A writer and her family embark on a cross-country ski quest to see wild reindeer in a powdery, wind-swept Norwegian national park that nearly conquered one legendary explorer.
We're hoping the visibility is good enough for a distant glimpse of the park's reindeer. These animals have an important, and unique, pedigree. Their 35,000-year-old ancestors' bones line grottoes in southwestern France, and 8,000 years ago their younger relatives fed Norwegian hunters on Hardangervidda itself. Norway is the only European country that is still home to wild mountain reindeer. The government has committed to safeguarding the animals in 23 areas that total 16,308 square miles. The Hardangervidda Plateau's part of this covers 3,141 square miles--more than twice the park's size. Protection, however, doesn't necessarily mean the reindeer aren't hunted--in the absence of the animals' natural predators, wolves and wolverines, Norwegian authorities keep tight control over reindeer numbers by permitting a hunt each autumn. This year 1,500 permits were issued with the expectation that about half that number of animals would be taken.
"There are a lot of people who don't believe we have that many reindeer in Hardangervidda, because it is so hard to see them," Rune Bergstrom, head of the Norwegian Wild Reindeer Centre in Skinnarbu, told me. His arched eyebrows and round cheeks framed by a salt-and-pepper fringe of hair give him the look of a middle-aged elf. "They have been hunted for 30,000 years now, and when they see you they can't tell if you're a hunter or just a tourist skiing in the mountains."
Reindeer are superbly adapted to traveling in Arctic conditions, and they can run 28 miles per hour--about the same as a grizzly bear. Half-moon-shaped hooves, split like a cow's but with sharp edges, allow them to dig into snow and ice. Stiff guard hairs underfoot work like snowshoes, so the reindeer can float on the snow rather than sink in the way a moose might. What's most surprising is that females have antlers--an indication of just how precious access to food is. Males drop their antlers by December, since they no longer need them a month after the rut. But females carry their antlers right through May, and use them to keep the males from the grazing areas they need to feed themselves and their young.
That's why reindeer watching in Hardangervidda involves a kind of delicate dance. We want to see the animals, but we don't want to spook them and force them to run, burning up their precious energy. Lichens provide fully 80 percent of their winter food and the carbohydrates they need to survive (though not the protein they need for growth--they get that in the spring). Bergstrom told me that reindeer can detect a human from a half-mile away or more--the best thing to do if we're lucky enough to get near them will be to stay downwind and not get too close.
Fair weather and stiff winds welcome us on our first day's ski. We start on fresh snow that's slightly crunchy underfoot, like skiing on crushed Rice Krispies, and follow a line of birch branches that tremble ahead of us in the strong breeze. The branches mark the way north along a trail called the Saboteur's Route. During World War II, Claus Helberg and nine fellow saboteurs fled along this path to safety after bombing a nearby power plant the Nazis had commandeered to produce heavy water for their atomic bomb effort. Four of them hid in Hardangervidda's wilds for the winter of 1942-1943, living off--you guessed it--reindeer. Our evening's stay is at the eponymous Helberghytta hut, seven and a half miles from our start.
Two hours into our ski finds us topped out on the plateau proper, where the wind has quickened and the vistas have opened. To our south stands Gaustatoppen, a triangular peak that marks our start in Rjukan, capped with a fluffy white cloud that looks like it's caught on the summit spike. We're stopped for a quick chocolate break when Doug shouts and points excitedly at a small hill nearby covered with funny pockmarks--fresh reindeer tracks. The prints loop and weave, broadening in places into parallel tracks 10 or 15 animals wide, then squeezing down to a bottleneck. They look like they've been stitched onto the slope by a crazy seamstress. "Do you really think we'll see reindeer?" asks Zoe. I hear a trace of the kid who dutifully left carrots for Rudolph long after most gave up on the Santa Claus myth. "I hope so," I respond.
The fair weather and easy skiing allow our little group to string out along the trail. Sebastian frisks in the front, leading the way, with Rick, Molly, and Zoe right behind. Per and Doug, composing photos and fiddling with camera gear, take up the rear. I'm shuffling along by myself in the middle, zoned out by my skiing's rhythm, when a golden eagle wafts overhead, low enough that I can see the hook of its beak and hear the hiss of wind in its feathers. The eagle sails south toward Gaustatoppen, its head swiveling back and forth, searching for food. I hold my breath and watch as its seven-foot wingspan shrinks to a dark double-humped line.
These eagles are one of only four bird species--gyrfalcons, ravens, and ptarmigan are the others--tough enough to spend winters on Hardangervidda, and it strikes me how hard it must be for them. Ptarmigan have to eat up to 10,000 birch buds--about a third of their body weight--every winter day, and ravens are opportunistic foragers, eating whatever they find. The eagles and gyrfalcons have their work cut out for them. Hardangervidda's snows hide its millions of rodents and its powdery white ptarmigan beautifully--we see nary a trace of them during our entire trip.