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#15 Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, Iceland

This trip to the remote peninsula of Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in Iceland was always going to be tricky enough, let alone with the worldwide outbreak of Coronavirus. Located at the tip of the Westfjords it’s one of the remotest and most difficult parts of Iceland to reach, especially during the winter months. To reach Isafjörður where you get a boat to the reserve - there are no roads in Hornstrandir so boat is the only option - you have to drive some 8 hours north from Keflavík airport. However once you get off Route 1 (the ring road that circumnavigates the vast majority of the island and the main road) in the winter, the roads can become difficult to drive.

Covered in snow and ice, often with huge snow drifts to either side it can be quite daunting when you come from England, where just a small dusting of snow brings the country to a standstill! Once you reach Hólmavík some 5 1/2 hours after departing the airport the real challenge begins. Weaving in and out of the fjords, often driving 40km to just gain 1km in the direction you want to go. As seems quite the norm this winter in Iceland there was another ongoing storm when I arrived, that had brought strong winds and heavy snow fall again, leading to a temporary road closure whilst an avalanche had blocked the road to Isafjörður. After speaking to a few people in the Westfjords, it has been the toughest winter in some 30 years, constantly battling the weather. Life up here is very much different to that I am used to. Small things you take for granted here you cannot when so much depends on the weather like it does in Iceland.

After a nights sleep in the car and the road now passable it was time to make the final push to Isafjörður to start the real adventure. I would be meeting a local man called Runar who would be guiding me on this trip. He runs a house in Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, one of only a couple that can be occupied during the tough winter months. The house was built in the 1920’s - which when you consider its geographical location is mind blowing enough - before being deserted in the 1940’s. It was lived in by two families of farmers who worked on the land around the house, they lived there year round. With none of the modern day things we take for granted like heating, it’s pretty remarkable! They generated power from a couple of small wind turbines they had erected and from the small stream that runs near the house, again incredible to think that this was all happening nearly 100 years ago.

We set off early in the morning due to incoming storm that afternoon. It would have made the seas too rough to take Runar’s boat. I’m told the seas were fairly smooth, but it was still rough enough for me! After just over an hour you can start to see the small detail of the house emerge in the distance, this would be home for the next 5 days. As we approach the house which no one had been to for a couple of weeks, a problem became apparent.Huge snow drifts had formed along the coast of the house, and the challenge of getting up to it was now becoming apparent. Runar said he had never seen so much snow at the house before, which was both worrying and exciting at the same time. We launched the zodiac from the boat to make our beach landing, by now the full extent of the height of the snow drifts had become apparent, they were some 15 feet tall in the lowest of places! We made landing and offloaded all our gear for the following week and then started to carve out some steps in the snow to make our way up to the house.

Finally we got everything to the top, and Runar took the zodiac back to the boat and paddle boarded back to shore. We waved goodbye and that was the last we would see of any other humans until it was time to leave, in fact we would be the only people for 40km around. Before we could even get all our belongings into the house the first arctic fox had appeared and made its way past the house. Hopefully a sign of things to come! We’d been there less than an hour and we had lucked in! The first job was to get the generator up and running to get some heat circulating around the house, unfortunately this had been snowed in, so digging it out then became first priority for Runar, whilst myself and the only other guest set up our photography equipment in a hope the fox would return - which is did shortly after.

Over the next few days we would be lucky enough to have 3 different blue morph foxes in and around the house, including a mating pair! The blue morph only makes up 1% of the global population of arctic fox, it's especially suited to the coastal regions of Iceland like here, where it scavenges along the shoreline for food and can blend into the rocks. This does however make it stick out like a sore thumb on the snow the rest of the time, spotting them is not exactly a difficult task, even with them being so small in size. The house has a hide to use, which with the strong winds can be extremely handy to take shelter and protect your equipment from becoming filled with snow, but it doesn’t offer the sort of shot I was necessarily aiming for. I wanted to try and capture these incredible little creatures in their natural habitat, showing the size and the harsh reality of what they have to endure each day.

For that I wanted to be along the coastal front, capturing the dramatic snow drifts leading into the sea. With the help of scattering some dried fish here and there you can help bring the foxes into position as they will take any food they can get in these harsh conditions. Another shot that I wanted to get was a fox along the shoreline, something that is quite unusual to see, apart from up in Hornstrandir. At low tide the foxes would make their way down to the beach and scavenge for fish that has washed up on the shoreline. This is where their dark colour doesn’t help, it’s incredibly hard to try and spot them! I had however heard about one particular white fox that gets seen very rarely around the house. This on the other hand would be easy to spot along the shore. On one calm day - on the others the wind was too strong to warrant walking along slippery kelp covered rock - I managed to spend low tide searching down on the beach. After an hour of walking, through my binoculars I managed to get a small glimpse of the white fox patrolling the beach! He was however at least another hours hike along the shore for me to reach, and in reality by the time I got anywhere near him he would have been long gone. A memory that will just have to live in my mind as even for my 500mm with converter I wouldn't have gotten a worthwhile photo.

With the world slowly coming to a standstill because of Coronavirus and the UK looking like it might go into lockdown and shut its borders. It was with a heavy heart that I thought it best to get back home. This however was easier said than done! With very limited phone signal the information coming from home was few and far between and another incoming storm meant I couldn’t get a boat for at least another day and a half regardless! At this stage there is little point in worrying about it, as there is nothing you can do, you're stranded! I guess you might call it a perk of travelling to these remote places! But the prospect of being stranded in Iceland and no way of getting home was slightly daunting! At least I had the foxes to take my mind of things. A couple more days hunkered down in the hide, getting close up shots of the foxes as they were now used to our smells helped!

Before too long the weather had eased up and a passing boat detoured to come and pick me up. British Airways had made contact and we had managed to swap my flight for one a day earlier - I’m incredibly impressed with the service they provided in these difficult times! - I was all set to fly the following morning! It was 7pm before I made it back to Isafjörður and off the boat, and the prospect of driving all night was not something that I was looking forward to! Only stopping for a couple of hours sleep in the back of the car I made it back to the airport, battling through blizzard like conditions most of the way. The airport was eerily quiet with only a couple of flights leaving Iceland that day, at least I was one of them! 24 hours after leaving the Westfjords I was back in the comfort of my own home, in time to self isolate whilst the UK went into lockdown. My heart still wishing I was at the house surrounded by the foxes. Which in reality would have been the best option to self isolate, luckily my head saw sense for once!

Writing this I should be in Svalbard photographing polar bears again, and a couple of upcoming trips to Finland for brown bears have been halted as well. Looking longer term to the end of the year I had trips to Patagonia for pumas, Brazil for jaguars and Alaska for polar bears once more. Only time will tell if these trips will be possible or not, but I suspect they won’t. For now it’s time to enjoy the comfort of my own bed and make the most of being home.

zacharytknowles

March 2019

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