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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

Jul 22, 2018

Why we need to separate friluftsliv from adventure

The Scandinavian philosophy of friluftsliv focuses on enlightenment through spiritual oneness with nature.

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WRITTEN BY

Jahnvi Pananchikal

The contemporary context, however, misleads us into believing that performing adventure sports in nature is a means to achieve friluftsliv. To be honest, it really isn’t.

That summer, I thought I was on a hiking adventure like any other. In the clean air of wilderness, we hiked through rocks and green pastures while passing by streams of water under clear blue skies. Since the point of most hikes is to reach the top to see a panoramic view, I was curious about how this top would look like. I was with my host family and we didn’t speak the same language. With gestures and a few words, they had mentioned going to the mountains on the previous day. I said yes, obviously.

To my surprise, the narrow passage up the rocks covered in shrubbery opened up to a frozen stream. It was larger than my entire world, with no visible horizon. To a 15-year-old, it was a manifestation of “stairway to heaven.” This was the epic Briksdal Glacier in Norway.

Photo Credit: Christine Wang

At the time, I didn’t make much of my host family’s indulgence in nature and weekly trips to the mountains, lakes, glaciers, and forests of different kinds. I was a young student pursuing high school in UWC Red Cross Nordic and visited them occasionally.

Even in school, I didn’t understand the high emphasis on outdoor and adventure, the weekly skiing or hiking trips, or the importance of an entire week organised just for skiing in nature.

Then I learned about friluftsliv in Norway, which literally translates into “open air life.” That’s when I discovered a contradiction in its historical context and contemporary practice.

Friluftsliv appeared while I was digging further into the history of the Norwegian law allemannsrett. The law promotes friluftsliv and translates into “all man’s right.” Through the Outdoor Recreation Act, Norway institutionalized this law to give freedom and access to anyone who wishes to traverse the countryside and camp or picnic wherever, without having to worry about trespassing violations. The law encourages freedom with responsibility and gives free access to nature, while expecting a certain level of mindfulness and respect for the earth and the private landowners. The law has been a traditional right since the Viking period and was institutionally implemented under the Act in 1957.

Photo Credit: Vidar Stenset

As a concept, friluftsliv finds a significant place in Scandinavian history and culture, particularly in Norway and Sweden. This rich philosophy is deeply embedded in the pursuit of spiritual oneness between humans and nature.  It was popularized by writer Henrik Ibsen in his poem back in 1859, where he wrote, “this is friluftsliv for my thoughts,” while looking into the stove and sitting alone in a cottage amidst nature [1]. Later, ecological philosopher Arne Naess extensively wrote about friluftsliv in his books that focused on the positive spiritual impact of the natural environment on human beings and their evolution.

Both Ibsen and Naess highlighted friluftsliv as a state of mind which doesn’t necessarily require any physical activity. One can feel this “open air life” while doing nothing, and simply sitting and staring at the stove. All that is needed to experience this blissful state is to be in the context of nature.

That said, I’m not sure if the two thinkers would feel drawn to the interpretation and use of friluftsliv in the contemporary context. What I experienced in nature with my host family and at my school wasn’t friluftsliv. They didn’t promise that either. Many Norwegians and Swedes, however, are invited by commercial companies to experience this state of mind in nature with outdoor activities like hiking, skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, and so on. But this sense of adventure doesn’t necessarily carry the true philosophical meaning and value of friluftsliv .

Photo Credit: Orca Tec

Changing contextual meaning may not be a problem for some who see a certain business sense in it. The idea of friluftsliv is attractive because it offers the possibility of enlightenment and higher consciousness. Surely, the ones who are invited to experience it in nature at a ski resort would be naturally drawn to it. That speaks positively of the customers who want to become better human beings. But it definitely doesn’t portray the resorts and tourism boards in a positive light. Such methods depict them as people who promote the wrong direction for the right goal.  A family at a ski resort may get really confused about why they haven’t felt friluftsliv yet. It would be a shame for them to sit around and wait for this philosophical state of mind to happen in a context that is far from it.

Personally, I am interested in the pursuit of both friluftsliv and adventure. But I think it’s important to keep the two separate and not use them interchangeably when it is convenient to do so. While reading more about this idea, I gathered that Scandinavian thinkers seem upset about the commercial sector using friluftsliv in the context of adventure. In the name of outdoor activities, they end up giving it a superficial meaning.

Ecology is one area where Scandinavia has much to offer to the world. In few countries like Norway and Sweden where laws are mindful of nature, using language and terms in the right context is an important social responsibility. Separating friluftsliv and adventure sports would only help clarify the means of achieving the two ends. Both are necessary and impactful on the body, mind, and soul in their own ways. With that clarity, people can be guided in the right direction to achieve the right goals.

[1] Friluftsliv: The Scandinavian Philosophy of Outdoor Life Hans Gelter, Luleå University of Technology, Sweden

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