Hornstrandir has officially been a Nature Reserve since 1975. Trekking and camping in the region quickly gained popularity and every summer hundreds of adventurous souls embark on a boat from Isafjordur. Some settle for a day trip while others go for up to two weeks. Guidebooks, brochures, web articles and social media are all full of sunny pictures from the cliffs of Hornvik. The sky is blue and purple wildflowers cover every inch of the ground. The view from the cliff is magnificent with millions of squeaking birds and blowing humpback whales in the sea below. Arctic fox pups play with siblings in front of their den while their parents observe from distance. It’s nature at its finest. Paradise. It’s a place anyone traveling in Iceland should see and experience. Right? Wrong.
Raphael and Miguel
“We came yesterday from Isafjordur. We had seen on the internet nice pictures of sunny peaks, amazing views, wild flowers, arctic foxes, a lot of green, birds and cliffs. That’s what we expected. Well, we have seen arctic foxes, they are cute. But that’s it” said Raphael and Miguel. “The only thing we’ve seen is rain and fog. We have been to the Hornbjarg cliffs, but we didn’t see anything”. Raphael adds: "It’s the first time I've done a hiking trip like this. So far it’s been very cold and unpleasant”.
Carolina and Matt
Carolina and Matt wanted to get away from the beaten path and do something different from the popular hikes in south Iceland. “It’s been hard. Since our first day on this hike, there has been no potential warmth. It was cold hiking over the mountain, totally terrible, no excitement. All of our stuff is wet, soaked. No hope. The nights have been really cold and we've had very little sleep. We came out of our tent in the mornings and put on our wet socks and shoes” said Matt and Carolina, who had spent a few days in the area but not seen anything but fog. Carolina adds: “But you accept your physical misery, like a fox. You get wet and then you dry”.
JP looks towards the cliffs
After advice from a local guide (and the same person writing these words) JP reserved a whole week just at Hornvik. “If you want to be sure to have a bright day at the cliffs, you need to have a full week buffer. If you stay a week, you must get at least two good sunny days at the cliffs” said the guide. Right? Wrong. JP spent a week in thick fog in Hornvik and he never really saw the cliffs.
The campsite that had turned into a wetland
We pitched our tent strategically so that when we'd wake up in the morning we'd be able to see the cliffs directly from our window. In seven days that never happened. The camp site had also turned into a wetland area making it impossible to even get to the latrine without getting our feet wet.
Waiting for the boat that never came
Despite of everything, JP and I were happy and satisfied with our week when we packed our wet tents and gear. We were also more than ready to go back to town. We carried our luggage to the beach and waited for our boat to pick us up. We stood there and waited. We had some tea and we waited some more. Then eventually we got a message through a satellite phone saying that the boat was cancelled and we'd have to stay one more night. Great.
Hornstrandir is not for everyone. It's remote, cold and unreliable. And that's the beauty of it. Hornstrandir is for those that are ready to embrace the elements, face challenges and have some time. Hornstrandir is not for those on a tight schedule and want to see everything in a day. You can't force Hornstrandir to reveal its magic upon request; the fog just lifts when it lifts. And when it does, it's all worth it.
Our fox friend
Due to the challanging conditions JP and I spent more time at our campsite than we had originally planned. That turned out to be a good thing too; a beautiful female fox began to frequently visit us. She even became so relaxed around us that she fell asleep on top of our dinner table.
My advice for those contemplating a trip to Hornstrandir is to keep your expectations to a minimum. If you get blue skies, you're just lucky. Come prepared for any type of weather. Rain proof jacket and pants are a must. Be positive and chat to your neighbour at the camp site. Discuss the weather outlook with the ranger and laugh about the wet gear. After a certain amount of misery, it starts becoming amusing. Bring great food and snacks for those rainy days. JP and I probably wouldn't have survived without the pancakes, all that chocolate, the grilled lamb and the Chilean wine.
Jón Sigurðsson is one of the most traditional names in Iceland. Sort of what John Smith is for the United States or Jose Garcia for Spain. It should then not come as a surprise that Jón specialises in building traditional folk instruments. Born in the viking town of Thingeyri, Jón has been playing music since he was 13 years old. However, it wasn’t until 2003 when an Estonian music teacher asked him to build a langspil that he started building his own instruments.
“I wasn’t sure if I could build instruments, but I looked at it as a challenge and gave it a try. The first langspil was a basic one, just a straight box with 4 strings. Then I just started making other folk instruments that I was curious about. I couldn’t afford to buy those instruments so I just made them myself. If I could make a simple type of Langspil I could make something else too. That’s how it started.”
Langspil is a traditional Icelandic drone zither. The oldest written sources describing the langspil are from the 18th century. In those times langspils are described as a long thin box, wider at the bottom end and with one to six strings. In the early 19th century a version with a curved soundbox emerged which has improved sound qualities. By the middle of the 20th century the instrument had become rare and few played it any more. However, in recent years old folk music has been gaining more popularity and more and more people are showing interest in this instrument. And since it only has 1 melody string with 1 to 5 drone strings (usually 2) it is easy to learn to play it compared with more complicated instruments.
“I have experimented with different kind of wood. First I used Icelandic pine, it looked great but the wood isn’t good for instruments. Now I use maple and mahogany. I put my stamp inside, so you can read which number and the year of the making.”
Jón is hesitant to call himself a luthier. “Making instruments is still just a hobby. But the instruments are getting better, and each one is better and better”.
Together with his wife Rakel they are active in the viking community of Thingeyri, performing at various local events. It’s worth making an effort to see them perform. Or simply pay them a visit at Jón’s open workshop.
Video made by Vaida at Skóbúðin - museum mundane.
Albertína Elíasdóttir tells about Hesteyri, in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve:
I am fortunate enough to have had many wonderful times at Hesteyri, Jökulfjörður. As many people know, an old uninhabited village is located there, which was abandoned in 1952. The old houses that remain are being used as retreats by the former inhabitants’ descendants, particularly during summer. I have visited Hesteyri nearly every year since I was born and savored time there with my grandparents, parents and other family members. The older I get, the more frequently I visit this special place on my own often entirely alone no one else around save for the birds and foxes and perhaps the odd mouse.
In our house we have a loft to sleep in and a trapdoor in the floor. During those stays on my own in the house, I have experienced more than once or twice, someone walking up the stairs lifting the trapdoor and having a peak. Only to have it shut back and I’ll hear footsteps on the way down again. I will admit this has scared me a bit, although the feeling is not terrifying, more like someone watching over me. I like to think that my great grandparents are checking in to make sure I blew out the candle and the like. When I experience something like this I have always found it helpful to recite a preface from the folk tales of Jón Árnason, used to invite elves to one’s house on New Year’s Eve: “Come those who wish, stay those who wish, go those who wish, harmless to me and mine.”
Story courtesy of Skóbúðin - Museum Mundane
The 33 year old Harpa Henrysdottir spent a part of her childhood living with her family at Galtarviti lighthouse.
Harpa notes: My parents were crazy people, of course, they saw an advertisement in the paper about an available position as the light house operator at Galtarviti, and they just said "hey! Let’s apply for that". They got the job and moved, 22 years old, with their one and two year old daughters to the most remote spot in Iceland. It wasn’t possible to get there by land, but the coastguard came with supplies once a month. Sometimes people came during the winter on snowmobiles.
There were no phones, only a radio that they used to report the weather, which they did every three hours, 24 hours a day. "We went on holiday twice during the two years that we lived there, and both times we sisters got sick" Harpa says with a smile. "We were just in isolation there. I was accident-prone and a few times we needed a doctor to come and give me stitches and such. My parents didn’t understand why grandma and grandpa were so unhappy with it. I learned to make calls on the radio and once I snuck up and used it to make a call to Ísafjörður: “Ísafjörður, Galtarviti, Ísafjörður, Galtarviti.” Then I was connected to the telephone operator in Ísafjörður, and from there was connected to mom’s sister in Kópavogur, in the south of Iceland. When mom and dad came home, I was sitting at the radio talking to her."
Harpa has only been twice to Galtarviti since then. "I went there on a snowmobile with dad when I was 12. Some jar up on a shelf caught my eye – I remembered it from when I was little, and it had been in the same place the whole time. I remembered of course bits and pieces of having been there, and then I came back and it was like: “Wow, everything’s so small,” because in my memories, everything was so big."
Story courtesy of Skóbúðin - Museum Mundane
When Kári Vakaris was 2 months old we moved temporarily into an old Volkswagen camper van to tour the Westfjords for the summer of 2015. One might think that traveling with a small baby is hard, but the reality is quite the opposite. While we were discovering the secrets of the Westfjords and its people, Kári Vakaris was discovering the world. It's a beautiful process and we were happy to give him the opportunity to sense, feel, smell and see all these different places, plants and animals. And at the same time he gave us an opportunity to travel at a different pace than before, seeing our surroundings from a new perspective.
What we have learned from traveling with Kári:
- Babies love engine noise and it makes them sleep in just a few seconds.
- Babies love hot springs and there are plenty of roadside ones in the Westfjords. We began bringing Kári to the hot springs when he was a little over 3 months old.
- Babies get you VIP access to all sorts of places. They enable you to cut cues at airports and restaurants. -Babies are great conversation starters. We make more friends now, after we began traveling with Kári.
- Traveling with a camper van is ideal. In my previous life as a solo traveller I didn't mind being wet and miserable in a tent for days, but with a family having a dry camper van makes things easy and pleasant.
Having a baby is no reason to stay at home. It's much rather a great reason to go and explore, go travel and discover new places as a family. And above all, it's a good way to spend quality time together and get to know the young one.
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.