We’ve just got back from a memorable trip to Iceland. The journey started great, later it got worse but to our big relieve it had a very happy ending.
Hornstrandir Nature Reserve was our base for the biggest part of our trip in Iceland. It is a largely unspoiled and untouched place in the northernmost part of Iceland's West fjords peninsula.
We prepared for the trip very carefully as there are no shops or hotels, roads, electricity, internet, phone reception, hot water, nothing except beautiful nature, birds and Arctic foxes.
Hornstrandir hosts probably the highest density of the Arctic Fox in Iceland. Hunting restrictions and food availability due to large bird cliffs and long coast line makes the location perfect for encountering this animal which is a true Icelander with roots from last ice age when it came to the isolated island over the frozen sea.
Photographing this tough and fascinating mammal was our target.
But most important we wanted to see Arctic fox cubs which are so cute and adorable.
The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is reachable by ~2.5 hour boat trip from a small town of Isafjordur with a population of about 2,600. The town stands on a narrow spit in the fjord Skutulsfjordur, which meets the waters of the larger fjord Isafjardardjup and is surrounded by mountains.
We arrived to the town a day before our departure to Hornstrandir as we had to sort out the ferry tickets, buy gas for camping stove and of course get some extra food. The rest of the time was spent exploring the area.
Upon arrival, we settled down in the camping site in the place called Hornvik. The first two days we explored the area. It was quite a challenge to walk 10 – 15 km across the hills with our cameras and cross ice cold 50 meter wide river. It was tough but definitely well worth it. We enjoyed beautiful panoramic views, bird cliffs and black sandy beaches but most important we saw quite a few foxes roaming the mountains and along the beaches.
We were surprised how small they were - around half the size of a red fox.
It’s interesting to mention that Arctic fox comes in two colour variations – white and so called “blue”. Only a third of Iceland’s foxes wear white winter coat which in summer turns grey to brown on the face, legs and upper body, while under body fur becomes lighter coloured.
The “blue” morph never turns truly white in colour. In summer they are dark drown, black, light grey. Brown fur provides the est camouflage in the coastal regions. That’s why the foxes of “blue” morph are common in Hornstrandir.
The last year’s winter was very tough even for this well adapted animal. As we spoke to the Arctic fox guide and researcher from the Arctic Fox Centre Ester, she informed that quite a few carcasses were found in spring. Due to the bad weather cubs were late this year too. Luckily during the next few days we had great photo opportunities of one fox family with five cute cubs. Little ones were 3-4 weeks old. At this age they are very cute and sweet.
With a distinctive whimpering sound, mum would call the pups to come for suckling. In a second they would be out of the den bouncing across the ground with joy.
Later they try to push each other to get a better suckling place.
Father Fox helps to raise the cubs too. We have not seen him much during the day but in the evening he would bring lots of tasty treats for the little ones. Once we have noticed him rushing to the cubs with a kittiwake.
He would ask the little ones to come out with the same distinctive call. The cubs never refused a tasty meal; any food received from the parents they used to drag inside their den.
The other day we saw the mum bringing a small bird for the cubs.
In many other countries the Arctic Fox feeds mainly on lemmings. There are no lemmings in Iceland, so the main food is birds, eggs, carrion, invertebrates and berries in late summer.
When the mealtime is over and the bellies are full, playtime starts. It’s a pleasure to watch how the cubs pounce, jump, crouch and bite each other.
Little ones were particularly playful chewing on objects they found and play fighting for any "toy" with each other.
A blossom of a Sow Thistle or any other grass attracted their attention many times too.
Mum was also quite often involved in the games.
When the parents are not around or if the cubs hear or see something unusual, they would run to their den for safety.
Cubs do not really go out from the den if the parents are not around. They wait for the distinctive call. Though we have noticed that one of the little cubs was quite adventurous and would sneak out of the den from time to time.
The weather for photography was good for 5 days. We have enjoyed warm days (~13 C) and nights (~10 C). It was quite fun to live in the tent.
Day and night was a bit of a mix because it did not get dark during the night. Our sleeping habits had changed a bit but it didn’t really affect us very much. We loved late evening and very early morning walks.
Before we came to Iceland, we always came across sentences like: “Iceland is a land of very mixed weather” or “Visitors should prepare for all weather types at Hornstrandir as it can be highly changeable”. On Monday ranger Linda and her husband Hoskuldur who stayed in Hornvik camping site informed us that heavy rain and strong winds up to 35 m/s are expected and advised us to move to a military tent.
That day one Belgium, two German and two Polish hikers came to the camping site as they were advised to stop travelling because it was simply too dangerous. Bad weather hit us Tuesday night. The noise of wind and rain, flapping of the tent kept us awake a good part of the night. Couple of times we had to go out to fix pegs because the wind just pulled them out of soil. It was a bit of a scary night - we didn’t know how strong the metal construction of the military tent was and strange thoughts started coming to our heads. Luckily we passed a very disturbed night, unfortunately the wind and rain was still strong. The temperature had dropped to 6 C. The ranger managed to contact the coast. She informed us that there were up to 6 meters waves out in the ocean and the boat which was scheduled to pick us up on Thursday would not be able to come. We expected the wind to ease down a bit but most of the time it was the same day and night on Wednesday and Thursday. During the day we tried to get out of the cold tent for short walks. The views have changed a lot: majestic bird cliffs simply shrouded in cloud and mist, surrounding fields and meadows had plenty of water puddles, the river which we used to cross overflowed.
When the weather was a bit better, we used to check the foxes. Clearly the adults found lots of dead birds by the ocean because of the stormy weather.
As the bad weather continued two German travels decided to move to an emergency shelter, a Belgium hiker joined us in the military tent. Polish guys were still in their tent in the field.
Friday morning the ranger brought us some emergency food as we only had one protein bar and one bag of “Mountain House” ready meal left for both of us. Luckily we did not need the emergency food after all. Early afternoon after our usual short walk we got inside a tent. Not even 5 minutes later we heard a noise of an approaching helicopter. It clearly flew over our tent and seemed that it landed. All three of us jumped out of the tent in seconds. It was difficult to believe our eyes - an orange coast guard helicopter came to check if we were ok.
The crew took us all on board and safely returned to Isafjordur.
Once again we would like to thank all Icelandic Coast Guard Helicopter team and especially Henning Adalmundsson who looked after us so well. As we didn’t make our flight to Reykjavik, it was decided to flew two of us further from Isafjordur to Reykjavik. To this day, if we hear a noise of a helicopter a smile appears on our faces and good memories of our rescue trip come back.
Photographic Arctic fox turned out to be one of the most unforgettable experience.
In 2017 we went back to Hornstrandir in winter. A full story how we photographed arctic foxes is placed here
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