We’re about an hour out of Ísafjörður harbour when the horizon suddenly tilts. As our tiny, crowded passenger boat passes out of the sheltered fjord, we’re beset by the high waves of the North Atlantic and thrown violently from side to side. The skyline pitches to 45° one way, then the other; saltwater sloshes aboard through the flapping awning, and several faces quickly turn grey.
The captain remains stoic and unphased, going about his business as if piloting a pleasure cruise. Our destination is Hornstrandir, the wild, jagged peninsula perched atop the Westfjords. Only reachable by boat and lacking the most basic infrastructure, Hornstrandir was once home to a small farming community of 500 or so people, but they left in the 1950s. Although some of their descendants have since reconstructed old farmsteads into summer houses, it has been all-but uninhabited since.
When the people left, nature was quick to fill the gap. The whole 580km² area was protected as a Nature Reserve in 1975, and has become famous as a remote hiking destination rich with diverse flora, birdlife—and Arctic foxes.
Bones and feathers
The sea calms down as we chug into Jökulfirðir, the system of fjords named after the nearby Westfjordian glacier of Drangajökull. As our curious eyes scan the vast, green, flat-topped mountains jutting from the choppy ocean, Eyjólfur—our guide, who goes by the nickname Eyjó—reports that the landing point has changed due to the weather. We’ll disembark by dinghy onto the stony beach of Lónfjörður and hike to Kvíar, the fox-spotting base camp.
We clamber out of the dinghy, finally setting foot in Hornstrandir. The beach is littered with finds: bird bones and feathers, neatly splayed purple mussel shells bearing giant barnacles, and mangled fish skeletons. All of this, says Eyjó, is evidence of foxes. Natural scavengers, they often come down to the shoreline to feed on the debris left by seals or birds. As we begin the hike, the trail passes plenty of bone piles and gnawed fish carcasses that suggest they may have had some recent success.
The undisturbed nature of Hornstrandir is fascinating, and we spot plenty of plants and wildlife along the way. Without free-range sheep to graze it away, the plantlife is flourishing. We pass large patches of roseroot, their distinctive upward-curved leaves cradling gems of rainwater beneath yellow flowers; sprays of heath spotted-orchids are in full bloom at the peak of Icelandic summer, showing their distinctive small, hooded flowers. A flight of swans passes gracefully below us, effortlessly tracing the shoreline and heading out to sea.
The Hornstrandir exodus
As we hop over streams and pick through patches of marsh, Kvíar finally comes into view. It’s a lonely house that crowns a verdant hill set against a backdrop of steep coastal mountains receding into the mist.
The interior is like a time capsule, and Eyjó tells the story of the house’s former life, when it was home to an extended family of 20. He fills us in on the saga of the Hornstrandir exodus, which began when the local doctor left, leading to a fateful vote when the populace chose to abandon the area, leaving behind their houses and land.
After warming up with some hot soup whipped up by Eyjó, we head out to look for foxes. There’s a den in the copse of trees by the house, and we carefully circle the woods to find higher ground and settle in to wait. Several of the group have come prepared with telescopic zoom lenses, and they trace the land patiently for signs of movement.
Eyjó’s voice lowers. He recounts how Arctic foxes are Iceland’s only indigenous land mammals, thought to have arrived on icebergs 10,000 years ago. They can survive temperatures as frigid as -35°, so the rough winters aren’t a threat, but they’ve been locked in battle with Icelandic farmers since the settlement era. Foxes were the settlers’ nemesis, known for raiding larders and killing vulnerable livestock—a matter of grave importance in the time of subsistence living. They’re still hunted today, mainly for sport—but they’ve been a protected species in Hornstrandir since 1993.
Into the valley
The afternoon draws on, and my companion and I decide to part from the group for a while and hike up the valley. We head towards a waterfall in the middle distance, and fox-signs peter out the farther we get from the den. Kvíar drops out of sight as we cross the lush wetlands, and we pass through meadows of cottongrass, wild angelica and purple creeping thyme, soaking in the sounds, smells and colours of the untouched countryside.
As we circle back along the coast towards the house, I momentarily fall behind, absorbed in the hike. When I look up, my heart skips a beat—just a few metres away, my companion has happened upon a sleeping fox, almost stepping on it. It leaps up in surprise, bounding past her in two arcing head-height jumps and trotting off to hide in a nearby outcrop. The three of us freeze. The fox’s head rises from behind the rocks as it regards the situation. Its coat is patchy, between the white of winter and the black of summer. Its pointed ears sink away once more. Although Hornstrandir’s foxes are tame, this one has been startled, and it slinks away up the steep hillside and over the clifftop.
Last gasp barks
Back at Kvíar, Eyjó is serving up a dinner of baked fish, omelettes and potatoes. There’s been no activity at the den. We recount the story of our sighting, passing around the camera to share the handful of blurry pictures of our encounter.
However, all is not lost. After packing up the house, the group is hiking back to meet the returning boat when a strange sound echoes down from the cliffs. Camera lenses shoot up, and the culprit is quickly identified—it’s the bark of a different fox, this time on the mountain overlooking Lónafjörður. Shutter snaps ring out as it stalks along the crest of the mountain and into the wilderness beyond.
The group’s spirits are lifted even after this sighting-at-distance. There’s much to talk about on the homewards journey—so much, in fact, that we barely noticed the choppy sea as the wild cliffs of Hornstrandir vanish back into their halo of clouds.
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