A Close Encounter With The Arctic Fox

A Close Encounter With The Arctic Fox

Eli Petzold
Photo by
Eli Petzold

Skimming briskly along Ísafjarðardjúp, the large bay that cuts between the Westfjords’ northernmost and middle tines, I lose phone service and geographic reference at about the same time. Snowy mountains jut into the deep from every direction, giving me the sense that I’m entirely encircled in an inland lake. A salty splash hits my face as I peer overboard, confirming that we are, indeed, at sea. We’re headed from Ísafjörður to Hornstrandir, the remote northernmost peninsula of Iceland. A handful of fishing outposts once dotted the area, but the rough weather and living conditions propelled a gradual exodus, and by the beginning of the 1950s, the entire peninsula was abandoned.

Nearing Hornstrandir’s southern coast, I watch a gray blur assume the shape of a house against expanses of virgin snow: this is Kvíar, one of Hornstrandir’s abandoned estates. Over the last few years, Ísafjörður-based travel company Borea Adventures has renovated it into a lodge, offering outings for intrepid travelers who can do without wi-fi or hot water. Today, we’re just stopping in for lunch. High snow banks hang over the shoreline, obscuring any semblance of a beach. In a small, inflatable boat, we head towards the meagre collection of rocks that comprise something like a landing jetty. A dark canine form materializes against the white wastes onshore, disappearing just as quickly.

Westfjörds shoreline

Untrodden snow

“Don’t tread on untrodden snow,” I’m instructed, and it sounds like a mistranslated, irrelevant Taoist aphorism, but the coda connects this directive to the vulpine apparition: “Foxes prefer untouched snow.” Ascending the steep snow bank, we’re greeted by Ester Rut Unnsteinsdóttir, head of research at The Arctic Fox Center in Súðavík. Three foxes have been prowling around Kvíar, she tells me: one male and two females. It’s almost mating season and the foxes are a monogamous lot. Someone’s getting the short shrift.

Westfjords Fox

The house is at once ambitious and utilitarian. Made entirely of concrete, it stands three stories tall. The interior is sparse, decorated here and there with a pelt, Tibetan prayer flags, and little else. In the dining room, an Australian photographer warms himself by the wood stove. He’s been here for a few days, waiting for the perfect picture of foxes in a snow flurry. “If I’d known you were coming,” he says, pointing to an empty Johnnie Walker bottle, “I’d have asked you to bring whiskey.”

Over a DIY lunch of flatkökur and cold cuts, Borea’s head guide Rúnar Karlsson outlines the history of the house. In 1921, the landowner hauled foundation stones to the site on horseback and, with little foresight, began building. Not 30 years later, in 1948, the estate was completely abandoned.

westfjords sauna

The blue fox

Rumors of a sauna float around the dining room table, and before I know it, I’m sweating in the dry, piney chamber behind the house, peering through a small window at the wilds beyond. Emerging shirtless and barefoot in the snow, I close my eyes and feel my warmth exchange with the air’s crispness.

When I open my eyes, I see a small white fox not two meters away. Mutually curious, we investigate each other. For a split second I fantasize about having her as a house pet, but I determine that that’s probably highly illegal. She disappears when I draw close, but rejoins us minutes later on the shore as we prepare to depart. High on the snow bank she poses, looking over her shoulder as we speed away towards Ísafjörður. The sun shines all the way, casting miniature rainbows in our frothy wake, as if the day needed any more magic.

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