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 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.