had imagined many times before that day that I would love snowshoeing, and I was absolutely right. They suited me entirely.
Fortunately for us, a snowmobile had recently smoothed out the trail, crosshatching the snow with tank tread and ski tracks. It was surprisingly easy going at first, and I made good time, much to my and Eirik’s surprise. It was one of those blindingly overcast days where the sun burns behind a cottony film, bouncing light back and forth between blankets of snow and cloud. There was no wind and the forest was profoundly silent and still (although as I write that I think of the illusion of silence and stillness on earth, and of the hubris of such a claim, locked as it is in my relative perception of it—the forming of a droplet is movement, the growing of a spruce needle a sound). Suffice to say we were wayfarers there, and the noisiest things in the vicinity.
As I listened to my breath and the slap and crunch of my footsteps I thought of a quote I’d read recently in Gary Snyder’s book of essays The Practice of the Wild. In it he writes, ‘The wilderness pilgrim’s step-by-step breath-by-breath walk up a trail, into those snowfields, carrying all on the back, is so ancient a set of gestures as to bring a profound sense of body-mind joy.’ I absolutely agree with Snyder, there is an atavistic feeling that arises from carrying your pack on a hike, retying the strands that link us to those that traveled that way for hundreds of years before us. Our species has always walked.
I experienced this as an ecstasy of muscle and breath, moving along the surface of snow. My pack—laden with supplies, lenses and kit—felt almost buoyant on my back, and my thoughts and intentions became fleeting, as in meditation. The physical strain and the humbling surroundings slowly settled my senses into the there and then.
As I made my way through the thickets of half buried spruce trees, I looked out for animal trails. These belonged mainly to ptarmigan (sinuous and Sanskrit-like) and hare (triangular and long back-footed), with one rare lynx trail, out of its safety zone and on the hunt. I was struck, as I often am when I’m out in the wilderness, by the unwitnessed life of the wild.
The cotton ball sun cast muted shadows, which somewhat dulled the army green tones of the spruce and the bare branches of birch, elm and aspen trees. Although the conditions didn’t make for ideal photos, I snapped away anyhow, eager to capture the joyous heightening of my senses.
We reached the cabin mid-afternoon, and before we could make ourselves at home, Eirik had to clear the several feet of snow that blocked the chimney. The cabin was quite literally buried in snow, with piles reaching halfway up its windows on all sides. Inside, the cabin felt like a living museum, with no running water or electricity, filled with furniture and family photos from the late 1800s and 1900s. The cabin has had quite a life, Eirik told me, having been at one point disassembled and then reassembled several meters up the hill. It and the surrounding hills also served as a hiding place for Jews and resistant Norwegians during WWII. I fell very much in love with it. It was, to my mind, a perfect ‘cabin in the woods’. We started a fire in the wood burning stove and unpacked our rucksacks, readying ourselves for an evening wander up over the hills.
We set out and made our way up the neighbouring hills (called Flintheia and Durmålshaugen), which overlooked an isolated lake and the low, rolling mountains that stretch across north Trondelag. The going was much more strenuous without a laid trail, but soon we were signing the logbook at the crest of Durmålshaugen and feeling triumphant. The sunset at this latitude lasts for what seems like ages, and much of our journey was bathed in a soft white, pink and blue glow. I took one of my favourite shots of the journey -- a cairn at the top of Flintheia in evening light.
I was more than ready to get back to the cabin, and Eirik put some frozen reindeer stew on the stove to thaw. We drank some of Eirik’s homemade beer and mjød (fermented honey water) and chatted easily about all sorts of things. I am, unabashedly, a gear junky, and I can talk for hours with anyone who loves the outdoors and the ingenious tools that we humans have invented to make ourselves more comfortable in the wild. We swapped stories of adventure and plans for the future until it was time to bed down in our winter sleeping bags and call it a night.
I awoke at about 3 am (all the beer, you see) and went outside to our snow privy. We had hoped for aurora, to no avail, but instead we were given a stunningly clear and still night, almost pitch black under a new moon. The Milky Way arched almost flat on its side over the cabin, so I grabbed my tripod and camera and shot a few shots of the scene, illuminating the cabin with my headlamp. I used my 16-35mm lens on my Canon 6D, set at ISO 3200, f2.8 for 30 seconds.
Next morning we woke to a perfect day and made ready to leave, washing dishes and sweeping out the cabin. I took some shots of my Fisher Price mountain men and Schleich wolves and bear in the blazing morning sun (a story for another post). I lamented the shortness of our stay and hoped I’d be lucky enough to return again someday.