Iceland Winter Arctic Fox Expedition Report February 2022

In early February of 2022, I ran and completed my winter expedition for Arctic fox in the far north of Iceland. This has been an annual wildlife workshop that I have been running for many sequential years now. Due to the COVID pandemic, however, I had not been able to return since early 2020 and missed 2021. It did feel absolutely wonderful to again return to this remote and rarely visited area of Iceland. The Hornstrandir Nature reserve is a very special place in winter that lives very deep in my heart.

The starting location for this workshop was the small town of Isafjord in the West-fjords of Iceland (around 45 minutes flight from the capital city of Reykjavik). As is common in Iceland in winter my flight north from Reykjavik to Isafjord was delayed a day by strong winds. The weather in Iceland in winter can be fickle and brutally strong winds are not uncommon. I always allow an extra day or two for delays and the following day our group was able to fly to Isafjord in better conditions and depart on our charter boat for the Hornstrandir Nature reserve. 

The boat ride from Isafjord to Hornstrandir takes around an hour and gave us a chance for a last-minute briefing on what to expect on arrival at our small and remote cabin. During our time in the cabin, we had a pre-arranged house sitter to prepare our meals and keep the cabin warm and cozy. On our arrival, the foxes were there to greet us and we barely had time to unpack and settle in before the curious foxes were providing us with some wonderful photographic opportunities.

The weather conditions were close to perfect for our time in the Nature reserve with consistently low temperatures that fluctuated between -6º and -10º Celsius plus wind chill (around -20º C with wind chill). Iceland is typically a freeze/thaw climate and this sort of temperature consistency is quite uncommon in my experience. We had many days of blowing snow and blizzards that made for absolutely superb photography and we typically spent from sunrise to sunset in the field with a short break of an hour or so for lunch. One of the wonderful things about operating from a small remote cabin such as this is its very convenient to take a short break and warm up with a hot drink if you get a little cold, or want to take a break. The photography was so ‘hot’ this year that no one took even a short break during our time in the field. 

Although many photographers seek out the White morph of the Arctic Fox, it is actually the Blue morph that frequently provides better photographic opportunities in my experience. The wonderful contrast of the snow on the chocolate brown fur really helps give a sense of the environment in which these animals live and survive. Typically, the blue morph is the rarer of the two morphs, however, it is the most commonly found in Iceland. The white morph is more typical across the rest of the Arctic range.

During our expedition for encountered four separate blue morph foxes around our cabin; two of which would regularly come to within just a few feet of us! We photographed every single day of the expedition; including our arrival and departure days. The total shot count per person ranged between fourteen and thirty-thousand images over the course of the expedition which goes a long way toward illustrating how amazing the conditions were and how incredible our photographic opportunities were.

Just one of the comments received post-expedition: “I got home safety yesterday late in the evening but my soul is still in Hornstrandir… It was a great time in nature with a group of fantastic people. Thank you Josh for everything! I have not only amazing images but I have learned lots of new things. “

This was also the first outing where I have had a chance to use the new Canon EOS R3 in winter. The R3 proved a stellar performer with outstanding battery life and truly incredible autofocus.  I was able to get in excess of five thousand images out of a single battery charge in temperatures as low as -20º C with wind chill! The addition of black-out free shooting, in combination with animal eye autofocus is game-changing and I will have more to say about the performance of the new Canon EOS R3 in a future podcast.

Participants shot both Sony and Nikon so all three marques were well represented during the expedition (with myself shooting Canon). Cameras included the Sony A1, Sony A7RIV, Nikon D6, Nikon D750, and D850, and Nikon Z9. We photographed with lenses ranging from 11-24mm all the way to 400mm. There were no camera failures or issues despite the freezing cold and driving snow. The current generation of mirrorless cameras does seem much more reliable in the cold than early iterations.

Our return to civilization from our remote cabin and home away from home in the Nature reserve saw smooth sailing back to Isafjord; however, strong winds had again canceled our return flight and it was necessary to execute a pre-prepared plan ‘B’ and drive our group back to Reykjavik (a drive of approximately six hours). There are three mountain passes between Isafjord and Reykjavik; all of which can be a navigational challenge in winter. Roads are frequently covered in ice and snow and driving conditions can be extremely challenging. All roads were open however and we were able to make our way over all three passes and into the small town of Borganes (roughly an hour’s drive from Reykjavik) where we were forced to overnight in a local hotel due to road and tunnel closure from extreme winds blowing in excess of 42 meters per second (hurricane force). The next morning saw us safely return to Reykjavik and conclude our expedition in time for onward flights home.

I am already looking forward to returning to the Hornastrandir nature reserve in early 2023 to lead my annual workshop for Arctic Fox. Places are now extremely limited on this expedition. If you would like to secure one of the remaining places or would like more information please drop me an email at info@jholko.com. Places are filled on a first-come first-served basis.

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