8 days at the heart of Winter above the Polar Circle, in the Swedish and Finnish lands of Lapland.
Probably the most incredible adventure I have ever been offered to live, shared with an amazing team of passionate photographers and adventurers.
Let me tell you the story.
01. Prelude 02. Idivuoma 03. Boreal Forest 04. Revontulet 05. Kaarejärvi 06. Hetta 07. Whitewater 08. Last word & special thanks
At the beginning of January, I received a phone call from Vincent Trujillo, the director of the French magazine Le Monde de la Photo. For the 10-anniversary of the magazine, they have organized a contest to join on an expedition above the polar circle, to test some Canon gear in extreme conditions. And I had decided to participate, because... why not?!
Vincent Trujillo brought me an incredible news: I was the first laureate! I couldn't realize it at first, I would go to Lapland, this region I have ever wanted to explore. Crazy!
After a long discussion about the travel and how to prepare at our best to such extreme weather, I was happy to learn I would share this adventure with another talented photographer, second winner of the contest, Jean-Joaquim Crassous.
Meeting at the HQ of the magazine the day before the departure, we meet with the crew of the adventure, pack our photo gear and discuss with great enthusiam about the incredible experience we were about to live.
Our crew: Bruno Calendini, Vincent Trujillo, myself, Benjamin Favier and Jean-Joaquim Crassous
5 am at Orly airport in the South of Paris. Heavy backpack full of photo gear, luggage full of the warmest clothes we have, we are ready to fly to the North.
Few hours in the air, waking up with the sun, we arrive above gigantic white lands. At first, I couldn't say if it was clouds, frozen lakes or fields of snow. But it was infinite and hypnotic. I had never seen such a landscape before. Kittilä airport is not far and while we are slowly getting closer to the ground, the mysterious white lands appear to be a forest of million of pine trees entirely covered by snow. I wonder how the plane could land properly on the frozen trail, surrounded by the mist and frozen trees.
But few minutes later, we are outside by -16°C. The adventure is calling, stronger and stronger.
We have spent the week with Aventure Arctique travel agency at the Lodge Aurora situated at Idivuoma, a little village in Karesuando, the northernmost locality in Sweden.
Tiny red cabins, typical architecture of Swedish Lapland, lost in a white landscape, are our houses for few nights.
Later in the day, we try our new outfit: warm coat, trousers and pair of boots.
We also meet our polar guide for the week, Mathieu, who is already excited to guide us to the perfect spots for our mission.
The sun is slowly rising while we are on the way for our first day into the wild. There is only one road in the region, going endlessly through the horizon.
Everything around us is white and looks surreal. I am totally hypnotized by the landscape and its pureness.
We arrive to a gigantic forest in the middle of nowhere, of tall and thin Siberian pine trees, typical of the area. Covered by a heavy layer of snow, they have an unusual shape and look like burnt candles. We put our snowshoes and start to walk in the forest. Making our own fresh marks in the snow is something really empowering.
We gently progress in a white kingdom of silence. The trees are transformed into petrified statues of ice. The sun is slowly rising and turns the snowflakes flying in the air into golden sparkles.
The scenery is mesmerizing and I am deeply loving this first immersion into the wildness of Lapland.
It is -35°C, and keeping our hands warm while taking pictures with our big mittens is a real challenge. We gonna have to get used to this.
Further, the pines trees are rare to find and the landscape become more and more empty of vegetation. Arrived up to the hill, an incredible 360 view of vastness and pureness is waiting for us.
Here and there, the mist is covering the forests like a sea of clouds shining under the uprising sun. We are surrounded by an army of pine trees floating in the mist. The scene is purely breathtaking.
We are at the beginning of February and if the sun has started to appear above the horizon, he doesn't stay for so long.
After a short but welcome break for lunch, cooked on a firecamp by our polar guide Mathieu, we continue our journey at the heart of Winter.
The sky is suddenly turning into warm shades of pink and orange. These Arctic colors look so unreal, I have never seen such a color palet before.
The blue of the snow constrasting with the pink of the sky makes the scenery like a perfect postcard picture. This is the promise of an incredible sunset to admire.
A few minutes later, the pastel pink sky turns into a vivid burning scene.
At each step, the colors get stronger and I take million of pictures, while being hypnotized by each second of this incredible show.
The trees are like gigantic shadows and form a squad of mysterious shapes around us.
Our kingdom of white is now an empire of gold.
I look for a long moment at the last rays of sun blazing the horizon while we are on our way back to where started the day.
The atmosphere is dramatic but absolutely fascinating.
Back to the Lodge, the guides inform us that the night sky is perfect for potential auroras.
Equiped by our headband lamp and our warmest clothes, we walk under the stars on the frozen lake close to our chalet.
The sky is clear and the night is cold. I look up and millions of stars are illuminating the dark canvas above us.
When all of sudden, a green distinct light starts dancing with the cosmos.
I have been dreaming for so many years to see this incredible show. I feel extremely small, under this dance of fire and ice.
In Finnish, the Northern lights phenomenon is called "Revontulet", which means "Fox Fires".
In ancien times, people believed in a myth, in which the auroras were created by a magical fox sweeping his tail across the snow, spraying it up into the sky.
After an intense night admiring Northern lights, we pack for a ski raid of two days. Equiped with ski touring and pulkas
- a typical Swedish sledge which helps us to carry wood, food and gear -
we cross the taïga to join a little hunter cabin lost in the area of Kaarejärvi, where local people can stop by for a night.
The landscape is totally different from the previous day, vast and flat. We follow a way surrounded by pines trees and silver birches.
On our path, we cross a herd of reindeers, looking for something to eat under the deep layer of snow, which is not an easy task.
We feel lucky to meet these beautiful animals! We were waiting for them. They are cute and graceful with they grey and white fur.
Because the females are in gestation, we decide to join our destination by another way, to be sure to stay away and don't scare them.
10km later, having crossed swamps and forests, we arrive on a vast frozen lake, where some fisherman cabins overhand the shore.
Ours is at the opposite side. Last steps to join our refuge for the night. Further, two reindeers are occupied to quench their thirst in a hole made through the ice.
We finally arrive to our cabin. The clouds are crossing the sky like if they would join the horizon, carrying the intense colors of the sunset.
Everything slowly turns into purple and red in an explosion of light and colors.
I let my skis and pulka behind and stand there to observe the sun setting until the last gleam.
I have difficulties to hold my emotions and my vision is blurry as tears flood my eyes.
I feel deeply lucky and happy to be exactly where I am at this exact moment.
I take a last selfportrait before the light fades away.
It is -20°C in the cozy wooden cabin, and we enjoy the warmth coming from the freshmade fire.
After having hanged out our clothes to let them dry for the night, we take a warm dinner, lighted up by small candles.
No auroras for us this night as the clouds have totally covered the sky. We crawl into our sleeping bags, exhausted by this long day and slowly fall asleep while the fire, still burning, keep us warm for a moment.
The dawn is rising on a new day. The fire has died during the night and the temperature inside the house has fallen to -10°C.
Outside, the landscape is totally transformed by white clouds and mist. I am happy that our way back to the lodge will have another atmosphere to admire.
Back on the trail, we have difficulties to distinct the relief and horizon. The land is monochromatic. Further on our way, we meet again with the herd of reindeers, still looking for something to eat.
Far away, we hear a Sami, Sweden's indigenous people, singing to gather his pack. It reminds me folk songs from a Scandinavian band I used to listen back in a day.
This day, the reindeers are less shy and we manage to approach closer. Equiped with a long zoom lens, it is a perfect opportunity to take nice pictures.
After a day in snowshoes and two days by ski, we are about to experience something totally new to continue our adventure: a dog sledding safari of two days.
As I am a dog lover, I feel super excited by this activity. We cross the frontier at Karesuando to join the village of Hetta, where a refuge of huskies will welcome us.
This day, there is a surprising phenomenon in the sky. A light pillar in the form of a vertical band of light is rising from the horizon. The solar pillar effect is created by the reflection of light from numerous tiny ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere.
Hetta Huskies farm is situated in the North of Finland, on the boundary of the northern border of the Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park.
Charlotte, a french expatriate woman with a lot of strength and energy, is our musher for the safari and explains us how they take care of their 200 dogs everyday.
We meet the dogs that will drive us on the 40km way and back and we place them one by one strategically in the harness.
They are extremely excited to go on the adventure and bark loudly to let it us know.
We have left the starting line for 40km of white lands and forests. The sensation of freedom is intense.
I appreciate the link between me and my dogs running with great enthusiam on the snow.
Although, it is hard to take pictures while driving the sledge and the rule is clear: if you fall, don't let it go. I rather enjoy as much as I can while the landscape is flying by.
From time to time, we stop to drink a warm coffee. It is very cold and being static on the sledge doesn't help to keep us warm.
We stop by a very nice cabin to drink a delicious soup. By this temperature, each meal is a reward and tastes so good!
At each break, we pet our dogs, and thank them warmly for guiding us through the taïga. They are incredible and have so much love to offer, so much energy to spend.
I am passionately enjoying this experience with my little wolf pack.
Posing with Väk, one of my dogs © Bruno Calendini
After a night spend in a little cabin in the middle of the woods, we take care of our dogs, feed them, and prepare the harness for the way back. Another 40km.
We feel more at our ease on the second day driving the sledge. I could do this for days and days now!
The sun is hiding behind the trees while we cross forests and lands. The colors and lights are, again, incredible.
The moment is perfect for daydreaming and introspection, alone in this landscape.
For our last day in Lapland, we decide to explore an area of rivers which are, for some reason, not frozen by the cold.
I play with a macro lens and try to stay safe not falling into the river. That would be unfortunate!
The textures created by the ice and water are charming. The snow is fluffly and forms big white 'mushrooms' overhanding the river.
The landscape is completely different from the other days, and I try to get inspired as much as I can for this last day. It has been so fast...
Last word & special thanks
Exploring Lapland has been a dream since I am a kid - I didn't tell you my first plushie was a reindeer? - and I feel extremely lucky to have been chosen to live this adventure and experience with such a dream team.
I have been truly inspired by these lands... Colors and lights, pureness and vastness, cold and silence. I have felt alive. Intensely alive.
But also, I have lived a human experience I wasn't expecting. I have met passionate people, nature lovers and authentic personalities, and I would like to thank them for being who they are. I am blessed to have met you. Thank you.
The dream team: Benjamin Favier, Bruno Calendini, Jean-Joaquim Crassous, myself, Mathieu Agez and Vincent Trujillo © Florian Ledoux
Vincent Trujillo & Benjamin Favier, chiefs editor for Le Monde de la Photo
Aventure Arctique, travel agency for Arctic destinations • Website
Mathieu Agez, our passionate polar guide • Facebook
Le Monde de la Photo Magazine
Raphaelle Monvoisin is a French photographer based in Reykjavík, Iceland.
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RAPHAELLE MONVOISIN — Photographer, wanderer and storyteller based in Paris, France
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