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A look back at the 2019 winter touring season.

One of my groups photographing northern light on Senja.

Sony a7s, Sony 16-35mm f2.8 @ 16mm, f2.8, ISO 8000, 1.6s

A few days ago I returned home after leading the last photo tour of this year's winter season. In total I led 7 photo tours for 7 different enthusiastic groups with participants from America, England, Shetland Islands, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany and Switzerland. It was great to welcome back some of my previous guests but also very warming to meet so many new people who had chosen to join me on my tours. Because every single tour was fully booked and there was no time between the tours, I haven't had any time to write anything since the start of the second tour of the season. Now that I have had some days to let sink in all the experiences I had over the past months, I would like to take the time to look back at the season and tell you a bit about how things went down.

This year's winter touring season has been the hardest one for me so far. Not just because the weather conditions were rather challenging, but because my physical condition was far from what it should have been when the season started. Over the span of 2018 I started to struggle with my health. Countless visits to my doctor and several visits to hospitals didn't give any results. It was unclear what was causing my problems, which kept getting worse and worse. My energy seemed to have completely left me by the end of the year and didn't know anymore what to do. Until right now, I have only shared this with the people close to me and the guests who joined these tours. I didn't want to put this out on the social media, since I'm not out for attention. But it has led to my absence on the social media, me not answering messages, e-mails being answered very late or not at all and also my social life has to suffer from it. Therefor I owe the people around me an explanation and thought to do it this way. Since most people will only look at the pictures and only the people who do care will read this, I guess this will reach the right persons.

So back to my health situation. After insisting for 10 months, my doctor finally tested me for Lyme disease. The results came in positive. It took more than a month before I finally started to get my treatment. Sadly this resulted in having to cancel the very first tour of the season. (Christian, thank you so much for your understanding and prioritizing my health!) The treatment started with first 3 weeks with anti-inflammatory pills and painkillers to get rid of the inflammations in my wrists, knees and elbows. This was followed up with 4 weeks of antibiotics, which I just finished last weekend. Now I have to wait another 5 months in order to find out if this treatment was successful. Luckily, since I started to take the antibiotics, my energy level started to increase again. The first 3 tours I did before taking antibiotics and the last 4 tours I did while I was taking the antibiotics. I could clearly notice my physical energy level increase during the last 3 tours. Also the inflammations have not returned as aggressive as they did in the past year. So fingers crossed and hope that this treatment did the trick for me!

As you might imagine, I was physically not prepared for the winter guiding season. Especially the musk-ox tours worried me, since these are rather physically demanding. Luckily the anti-inflammatory pills did a very good job, I just needed to get plenty of rest and get some extra help with the daily tasks during the trips. For the first musk-ox trip, the guests really jumped in and helped everywhere they could, in order to make it easier for me. Thank you guys! It wouldn't have been possible without your help!

For the second musk-ox tour my girlfriend (Ada) joined to help. I'm really blessed to have a girlfriend who shares my passion for the nature and outdoor activities and is in the physical condition to really help also with the heavier tasks. One day I didn't manage to get the pulk with equipment more than halfway the mountain, just until where the steepest part started. Without any problem Ada took the pulk over and got the equipment to the top. And not to forget, she helped me with packing all the sleeping bags, sleeping mats and expedition tents before each trip and helped me to unpack everything again after returning home. Thank you for your help my love!!!

Me pulling the pulk before Ada took over for the actual hard part. Picture by Berend-Jan Bel.

Additionally to the help I received from my guests and girlfriend, the musk-oxen also really helped a lot. This might sound a bit strange, but they really did! Normally the animals are about an hour or longer hike uphill from our base camp. But on the second day of the first trip, the animals had moved down during the night and were standing just couple of hundred meter from our tents. In the following days even more animals moved down to the same plateau and stayed there until the last day of the second trip. Some days we only had to walk about 5 minutes to get to the musk-oxen, which meant that I could save a lot of energy for the coming tours.

Musk-ox bull in the fog, during the day we did get up to the top of the mountain to get to the animals.

Sony a9 with the Sony 400mm f2.8 and 1.4x converter @ 560mm, f4, iso500, 1/1600s.

We were very fortunate to have many musk-oxen close to our camp. This gave us the opportunity to pick the ones which offered the best photographic possibilities and really maximize the days. There were many adult bulls among the groups, which gave us every day plenty of action (see also previous blog). I guess that almost 50% of the pictures I took, are of sparring males. Light conditions were also different from day to day. We got snow, fog, cloudy, snow drift, a little bit snow storm, colorful sunrises and sunsets. This resulted in a brought variety of images in just a short period. Just the real snow storms didn't happen this year during the trips. Maybe next year again.

Musk-ox bull during sunrise, just a 5 minute walk from our tents.

Sony a9 with the Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, f2.8, iso200, 1/8000s

The third tour of the season was a landscape and northern light photo tour in Lyngen and Senja. This tour I do every year in cooperation with Ann Coppens with her traveling agency "DeWereldZien". This tour is not as physically challenging as the musk-ox trips and the fact that Ann and me lead this tour together, helped me a lot. Only the weather didn't really want to work with us. We had some horrible stormy days with a lot of rain and heavy winds. One day on Senja all roads were closed because of the wind and the risk of avalanches. Luckily we had a very understanding group with us, who kept the spirits high and made the most of it. On two nights we could photograph the northern light. Ones in Lyngen and once on Senja.

Three images from Lyngen.

Shot with the Sony a9.

Northern light on Senja.

Sony a9, Sony 16-35mm f2.8 @ 16mm, f2.8, ISO 3200, 2s

This tour was followed up with two tours on the Lofoten Islands, which my good friend Marijn Heuts and me organize together every year. Once again we were blessed with two amazing groups, who also got to endure some horrible weather conditions. The first tour started off with heavy snowfall, which gradually changed into heavy rain. This repeated itself over several days. Luckily we also got some periods without precipitation and with spectacular clouds. One night the sky even cleared up and lady aurora was dancing above the heads of our guests. Marijn had to assist the group by himself that night, since I was in bed recharging my battery. Luckily this was the only occasion where I had to withdraw myself from the group to get some extra rest.

Of course we visited our favorite bird species on the Lofoten Islands, the Kittiwakes.

Sony a9 with the Sony 100-400mm, @ 200mm, f9, ISO 200, 1/20 s

Sunset on the Lofoten Islands.

Sony a9, Sony 16-35mm f2.8 @ 16mm, f14, ISO 200, 2.5s

During the second tour on the Lofoten Islands the weather eventually calmed down and gave us a bit more color to work with. We had two nights where we could photograph northern light and we had some colorful sunrises. We also explored a new location for photographing northern light, which directly paid of.

Northern light panorama (composed out of 4 vertical images), shot at our new location.

Sony a7s, Sony 16-35mm f2.8 @ 16mm, f2.8, ISO 6400, 4s

After dropping of the last Lofoten group and saying goodbye to my mate Marijn, I headed further north back to the island Senja. Here I led by myself the last two groups of the season for the traveling agency "De Fotoreisspecialist". Also here I was blessed again with two amazing groups! Just the first two days on the island were challenging. Heavy snowfall made it impossible to see much further than 30 meter or so. We went out anyway in order to be on location when the snow would shortly stop falling and the landscape would shortly show itself to us. The heavy snowfall made driving also a real challenge sometimes. The only thing we could see were the red poles which marked the side of the roads, and which suddenly doomed up out of the blinding white world. ...we had good fun.

The mountains were hidden by the snowfall, so we had to focus on subjects closer by. Like this mountain stream coming down into the fjord.

Sony a7s, Sony 16-35mm f2.8 @ 22mm, f13, ISO 1000, 1/250s

During the week the weather got better and better. Two nights we had the chance to photograph the northern light. One night gave us the best show of this winter. For hours the northern light was dancing over our heads. The pictures we took, do not justice to what we saw. The funny thing was that we were standing on the most popular location (Tungeneset) on the island. But for some reason we were completely alone on location. Just after the show had given its best and we had already stopped to photograph, other people started to arrive. We moved to another location and could here photograph the second outburst of the night, again completely alone. The following morning was followed with a beautiful sunrise. Luck was on our side.

Three images from a stunning northern light show on Senja.

Shot with the Sony a7s with the Sony 16-35mm

Finally some color in the sky! Sunrise on Senja.

Sony a7s, Sony 16-35mm f2.8 @ 16mm, f16, ISO 50, 1/5s

The last week on Senja the weather was more stable and we didn't have any storms anymore. Only the first day heavy snowfall interrupted our photo sessions a couple of times. Otherwise we were blessed with the weather. Several times we were treated in the morning with a nice fresh layer of snow. We had some colorful sunsets and one colorful sunrise, which contrasted nicely against the mainly grey days.

Sunset on Senja.

Sony a7s, Sony 16-35mm f2.8 @ 20mm, f16, ISO 50, 1s

Funny enough, at the fjord we had our accommodation at, the clouds disappeared several times in the evening and presented us twice with northern light. Even though the weather forecast gave 100% cloud coverage on most occasions. I guess the highlight of the trip was a small herd of reindeer which couldn't care less about our presence and didn't mind posing for us. During this trip I started to feel the tiredness kick in. Luckily not the tiredness I felt before form the Lyme disease, but just the tiredness you get when you have been working too long. A good tiredness, which makes you feel like you have spent you energy for something good. But I can tell you that I felt very relieved once I was on my flight back to Oslo ...on which I slept from start to landing.

Wildlife on Senja.

Shot with the Sony a7riii and the Sony 100-400mm.

To conclude, I have had again an amazing winter season. It was the most challenging one so far, with 7 tours in less than 8 weeks. The combination of the bad weather and my health situation made it a challenge for me to keep the guests satisfied. Luckily, all the guests managed to cope with and accept the weather conditions we had. I received help from my guests, girlfriend and partners is crime, which gave me the opportunity to save some of my own energy. And last but not least, my medication did its job, which gave me in the end enough energy to do what I had to do.

Musk-ox calves sparring in the sunset.

Sony a9 with the Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, f2.8, iso80, 1/5000s

I want to shout out a massive THANK YOU to everyone who joined me on these past 7 tours! You made it into an amazing season! Without you this would never been possible! I'm very happy to see that many of you have already booked new trips with me for later this year and next year. I'm already looking forward to seeing you all again!

I also want to apologies to all of you who's comments, messages and e-mails have stayed unanswered in the past months! I'm very sorry you haven't heard back from me and hope that you can now understand the reason for that. For those who haven't heard back from me for more than a week, can you please send me your message or e-mail again? I will do my best to answer as soon as possible. Thank you!

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