As I approached the Hvanngarðar greenhouse Dísa was busy picking tomatoes from the trees.
"We grow tomatoes and cucumbers and sell them to the communities around here: Reykholar, Holmavik, nearby farms, and also to Reykjavik. My family bought the greenhouses in 2007 from Kristinn Bergsveinsson who had grown vegetables here for decades until retiring when he was over 80 years old."
Clearly there are advantages to having an abundance of hot water flowing from the ground as they have in Reykholar. I handed Dísa a 500 ISK bill in exchange for a bag full of juicy, delicious tomatoes. By far one of the best purchases I’ve made here in the Westfjords.
We met the Hong Kong based Ben and Yuko at the Urdartindur campsite in Nordurfjordur.
Ben came first to Iceland with his family when he was 11 years old. "We did a home-exchange with a family in the suburbs of Reykjavik. The kids in the neighborhood were curious about my siblings and me and invited us out to play. It was my first contact with a foreign culture and had a big impact on me."
"Ben was always talking about this experience so I wanted to see Iceland also. We were in Europe already, and flights from Europe to Iceland were really cheap - so we came," Yuko adds. "When looking at guidebooks and online discussion forums it was clear that the south coast would be packed with people, so the Westfjords seemed like the most appealing region to visit."
At Melanes in Rauðisandur it happened. "The weather was good, time was right, location was right, and it was the right girl. I asked her to marry me. And she said yes!"
We arrived by wings to the far shores of the Strandir coast. Within moments of touching down, our pilot Örn – whose name aptly means Eagle – was back in the air headed home to Isafjordur, leaving us wide eyed with our packs on the dirt runway. Just beyond, hundreds of Arctic terns dove aggressively above their nesting ground, and beyond that the rest of our gang waited in a warm pool.
With an earlier start than expected, I left the pool and stuffed my raisin toes into my boots and regretfully found a summer neighbor to give away my heavy vegetables. I walked away from my hypothetical curried cauliflower dinner and planned evening swim, and hiked up and over two fjords. Late at night, we made camp between a river and the beach where we huddled around a Siberian driftwood fueled fire in an abandoned wheelbarrow and finished each other’s sentences.
We pushed on, trudging over rocky beaches at low tide and along fjord ridgelines in fog. We found thyme and young bilberries, hidden surf spots, fields of buttercups, waterfalls with no audiences, and meandering rivers with fewer sea char than we would have liked. We passed a graveyard of bird bones and feathers, marking the graves of puffins killed by foxes. Each day was a lesson in avoiding as few crossings as possible to avoid drying wet socks by campfire.
On the fourth day we reached the lighthouse. I dropped coins into a shower box and paid for warmth by the minute just to thaw my bones. The keeper and his son took to the water and I could see their arching arms from the cliffs with each cast. They returned with two buckets of cod and I was struck by the beauty and loneliness of living out the summer here. That night the northerly winds swept through the tent. I tossed in the cold and turned when I reheated up.
Fueled by oatmeal and far too many cups of coffee, we descended into the final fjord. We dropped our packs and floated to the sea cliffs, squinting to try to make Greenland appear in the distance. We celebrated with an asado on the beach and shared small sips of leftover spirits with old friends and new before crawling into tents. On cue, I awoke to rain signaling the time to go home.
Words and photos by Audrey Sherman.
You know you're off the beaten path when you hike over a mountain, find a guest book and discover that the last entry was written two years earlier by your guide.
Kjartan, our guide, works as a mountain goat for the Icelandic 112, climbing radio masts and putting up antennas for most of the year. During summers, however, he stays in Patreksfjordur where he was born and raised to guide people around the region.
Guide Kjartan is knowledgeable about the Sagas and the incredible history of the Sjöundá area. In particular, the famous story of Steinunn and Bjarni, who were lovers that got the death sentence after being accused of murdering their spouses in 1802.
This hike, organized by Westfjords Adventures, is for experienced only and those in good physical shape. And that's for a good reason. The start and end point is at Raudisandur and the objective is to reach the lignite coal mines all the way in Stálvík bay.
We walk through fields of wildflowers, cross snowfields and rivers and finally reach the Ölduskarð pass. The pass is clear but there is fog all around, preventing us from seeing the views. On a clear day it's supposedly possible to see Snæfellsjokull glacier from here. Instead of walking straight down on the other side, we walk about a kilometer along the steep hill, something certainly not for the faint hearted.
The mine itself is by the sea, nearly impossible to find for someone who is unfamiliar with the place. We put lamps on our heads and in we go. It's high enough for an adult man to walk upright and long enough for just about anyone to get lost in these dark corridors. One can't help but imagine the hardship of the miners that worked there and eventually closed it down sometime after the war.
We write our names in the guestbook and head back. I wonder, will my own name stay as the last entry in for the next years to come?
Guest post by ski mountaineer, adventurer and storyteller Brody Leven.
After a few years of traveling around the world, the Westfjords is one of the only places I’ve chosen to visit multiple times. Two visits in three years have brought me close to the community, the mountains, and the culture. Here are some reasons why I already want to return:
1. Camping. With receptive and kind people and beautiful views in every direction, it’s hard to go wrong with pitching a tent in the campgrounds of the Westfjords.
2. True friends. During my first visit in 2013, it didn’t take long to realize that the people in the Westfjords are genuine. There are friendly, supportive, helpful, compassionate, entrepreneurial and incredibly hospitable people who are choosing to live in one of our treasured landscapes. They are good listeners and incredible storytellers.
3. Small-town feel. I like the small-town feeling of, “Oh, did you go to Stúkuhúsið café while you were in town? My uncle/grandmother/sister owns it.” Everyone is friendly and kind to a traveling stranger, with a penchant for making friends with those passing through.
4. Bakeries. We are seriously deprived of warm, freshly-baked bread and pastries in the USA. Icelanders are not.
5. Skiing. If any single thing has given me reason to travel the world, it’s skiing. Mountains and the culture surrounding them have created borderline obsessions for me. The Westfjords’ mountains aren’t the tallest or the steepest on earth, but combined with the other virtues of the region, they offer one of the best skiing experiences one can find.
6. Architecture. I never cared to notice architecture until I visited Iceland for the first time. Since then, I’ve not only grown to appreciate architecture around the world, but can’t help but note Iceland’s incredibly distinct variety of buildings. The Westfjord’s buildings emanate class, timelessness, and style. I love browsing the book showing all of Isafjordur’s old structures.
I find myself feeling closer to the Westfjords and its people than to those of my own home. With as much as I travel, it’s easy to feel a lack of home in any single place. Fortunately and seemingly without thought, the good people of the Westfjords create that comfortable atmosphere that no other location has been able to replicate. And for that, I love the Westfjords.
You are visiting your friend in Isafjordur and have a day or two free and decide that you want to do a little hiking. You get in the car and drive ten minutes to Hnifsdalur. There you can find the beginning of the ridge that is the border between Hnifsdalur and Isafjordur. You follow that ridge up. And up. And up. You find that some nice fellas even left some ropes bolted into the rocks to help your ascent. Climb up and over the ridge and you see the huge cairn that signifies you have made it to the top. High-five your friend. You notice that once you are up on the top the mountain opens up into a plateau.
Good thing you decided to bring your tent along, because there are spectacular views from up here. On one side you can look down and see Isafjordur out in the bay, and across on the other side, Hornstrandir. Surprise! You brought a beer for you and your friend. Enjoy them as you look down onto town. Get some sleep. Tomorrow if it’s clear, you can walk across the ridge to Seljalandsdalur.
But hey, if the weather turns, you can just walk down the hill back into town.
Text by Chris Winchester
The Sea Monster Museum in Bildudalur is one of those places that you assume will be weird. And it is - but definitely weird in a good way.
Walking in, the smiling face of Ingimar is the first thing you see. He looks like a character from the 18th century with a curly mustache and small round glasses. As it turns out, he is also the main organizer of the annual steam punk festival.
"Here we see a map of Iceland drawn in 1590. It was made by the famous cartographer Abraham Ortelius who was known for making very accurate maps," explains Ingimar as he points out some features of the map with a drawing of one of the sea monsters, Fjörulalli.
The museum hall itself is dark and ominous. The first thing you see is a giant replica of Fjörulalli himself. Fjörulalli is the most commonly known sea monster of the Westfjords. Half sheep and half monster, he supposedly pushes people into the sea and drowns them; inciting fear in all of the children of the Westfjords. Further inside there are audio stories of sea monsters and small screens with old interviews of locals that are confident that they have seen strange creatures in the fjord. There is even an old original medical record with a description of injuries from a sea monster attack.
After learning about the dangers of the sea, sea monsters, and how to avoid conflicts with them, you can’t help but feel safer and more confident while traveling in the Westfjords.
With a sunny weather window on the horizon, we set off to further fjords in our four-wheeled Musso, brimful with all the adventure essentials. We drove out through the tunnel, meandered over mountain passes, and weaved along stretches of coastline in a happy daze.
When the light never ceases, time expands almost infinitely. The days here have no clear beginning and certainly no defined end. If you ask me what I did yesterday, I admit I may bend the truth. My memory is anything but linear – it zigzags backwards, rearranging events and collapsing whole days together. With no distinction between light and dark, I’m unable to comprehend how time is passing by normal standards.
And it’s even worse when I’m far away from home where there are stretches of open road, abandoned cabins, peculiar sculptures, and vacant pools that seduce me and keep me from crawling into my tent. Yet, I quite like my new concept of time and memory that is only bound by heavy eyelids and the Musso’s limited gas tank. Even though we must sleep, and eventually return home, I find there’s always enough time to invent our adventure in the weird and wonderful Westfjords.
"In my opinion the value is not necessarily in the old boats themselves, but rather in the knowledge and skills that will disappear soon if my generation doesn't teach the younger ones. Right now nobody is learning to build boats as they use to do it. We have only two options: Either we keep the traditions, document and teach the skills to the next generation, or it will be a project for the archeologists of the future to find out how it was done and why these boats were used. But then we'd be burying the history and we want to fight against that."