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A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.

- John James Audubon

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Adventure Travel

Jul 04, 2017

Kvíar: Skiing the Forgotten Fjords of Iceland’s Northwest Peninsula

An island nation in the North Atlantic, Iceland is in the midst of a transition from its fishing and agrarian roots.

WRITTEN BY

Mary McIntyre

Its rocky, sparsely vegetated landscapes are scattered with wind-battered homesteads once inhabited by hardy sheep farmers whose Viking ancestors settled the land 1,000 years ago. In the country’s isolated northwestern reaches, a group of skiers travel to a restored farmhouse in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve to explore places left behind by communities that were intimately connected with their natural environment.

We depart the bustling port of Ísafjörður on a small motorboat; eight skiers bound for an old farmstead in Hornstrandir, the remote, uninhabited northern tip of Iceland’s West Fjords.  The brightly colored houses of town fade into the distance, and after a choppy, hour-long channel crossing, we slip into the protected waters of the fjords. Kvíar, a three-story cement farmhouse, is the only structure for miles around, and its red roof stands out like a beacon against a backdrop of rock and snow. We unload boxes of food and ski gear onto a beach of polished boulders and the boat pulls away, leaving us alone in silence.

A three-story cement farmhouse is the only structure for miles around, and its red roof stands out like a beacon against a backdrop of rock and snow.

Wild rhubarb sprouts, the first signs of plant life after a long, harsh winter, line the stone path to the awkwardly tall, crumbling house. Perched atop a hill in the stark, tundra-like landscape with nothing to break the wind or weather, the big dark eyes of its windows look out to sea. A green door opens into a dim, narrow hallway. I step inside and immediately feel the energy of residents from a past era. The cracked walls, the creak of worn floorboards, and the polished wooden railing leading upstairs breathe history.

Runar Karlsson, our guide and the owner of local adventure company Borea, shows us into a cozy wallpapered living room. “Written records indicate that this area has been inhabited since the 14th century. But this house was built by two families much more recently, in the 1900s. Twenty-seven people lived here at one point, one family downstairs and one family upstairs. When I started working on the house, a lot of their stuff was still here: those wooden skis in the corner, farming equipment. They abandoned the farm in 1948,” he explains.

In 1921, Jón Jakobsson and his family built what is still the largest house in Hornstrandir, bringing cement and building supplies by rowboat across the channel from the town of Bolungarvík. They crossed the mountains to the north coast to collect wood that had drifted over from Siberia to use for house beams and boat construction. The farm and boat-building business prospered, but after just over 25 years in the new house, they left their remote hilltop home in favor of life in town.

Less than one degree south of the Arctic Circle, Hornstrandir juts out from Iceland into the Strait of Denmark. North Atlantic winds sweep across the high peninsula while the fjords, fingers of ocean reaching inland, remain sheltered. Along the walls of the fjords, tiers of jet-black basalt cliffs cut by deep snow-filled couloirs alternate with smooth, open bowls that descend in one sustained drop from the broad upper plateau to turquoise lagoons far below. Down at the rocky shoreline, the occasional call of a black and white Guillemot, gliding above the water, beckons us to explore this stark landscape with our skis.

The aging farmhouse is getting a second chance at life thanks to a new roof, fresh paint, and an influx of active, enthusiastic inhabitants.

While the rest of the world hurdles into the future, Hornstrandir is retreating into the past. Instead of following the global trend of increasing habitation and land use, this region that was once widely populated is now nearly abandoned. In the early 1900s, almost 500 people lived in small communities scattered across the peninsula. Lacking access roads, inhabitants traveled the long distances between settlements by boat, horse, or foot

 Surviving in these remote farmsteads and towns demanded an intimate understanding of the land and sea. For hundreds of years, families lived off the natural bounty.

They gathered berries, edible plants, and mussels; fished; hunted birds and seals; and collected bird eggs from massive sea cliffs where six million seabirds still nest annually. Agricultural opportunities were limited, but inhabitants raised sheep and horses and took advantage of the short summer growing season to bolster their food supplies with crops of potatoes, turnips, and carrots. Life was tough and isolated, even by Icelandic standards.

Families began to leave Hornstrandir during World War II as job opportunities multiplied in larger coastal settlements. Fishing boats became motorized and grew in size, requiring bigger harbors and more laborers. This motivated the people from remote settlements to relocate in search of a better life. The last farmstead in Hornstrandir was abandoned in 1954. Twenty-one year later, the local landowners came together to establish the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, protecting the isolated, windswept region against grazing and motorized travel while returning the land to its wild state.

Kvíar sat unkempt and unused for 64 years until Runar approached the Jakobsson family with the idea of turning the house into lodging for hikers and skiers. The structure stood strong despite years of neglect, a testament to the skills and craftsmanship that went into its construction. After a substantial remodel, the house has indoor plumbing, radiators, solar electricity, and a new roof. Having endured decades of isolation, Kvíar is getting a second chance at life.

I help prepare dinner in the basement kitchen, chopping potatoes, carrots, and onions for lamb stew while imagining that Kvíar’s first residents might have once done the same.

Spice racks and pots and pans hang on the exposed cement walls and an antique stove in the corner provides heat and constant hot water for tea, as well as a drying area for jackets, ski skins, and boots. Golden evening light filters through a small window facing the ocean. Keree Smith and Camilla Edwards, my co-chefs and friends, are very much at home in the kitchen, having both worked for a season at Kvíar as guides and cooks.

Teddy Laycock checks on dinner in Kvíar’s basement kitchen.

While we’re using the house for a similar purpose as Kvíar’s previous inhabitants—shelter from the elements—we’re here to use the landscape in an entirely different way. We’re here to ski. It’s spring, so we’re not in search of powder. Instead, we seek “corn,” a snow surface created by multiple melt-freeze cycles, transforming snow crystals into small, uniform, kernels. Perfect corn is hero snow: fast, consistent, and fun to ski. But it’s also fleeting: too little sun and it remains solid ice, too much sun and it becomes soupy mush.

After our group discusses tomorrow’s ski options over dinner, I drift upstairs to bed, listening to waves rushing against the rocks and wondering about the people who slept in this room decades ago.

Were they lonely here? Or just alone? Even now, the isolation, especially during the long winter months, could be both intensely crushing and immensely enjoyable.

I fantasise about spending a month here in the thick darkness of an arctic winter, battered by snowstorms, embracing the solitude and filling the long winter nights writing and reading by a crackling fire.

Keree Smith finds her perfect line high above the North Atlantic.

The following morning, we stack our skis on a motorised Zodiac raft and set off deeper into the fjords. Passing towering dark cliffs bright with green moss, the boat skims smoothly across the calm morning water. Lounging on rocks, seals look up and plop into the water at our approach. Runar drops anchor in a small bay and after getting out of the boat, we begin a long traversing climb towards a pass, our skis scraping loudly against the still-firm snow. As we gain the saddle, two farmsteads become visible far below, tucked away in a bay protected from the open ocean that stretches north towards Greenland. We scramble up the narrow, rock-lined ridge to a prominent outlook where Runar grins as if he’s about to share a secret with us. “The Italian Face,” he announces, pointing down a steep, sweeping bowl basking in the afternoon sunlight. After we transition to ski mode by taking off our skins and locking down our heels, we drop into the bowl one at a time, carving long, swift turns in the corn as the slope funnels down towards the bay.

Guide Runar Karlsson leads the way to the top.

Back at Kvíar, we prepare local Arctic char for dinner, throwing food scraps in the front yard for wild Arctic foxes. Runar strums old Icelandic ballads on his guitar, the lyrics meaningless to us but the tune making us tap our feet and nod our heads. He plays song after song and it’s easy to lose track of time; as the days grow longer, the sun no longer functions as a reference.  

Borea guide and owner Runar Karlsson prepares local fish for dinner.

Though it’s nearly 10pm, sunset is just beginning. After the jam session, I walk down to the beach and watch two scruffy, burnt orange Arctic foxes scour the shoreline for dinner. As I wander between tide pools and seaweed-covered boulders, I hear an unfamiliar whooshing sound. Staring into the fading light, I see three whales swimming close to shore, the mist from their blowholes illuminated by the last light of day. Whale breaths sigh across the water, and I stand still, listening to their giant exhales and watching them glide across the fjord.

The next day, we prepare to ski a mountain known as Einbuii – ‘The Hermit’.  We’ve eyed its central couloir from the raft in passing, and with sunny skies and calm winds we ascend a valley curving around the backside of the mountain to gain the top of the plateau. Keree leads us to the chute’s narrow entrance and we edge our skis over the drop, testing the consistency of the snow and examining the clean shot running straight to the azure blue lagoon 1,500 feet below.  After making a few cautious turns between the high walls, I realize that we’ve hit the snow in ideal conditions once again. The ski down to the ocean is pure bliss and I hear the others hooting in delight as they make their way down to join me.

Guide Runar Karlsson leads the way to the top.

The week is a blur of incredible skiing, though the snow is melting fast. As we come to our last day, I think about past generations who skied across this landscape to trade with neighboring communities. Large cairns mark their routes, stacks of black volcanic boulders five feet high that can still be followed when the area’s famously thick fog descends and blocks out all visibility. We don’t follow them, as we’re seeking steep runs and interesting couloirs rather than the most direct routes between farmsteads. But these relics remind me of the dynamic state of the environment and its people.

An arctic fox scours the beach for dinner.

Motoring away in a modern boat, I can’t help but think that occasional leisure habitation; skiing, hiking, and kayaking, are the best uses for such a wild, remote area. Eking out a living here would be tough, and the landowners’ decision to designate the entire region as a protected Nature Reserve means that we’ll be able to enjoy its unique, austere beauty for generations to come. We return to the shops, restaurants, and roads of Ísafjörður, but its nice to know that Kvíar is waiting for our return—peaceful, isolated, and with untold numbers of ski runs to explore.

Feeling inspired? Head to The Outdoor Voyage to book your own Icelandic experience.

This article is featured in the 13th edition of The Outdoor Journal print magazine. Story and images by Mary McIntyre.

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Travel

Jun 14, 2019

Riding Through Rajasthan

On the back of an indigenous Marwari horse, known for its warrior spirit, a female-only group rides 160 miles across India through villages that have never been visited by foreigners.

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WRITTEN BY

Margaret Reynolds

The adventure began before we even arrived at our destination. Racing through the twisting narrow back allies of Delhi, we were late. Our train to Ganganagar was leaving in ten minutes and we hadn’t made it through the swarm of Delhi traffic to the train station. We rounded a corner and came to a screeching halt as the road ahead was completely closed off at the intersection with no hope of a resolution any time soon. Honking horns, a constant accompaniment to Delhi traffic, now rose to a crescendo of cacophonic sounds as frustrated drivers expressed their annoyance. “Out! Out!” our guide shouted, and we leaped from the van and ran through the street. We were weaving around traffic which bolted forward erratically to gain inches, trying to maneuver their way free of the jam, while we stayed alert to avoid being bumped or hit. Some drivers called out to us in Hindi words we only understood by their tone. Blindly following our guide, using our adrenaline to power us through the crowd, we made it to the train and our sleeper cars minutes before departure and hoped that the bags coming behind us on porters made it too!

Author Margaret Reynolds is an experienced horseback rider who prepared for this trip with previous rides in both Europe and Africa.
Some of our group in the sleeper car of train.

Awaiting us in Hanumangarh, a short distance from Ganganagar, was the Bhatner Horse Fair, a once-a-year festival to celebrate, compete, and market the famed Marwari breed indigenous to India and unlike any other breed worldwide. Missing our train would have meant missing the Fair and it was an event that we planned our entire Rajasthan riding safari around.

“We discovered that we were the main attraction.”

The next morning, we arrived at the fair. It was the last day and while most of the events were completed, we discovered that we were the main attraction as they rarely had foreigners, and there were no other women there. We were given the red-carpet treatment since we were accompanied by Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod, affectionately known as Bonnie, a nobleman of the Shekhawati clan and reputed to be the savior of the Marwari’s. He has dedicated his life to the promotion and protection of the breed which he considers the true ambassador of Rajput culture and heritage. We were followed by a beehive of fair attendees, drawn to us like honey, and even interviewed by the local media. It became clear that our presence held so much more value than just our own education and enjoyment; we could offer support to Bonnie’s cause through our words and interest, as well as in undertaking the week-long safari to showcase these beautiful steeds to his countrymen.

Bonnie educating us on the horses while being observed by other fairgoers.
In breeder tent at the Bhatner fair with Bonnie, our guide and emissary (Margaret wearing bright scarf).

The next day we greeted our horses and mounted into traditional military saddles. The horses were proudly adorned with cloth martingales baring the rich red and saffron colors of Dundlod Fort, and the ride began past sheep herds along the Indira Gandhi Canal. These majestic horses, with warrior spirits, known for their stamina and power were the perfect partners for our eight-day safari across 160 miles of desert. We rode through the heart of Rajasthan, across the Thar desert, far from the bustling cities of the Golden Triangle, now populated by robust crops of millet and mustard enabled by the newly built canal system.

Our group freshly mounted ready to ride out. Margaret and Noel on far right.

“These majestic horses, with warrior spirits, were the perfect partners for our eight-day safari.”

The route was a new one as each year the progress of India’s roads, establishment of new agricultural fields and corresponding fences creates the need for a different trail. We passed through villages that had never been visited by foreigners. Women and children came rushing from all directions to shout “Hi” and “Hello” and shyly wave at us. We were followed for miles by young men on motorcycles whose English focused on the word “selfie” as they came armed with their cell phones to take pictures of this unusual parade of noble horses and white-skinned foreigners. We were welcomed guests wherever we traveled.

Passing through a village in Rajasthan.
Being greeted by villagers along the route.

Our first night by the village of Raika Ki Dhani, we were greeted by dozens of villagers who came to watch us—they observed us sharing chai and popadum, a crispy tortilla-like bread spiced with pepper whose flavor snaps in your mouth just like the texture, as we sat around the fire and chatted about our day. Bonnie regaled us with entertaining tales from his many adventures such as the time they were almost attacked by misinformed villagers who thought his group was hunting their sacred antelope. The locals stood quietly, respectfully, yards away and crept ever closer like sandhill cranes, en masse one step at a time, until the camp staff intervened.

Evening view of tents.
Inside view of the tents.

“We were all wearing smiles that transformed our souls and changed us forever.”

In the morning, the son of the landowner on which we camped, fluent in English, came to us requesting our presence at their home in the village so we could meet their women. Delightedly, we accepted and drove to their brick and adobe home in the village. Many generations live together, and women join the family home of their husbands. When we arrived, there were a dozen people and when we left many dozens as villagers heard of our presence and joined the gathering. The women are beautiful, graceful, and shy but so friendly and welcoming. It didn’t take long to bridge the language barrier as they let us hold their children, shake their hand, and take many pictures together. We aren’t sure who enjoyed it more. We were all wearing smiles that transformed our souls and changed us forever by the time we left.

Invited inside a local village family home.

The ride was swift with many fast canters through the desert, lined up side by side on a sandy two-track, with every horse competing to be in front. Astride the powerful Marwari thundering through the desert is an experience in which your soul is freed, and you are in the moment, feeling like you are riding on the wings of warriors past. You hope it never stops and if it were up to Koel, my lovely Marwari mare, it wouldn’t. She is a successful endurance horse that can go forever and is pleased to show you her power and speed.

The famous Marwari inward tilting ears—view to the desert.

Animals are esteemed in India. Cows, dogs and even pigs are considered holy and roam freely throughout India, including the cities. Drivers don’t honk at them even though they honk at everything else. They feast on grass and garbage or food provided by shopkeepers or families. While those of us in first world countries drive through our suburban neighborhoods, expecting to see the standard home with two car garages and the glow of multiple TVs, as we passed each home in the village we found a courtyard with a camel which served as the beast of burden pulling carts of supplies or crops, a few water buffalo that provide milk, a dog or two and likely sheep or goats for milk and meat. These precious animals, so essential for survival, are well cared for in a country known for its poverty.

The indigenous Marwari horse.

Life is simple in the villages. Days are repetitive and the work is essential –laundry, gathering fuel, cooking, and tending fields. Our presence in their villages provided some respite from the day to day existence. Often, a young boy would lead the way through town shooing goats, cows, or other animals out of our path and showing us the way to the community water trough so our horses could have a refreshing break, feeling pleased with his important role.

“The earthiness that filled the air was far preferable to the gagging stench and pollution of the city.”

Unlike the cities with their explosion of people and constant stench created by the recipe of uncontrolled diesel fumes, sewage, and trash, the villages were peaceful and calm. Here the smells were not of diesel but of livestock. Camels, so common in courtyards and hitched to carts, are ruminants. They chew and swallow their food into rumens where it is fermented, then burp it back up into their mouths later for more chewing. It smells a bit like a compost heap on a warm desert day. Cow patties are the most common source of fuel and they are being shaped by bare hands, then dried for use, usually within the courtyard or sometimes on the roof. Inexplicably, these smells weren’t offensive as they seemed harmonious with the way of life and the use of the land and its resources. For this Midwestern equine enthusiast, the earthiness that filled the air was far preferable to the gagging stench and pollution of the city.

Riding through a village.

We rode for 6-8 hours a day stopping for a break mid-day for lunch and a rest, avoiding the hottest sun of the day. Just before lunch, Bonnie’s staff raced ahead of us in the “gypsy” jeep to set up a small camp, with chairs and sleeping pads and to prepare the food, a buffet of vegetarian delicacies such as dal and curry flavored vegetables with steamed rice and endless chapatis. We were reliably greeted by villagers or passers-by, a camel driver, or young lads on their bikes, as we rested. Our biggest challenge was in finding an appropriate and private spot for a comfort break without being observed.

Men gathered with invitations to their homes.
Photo Op and Interview with the local press while the crowd watched. Margaret in a bright scarf to right of the horse.

“The future of the Marwaris has become our new cause.”

Our eight days through the desert was not a ride for the inexperienced. For those experienced riders who have come to believe they have tried it all, this ride surpasses expectations—not just because of the majesty of the Marwari’s but for the combination of culture, history, and riding which is unparalleled. I have worked up to this event by riding through other countries from Europe to Africa and the magic of this ride transcends them all.

Riding through a village being led by a young man.

The Marwaris, which drew us to India like snake charmers beckoning cobras, were everything we expected and more. We learned that they are banned from exportation which is leading to declines in the quality and popularity of the breed. The future of the Marwaris has become our new cause as we have so much respect for these amazing animals.

Dancing Marwari.

The days included challenge and leisure; hardship and comfort; and speed and stillness which have come to define India to me. It is a country of contrasts—from city to village; from western dress to traditional kurtas and saris; from Muslim to Hindu; and from ancient to modern buildings and customs. It is a country with many possibilities and it was exciting to experience first-hand the range of the country’s legacy and promise for its future.

Margaret Reynolds is a speaker, author, and advisor to organizations on improving business performance and increasing revenue growth. She is an avid competitive trail rider, winning back to back National Championships with NATRC in 2017 and 2018. Every year she and her adventurous friends find a new country to explore on horseback. [email protected]https://www.breakthroughmaster.com/

Feature image: Group send-off at Bonnie’s Dunlod Fort

 

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