It may not look or feel like summer in Iceland, but it is. In fact, the first day of summer, “sumardagurinn fyrsti”, was two weeks ago.
In Icelandic culture the first day of summer is an annual public holiday held on the first Thursday after 18 April. In former times, the Icelanders used the old Norse calendar which divided the year into only two seasons, winter and summer. Although the climate in late April cannot be considered to be summer-like, after the long winter, Icelanders still celebrate this first day of "summer" with parades, sporting events and organized entertainment, held in various places around Iceland.
It’s also the only day of the year that the rare snow unicorns come out of their ice caves.
Spring in the Westfjords opens up many exciting adventure opportunities. Some of the more exciting ones are directly connected to the opening of Hrafnseyrarheidi and Dynjandisheidi mountain passes. These are the roads that separate the southern part of the Westfjords from the northern part for 5-6 months every year. A couple of days after making this video the Hrafnseyrarheidi road was finally open:
We had suspected there being some good skiing on the northern side of Arnarfjordur fjord. Due to its isolation during most of the snowy months it's practically unexplored with skiing in mind.
We drove past Auðkúla farm and soon we met the first obstacle. Big snow field covered the road. But the sun was shining and we had shovels and many willing workers - so we took matters into our own hands and opened the road.
After shoveling four snow fields we finally found the perfect run. We packed our stuff, prepared our skis and skinned up 500 vertical meters. On top there were fantastic views to all directions. Dyrafjordur to the north, Arnarfjordur right below us and Bildudalur at the other side of the fjord. On the way down we couldn't resist shooting a few photos.
On the way back we met the farmer of Auðkúla who lives in Thingeyri but comes back every year to his old farm when the road opens. Wheather he or us were more surprised by the encounter is unknown. But what is known is that skiing at the north side of Arnarfjordur exceeded our expectations, but due to its isolation it's not likely to become a popular destination for skiing.
People had been living in Hesteyri from the settlement times. Most of the time it was the home of just a few farmers and fishermen. It wasn't a particularly busy place until Norwegian whalers built a factory there in 1890 along with harbors and dwellings for workers. Hesteyri became an active community with a school, shop and a church. At its busiest time the population was around a hundred.
Whaling ban was put on in 1915 and the factory closed down. Quiet times didn't last long. Entrepreneurs from Reykjavik bought it and converted into a herring factory. It operated as such until 1940 when the herring disappeared. The factory closed down for good. In 1952 there were only 30 people left in Hesteyri. In the spring they had a meeting in the community house to figure out what to do about the situation. On that meeting they decided to leave Hesteyri all together the following autumn. Since November that year nobody has lived there.
It's not very usual to see people camping in the Westfjords in the winter time. That's why Sean and Mollie caught our attention. We were curious and asked them some questions.
First things first: What are you doing here and why Iceland in winter?
"We're on a ski holiday! We got engaged here in Iceland in 2011 so it's a special place for us" Sean and Mollie tell us.
Sean adds: "I also went with Aurora Arktika on a ski trip to Hornstrandir and fell in love with the region. It was my first introduction to fjord skiing. So I wanted to bring Mollie back here. We go to Scandinavia every year for skiing. This year it's Iceland's Westfjords to do some camping and see the northern lights. Scandinavia is where we feel connected, like we had a previous life here. And the flights to Iceland are cheap!"
Photo: Sean and Mollie Busby
For Sean and Mollie skiing is not only about skiing big mountains and deep powder. "It's about experiencing something different. Looking at the landscape and the mountains around here it seems like they're drawn by a pencil, it's something completely different. Here in the Westfjords it's also easy to get around, easy to communicate, we don't feel like in a super foreign place."
Photo: Sean and Mollie Busby
"Conditions here can be variable but it allows you to be a creative skier or snowboarder. Instead of aiming for a big line it's more about finding a fun gully to ride and go all the way to the water. And then there are all these arctic fox tracks all over the place, it's rad!"
Photo: Sean and Mollie Busby
They mention the solitude and having a whole mountain for themselves: “It’s a private playground!”.
“We also think it's cool when I get to link up with other locals, other skiers and mountain people that are here. That makes the experience so special. You'll get more authentic experience and more of an insight on how people ski or snowboard these mountains. This is their backyard."
After hiking up one of the peaks Sean took out from his backpack a little glass and spread it around. The glass contained the ashes of their friend Will.
Sean tells: “Back home I used to coach competitive snowboarding. One of my favorite student athlete that I coached passed away due to natural causes a year ago. There is a general level of stoke or excitement amongst some athletes to be in the mountains. He was definitely one of those. So his parents asked me if I would take his ashes on my trips and spread his ashes in these beautiful places so that he could experience snowboarding in these locations. So I brought part of Will with me. Being out today with good company was something that Will would have wanted, he was always comical and liked being out with people. It was just so special being in the mountains today with the sun coming out, sparkling over the fjord, looking out to the Greenland sea. The perfect place to allow Will to just fly, spread his wings and experience these mountains.
While driving outside of Þingeyri, we stopped at a cluster of lightly colored drying shacks along the coast. We were lucky enough to find Ragnar drying Icelandic catfish – not the whiskery bottom feeders but a long ocean dweller with intensely strong jaws. He happily told us that he has already caught over 110,000 lbs of catfish this season. After a few weeks of air drying, the fish will harden and become harðfiskur which Ragnar will sell to the local supermarket chain. A traditional model of keeping it local.
By Audrey Sherman.
Before the winter arrived we took the chance to go explore the part of Arnarfjordur that snows in when winter comes. We stuffed our VW camper with inflatable paddle boards, fishing rod and good food and drove off for two nights.
The Westfjords are not a region that you just drive through in a couple of hours. Some roads are gravel and wind up and down mountains passes.
No adventure day is complete without a hike to the top of a mountain on a moody day - and a run down.
It was dark when we reached the camp site at Dynjandi waterfall but we were rewarded. The moody day had turned into a clear night with bright stars and auroras dancing in the sky. We had seen Dynjandi waterfall many times before, but never like this.
We woke up early morning and went straight out for a paddle on the calm fjord. After a couple of hours out we were near freezing and starving. A hardy breakfast in the VW was ideal before we’d hit the road again.
Our next camp spot is an anonymous one. Chris wanted to see if he could catch a cod from his paddle board so while some of us climbed yet another mountain, Chris spent time on the fjord. Soon he returned with a cod big enough to feed all of us.
We cooked the cod over open fire and ate it during story times and laughters. Clouds had nearly covered the sky, but the auroras managed to glow through.
Our 35 year old VW adventuremobile proved its awesomeness once again; it got us slowly but surely between places and it kept us dry when it started pouring rain during our last night.
In most towns and cities around the world there are parks and squares where people meet and chat. In Iceland the social meeting point of every town is the local pool.
In Thingeyri there is a club that meets most mornings at 8 o’clock at the local pool. Swimming is a great exercise so they start by doing a few laps. The swim is then followed by a dip in the hot tub. In the hot tub they discuss politics or the latest town gossip, they plan the next sheep gather and they tell stories. Some even skip the swim and go straight to the hot tub.
After the hot tub there comes the coffee at the poolside table. Some may even have an ice cream. Occasionally one of the ladies brings home made cookies or cakes. On Fridays the local book publisher reads out a chapter from one of his books. All while sipping coffee in their bathing suits.
If you’re ever in an Icelandic town and wondering where all the locals are, go to the pool.
“Fish on Dry Land” is a fantastic ongoing project by designer Marta Sif that we’d like to highlight. Her idea is to use design to tackle migration and unemployment in villages, particularly the Westfjords.
Marta wants to produce furnitures, inspired by local culture, to prove that a production is not just a city thing and that there are actually benefits from producing in a village. She researched Isafjordur companies and people that she could work with and ended up with a metal workshop, a net-knitting factory and an artist.
Marta became intrigued by the boats and fishing gear witch she felt were the essence of the town. Taking them out of their marine context and abstracting them, she gradually transformed them into furniture.
Each has their own inspiration and "boat names". The table Rán is named after a goddess in the sea who would catch you in her net if you would fall from board. The table is inspired by net-fishing but this time you can catch magazines and remote-controls. The coat stand is inspirited by line-fishing and has the name Gestur witch derives from the Icelandic word a guest. The lamp is inspired by floats - the top part is actually from a float hanging by a rope from a hook which can be placed in the ceiling or on the wall. It's called Eldar which is a name derived from the Icelandic word fire.
The furniture pieces will travel through Ísafjörður via each company ending up at the harbour where a transport company ships them to Reykjavík, and then on to anywhere else in the world.
Marta’s “revolution of the villages” she sees as an ongoing project and she hopes to go to other villages and do a project with their stories, knowledge and people.
Find her website at martasif.com.
5 hours after leaving Sudureyri my phone rang.
“Is this Haukur? This is the lady from the shop in Sudureyri. I believe you were staying at the campsite, right? Are you missing your camera bag?”
“No, I don’t think so—I would never leave my 9,000 Euro camera laying around—Or, wait, it’s not here!”
“No worries, someone found it on the street and brought it in here.”
Sudureyri is that kind of town. It’s not only the world’s safest town with the most honest people, but it may just be the most sustainable village in Iceland.
Elías, at Fisherman, an award winning tourism project, says that Sudureyri is primarily a fishing village. The fish is caught in small boats using traditional methods like long-lines and hand-lines just a short distance from the shore. Pride is taken in using nearly every part of the fish and minimizing waste: intestines are used to make ointments and cod liver oil, and the skin is used by Kerecis for tissue regeneration for humans. Fish heads are dried and exported to Nigeria, bones and other leftovers are minced and used for animal food. The processed fish filets are packed and exported the same day; to be served in restaurants in New York or Berlin only forty hours after being caught.
In addition to optimizing their fish production, the village’s electricity comes from a hydroelectric plant in the end of the fjord, clean drinking water filters through the mountain straight to everyone’s home, and hot water comes naturally from the ground.
We stayed in the Bestfjords van at the seafront campsite. We enjoyed observing the boats coming in and out through our porthole, which felt a bit like being on a boat ourselves. We spent time at the harbor watching the fishermen bring in huge cod then go out again for some more.
In fact, everything is about fish in Sudureyri, and the best thing is that they are open and welcoming, offering travellers a chance to experience it first hand. Through Fisherman visitors can enlist as crewmembers on a small boat, visit the baiting sheds and help prepare the lines, and even experience a real fishing trip. Those that prefer on shore can do a tour of the high-tech fish plant and learn all about the process. However, my personal favorite is joining actor and guide Víkingur Kristjánsson for a guided food tour around town. Not only is he an all around fun and knowledgeable guy who will tell you the town’s past and recent history, but he will also organize a few delicious stops where you can experience the locally produced fresh goodies.
Sudureyri may well just offer the most original experience for a traveler in Iceland, and it’s even safe to leave valuables on the streets.
In order to see the northern lights as clear as possible we aimed for the highest point available: the 998m Kaldbakur, the highest mountain in the Westfjords, located between the fjords Arnarfjordur and Dyrafjordur.
I never get tired of short spontaneous adventures, to explore the surroundings of my home. There are surprisingly many fantastic spots within an hour from my home in Isafjordur that I have not been to. One of them was Kaldbakur mountain.
The approach from the Dyrafjordur side is a long walk but Sigrún, the farmer at Kirkjuból, was kind enought to let us drive the old dirt road through her land. During 10 months out of the year this road is impassable because of snow and mud.
We parked the truck at the pass at 500m and walked from there. We were lucky, it was the last sunny warm day before autumn kicked in with cold and rain.
We reached the top right before sunset. We were higher than any peak around us and the views were magnificent to every direction.
Maybe it was because we were so high up, strange things began to happen.
On top of Kaldbakur there is a 2m high cairn that makes it possible for visitors to reach whole 1000m. After a while of observing and photographing the northern lights it was time to go to bed. We sought shelter from the cold breeze by laying next to the cairn.
We woke up to an amazing pink light. The ground had frozen overnight. Chris's camping mat is only half size and having his feet on the icy ground would be cold and miserable. Stuffing his feet into his backpack turned out to be the best solution.
We borrowed mountain bikes from our friend Wouter at Simbahollin and kept them in the truck. That turned out to be yet another good decision. The ride from the pass and down the valley was a long and exciting one - but a bumpy one too.
24 hours after we had left our comfortable dwellings in Isafjordur we were back in town with lungs full of fresh air after a night out in nature.