Tales Of Dovrefjell
The windows of the train played out an old film reel of frozen skating ponds with wooden ice-skates of ruby scarf draped children in the shadows of pine purpled hills. I have been dreaming of weaving myself into the fabric of the snowy pine forests for months. The flight into Oslo was effortless and the six hour train journey north was transformative; watching the city recede and entering into a sunburst reflecting white expanse of wintery welcome.
We are hurtling along the deserted highway into Dovrefjell national park in central Norway. The mountain range segments the country into two halves, the north and the south, and is home to the last remaining herd of wild reindeer. Kim, a bright eyed twenty seven year old dutch mountain guide and driver of the car, begins to describe the solitude and disconnect from the world up on the peaks and her words stir some dormant writhing of reluctance within me. “We are lucky, today the musk ox are just by the road, we don’t need to walk far” she says and a wash of relief allows me to use this first day as a test run.
A baseline beat of crispy cracking snow shoe teeth on crunching ground thuds under raspy laboured breath. Whispering vocals of subdued winds complete an arresting, exhausting symphony. Ancient heads of rugged musk oxen appear magnified through the lens. Standing atop a marshmallow ridge, two beasts stare eye to eye a couple of meters apart, they cast mammoth bruise like shadows onto the hillside. They are completely still but for their long shaggy guard hairs which swirl through the wind’s icy fingers. They seem unfazed, stoic heroes of the northern tundra. Soon they’ve had enough and move up the tree scrawled escarpment, rippling from front to back as they climb, undulating like giant arctic woodlice.
Musk oxen roamed the rugged northern steppes of Eurasia until the end of the ice age, when homo sapiens began slaughtering them for food and clothing. By the end of the 1900s there were none left in Europe. As a method of facilitating Scandinavian cross border cultural cohesiveness, a reintroduction effort began, bringing small numbers of wild musk ox from Greenland (Swedish territory) into Norway. As the herds grew in numbers and spread out on the tundra of northern Scandinavia they dragged with them a powerful tourism industry that caused, paradoxically, much disgruntlement and jealousy between the two Scandi neighbours. Now, the only wild population in Europe is in Dovrefjell.
“She was eating a butter and sprinkle sandwich!”
We have only been out for a few hours but I am no match for the -12 degree air. With a numb arse, freeze-burned cheeks and a frustratingly unshakable fatigue I cajole Kim back to the comparative warmth of her boxy slate-grey vehicle. “I think I’m going to have a bite of my childish lunch” she says embarrassedly, retrieving her cling-film wrapped 4-slices-of-white-bread sandwich from the dashboard. Hurriedly, I unsuccessfully try to convince her that a sandwich is not childish, and I am confused by her use of personification. A surge of unnecessary politeness revealed just how British I never knew I was. We begin to discuss wether or not I should hire – last minute – husky dogs and sled to take me to the precipice of the mountain tomorrow where the other herds are. I become lost in a maze of commitment issues as Kim outlines the pros and cons. I eventually admit that I need the help of her furry friends. I turn to her to confirm… and a peel of incredulous laughter slips out of me. In my self absorbed introspection I had failed to notice that Kim’s sandwich filling is in fact ice cream sundae sprinkles. She was eating a butter and sprinkle sandwich! That was the moment I knew I really liked her. We drive off.
The next morning after a cup of earl grey green tea and some watermelon (go figure) I ponder how to make the most of this moment that was the culmination of my planning over the last few months – the opportunity to photograph musk ox in the barren wild. Realising that I wouldn’t find it in the depths of my hard – to – peel orange I write a little letter to the universe, unraveling my insecurities about my talents, and my fears of not being good enough for this opportunity. As I do so the sun winks at me from its hiding place behind the lowest dip of the mountain ridge beyond the window, behind the train tracks. It lathers my blank face with its rinse of heat and light. The clouds are hardly moving, they hang suspended, frozen. Like me. I complete my little catharsis and leave the breakfast room, swiping a biscuit on my way out.
“To adapt and to change takes time, and time is what is limited” Johan Schønheyder says sagely to me as I reluctantly withdraw a down jacket and replace it with a shell upon his instruction, so I don’t over-sweat while we climb the lunar landscape. He is referring to the need to adapt to your environment when attempting physical pursuits the likes of which this cancer surviving 66 year old man of steel does on a daily basis. I tell him that what he just said could really be applied to anything at all, climate change coming to the forefront of my mind. It is that exact concept that fills our heads with pressure to produce, build and evolve and which seems to be the driving force behind humanity’s disconnection from the natural world. The conversation has no traction, it seems that here in the open expanse of soft rolling summits it that the babbling worries of the mind are shed and lie limp far below the tree line, waiting to be recollected on the descent.
“Finally, we reach the summit.”
The hardened top layer of snow is no match for the elite state-of-the-art snow shoes that adorn my boots, their teeth chomp straight through so that with each step I sink an inch or two into the the mountain’s winter cloak. This makes the gentle uphill slope a challenge. Johan glides gracefully beside me on a pair of his cross country skis. Far in the distance his highly trained eyes spot several black dots, slightly darker than boulder’s shadows.
“How long of a walk is that?” I cry over the underfoot crunch and squeal of condensing snow.
“Ah about 45 minutes more” his response barely audible, I begin counting my steps to 100. When I hit that number I start again. And again.
Finally, we reach the summit. It is so cold that what little sweat has seeped from me cools within a minute. The musk ox are not there. They have moved on, two ridges away and I feel I should be deflated, but the beautiful energy of the mountains and Johan’s determination act as a spiritual buoyancy aid. The sky to the west is carrying a thin veil of cloud that gives the covered sun a prismatic halo. To the east the unblemished azure surrenders to palest chamomile where it kisses the junction of ridged peaks. “We will find more, I can feel it” he reassures me and the anticipation shifts up a gear.
“Do you see them?” He asks with a balaclava-hidden cheeky grin fifteen minutes later. Sure enough, there are two solid shaggy figures up on the top of the peak not too far away.
“Over there!” I screech. Of course, I’m so excited that I didn’t realise he was teasing me, he has seen them already and I am grateful for his grace.
The beasts put on a spectacular show for us. We are close to them, close enough that my 600mm troll of a lens captures the fractals of snowflakes on the creatures long eyelashes. The sky and the ground are one in their whiteness and the musk ox create a dramatic contrast against their high key backdrop. Three of the animals stand facing each other, outlandish heads turned inwards creating a triangle of tension. They do not move. They are completely still except for their wildly whipping hair. A fourth rises from below. He is darker and vast. He ascends as if floating, coming level with his target. He towers above the others, the warden.
Nothing moves on the mountainside. We are frozen in our places, our eyes lock on the invisible swelling standoff stopping time. There is a heartbeat of pure energy between the creatures and then, suddenly, one of the smaller individuals makes a move. He charges towards the alpha, head down, his forehead band of bone rushing towards his opponent. The alfa reacts instantly, tipping his head forwards, muzzle to the ground, his own bandana of defence ready for the impact. Horns collide with a crack, a dull thunk that is whisked away by the screaming gale. They separate, each backing off, shifting their heads side to side flashing their curved and pointed weapons in a display of dominance. The smaller male pounds his hoof on the lichen woven stone and this time they both charge towards each other. Boof! They smack together, thrusting their whole beings into one another. Just as quickly as it started, something shifts in that instant and the smaller one retreats with defeat. The warden remains the alpha. For now.
After the fight the group sink to their knees and then fold their legs into their hairy masses, dipping their eyes closed dozily. Winter is too brutal for extended challenges and it is crucial they recuperate and maintain their energy stores. They look warm and content, the picture of ‘kose’ – a Norwegian word describing the feeling of huddling together with loved ones around a fire, wrapped in blankets, telling stories, and sharing laughter. Kose defines the concept that during winter, harsh conditions mean that spending time together, becoming more emotionally intimate and strengthening bonds is vital for safety and survival in this land where nature reigns. The oxen bask in front of an unseen campfire. Unfortunately for me that invisible fire warmed me only in my heart and with stone for toes and concernedly painful fingers I utter to Johan “I think they are done, right? Let’s begin walking back, I’m frozen!”
“You are strong,” he begins on our descent, “ much stronger than I thought at first.” The being in my mind agrees, she feels the same way about herself. The angle of the sun, coupled with the cloud cover and the reflective slope creates a whitewash world in which I could barely see up from down. It was impossible to ascertain if the matter beneath my soles was slippy ice or frictional snow, or even steely rock. The sweat on my brow dripping down around my ears was half from exertion and half from disorientation.
It was with bittersweet relief when on the horizon appeared sixteen bounding dots making headway towards us, carving relaxed ’s’ shapes into the scene behind them. In fact, I didn’t really want to leave the mountain at all, knowing I would all too soon be on my way home to grimy, polluted London. I feel at home here in dovrefjell, and whilst I am here the displacement feeling is kept at bay by the birch and boundless beauty.
“…they live in a symbiotic rhythm of give and take…”
The area was officially founded as a national park and protected land in 2002, and as the railway system was expanded, so was the area covered under the protection laws. In this respect, and in other ecological matters such as hunting and land use, Norway seems to have a reputation for making sensible and correlatively accurate decisions. Norwegians are people of nature, they are welded to their land, and despite many of them being hunters, they live in a symbiotic rhythm of give and take, respecting the earth that nurtures them.
“I have a friend and his wife, they are maybe a little bit too… earthy… for me but they are experts in the natural healing of plants.” Johan tangents after raving about Ashwaganda and its cancer fighting power. We are thawing in his van on the way back into Oppdal munching on canelsnegels. I chose to keep silent and wait for him to continue. As I had learned in just those few hours, he likes to entertain with wild stories of his youth and how he has encountered the interesting people he now calls friends. “They have told me that in these mountains in this part of Norway it has a powerful concentrated energy force. It is a very special place, it is part of the Norway Pentagram. You know it? I don’t know if I really am agreeing with them but it is interesting. They are very smart people, much more than me for sure.” In his Norwegian accented English ‘sure’ sounds a bit like ‘sewer’. I agreed with him and in that moment something in my perception of the space I inhabited seemed to shift into a familiar comfortable state that stayed with me until I left Oppdal a few days later. I thought I wish I could meet those people, they sound interesting to me too as we drove through the lilac valley towards the tiny town.
“She revealed the Ashwaganda they forage in the norther realms…and offered me some.”
Johan took me to meet the spiritual plant couple in the forest the next evening as the sky blushed. Kristina is Swedish, an angel haired grandmother in her seventies. Thin bright hair is pinned back slightly on one side with a triangular clip. Her eyes are crisp, the colour of a glacier spring and they glint like twice frozen snow in a beam of afternoon sunlight. I could feel her curiosity and openheartedness gently spreading outwards from her and enveloping me. They had a library of books on how to cure any human infliction, physical or spiritual, with herbs and other earthy growthlings. She pulled out draw after draw of catalogued plant species, each with their own drawing, slide negative, dried sample and notecard, more than one lifetimes worth of work her and her husband had achieved together. She revealed the Ashwaganda that they forage in northern realms of Norway and offered me some. That’s when I understood Johan’s connection with them. They were warm and I felt at home in these strangers’ auras.
I’m standing with Kristina in her small library. On the table there is a smooth, shallow wooden bowl containing an assortment of various crystals and stones. They sit layer by layer on top of one another , mismatched and uneven but somehow aligned. The far wall is lined with shelves containing hundreds of books on natures medicinal properties. I see ‘Encyclopedia of Aphrodisiacs’, ‘Shamanic Healing Plants’, ‘Miracle Herbs’, and ‘Evolutionary Herbalism’ on a quick scan. “Have you read them all?” I ask in awe.
“Mostly, yes.” She replies matter of factly.
In this healing place with Kristina I feel at ease, and safe, and that there is no outside world to which humanity belongs but that we are just two souls colliding in a place void of linear human constructs.
“the story he told was with greweling vividness of how the doctors saved his life.”
Johan was the core axel of the expedition experience. He showed me a log cabin that he designed and built and told me of how he changed international government rules on education in Norway in his youth. He pointed out the building that used to be the club he DJ’d at for years and then took me to the site of the brewery he was constructing in the centre of town. I asked him if he owned the whole town “Not anymore” he responded with a twinkle in his eye. He studied in America on an exchange programme and eventually returned to Oppdal, his home. He has been on tv with Norwegian comedians and he has survived pancreatic cancer, twice. The story he told was with gruelling vividness of how the doctors saved his life by dissecting and gutting him like a fish. Last summer he guided the BBC Earth team to film their musk ox sequence for the Seven Worlds, One Planet documentary.
“When you’re used to these mountains and you actually learn new things every year, I think that is something, it is worth something” leaving his gregarious years behind him, his heart settles back with his first love, his musk ox safari company, and he continues to venture into the mountains year round.
The train ride back to Oslo was not nearly as exciting as the outbound journey, but the scenery still stunned me. The landscape, the red wooden houses with moss covered roofs, the multitude of wild animal tracks in the snow, and it was though a little piece of myself had been stolen by the heart of the mountains of Dovrefjell.