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Musk Oxes on Snow.
Views: 2093511.4.2012 22:54:34
Musk Oxes on Snow.

“Muskox needs to be on snow and not among some flowers… It’s a rough and smelly beast after all…”


Where: Norway, Dovre, Hjerkinn

When: Late March

Aim: Muskoxes on Snow

Equipment: Nikon D3s, Nikon 400/f2.8, Nikon 17-30/f2.8, Nikon 70-200/f2.8, TC 1.4, TC 2.0, Gitzo tripod with Wimberly head, snowshoes.

I’ve wanted to photo Muskoxes for some time. When I thought about them the only place suitable was in national park Dovrefjell in Norway, of course. After some discussion with Jaromir Kaderabek who had photographed Muskoxes in summer 2011 and from whom I drew information (Thanks, Jaromir!), I realized that Muskox to me is a rough being, facing “the cruel Northern winter” and so I couldn’t photograph it in summer, surrounded by pretty flowers…
Therefore I chose the date of our Norway departure so as there would be snow in Dovrefjell, but on the other hand that there wouldn’t be so much of it to prevent me from finding the Muskoxes, let alone to photo them. Jaromir told me that they ran about 25 kilometers on the hills in order to find a small herd of Muskoxes. I don’t think I could manage that in snow.

After several weeks of northern a little bit phlegmatic style emails and 26 hours on the road (almost 2200 km) we (Ondra Prosicky, Lada Vit and I) arrived to the arranged place.

Anne, an unexpectedly warm Norwegian with whom I’d emailed, was lending us whole of the house, because not many people go there at the end of winter.

There is a statement on their web :
“Hjerkinnhus er nå stengt for vanlig overnatting frem til 30.04.2012.
Men vi tar gjerne imot gruppebestillinger.“

Even that afternoon, partly because we couldn’t wait, partly for the terrain reconnaisance, I and Ondra set for a “walk” on snowshoes to the hills which we were hoping were swarming with Muskoxes. Lada, short of snowshoes went somewhere else, where the melting snow let him. We unwisely took our camera bags and even our tripods (mine weighs 4.5 kilos). We set time to meet back by the car. Unfortunately the time change from winter time to daylight saving time caught some of us unprepared, so Ondra and I came back an hour later then we were expected by Lada. He was pointing out a “leader time” over a pile of cigarette ends, but as we lacked any leadership, his comments weren’t very successful.
There was no sign of Muskoxes in the hills so we went round the neighbourhood and observed the hills in a fools hope that we would glimpse some Muskox like that. After few kilometers north on E6 road we stopped by a group of men with birdwatcher binoculars pointed at remote hills. We stopped and: “Whatever are you watching?” They explained that they watched Muskoxes. “Whaaaaat? Muskoxes?” I, encouraged: “Can I have a look?” “You can have a look,” said a man in a uniform, “but we can’t see them.” Oh…right, okay…

Lada made conversation with one of the watchers, acquiring “local info” – the Muskoxes apparently were around, nevertheless he learned that they weren’t seen for a week not even by the soldiers who were outside every day.
After ten or fifteen minutes of relaxed Norwegian-English-Czech conversation about Muskoxes one of the watchers pointed to the hills. When he let me look in his binocular, I actually saw two stones in shivering air, according to the fact they were moving a little, we marked them as clear-cut Muskoxes. It was almost 4 kilometers as the crow flies.

We set out at 7 am with Anne as our guide, because we decided that we couldn’t rely on chance. We ascended hills for two hours. Anne was for some reason better than we were. When we finally got a little higher, the wind started. In the cols and peaks the wind was quite strong. We were looking for Muskoxes very hard, we climbed up and down more than 10 kilometers. No see. Not even a hair. We found lot of droppings, sometimes no more than two or three days old, we found Muskoxes’ tracks, but we didn’t find the actual “Masox” (that’s a name of Czech stock cube), as we started to call them, that day.
No special experiences, except for when I flopped on a sloping ice surface (a scene like from a cartoon: I was kicking my legs in the air for a while to regain my balance). I didn’t want to fall on the camera in my bag, so I rather bruised my hip so badly that when I sat for some time, I couldn’t get up (…so don’t sit, let’s go…). A small compensation was a pair of white grouse we found, but they didn’t want to wait, so I photographed some landscapes only.

Ondra P. jako Rodinův Myslitel, momentálně poněkud skleslý nad stavem hledání pižmoňů.

The bag with photo things and other stuff (trousers, jacket, water, tripod etc.) weighs 12 kilos. Add my weight of 95 kg. I sank not only in places where Anne went comfortably in her shoes, but I sank in snowshoes too. Some meters of this intensive sinking and I started to appreciate the meaning of a phrase “be in a good shape”. We came back after approximately six hours, worn out a bit. We thanked Anne for her care and told her we’d try on our own tomorrow. We didn’t want to pay another 2.500 NOK, but when we did, Anne proved to be a character and with an argument that she hadn’t found the Muskoxes, she didn’t want the money.
I warmed up the schnitzels my mother gave me and with Ondra we pondered about what to do next. Lada was asleep and snoring as a dragon. (“Give him the princess now, so he stops!”) We were planning to take another look around the hills from where we were before the evening. That we could try to catch some Northern lights as compensation. According to the forecast by NOAA, the aurora was to be quite weak and when it could grow stronger, it would be overcast and would start snowing. Actually we wished for snowing. The task was clear: Muskoxes on snow.

The snow forecast was delayed, it rained instead. (“…oh what a glaze it would be up there tomorrow…”)
However, we didn’t despair. Alarm at six a.m. I found out I could stand on my left leg, which hadn’t seemed so the evening before, we had breakfast and checked our stuff. I didn’t take my tripod because of the leg, I thought the 4.5 kg of carbon, aluminium and vulcanized rubber to be a needless weight, after all our success with Muskoxes the previous day. Ondra was happy about it and stated that because of my decision, we were bound to find the Muskoxes that day. At 7am we were at a place near a military base, Lada took us there for he was staying at home, supposedly because of a tooth ache. But we suspected him, and made fun of him a lot, concerning Anne (guide and caretaker), with whom he did converse much the previous day…
To the first point we wanted to stop at it was about 400 height meters. In an hour we were there among the hills. Unfortunately we were in clouds, there was a strong wind, but surprisingly not very cold, approximately 7°C. I glimpsed a snowy hare, it jumped maybe 5 meters from me. We fell ourselves on the ground and lying there we snatched our cameras form the bags, the hare, of course, wasn’t waiting. We shot all the same.

We packed our things back, Ondra’s new-before-journey waterproof coat for bag, originally tied, flew away. We scrambled on, too lazy to put our snowshoes back on, snow was blown away at parts, so we could go without them, but there were some places with snow where we couldn’t go round and to cross 50 meters sinking to my crotch with every step made me quite breathless. After some 100 height meters more we were on a plate between hills. We were still looking for Muskoxes. Nothing. Ondra suggested going to another hill without bags to take a look around. We climbed there. Suddenly Ondra said: “look, are those stones or masoxes?” Through the binoculars with wind-watering eyes we confirmed Muskoxes beyond all doubt. I saw three heads on another hill, one hill far off. Ondra then acted as though he had a line of coke. He ran for his things. I was telling him the masoxes would wait there, in vain… What if they wouldn’t, right?

In order to shorten my way to the bag, I crossed a snow field and so I totally finished my hurt knee. At first it hurt so much, I thought I might not make it back to the cottage, let alone climb towards the Muskoxes. I repressed it, trying to have the leg straight (it hurt less), but I couldn’t use my lightening technique when going up the hill. So I stayed back and I arrived to the opposite-Muskoxes slope 10 minutes after Ondra, who was shooting already. I took some photos at the distance and I suggested resting. But Ondra was out of his mind, so I agreed, fearing he might scare them out of sheer excitement and I wouldn’t be there, that we would circle them from south and we’d come as close as possible, protected from Muskoxes’ eyes by the hilltop. So we did.

We were moving closer from behind a hill very carefully, stories about trampled photographers in our minds. One recent from Jaromir, he had to jump across a stream when he was checking his camera, he overlooked a Muskox pawing its foreleg and he didn’t backed off in time. However, the Muskoxes saw us and got up. Dominant bull in the front. Two more males, two females and two calves behind the dominant one. As we circled the Muskoxes from south and we emerged near the top of the peak on which the Muskoxes were resting, we found ourselves surprisingly, for us and for them, approximately 40 meters away of them. We backed off and circled them again. That time we wanted them to see us from a distance and moving openly forward. The tactics was successful. First pictures!

Snohetta (Snowy Mountain) in the background. Beautiful! Only if there would’ve been more snow. On the hilltop (cca 1.400 meters) there was strong wind and mere 3° to 5°C and the snow was melted in some parts and blown away in others down to lichen. That was most probably why the Muskoxes were there, after all. It wasn’t exactly what I came there for – Muskoxes on snow or better still in snowstorm, but at that moment we were happy we found them after two days search. It would be only later that we would be disappointed…
We took photos of Muskoxes from every point imaginable, Muskox standing, Muskox lying, at a close or on a background. For it was noon, the sun was quite high (for Norwegian, if it were in Central Europe, it would be like 5pm), so Ondra and I decided, we would wait until sunset, if, of course, the Muskoxes would. It turned out not to be a very wise decision in the end. Well, hindsight is 20/20.

"Splněný" úkol: pižmoň na sněhu. Pižmoň severní. Musk Ox. Dovrefjell, Norsko.

After first series of photos, each of us found himself a stone to hide behind against the pestering wind which sucked all the warmth out of us. Although the sun was shining, burning our faces, the wind decreased the real feel temperature from the actual 3-5°C enormously. So we waited. Approximately every hour, or when the light changed, we circled our little herd, who were sleeping peacefully or peacefully chewing at best. They didn’t willfully move at all, for five hours they didn’t leave their place no bigger than a tennis court. When we moved closer, the younger males at the margins usually got up unwillingly and thus gave us a better opportunity to take photos. Moving even closer meant that they turned their backs on us, protecting the cows and calves. Well we didn’t quite like to photo backs, meaning Muskoxes’ backs, at that moment. While we were going round them, co we could see them from the front again, they usually went back to lying and chewing. It was 7 hours from discovery of the Muskoxes until the sunset at 7:50 pm. But what wouldn’t a photographer do for a good shot. Of course, we hadn’t known at 2 pm that the clouds forming over Snohetta mountain would cover the setting sun precisely at the right moment. So we put on all the clothes we took with us. It didn’t help much.

V září, v období říje, samci pižmoňů urputně bojují o možnost se pářit tak, že v plném běhu do sebe narážejí rohy dokud jeden neustoupí. Na jaře je to jen takové poněřování před zápasem. Pižmoň severní. Musk Ox. Dovrefjell. Norsko.

So that we didn’t disturb the Muskoxes, we went a little down below the top of the hill, where they couldn’t see us. We took photos from time to time according to the same scenario as above. The dropping mood was interrupted only by a drink, eating some gingerbread with plums, almonds. Wind was blowing and the temperature dropping. Walking as means to warm up didn’t help as much as few hours earlier.
Finally there was the moment when the sun was low in the sky. We thought we would use the same tactics as before: we’d move closer to masoxes from the East, they’d rise and before they turn, we’d have few moments to take photos with light of the setting sun opposite them. No sooner we decided to do that, the Muskoxes, embarrassingly a bit, were rising out of their own account… and began to graze. They moved down below the edge of the hill! Nooo! On the top of that, the sun was shining only for a few moments from a narrow gap between clouds. The Muskoxes’ position at that moment was completely wrong! They were below the edge of the hill, heads bent and when they rose them, it was with their backs turned in us. They didn’t care about us at all anymore, perhaps they included us to their wider family by then. We would’ve been happy about that earlier, but we couldn’t appreciate that in full at that moment. That really didn’t work out!

Quickly, frozen to the bone, we packed our things.
We had 3.7 km to the cottage, as the crow flies, and the light was fading rapidly. We went downhill on the snowshoes at first. It went surprisingly well, but my hurt knee wasn’t very comfortable. It was hurting quite badly, but luckily it was the only thing that did. Ondra had similar problem and was walking like Peirac. Then we took off our snowshoes and we went across contour lines down to a col, unfortunately there was snow. So snowshoes again, just about a kilometer. The snow was quite melted at the lower parts, little streams and ponds among heaps of growth were very frequent. We waded a little. The darkness was growing. Then there were snowfields at places in shade. The snowshoes didn’t work anymore and we sank as high as crotch, even when wearing them. So twice we put the snowshoes on our hands and we continued on hands and knees for some distance. When thinking that someone would see us, we laughed as children. At least we were at the military base place. We called Lada, to come and (damn it) pick us up.

We were outside in the hills for 14 hours, the wind was furious and it was 3°C. I found out that I had some kind of wind-peeling on my face (I recommend it, it’s very cheap) and I had lips like Angelina Jolie, only more cracked. My knee wasn’t in a good shape either, but I had photos of Muskoxes and enjoyed a little adventure. At about half ten when we came to the cottage I managed to heat up beans and bacon with ibuprofen as a side dish, while loading the photos into my laptop and writing an email to my family. I left a shower to morning, even if it wasn’t right. And the next day we’d have a relaxation day.

We had a day of. Lada on seeing our shots regretted bitterly he didn’t come with us (toothache is a bitch). Despite eating all of my Augmentin (antibiotics) and half a plaster of ibuprofen, he decided to go to the hills on his own after lunch. Wind grew stronger still (according to the forecast it was 60kmph, according to Lada on a hill at least 100kmph), so they were hard moments for Lada in the landscape. What was even worse, although we gave him GPS of Muskoxes, he didn’t find them. They weren’t there. And anywhere near.

During the day of my knee started to show for real and the second followed. Also the weather was worse and worse. Ondra and Lada went for a morning walk to find out “if it is worth it”. Wind speed circa 60kmph there in the lowland, 500 meters higher it had to be even more, especially in the places of flowlines in the cols between hills. The temperature was 3°C below zero the whole day. Because I wasn’t walking though I didn’t share their opinion that “it is not worth it” and so we eventually set out to find the Muskoxes. I forgot my gloves, so I had go back to fetch them and then I had to catch up with Ondra and Lada. My knee didn’t like it. On our way back, I went backwards at some points (on the frozen snow it was possible) because the knee didn’t hurt so much like that. Nevertheless we didn’t find the Muskoxes, even when we split so as to cover wider areas and climbed several hills. The little herd of Muskoxes seemed to disappear from the area.
Of course there were exactly the conditions I imagined ideal for taking photos of Muskoxes in winter. Granular snow flew in the wind horizontally, creating exactly the rough northern atmosphere, the one I wanted to photo Muskoxes.
Alas, what a man could do, it was wildlife photography, so I should be content with pictures I made… I comforted myself. Well, Lada didn’t see them at all.

On our way back we incidentally found a white grouse, in the same place where we saw it few days back. It was on a steep, lightly frozen slope, where we couldn’t catch hold of anything while lying. Ondra, in the heat of photographing was saved from a long slide sponsored by canon.cz only by a shoe toe clutching to a shallow depression in the frozen snowy surface of the slope.
And the white grouse, in a winter gown on top of that, for us Central-Europeans a rare bird, for Norwegian Anne a tasty bird, was a nice cherry on top of our trip to the North and Muskoxes.

Next day in the evening we wanted to be at the lake Hornborga in Sweden. From Hjerkinn, Norway, it was approximately 800 kilometers south, but relatively small detour on our return journey. Cranes gathering in thousands at the end of their spring migration by the lake and flying to their night lodgings in the setting sun, were too tempting to miss.

Considering the circumstances by the Hornborga lake and the fact I photographed Cranes several times in Hungary, I decided to photo Cranes in a little bit “psychedelic” way, but I also made some “normal” flying pictures.

Bohdan Nemec, Hjerkinnhus, Norway and Pilsen, Czech Republic, April 2012

Translation from czech original version by Tereza Němcová: tereza.nemcova@email.cz

Comments on article 'Musk Oxes on Snow.'
Comment 1-4 / 4
15.4.2012 20:00:38
Ahoj Bohdane,poutavě napsané a v neposlední řadě i pěkné fotky,kterým ten sníh sluší.Na druhé straně musím vyjádřit povstesk nad tím,že jste toho víc nenachodili a že vás žádnej neprohnal,protože teď vypadám jak blbec:-)Ale mě to neva,už jsem si zvykl,ha,ha:-)
13.4.2012 16:26:16
Krásný článek a fotky.
12.4.2012 19:05:02
Petr Šimon
Ahoj, velmi sugestivně napsané. Lopotění se sněžnicemi a naražený bok byli zhodnoceny a snímky jsou povedené a zážitků asi také hodně. Nejvíce se mi asi líbí ten první bělokur a pižmoň se Snohettou v pozadí. Škoda, že jsem se nedostal do užšího výběru:-) Také se tam chystám, ale před táním, chtěl bych nějakou vánici se stádečkem...Tak ať se daří. Petr
12.4.2012 11:50:24
Václav Bambula
Ahoj, nektere fotecky moc pekne. Lada musel asi plakat. Moc pekne napsane. Uz abych mel novej fotak. Vasek
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