At Brjanslaekur the harbor is not only busy with travelers going on the ferry Baldur over the Breidafjordur bay, Þórður and his colleagues are also busy loading a big container with dry cod heads.
Dry cod has been exported from Iceland for a thousand years. For centuries it was Iceland's main export.
"The travelers going to the ferry sometimes comment on the smell of fish, but I tell them that's how money smells. It's all going to Nigeria, over there it's considered a delicacy. They use it as stock for soups and stews. I've tried it - it's tasty!"
Birna is the manager of Hotel Breidavik. "My husband and I bought the place in 1999 and in recent years the business has grown gradually. In April three years ago I got this idea of getting furnished containers to host our guests in order to meet the demand - and three months later they were up and running" says Birna.
"Most of the people that stay here are interested in the birds at Látrabjarg. Best time to photograph the puffins is after dinner time. And then they need somewhere to stay" she says.
Now Birna may start seeing more archeology focused visitors after recent media attention. Since 1912 it's been known that there are ancient heathen graves on the land. However, no serious research has been done on the site and Birna and her family and friends have simply been picking up bones that they have found. A couple of weeks ago they found a jaw with all the teeth intact. "They say it's from heathen settlement times, 1.100 years old" Birna says. "We have also found some horse bones which means that the site has been an important one, only chieftains had horses buried with them."
"It doesn't seem to disturb their spirits that the bones are kept at a tray here at the hotel. We enjoy their company and I believe they enjoy ours!"
At the south-west tip of the Westfjords there is Látrabjarg cliffs. Out of all the European countries, only the Azores reach further to the west.
People have hunted birds and gathered eggs on Látrabjarg ever since the settlement of Iceland. Eggs could be gathered in the spring and birds caught in the summer, and both activities were important sources of food for people living in the area. In 1886, a total of 36.000 birds were caught on the cliffs. During the day, men lowered themselves down the cliff face on ropes in order to gather eggs but some people also climbed up the cliff face from the beach. Birds were hunted in the same way, during dry weather when they were most tame. Rappelling was a dangerous activity and there were frequent accidents. Hunting for birds largely stopped in 1926, after two men died on the cliffs, but gathering eggs is still practiced by a few local farmers.
Today Látrabjarg is one of Westfjords main tourist attractions. June is the best month to see some of the millions of birds that nest in the cliffs. There are razorbills, kittiwakes and, most importantly, puffins. And it's the puffins that attract the birdies with their big cameras - all aiming to get their obligatory puffin picture.
In this ocean of big cameras Marcin Baran stood out, shooting with his mobile phone a puffin that was merely a meter away and he was stoked with the result. "I'm fascinated by your country. You know, for many places the tourism brochures give false image of a place. But here it really is exactly like in the brochures!" said Marcin.
The hike wasn't easy. Walking in a rocky shoreline has never been considered ideal, but it was an experiment to see if the route would be feasible for the Wildfjords trail. It wasn't. Mood, however, was high and Henry suggested we stop and pick some angelica to add to our dinner later on - after all, June is the best month for angelica.
After a few hours of scrambling we reached our destination and the spot to pitch our tents; an old potato garden that Bettý's grandfather had made. Bettý herself greeted us with hugs, kisses and 6 chicken eggs. "For your breakfast. You guys are not vegan, are you? That seems to be some sort of a trend these days" she said.
Bettý is a sheep farmer that lives all alone in this remote valley, where her family has lived for generations. Now she is the only one left. Her son, Thor, comes home during weekends to help out while during the week he works and studies in town. During the winter the road to Bettý's valley is closed because of snow, then she doesn't see another human for weeks or even months. Bettý and Thor's story is incredible, but we'll save it for later.
It turned out there were indeed vegans amongst us. We cooked millet, vegetables and angelica over campfire and had it with a sip of red wine that we had carried with us. They say anything tastes great in the wilderness, but this actually was delicious. The meal was followed by camp fire stories of elves and trolls while the sun got lower and lower on the horizon. It was after midnight now and the sun was about to go down. Someone suggested a hike - so we decided to hike through the whole night. The hike lasted just for an hour and a half, then the sun came up again.
The Westfjords are first and furthermost a fishing region. Fishermen are our heroes, our soldiers. For hundreds of years they have gone out to sea and brought back valuable fish. It's thanks to fishermen that we have managed to build communities here, fish was the foundation - and still is.
It's thus no wonder that seafarers get their own day dedicated to them; Sjómannadagurinn, the Seafarers Day. It is a celebration that has been held the first Sunday in June every year since 1938. Some towns, such as Patreksfjordur for example, take this celebration a step further than other towns; there the program of activities takes 4 days, one very long weekend. The locals decorate the outside of their houses and organize one event after another so it becomes a lively, rather quirky but authentic experience.
The serious undertone of honoring fishermen, passed and living, is combined with parties, movie screenings, rowing competitions, strong-man competitions and cake eating & Coke drinking competitions. Everything that an Icelandic town festival needs.
It’s that time of year when it’s constantly bright outside. Today sunrise was at 02:28 and sunset will be at 00:23. From June 11th until July 1st, however, there won’t be any sunrise nor sunset as the sun keeps constantly above the horizon.
It’s also a bright period in the minds of our people. We go out more, making up for all the time spent inside during our winter hibernation. Yes, there are happy times ahead.
Hólmberg Arason, born 1932, had restored 38 boats and built 4 boats from scratch. He thought we was retired when he suddenly obtained a big bag full of boat nails. “Obviously I couldn’t let these perfectly good and unused nails go to waste so I decided to build another boat” says Beggi, as he is always called.
The boat is all hand made in his garage. “It’s pretty much ready, now I’m building a trailer for it so I can take it out. Then a bit of paint job and it should be on the water this summer”.
It’s opening day for Páll Stefánsson. Every summer, Páll and his family come back to run a hostel out of the home where he was born and raised. The place is perfectly tucked back in the valley, overlooking the surrounding fjords and ocean. He says, “You just walk five minutes and then you are all alone in the world.”
The boat's motor fades to a gentle humming idle as it approaches the abandoned farmhouse. Kviar looms rather eerily atop an embankment of overhanging cornices. Yet the placement of the house at the end of the valley allows northerly winds to carve a wake between snowy drifts down to the shoreline, beckoning forth voyagers from the sea. Her paint has long since peeled away to the wind. Shutters creak. Whistles through windows and frosted patterns frozen on cold nights create a muted beauty nonetheless. Awakened from the deep slumber of winter to the epoch of a spring thaw, the crackling of the woodstove breathes a bit of life and warmth into weathered stonewalls. Floorboards shift and sigh under the presence of newly arrived occupants - a group of venturing skiers dressed in micro-puff down jackets and Gortex.
The house was built in 1923 by a family that wanted to make use of the starkly beautiful landscape. They lived well off of fishing, small scale animal husbandry and an inventiveness that provided small luxuries, such as two small wind turbines servicing electricity in the house and a small hydropower dam in the nearby river. Today, Borea uses the house as a base for skiing, kayaking, hiking and wildlife viewing in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, offering an experience of Kviar that tells of a small glimpse into the realities of farm life. Groups collect water where the snow-melted stream meets the salt of the fjords and gather round the dinner table late into the night with the accompany of a flickering fire-stove. Sometimes the wind howls relentlessly and the floorboards often release pockets of dust on top the cook’s head in the basement kitchen. But one can’t help but feel a sense of magic; for the curious duo of scavenging foxes printing their tracks in melting snow, the flight of Eider ducks and swans gracing the waters surface and the playful seal who hangs outside just off shore. Everything begins to become lost in a sense of timelessness. And though the occupants and purposes of those at Kviar fade with every era, the idyllic imperfections of the abandoned farmhouse endure the mission to pioneer the vacated lands of an ever-changing, yet eternal frontier.
Words by Keree Smith