Snow Patrol

Snow Patrol

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.

By Nancy Bazilchuk/Photography by Per Breiehagen
Published: November-December 2008

He fell asleep in the soothing calm of a snow cave but awoke in the suffocating silence of a tomb. Outside Roald Amundsen's improvised shelter lay Norway's Hardangervidda Plateau, a desolate, wind-blasted piece of tundra so vast and inhospitable it had not yet been traversed in winter.

Roald and his brother Leon were attempting to be the first to do so, in 1896. Bad luck and worse weather had already forced them to turn back, their only map destroyed and the last of their food bags lost in a whiteout. Amundsen slept beneath a snowy blanket that night as the temperature dropped ever lower, sealing him in a sarcophagus of ice. He might have gasped his last breaths from within the icy crypt if it weren't for a few telltale hairs from his reindeer-fur sleeping bag that showed his brother where to dig him out. "The training proved severer than the experience for which it was a preparation," Amundsen later observed dryly, "and it well-nigh ended the career before it began."

Amundsen's bane is now my fascination. What kind of place could defeat a man who was later able to cross-country ski nearly 2,000 miles round-trip across uncharted Antarctica to be the first to the South Pole? Trying our skills on a long-distance ski trip, my husband, Rick Strimbeck, and I, and our two daughters, Molly, 17, and Zoe, 13, have come to Hardangervidda in late winter to find out. Along the way we hope to realize another, possibly more elusive ambition: to catch a glimpse of the park's shyest inhabitants, western Europe's largest herd of wild reindeer. But instead of Amundsen's sleeping bags and snow caves, we'll have the benefit of the cozy mountain cabins, or huts, that dot the region, now protected as Norway's largest national park.

A dead ringer for the Arctic, Hardangervidda (pronounced Har-DUNG-ah-vidah) offers visitors a stark beauty and magnificent emptiness rumpled into low hills interrupted by the larger crease of an occasional peak. Twenty-eight-square-mile Hardangerjokulen, Norway's sixth-largest glacier, frosts the area's northern edge, topping 6,000 feet at its highest point. Just 180 miles north of Oslo, the region juts out above the surrounding wooded valleys and emerald fjords so that it is pummeled by every bit of wind and weather that blasts off the North Atlantic. Due west of Hardangervidda, the jet-engine energy generated by the meeting of the Gulf Stream and the chilly North Atlantic current fuels powerful storms that cover the region in snows that can exceed 10 feet a year.

Hidden under this winter blanket lie Lilliputian trees and miniature Arctic flowers. Whole lichen colonies, winter fodder for reindeer, smother exposed ridges. Snowy owls, they of Harry Potter fame, have their southernmost nesting grounds here, where they feast on lemmings, mouse-sized animals whose population, combined with that of the area's other rodents, can top 180 million animals--or 20 times the total biomass of the 7,000 resident reindeer.

Photographers Per Breiehagen and Doug Haynes have joined us on our journey, an 80-mile traverse along the park's eastern side, from Rjukan in the south to Finse in the north. At about 12 miles a day, we'll need just seven days to reach Finse, though we've allowed extra time in case bad weather pins us down. The route should maximize our chances of encountering reindeer, because the herd winters in the east. And while we're all experienced cross-country skiers--both girls started skiing as toddlers--we've brought Sebastian, our four-year-old German shepherd/border collie mix, to beef up the odds of completing our trek. He's equipped with a sled-dog harness, and will willingly tow a tired teenager (or worn-out mom) for miles if need be.

The huts we'll use along the way are part of a network of roughly 400 scattered throughout the country's 29 national parks and other recreational areas and operated under the umbrella of the Norwegian Trekking Association, an outdoors group. More than 20,000 skiers come to the association's huts within the 1,321-square-mile park during the popular spring ski season, which typically starts several weeks before Easter and lasts for about a month.

 

The huts range from a staffed, 150-bed lodge with hot meals, showers, and draft beer at Finse, our end point, to tiny cabins where you cook your own food, like those at Helberghytta, our first night's destination. Starting in mid-March, when the days have lengthened and the snowpack has stabilized, the trekking association marks 4,000 miles of routes across the country between selected huts with birch or bamboo branches so that skiers can travel safely even if visibility is poor.

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.

By the time I arrive at Helberghytta hut, tucked away behind a small rise, Rick has a fire roaring in the woodstove and our supper already warming on its top. Unlike every other hut we'll visit, this one has no staff--it's operated on an honor system, where you pay in a locked box for lodging and any food you use from the hut's well-stocked pantry. But like virtually every other trekking association hut, this has a comfortable sitting room and four-bed bunkrooms appended to the main kitchen/sitting room. We snuggle on a cheery blue couch and savor an after-dinner tea. 

 

The reindeer continue to elude us over the following days, although the skiing remains steady. The winter birdlife seems to be trying to make up for the lack of mammals with cameo appearances. We're cutting big lazy turns down a long gentle slope that will drop us onto Lake Mar when I see a gyrfalcon, the largest falcon species, harassed by two ravens. The ravens wheel and dive like angry black bees, but a few vigorous wing flaps and the falcon has outpaced its tormentors.

Once we've dropped onto the lake flats, the wind picks up, and clouds begin to smudge the northern horizon. A series of red-clad southbound skiers flies past us, looking like scarlet leaves blown off an autumn maple. We've just finished a snack when one group stops long enough to alert us to a herd of roughly 300 reindeer ahead, lingering in the hills to the east. At last! A 20-minute ski brings the animals into view.

Three hundred reindeer are close enough--yet far enough away--for us to make out the dark of their muzzles and the flicking of their ears in the wind. They nibble here and paw there, moving in unison across snow dyed an icy indigo by the shade of the hills above. Spindrift smears the animals' feet and blurs their outlines, adding to the sense that they're a single organism.

We're absolutely silent, and the wind is in our favor, but it can't last. Sure enough, after 15 minutes a rogue gust wafts our scent to the reindeer, and 300 heads startle to attention. The animals begin to run upslope. The snow swallows the sound of their hooves, and they skim across the landscape with a fluidity that defies gravity. I know now where the Santa myth began: Reindeer really can fly.

The spell is broken. As Per, Doug, and I linger, Rick, Molly, Zoe, and Sebastian head for our evening's destination, Marbu hut, now barely visible on the lake's rim. Per has just enough time to take a quick compass bearing and then the sun winks out.

We're swallowed by a dark-gray cloud that spits fine grains of snow into our faces. Snow strikes my jacket with such force it hisses on contact, like being sandblasted. We have wandered from the marked ski trail, so we now have to find it again in the murk. Following Per's compass bearing across the lake, we take care not to travel too close together, in case one of us skis into a crack in the ice. I think, nervously, of the eight-day blizzard that greeted Amundsen at the start of his ski.

A tense 45 minutes passes before the spectral shape of a birch wand appears, whipping frantically in the tempest. Another five minutes brings us to the welcome sight of Marbu hut, where a forest of skis stuck bottom first in the snow rattles outside the front door. Hatless and in slippers, Molly bursts out of the hut to hug me, her teenage insouciance temporarily suspended. "Were you worried about me?" I ask. Molly looks me in the eyes. "Yes," she says.

The possibility of sudden storms was never far from my thoughts--it had been the rapidly changing weather, after all, that had been Amundsen's undoing. And signs of nature's power are etched everywhere into this landscape. In places the snow is terraced in intricate topographic forms, like the Styrofoam landscapes architects create around their model buildings. Elsewhere, gusts have sculpted razor-edged ridges of snow called sastrugi, some as big as backpacks.

Our weather remains mostly windy and cold though manageable, with the exception of our mini blizzard on Lake Mar. That is until we ski into Kraekkja, our second-to-last hut and the oldest trekking association facility on the plateau.

We awaken to a storm that fills the air with snow so thick it wraps the day in perpetual twilight. Even Sebastian doesn't want to go outside. Kraekkja opened for the spring only after employees dug it out of a drift as high as the front door. The blizzard seems intent on undoing all this work. We join two dozen other holed-up skiers in the sitting room, where we play hearts, drink hot chocolate, and read old Donald Duck comics in Norwegian. A steady keening in the woodstove hums contralto to the crack of graupel pelting the window. I think of the reindeer huddled against the wind, wondering how any living creature can survive such fury.

But storms are one reason Hardangervidda has proved so perfect for wild reindeer. The herd's slow seasonal waltz from east to west across the plateau is governed by the weather patterns, which cause the heaviest snows to fall in the park's western part. To the east, the snow is drier and there's less of it, allowing winds to sweep ridgetops clear, exposing the lichens reindeer graze on. The park's western part is also much more likely to have snow interlayered with ice--a bad situation for reindeer, both because of difficult footing and because it makes it harder for them to get at their food.

Climate change threatens this relationship by increasing the likelihood of icing in the east. Warmer temperatures will also change the distribution of the plants reindeer eat. At the same time, Norway's oil prosperity has fueled a boom in vacation home or hut construction that's nibbling away at habitat. All of this has Norwegian scientists warning politicians that more land will have to be made available for the wild herds to survive.

The message hasn't fallen on deaf ears. The Norwegian Ministry of the Environment's state secretary, Heidi Sorensen, was on a national news program in May to underscore the government's commitment to expanding reindeer areas outside of the park. "We have to give reindeer first priority," Sorensen said. "That means we have to see if there are roads that should be closed in winter, or whether there are private huts that will have to be bought up and moved."

All of this is in my mind on our last day's ski, up the Hardangerjokulen glacier from Finse hut. At 13 below, it's our coldest day by far, and the sharpness of the vistas is matched by the chill against our cheeks. We take a few hours to ascend a gentle slope to the mounded dome of the glacier's high point. The climb is so easy that we can't really detect the exact top--the only clue is that from where we stand, the rest of the glacier seems to fall away from us in an undulating carpet of white.

Distant mountains punch up against the sky in all directions save west, where the white of the glacier contrasts with the deep blue of Eidfjord, only 12 miles away. To the north, Norway's two highest peaks, Glittertind (8,084 feet) and Galdhopiggen (8,100 feet), poke up over waves of snowcapped mountains before them. And nearly 90 miles southeast is the dark form of Gaustatoppen, like an arrow pointing skyward over our starting point.

We've fought our way through blinding snow, numbing cold, and biting wind to reach this spot, the realm of polar explorers and wild reindeer, and the feeling is magic. Somewhere in the vastness before us, the herds are beginning their slow walk west in anticipation of spring. But nestled up next to the glacier is the tiny town of Finse, surrounded by its micro-suburb of private huts, evidence of the kind of encroachment that could hem the reindeer in. It won't be easy for Norway to protect these animals, but if any country can do it, I think this one can. And as the girls savor the view, I'm hopeful they'll return, drawn by Hardangervidda's infinite vistas and stark beauty--and by the promise, perhaps, of reindeer over the horizon.

Magazine Category
Topic

Author Profile

Nancy Bazilchuk

Nancy Bazilchuk is a freelance science and environmental writer living in Trondheim, Norway.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine