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.
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.