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Plumes of smoke rise and merge into the leaden sky / A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers

- Pink Floyd


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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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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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