Musk Oxen have long been on my list of wildlife to see and photograph - they're massive formidable shaggy beasts, that can run as fast as Usain Bolt and they smash their skulls into each other during impressive battles over dominance. There's only one herd living wild in Europe, so there's only one place to photograph them and that's Dovrefjell National Park in Norway. I headed out in July, as although this isn't typically the best time to photograph them as there's no snow or much in the way of head-smashing and they're typically high up in the mountains in small family groups, but it's when the calves are quite young and that's what I was aiming to shoot on this trip.
I met a Norwegian friend of mine at Trondheim airport and in typical Viking fashion, he insisted we head straight to the airport bar as we hadn't seen each other in a few years and needed to catch up. After sleeping that off, we picked up the car and headed south for Dovrefjell, where we had booked a cabin in the centre of the national park. Along the way we picked up supplies and I insisted on stopping at the roadside stores and mini museums to find out a bit of local information - I wasn't expecting to encounter my first musk ox or a stuffed polar bear..
When we arrived at our base, it was too late to head into the mountains, so we explored the local forest, hoping to see capercaille or perhaps moose, but apart from typical woodland birds, the only wildlife we encountered were the wood ants and these were some of the biggest wood ant nests I have ever seen (above right). That night we got chatting to the people at the campsite, who gave us some good local knowledge about where to look for musk oxen and some potential locations for arctic fox so we were all set for the next morning.
We headed out early as we wanted to cover as much ground as possible and do an extensive recce, so I left my heavy kit behind and we made our way up into the mountains. We saw plenty of lemmings on the way up, which looked good for arctic fox and found plenty of wildlife sign - above left, I have made a reindeer fur fluffstache and in the centre pic, I'm taking a snap of arctic fox scat. After exploring all day and a seriously epic hike, we got our first sighting of a musk ox family. We rewarded ourselves with some well deserved tea and biscuits and watched the musk oxen for about an hour to learn as much as possible about their behaviour. On the way down we saw another couple of family groups on another mountain, so I felt confident to head out properly the next day for a first shoot.
It was time for my friend to leave, so this time I decided to take as much kit as I could carry and enough food that I could comfortably stay on the mountain for at least a few days. After carrying all of my kit up the mountain and across a freezing ice-melt mountain river, I was already a bit shaky, so my first proper encounter with a fully grown adult musk ox was more than a little unnerving. I had found a group of adults feeding together with no calves, so I wasn't too worried about them being aggressive and I got myself in position so that I could shoot sideways as they traversed towards me across the side of the mountain. As the first one appeared over the brow of the ridge and we were face-to-face without anything but a few tufts of grass between us, I suddenly realised how big they were and how small I was, so I made a few movements and backed off a little so they could see me and weren't suddenly surprised.
After our initial encounter, we all relaxed and I did my best to stay in front of them so that I could photograph them feeding with the mountains on the other side of the valley behind them. For big animals, it's surprising how quickly they move, even when they are grazing, and it wasn't long before they had disappeared up and over the other side of the mountain. I couldn't carry on any higher, so watched them head off into the distance and decided to head for the patches of snow on the peaks on the other side of the valley. It was a long trek, but I had been told that musk oxen often stick to patches of snow to stay cool during the day. After crossing another few rivers with my boots and kit on my head and another mammoth climb, I reached the plateau and found what I was looking for.
My first encounter was with a small group of cows and their calves and a single bull. I watched the path they were taking and got in front of them so I could photograph them as they came towards me. This was about as close as I got as this group were much more wary and even though I kept my distance and never blocked their path, I still got false charged once and had to drop my kit and run. After spending a little time with them and watching how they moved across the mountain, I decided to try and get a closer wide shot by firing my camera remotely from a distance. I left the camera on top of a rock that I hoped was in their path and hid behind a rock just far enough away that I wouldn't disturb them, but near enough to trigger the camera and waited...
It's not the perfect shot, but I was pretty lucky that they behaved as anticipated and walked straight towards my camera and into frame. After this, I spent a few more hours tracking them from a distance, but as the light faded and they started to head off into another valley, I decided to head home. The mosquitoes were coming out, there were no musk oxen, I was nearly out of food, it was cold and I was exhausted, so picked a route and headed back down into the valley. I had to cross another 3 freezing and fast flowing rivers and got pretty wet, but it made me appreciate putting my feet up with a beer even more when I got back to the cabin and just as I sat down on the porch an epic thunderstorm broke which was much better to watch than be caught in.
After saying goodbye to the musk oxen, I decided to spend my last evening looking for foxes up near the arctic fox breeding station. There's a breeding programme being coordinated across Scandinavia as there are surprisingly few arctic foxes in mainland Europe. Sweden and Norway have an ok population, but there are hardly any in Finland and the only place they are doing well is in Iceland. The breeding station regularly releases tagged and chipped foxes and there are many feeding stations up in the mountains to help them survive after they are released. I got chatting to some of the scientists and found that it's a really interesting conservation story, that I hope to come back and document in the future.
On the last night, I was invited to a local mountain festival, so I finished up the trip drinking and feasting Viking style. I've got a few Norwegian friends, so I already knew they could party, but this was the first time I had experienced the Viking in its natural environment - things got pretty messy and it was definitely a night to remember. Dovrefjell is an awesome location, with loads of potential for great pictures so I'm sure my first visit to Norway won't be my last.