Early Birds

“Almost all accidents take place because of human distraction.”

– Sebastian Thrun

The best-laid plans are nothing if not flexible. When you find out that your route runs past the largest canyon in Northern Europe, it’s a no-brainer. We had never heard of Sautso or its alias, Alta Canyon. Anne stumbled upon it while looking up points of interest in Finnmark, way up in Northern Norway. Having never seen a canyon before, I have no frame of reference, but at 12 kilometres long and 420 metres deep, it sounds pretty damn big to me. And so, we change course and head south from the little town of Alta. It’s a good 45 minutes off-route, but we’ve got all the time in the world.

It’s a 6.5 km hike to the canyon, with a decent sized car park at the start. The single-track dirt and gravel road leading up to the car park is moderately steep, but I keep the momentum going and the Tardis pulls us up with relative ease. The landscape at the top is quite unlike the rest of Norway we’ve seen so far. The steep and jagged peaks have been replaced by gentle curves and long lines of sight. These are still mountains, but the kind that grew up in a good neighbourhood, listening to classical music instead of death metal. The parking lot is little more than a clearing of dirt and bare rock. There are four or five cars and a small camper van already here. There’s a somewhat level spot near the top, which we take. It’s nearly 21:00, but the sun has been out all day, and it’s still uncomfortably warm. Google’s back problems mean she can’t walk as far as she used to, so our initial idea was to hike to the canyon in the evening, when it’s cooler, and leave the dogs in the camper. With the windows shut, they probably wouldn’t survive the first hour. The forecast for tomorrow says it’s going to be even hotter. The flies and mosquitoes also seem to be on high alert right now, so we decide to get up early and hike with the dogs instead. We’ll carry Google in between if necessary.

We set off at 04:00. It’s not a difficult hike; the rocky path is well-trodden and clearly visible all the way to the farthest hill in the distance. The sun is already warm, but there are very few insects out. Progress is slow, as the dogs are uninterested in the canyon and prefer to look for mice along the way instead. We have time. Simple wooden walkways take us across strips of marshland. Long planks serve as makeshift bridges across streams that cross our route. They have been poorly placed. It’s easier to step across on the rocks. Chaos doesn’t understand the rocks or the planks and wades through instead. It’s mid-July, and there is very little snow up here, but I imagine these streams are rivers when the snow melts in spring. The hills are covered in dry grass and scrub, with the occasional clump of trees. The sheer scale of the landscape is impressive, but it’s relatively featureless and the spectacular views we’ve had in the past few months have probably spoiled me. I leave my camera in my backpack most of the way. People don’t seem to like hiking before 09:00, and we’re the only ones on this trail. I prefer it that way. Being alone in nature is very calming. The only signs of humanity out here are the trail itself and hundreds of small cairns left behind by hikers who felt there was a void here that only little piles of rocks could fill.

We reach our destination shortly after 06:00. Like most hikes in Norway, the end of the trail is marked by a letterbox on a post, with a logbook where hikers can record their name and time of arrival. We sit for a minute to rest our legs. Scandinavians seem to take great pride in building picnic tables in the remotest locations, and this place is no exception. The view of the canyon is obscured by trees here. A small path leads further down into the trees, while another one runs up the hill to our right. We go up. The path ends about fifty metres on. The view is better here, but still mostly hidden from sight. It’s a perfect excuse to launch the drone. Twenty metres off the ground, the camera’s wide field of view offers a much better perspective. The sun is already quite high in the sky, but the light is still soft and angled. The canyon is breathtaking. It starts in the north, a shallow crease in the landscape growing gradually deeper into a deep gash in the earth. Sheer rocky cliffs rise from the canyon floor as it passes us to the south, thickly lined with trees at the top. The Alta River wanders amiably through the canyon, twisting gracefully around its bends.

I fly the drone out to the middle of the canyon and get a few shots of the north-facing view. Around 500 meters away, the drone is just visible as a small speck above the trees. I turn it 90 degrees to face us. The canyon walls are far too tall to fit in a single frame, so I try a vertical panorama, tilting the camera further with each shot. The controller bleeps at me angrily. Obstacle, the screen flashes. The drone is hovering well above tree height, and there shouldn’t be any obstacles that far out above the canyon. I look up. A second speck has joined the drone. It’s a good deal larger than the drone and seems to be flapping a lot more. A passing bird. Only it’s not passing. It soars up above the little quadcopter and dives down, straight at it. We’re under attack!

I toggle the controller to S, for sports mode, and push the control stick all the way forward. In sports mode, the Mavic 2 Pro is supposed to top out at 72 km/h, but I’m flying into a strong headwind and going a lot slower. I haven’t read the specs on the bird, but it has no trouble keeping up. I can see it better now. A falcon, perhaps. Dark brown plumage mottled with white underneath. It’s at least twice the size of the drone. One of the great things about a highly portable drone like the Mavic is that the rotors fold into themselves for transit. The downside to this is that they can also fold in when they hit something like a tree branch or a talon. Once that happens, the Mavic quickly turns into a very expensive and very fast paperweight. I don’t like my odds of recovering it from the river at the bottom of the canyon. The falcon screeches and makes another attempt. I try to keep it guessing, zigzagging from left to right. It’s probably only making the Mavic look more like lunch. Unfazed by my display of airmanship, the large bird screeches and swoops again. Another near miss. This must be what it’s like to be a sparrow. The drone is above the trees now. Almost home. I want to land it near me, in case the bird tries to snatch it off the ground. Another screech. I look up from the drone to see the falcon swooping down once more. I feel Anne’s hand on my shoulder, pulling me back. “Look out,” she cries. I throw my hand up instinctively, shielding my face. A stinging pain shoots through my hand—big drops of thick red blood drip down onto the controller and my phone.

There’s a reason I don’t normally fly the drone close to the ground in sports mode. The higher speed means a much longer braking distance. Not a big problem a hundred metres off the ground, but at ground level, when distracted by an angry, aggressive bird, it can be the difference between landing softly in the grass and almost lopping off a finger. I’m probably lucky it’s a highly portable drone with collapsible rotors. I inspect the drone for damage. It seems fine. My hand is bleeding profusely but isn’t really all that bad. I caught the propeller on the first knuckle of my pinky finger. It’s a deep cut, but it’s clean. Anne’s got a small first aid kit in her backpack. Bandages, tape, a little bottle of Sterilon; no morphine. She patches me up, and I pack the drone away. I haven’t gotten the photo I was hoping for, but I’m not keen on testing my luck again. We walk back to the picnic table for a quick snack and then head back up the trail. Google has gone as far as her little legs will carry her, so I pick her up. The hike back is very much the same, only warmer. The first other hikers are just starting out by the time we’re nearly at the parking lot. It’s just after 09:00. We clamber back into the camper, open the windows and close the screens. The insects are starting to wake up. We’ve missed a few hours of sleep, and we have no urgent work deadlines. We climb back into bed just five hours, 12.6 kilometres, one avian assault and a self-inflicted wound after getting up. I just wish I had had the clarity to fly the drone backwards while filming the bird.

The best-laid plans are nothing if not flexible. When you find out that your route runs past the largest canyon in Northern Europe, it’s a no-brainer. We had never heard of Sautso or its alias, Alta Canyon. Anne stumbled upon it while looking up points of interest in Finnmark, way up in Northern Norway. Having never seen a canyon before, I have no frame of reference, but at 12 kilometres long and 420 metres deep, it sounds pretty damn big to me. And so, we change course and head south from the little town of Alta. It’s a good 45 minutes off-route, but we’ve got all the time in the world.

It’s a 6.5 km hike to the canyon, with a decent sized car park at the start. The single-track dirt and gravel road leading up to the car park is moderately steep, but I keep the momentum going and the Tardis pulls us up with relative ease. The landscape at the top is quite unlike the rest of Norway we’ve seen so far. The steep and jagged peaks have been replaced by gentle curves and long lines of sight. These are still mountains, but the kind that grew up in a good neighbourhood, listening to classical music instead of death metal. The parking lot is little more than a clearing of dirt and bare rock. There are four or five cars and a small camper van already here. There’s a somewhat level spot near the top, which we take. It’s nearly 21:00, but the sun has been out all day, and it’s still uncomfortably warm. Google’s back problems mean she can’t walk as far as she used to, so our initial idea was to hike to the canyon in the evening, when it’s cooler, and leave the dogs in the camper. With the windows shut, they probably wouldn’t survive the first hour. The forecast for tomorrow says it’s going to be even hotter. The flies and mosquitoes also seem to be on high alert right now, so we decide to get up early and hike with the dogs instead. We’ll carry Google in between if necessary.

We set off at 04:00. It’s not a difficult hike; the rocky path is well-trodden and clearly visible all the way to the farthest hill in the distance. The sun is already warm, but there are very few insects out. Progress is slow, as the dogs are uninterested in the canyon and prefer to look for mice along the way instead. We have time. Simple wooden walkways take us across strips of marshland. Long planks serve as makeshift bridges across streams that cross our route. They have been poorly placed. It’s easier to step across on the rocks. Chaos doesn’t understand the rocks or the planks and wades through instead. It’s mid-July, and there is very little snow up here, but I imagine these streams are rivers when the snow melts in spring. The hills are covered in dry grass and scrub, with the occasional clump of trees. The sheer scale of the landscape is impressive, but it’s relatively featureless and the spectacular views we’ve had in the past few months have probably spoiled me. I leave my camera in my backpack most of the way. People don’t seem to like hiking before 09:00, and we’re the only ones on this trail. I prefer it that way. Being alone in nature is very calming. The only signs of humanity out here are the trail itself and hundreds of small cairns left behind by hikers who felt there was a void here that only little piles of rocks could fill.

We reach our destination shortly after 06:00. Like most hikes in Norway, the end of the trail is marked by a letterbox on a post, with a logbook where hikers can record their name and time of arrival. We sit for a minute to rest our legs. Scandinavians seem to take great pride in building picnic tables in the remotest locations, and this place is no exception. The view of the canyon is obscured by trees here. A small path leads further down into the trees, while another one runs up the hill to our right. We go up. The path ends about fifty metres on. The view is better here, but still mostly hidden from sight. It’s a perfect excuse to launch the drone. Twenty metres off the ground, the camera’s wide field of view offers a much better perspective. The sun is already quite high in the sky, but the light is still soft and angled. The canyon is breathtaking. It starts in the north, a shallow crease in the landscape growing gradually deeper into a deep gash in the earth. Sheer rocky cliffs rise from the canyon floor as it passes us to the south, thickly lined with trees at the top. The Alta River wanders amiably through the canyon, twisting gracefully around its bends.

I fly the drone out to the middle of the canyon and get a few shots of the north-facing view. Around 500 meters away, the drone is just visible as a small speck above the trees. I turn it 90 degrees to face us. The canyon walls are far too tall to fit in a single frame, so I try a vertical panorama, tilting the camera further with each shot. The controller bleeps at me angrily. Obstacle, the screen flashes. The drone is hovering well above tree height, and there shouldn’t be any obstacles that far out above the canyon. I look up. A second speck has joined the drone. It’s a good deal larger than the drone and seems to be flapping a lot more. A passing bird. Only it’s not passing. It soars up above the little quadcopter and dives down, straight at it. We’re under attack!

 I toggle the controller to S, for sports mode, and push the control stick all the way forward. In sports mode, the Mavic 2 Pro is supposed to top out at 72 km/h, but I’m flying into a strong headwind and going a lot slower. I haven’t read the specs on the bird, but it has no trouble keeping up. I can see it better now. A falcon, perhaps. Dark brown plumage mottled with white underneath. It’s at least twice the size of the drone. One of the great things about a highly portable drone like the Mavic is that the rotors fold into themselves for transit. The downside to this is that they can also fold in when they hit something like a tree branch or a talon. Once that happens, the Mavic quickly turns into a very expensive and very fast paperweight. I don’t like my odds of recovering it from the river at the bottom of the canyon. The falcon screeches and makes another attempt. I try to keep it guessing, zigzagging from left to right. It’s probably only making the Mavic look more like lunch. Unfazed by my display of airmanship, the large bird screeches and swoops again. Another near miss. This must be what it’s like to be a sparrow. The drone is above the trees now. Almost home. I want to land it near me, in case the bird tries to snatch it off the ground. Another screech. I look up from the drone to see the falcon swooping down once more. I feel Anne’s hand on my shoulder, pulling me back. “Look out,” she cries. I throw my hand up instinctively, shielding my face. A stinging pain shoots through my hand—big drops of thick red blood drip down onto the controller and my phone.

There’s a reason I don’t normally fly the drone close to the ground in sports mode. The higher speed means a much longer braking distance. Not a big problem a hundred metres off the ground, but at ground level, when distracted by an angry, aggressive bird, it can be the difference between landing softly in the grass and almost lopping off a finger. I’m probably lucky it’s a highly portable drone with collapsible rotors. I inspect the drone for damage. It seems fine. My hand is bleeding profusely but isn’t really all that bad. I caught the propeller on the first knuckle of my pinky finger. It’s a deep cut, but it’s clean. Anne’s got a small first aid kit in her backpack. Bandages, tape, a little bottle of Sterilon; no morphine. She patches me up, and I pack the drone away. I haven’t gotten the photo I was hoping for, but I’m not keen on testing my luck again. We walk back to the picnic table for a quick snack and then head back up the trail. Google has gone as far as her little legs will carry her, so I pick her up. The hike back is very much the same, only warmer. The first other hikers are just starting out by the time we’re nearly at the parking lot. It’s just after 09:00. We clamber back into the camper, open the windows and close the screens. The insects are starting to wake up. We’ve missed a few hours of sleep, and we have no urgent work deadlines. We climb back into bed just five hours, 12.6 kilometres, one avian assault and a self-inflicted wound after getting up. I just wish I had had the clarity to fly the drone backwards while filming the bird.

2 Comments

  1. Anita

    “I just wish I had had the clarity to fly the drone backwards while filming the bird.” You just can’t have it all 🙂

    Reply
  2. Peter Cunningham

    Great read :)) serves you right for those early starts. Probably woke up that falcon.

    Reply

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