On the Artic Fox Trail

 text written by Andrea Pasqualotto - Kailas Viaggi e Trekking, pictures by Marco Barbagelata and Andrea Gabrieli,
translated by Glorija Blazinsek / August 2017

From my hands, towards the fire that finally takes courage on the wet wood,
the heat expands on my arms and then to the rest of the body.
From my back, towards the Ocean that pushes a freezing arctic breath to the shore,
the cold expands on my shoulders, then to the rest of the body.
Till my lungs, which blend and soften the contrast.
Till my heart, which pumps blissfully with no breaks.

In the Hrafnfjordur fiord
This morning the boat left us in the Hrafnfjordur fiord, in the west, beyond the pass. At the first camp, on the feet of the Drangajokull - the fifth most extended glacier of the island, for the first time I realise I am in Hornstrandir, the most remote and wild Icelandic peninsula. I am hunting, but I am no longer sure I am the predator.

The most remote and wild peninsula of Iceland
On a late 1952 summer day, a group of farmers and fishermen gathered together at the doctor's house, in Hesteyri, in order to understand if there was still any sense to keep overseeing the last boundary before the Arctic. All the population came by, each one from his farm, each one with his own idea. They had a discussion, they counted themselves, there were fifty people.
They had no roads, no electricity, no strength to resist any longer. The day after they collected their stuff, their families, their lives and, before the fiord of the glacier solidified for the winter, they left the most remote and wild peninsula of Iceland forever, after more than thousand years of colonisation. Women and men left and nature stayed, the nature that dominates uncontestedly the Hornstrandir ever since, up there, 300km from Greenland. Even the doctor left, but his house - built in 1901 remained and became the landing place for anyone who comes out here. Puffins, guillemots, harbour seals and humpback whales stayed, as she did: the cleverest and the vainest of all, the only Icelandic native mammal earthling, the Arctic fox.

The Bolumgarvik bay
The high tide prevents us from going on, the waves smash directly into the cliff, we have to stop and wait. To follow nature's rhythms means also to wait that the sea pulls back, dragged by the force of the moon towards distant seashores. Above us two guillemots are looking at us from their nest, then they dive towards the Ocean, and disappear among the waves.
The long wait, with the storm coming, makes us nervous, so we decide to go on anyway. We take our shoes and trousers off and we pass those ten miserable metres of freezing water with foamy waves enclosing our waists. On the other side, the cost gets less steep, the trail goes up into the grass scattered by yellow buttercups, purple geraniums and large green wild celery.
The landscape changes its shape constantly, it reveals thin stacks with sharp peaks and mysterious vertical walls of columnar basalts. As soon as we turn over the promontory, everything becomes magnificent and time stops.
Bolungarvik bay is a sequence of perfect curves, made by a gigantic compass thousands of years ago. There's the one that marks the end of the Ocean against the faint sand, the one of the wide, smooth, flat and static beach, the one of the parallel dunes, covered by the greenery, which end where the peaty meadow begins, and lastly the one of the crown of those powerful lava flows which close the scene. Nothing else, from thousands of years.
We cross silently all that desert place and for a few minutes we forget about the heavy backpacks, the cold wind and the freezing fording water. So we climb the steep path towards the first pass of the day, moving quickly and overtaking the second bay and taking on the second pass.

A brown spot, a ghost is coming closer
I dictate the rhythm, the group scatters a bit, but I am aware of the fact that the front is above us, the dark inflated clouds don't lie, the grey wall on the horizon neither and we knew it already yesterday that it would have been a race against time to get to Smudivik before the storm and pitch our tents.
Adventure simplifies my thoughts, lets the pureness of the essential come to light. As our arrival point is in sight, the first drops of rain reach us.
While we are building up the camp, sheltering our gear, preparing the bivouac, I see her. There she is, a few meters away from us, among the greenery. A brown spot, a ghost, cautious but curious, she takes the long way round but gets closer. It is her, the Arctic fox.
The storm is coming rapidly beyond our backs and while the group is hiding in the shelter, I turn back for the last time, I meet her gaze, wild and proud, her thin figure, her dark coat covered by drops of water, her paws muscles ready to run away, her snout pushed out to sense my smell. Then a gust of wind hits me strongly, the ghost disappears and as darkness falls, I rush into my tent.

One fiord, one couple
The Arctic fox came to Iceland around ten-thousand years ago through the bridge of frozen water created between Iceland and Greenland. She took over the island and ruled undisturbed for thousands of years, specializing her self in seabird hunting on the costs. Then the man came and decided that the fox was a competitor and needed to be eliminated. He hated her, persecuted her, took her to the rim of extinction, even in the most remote peninsulas like Hornstrandir. But the fox was smarter and despite the cruel hunting, she survived.
One day, the man got tired of it and left, and the fox went back to being the queen of these remote lands. Now the fox has to face nature only, which actually is not less cruel as it decimates the puppies that every year are not able to live until the end of summer. One in five makes it through the first year of life. Then males try to conquer their own space. One fiord one couple, there is no space for the other.
A male fox lives five years, then he gets overpowered by someone younger and stronger. It's been like this for ages and it will be like this for a long time because the fox is smart and not even the researchers are able to catch her, because she doesn't enter in a closed space, such as a cage, not even in exchange for food.

Hornbjarg, the formidable cliffs of Iceland
Two times I tried and two times I've been rejected. The Hornbjarg, the horn, the sharp northern peak whose profile dominates the bay of Hornvik, didn't give me the satisfaction of reaching it. The first time the pounding rain brought by the wind was so powerful that I couldn't even stand. The second time a thick fog was hiding the cliff which could reach 400meters depth. Both times, to emphasize the prank, the horn gave me the most beautiful view on the next day, when it has emerged from the clouds in all his grace.
A touchstone for the fishermen that circumnavigate the peninsula, the Hornbjarg hosts one of the most formidable cliffs of Iceland, along with one of the most substantial colonies of sea birds. Puffins, guillemots, auchs and fulmars noisily compete for the tight corniche on the sea, unreachable for their most tenacious predator, the Arctic fox.
With the sun on our faces we climb to the last pass of our trekking, the one that separates us from the Hesteyri fiord, a scant group of wooden houses, from where, 60 years ago, the determined and proud inhabitants of the Hornstrandir, decided that they have had enough of it, that that was too much even for them and that it was better to give back the space to nature.


Kailas Viaggi e Trekking
progetta e organizza viaggi e trekking in tutto il mondo, accompagnati da guide professioniste, laureate in geologia, archeologia e in scienze naturali.
http://www.kailas.it 


My footwear
For this trekking on the most remote and wild peninsula of Iceland, I used the Alterra NBK GTX, a versatile footwear for long trekkings on medium difficulty terrain.
The asymmetric construction of the outsole with exclusive AKU ELICA technology ensures excellent load distribution over the plantar surface and outstanding improvement of foot roll.