Trip Report: Musk Ox & Winter Wildlife Tour 2017

Two large males squaring each other up.

This is the most challenging trip that I currently offer, both physically and mentally. This year’s visit was no different. It was a real test of endurance and patience.

The trip started in accommodation that was to the typical high Scandinavian standards: clean, modern, and well heated. Breakfast consisted of a variety of fruits, cereals, continental and cooked buffet. The three-course evening meals were particularly scrumptious.

On the first evening we discussed the program for the following two days over a relaxing dinner. We would be spending the next night camping in the mountain. This year I introduced the option of a dogsled ride to make the journey up much easier. However, on this occasion, due to the low snowfall and unusually cold nights, much of the trails had become very icy. This made it unsafe for us to travel up with the dogs. Any bump over hard ice at speed has the potential of throwing an inexperienced rider off the sled. So we decided it was better that we just send our gear up with the musher (a dog handler) while we set off on foot.

The hike up is not easy, especially if you’re not used to hill walking. This, combined with snowshoes, low temperatures and steep inclines, calls for a good stamina. Fortunately everyone had had some previous climbing experience and was reasonably fit, so we managed to hike up in reasonable time.

Once we got to our usual sheltered spot, it was time to grab the snow shovels and set up the tents. With a few pairs of hands, we completed the task fairly swiftly. A quick lunch and a cup of warm tea promptly followed.

These friendly Huskies helped bring our essentials up.

Finally, it was time to set out to do some photography. Musk Oxen usually like to stay high up in exposed areas where they can access the meager vegetation in winter without wasting too much energy. Unfortunately for us, this invariably means more climbing, usually to the very highest point in any given area. This is also because it offers the best vantage point from which to spot them.

Our super able Norwegian guide, Sig, sped off ahead of us and pretty soon he was able to locate a herd of Musk Ox. They were resting in the shade behind one of the high ridges about an hour’s hike from our camp.

With good guidance and a careful approach, everyone was able to get into a position where we could have a clear view of the entire group. With this we began photographing them. Being in the shade and periodically rising to the ridge where there was a strong backlight meant that we had to watch our exposure carefully. The other challenge was of composition, as often the individuals in the group overlapped or stood in front of boulders, making a clean shot impossible.

Gradually the sun started to set and the sky first turned to a burnt orange, then to a lovely shade of salmon pink. It was at this time also that the temperature really dropped. And as we’ve been standing on the exposed ridges for a couple of hours, some of us began to really suffer. As this glorious light started to lose its glow, we decided to turn back, arriving at our tents just before it got dark.

A mighty Musk Ox at sunset.

Not much later, dinner was served. This was in the form of a warm, rich and flavoursome Reindeer stew with rice. Nothing beats sitting together having some delicious hot food after a cold and tiresome, but rewarding day.

As we had clear sky that evening, we decided to try for some night photography. Unfortunately the moon was three quarters full so it rendered the scene almost daylit when we did long exposures. Still, it was fun and after a few quick shots, we got into our tent to bed down.

Sleeping under the stars.

This night was by far the coldest that I’ve personally experienced up here. Just before dawn it had plummeted to -30C with wind chill. Understandably everyone was a little slow in getting out the next morning. Our plan was to get to the high ridges again before sunrise to catch the golden light, but we arrived just a little too late.

Very quickly Sig spotted a couple of large males sparing on a flat strip not far below where we were. But there was no easy access to them other than circumnavigating past the main group before we could descend. This took a few minutes as the slope where we could get down was very close to the males. By the time we were in position, the aggression had somewhat dissipated, as they were distracted by our presence. But it was still amazing to be in such proximity to these magnificent creatures and we had the opportunity to get some close-ups.

We stayed until about noon before heading back to camp. The walk was long but peaceful. When we got our lunches out, it was really apparent that the cold had hit a new low overnight, as everything was frozen solid. We had to start our small camping stove to thaw the food before we could chew through them!

After that it was time to pack up. Everything bar the camera bags fitted snugly onto the sledges. So Sig, Tell (who is his lovely German Pointer) and I took to the pulling duties. It didn’t take us very long to get down to the main road again.

As we were loading the trailer up, Sig tried to start the Land Rover but just couldn’t. Again it was due to the ultra low temperatures overnight. So we sat in the car and chatted until our replacement car came, in the form of a classic Daimler I might add, to take us back to our hotel.

A hot shower has never felt so good, and we appreciated the modern Nordic cuisine just as much. It is so true that without the lows, you’ll never appreciate the highs. Yes, we all ached a little and were slightly worn out, but we lived to tell the tale. Did I mention it was -30C the night before?

Two Musk Oxen jostling on the slope.

The next morning we headed out before sunrise to a local farm where a hide has been set up for photographing Moose and deer. It’s a basic construction consisting of a wooden A-frame and some camouflage scrim. So we were once again very exposed to the elements. But as we’ve endured the most extreme conditions at higher ground, a mere -10C didn’t seem too daunting.

I must say that we were very lucky, because on each of the two sessions, at dawn and in the afternoon, we had two appearances, each lasting about 20 minutes. At the closest point, the Moose was less than 30 feet away. And towards the end, a young Red Deer hind turned up just where the late afternoon sun hit. A magical end to a productive day.

Moose are usually very shy animals.

Photographing Musk Ox in winter out in the open is truly very different to most of the trips available today. There is no snowmobile to take you to the shoot each way, no cozy bed to climb into at night, and certainly no fancy restaurant in sight. But what you do get, is a unique experience that will stay with you for a lifetime. What I’m particularly proud of, is that we were photographing wildlife with little to no impact. Even though it’s hard work getting around, I fully support the ban on motorized vehicles in these national parks.

My sincere thanks to Celia, Linda and Arun – it was tough up there and you handled it like troopers. And of course Sig and Tell, for your expertise, help and fantastic company.

If you want to try something different and you think you have what it takes, then consider joining us next year on our Musk Ox & Winter Wildlife Tour.