Donal Boyd

The valley. The huts. The foxes.

Words and PhotographyDonal Boyd
Location63°41'26.6"N 19°32'31.8"W

In 2015, American wildlife conservationist and photographer Donal Boyd travelled to Iceland.

I first visited Iceland in the summer of 2015. A few months later I moved here from the USA to live in the back of a Land Rover Defender. It wasn’t anything even remotely fancy. The bare minimum actually. A couple of containers from IKEA established the base for a piece of wood that laid the foundation for my thin secondhand mattress. It didn’t matter to me how I lived at this point. It only mattered where I lived. I needed to be close to the nature that motivated me to drastically change my life. And a home on wheels that could drive essentially anywhere fulfilled that role nicely.

It wasn’t long before I found myself back in the heart of the valley that originally inspired me to make the move to Iceland. Þórsmörk. An epic mountainous region in the South of Iceland formed by powerful glacial rivers that shaped and reshape the landscape continuously. Almost a dozen rivers separated the outside world from this remote hideaway in the highlands. And it’s here that I found solace in the ability to connect with the nature in a way that I’d never experienced before.

It wasn’t long before I found myself back in the heart of the valley that originally inspired me to make the move to Iceland

Early on, I quickly established a base of operations at the Volcano Huts – a mountain hotel located at the epicenter of the region. It’s here where I formed my closest friendships and where I also found a sense of belonging. The Huts became the center of my world. And The Valley became my home. And in my new home, I grew into the photographer that I am today. Nurtured by the surrounding inspiration of immense volcanic peaks and shaped by the elements, the color pallet, and the influence of my close friends, I began to see the world differently.

In the shadow of two of Iceland’s largest glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, the weather in Þórsmörk was in constant flux due to the microclimate the glaciers created. And very often the weather became extremely intense. In one moment, it could be bright, blue skies, and the next it might start raining. For several days. The rivers would rise up and once they got deep enough, not even the biggest trucks in Iceland would dare cross them.

One afternoon in the fall of 2016 this exact scenario commenced. I remember coming back from a long hike on a sunny day and the dark cloud that had been at the end of the valley early on now appeared to be right on the doorstep of the mountain. An hour later, it started to rain. A day of downpours went by. Sheets of rain fell. The rivers overflowed. On the second day, the rain doubled down, and the entire valley swelled with water. At the back of The Huts a new river formed as the rainwater had nowhere else to go. We were trapped.

In a matter of hours, The Valley had turned into a lake and one of the few areas within the plains that wasn’t under water was The Huts. It was a safe haven from the turbulent flow of the rivers that now surrounded us. But it wasn’t only us who had taken shelter at our newly formed island. The resident Arctic Foxes of the region had also found refuge with us.

For most of the summer I’d been slowly developing a relationship with the local foxes. Over the months that I started to get to know them, they too became more familiar with my intentions to simply observe. And over time their cautiousness turned into curiosity.

Who is this dirty human living in a metal box with a object that clicked when he held it up to his eye? I imagine that’s what they were thinking every time they saw me jump out of my truck and crawl on the ashy ground to photograph them on the mountainside.

When the rain finally let up, it was sort of like in the movies actually. Just as quick as it started, the downpours ceased, and the sun emerged in a blast of light. Boom! A golden wash of color draped the valley. Emerging from our hiding places and venturing outside for the first time in days, I met the foxes in the field next to The Huts.

Surreal silence

I’ve spent many years now studying the foxes in Þórsmörk. In every season. I’ve seen them transition into their wintry coats and back into summer coats. I’ve been with them to witness new cubs emerge from their den for the first time. I’ve sat with them through rainstorms, blizzards, and every mix of possible weather scenario. What’ I’ve learned is just how incredibly resilient the Arctic Fox is. How the landscape has shaped their very existence. And over the many times I’ve been with them I’ve realized in a way how similar I am to these foxes.

In The Valley I grew into a different person. And just like the foxes, I became shaped by the elements of the landscape. I’ve learned to embrace weather rather than to hide from it. Facing it head on and rather than letting it dictate the outcome of my story, it’s become a part of my story. This is especially true for me here in Iceland, but I’ve also learned to apply it everywhere else I’ve travelled. Without these early lessons I’d never have become the photographer I am today.

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