A penetrating howling of a arctic fox woke me up from my slumbering consciousness where I was sitting staring into the snow. I looked up from the snow-shelter where I had been sitting all day staring into the nippy and drifting snow. I saw nothing. Again this penetrating and even louder howling was heard from the beach beneath me. My curiosity woke up. It was tempting to leave the cold snow-shelter to look over the bank below down to the beach. I had been watching and photographing arctic foxes for few days but this sound was unusual.
Since noon I had seen the arctic fox couple sleeping for few hours in the hill above me. Coiled and almost invisible they slept sheltered by a rock. The constantly drifting snow was covering them and made them almost invisible in the landscape. Another arctic fox who was brown like the couple, seemed to be single. He had also been sleeping few hundred yards south of the couple. The couple and the single one seemed to have mutual territorial borders and they were reluctant to enter each other´s territory.
About an hour ago the single fox that was identified by a snow-spot on his back walked down the hill into the couples territory. Alert and ready for the danger above he did not seem to be worried about me, where I was sitting in my snow-shelter above the seashore. He was obviously more concerned by a possible attack from his neighbor. Suddenly the male who had been napping under the rock rushed down the hill in pursuit after the snow-spotted one. The snow-spotted one ran by me through the drifting snow down to the beach. Few hundred yards later the male stopped and returned to his female napping under the rock. Moments later they became invisible again by the drifting snow.
They had been sleeping for an hour when the female walked calmly down the hill towards me. The drifting snow made everything white and cold and the front of my lens was covered by snow in seconds. I struggled to wipe the lens clean while I got few pictures of the couple once in a while when they walked calmly down to the beach where they disappeared below the bank.
Suddenly there was this piercing howling.
I was reluctant to leave the snow-shelter to see what was happening. The plan was to stay in the shelter to get the arctic foxes accustomed to my presence.
The howling and whining sound got louder and I took off. I jumped from my shelter with the camera and crept towards the edge of the bank. The couple was in the middle of the snow-covered hill above the beach to my south. In the frozen world of drifting snow, biting cold and view over the Hornvík bay and the rugged Hælavíkurbjarg cliff they were copulating. The sounds were the lovemaking sounds of arctic foxes.
I got a few pictures of them with the snow in the foreground and the beach in the background. The moment I wondered if I should leave them alone and crawl back to my snow-shelter the snow-spotted fox appeared above me. He was startled and stopped 20 yards from me where I was lying in the drifting snow. After a moments hesitation he seems to decide I was not a danger to him, walkes in a curve by me down to the beach where he disappears.
When I looked again at the lovemaking couple in the hill they obviously had a problem. They were tied together. Tumbling and rolling over like two frantic balls of furry they seemed out of control. No matter what they did, they were stuck and tied together which is actually common in the copulating process of canines. Common or not, this had to be very uncomfortable.
Suddenly the snow-spotted arctic fox appeared and hell breaks loose. The tied male and female go nuts and the sounds changed into gruesome and angry howling. The snow-spotted one was threatening the couple, walking in circles around them trying to find a weak spot for attacking. The ferocious sounds mirrored the evil intentions. The male lost all control of the female who tried to run away spunning in the sand with him stuck by his private parts. The snow spotted fox kept trying to find a weak spot for attacking. The stuck male seemed to be bigger and stronger but he was in a hopeless situation.
This went on for ten minutes. I wondered if I should intervene. This was not an even fight and the furiousness and the strident cries were unbearable. I felt like my heart was pounding at the same rhythm as the 10 frames a second shutter in my camera. I was there to photograph and observe arctic foxes and that´s exactly what was happening at ten frames per second. It was not my role to intervene in a power struggle between arctic foxes in this snowy and remote part of the world.
The female suddenly came loose from the male, spinning away heading for the mountain. Both of the males went after her in the blink of a second but when her partner realized the attacker was behind him he turned around facing him and the most furious fight began. They flung and threw each other like they were rag dolls. Teeth sank into eyes, thighs and necks. The furiosity was unrestrained. This would be a fight to the death.
The fight moved closer to the sea. The females partner managed to grab and get a firm bite over the eye and under the jaw of the single one. He used this to push the single one into the sea beetween the rocks. Splashes went bursting into all direction and moments later the single one was completely submerged and wet. Heavy and wet it was obvious at this moment that he had lost the fight. Now it was no longer a matter of fighting to kill, it was a matter of survival.
He tried to run but got no mercy from his opponent. The furiousness of his opponent was still unrestrained. He finally managed to get into a dry area on the beach where they kept fighting. Heavily wounded and soaking wet he managed to run up the snowy hill having trouble getting over the snow-bank at the top.
The winner stood on the beach looking up to the mountains, his attention turned towards finding his partner. It was the female that mattered. Suddenly he came running towards me where I was lying in the snow and stopped less than three yards above me. Amazed I looked at him. It was as if I was invisible. He could not care less about my presence even though I could almost touch him. Staring towards the mountain, all wet and battle worn he howled with a shrilling voice, calling for the female. The female had disappeared into the mountain. She was the only thing that mattered in the world. He did not pay any attention to me where I was trying hopelessly with frozen fingers to get him into focus with the 500 mm lens. He was well within the focusing range of the lens. Despite that I took one out of focus photo when he was howling desperately waiting for a reply from the only being in the world he cared about. His partner.
In the distance a wounded and vanquished arctic fox struggled the last steps up the snow-bank above the beach and started to hobble up the mountain. He had been beaten. The cold night would probably be his last one. This was the cold reality in the remote world of Hornstrandir.
I stood up when the victor was gone. I had a strange feeling of softness in my knees and a lump in my throat as if I had been in a collision. Watching the power-struggle of the arctic foxes had been emotional. Walking back to my snow-shelter I knew this was it for the day – knowing that what I had witnessed was special – at least to me. Pictures don´t reflect the tough struggle the arctic fox faces in the nature. They might shed light on how little we know about this Icelandic mammal that has been persecuted and hated since the settlement. Even today Iceland is the only country I know about which allows hunting of arctic foxes and the cubs at the den.
While I was putting on my snowshoes and preparing to call it a day I reflected upon how narrow-minded us humans are. We tend to categorize all animals into either good or evil based on their food source. Our opinions are based on conflicts with our own interests and the animals imagined effect on other animals in the environment. When the world is only black or white it is easy to get into the situation of hating something. Other men. Other countries. Animals. See everything as a competition or a threat to us and justify killings, hunting or persecution. The world´s opinions tend to be black or white. We feel bad when we can´t categorize everything.
My collective lesson after this is nothing but respect for the arctic fox and it´s ability to survive. Contemplating on the very distant future, thousands of years from now, us humans are probably less important for the nature than we like to believe. In the same way I did not matter to the battleworn arctic fox standing close to me looking for his female, us humans probably don´t matter in the bigger picture thousands of years from now. Arctic foxes were already in Iceland when we settled more than one thousand years ago.
They will be here when we are gone.