Bestfjords

Part II - Finding Never-Never Land

The door had been locked the night before, so when it gave way we walked right into the shop. We hollered a friendly “Helllloo!” but no one answered. The four of us wandered around the aisles and started to collect goods to buy. Camilla gathered up the bubbly water, while Marcus and Mike found the jumbo bag of Doritos. All of a sudden, a girl appeared. She seemed alarmed, and quickly left the room. 

I then noticed that the window was shuttered and that it was quite dark in the store– actually, the lights were off. How had I not realized that the store was closed? I guess at the time it seemed possible that the sole shopkeeper in a town of 19 people might wander off for a bit. Or maybe I was just blinded by my hunger from our long day hiking and skiing down Örk to see the signs.

Party on a mountain

Then a man walked in with the girl in tow and introduced himself as David. He confirmed that the store was indeed closed (only on Wednesdays). As we got to talking, we learned that he skied too. Weeks before, we had heard about the sole skier exploring the fjords around his home! And by happenstance, we found him. By stumbling into a closed store in search of food.

We left the store and drove along the coast. Siberian driftwood lines the shoreline, looking bizarre in a land with few trees. It’s just another mark of how far I feel from the rest of the world.  After a few kilometers, we arrived at an empty Krossnesslaug with just an honesty box for admission.  The four of us enjoyed an end of day drink in the geothermal pool overlooking the dark ocean.

Krossnes pool

We spent each day like this. We would venture out in the surrounding area to ski, finding new views atop the fjords before a long run down. And after we would end the day at our own private pool before returning to the Urðartindur guesthouses.

Urdartindur

Each day faded into the next and I lost sense of time and place. It was not until we left the Strandir coast, that I felt the pull of my texts and email beckoning me back into an unwelcome reality.

Urdartindur

 Words by Audrey Sherman, photos by Mike Schirf.

Part I - The Drive

Westfjords map

A couple of weeks ago, a few friends and I gathered around a map during dinner. Camilla traced her finger along the Strandir Coast and stopped at Nordurfjordur.  “I’ve never been here.” She thought there were skiable fjords and hot pots so it didn’t take much convincing for Marcus, Mike and I to go there with her. A couple of days later, we packed up, grabbed a topo map, and began to drive.

Preparing for the road trip

Nordurfjordur isn't all that far as the crow flies.  Driving there is a whole different story and it’s not for the faint of heart. The road runs around every single fjord before heading inland. It takes patience, more petrol than you want it to, and some good playlists to make it through.  Yet it’s beautiful - I loved looking at the fjord’s alternating lines of white and black, of snow next to rock. It’s almost impossible to fully understand the scale of them unless there is a toy-looking car or farm nearby to gauge it.

Audrey

Common scenery

We decided to spend the night in Drangsnes. Our host at Malahorn showed us his catch of the day, a large monkfish, before pointing us in the direction of the local hot pot.  Down the street, we were greeted by three empty pools overlooking the ocean and the island Grímsey in the distance. Legend has it that when trolls were trying to separate the Westfjords from the mainland as their safehaven, they dug up rock and mud in haste and the island formed from the debris.

Drangsnes hot tubs

Marcus enjoying life

The next day we continued north.  Driving from Drangsnes to Nordurfjordur along the dirt road feels like entering a faraway land.  The towns are few and far in between, and there are strange places to wander about the way. We drove with no schedule, only a destination, and that made all the difference. We played like curious children, peering into church windows, scrambling rocks, testing out the acoustics in abandoned buildings while we drove onward to the end of road.

Words by Audrey Sherman, photos by Mike Schirf.

Sigga

Sigga is a physicist born and raised in Reykjavik. “I had been rock climbing for many years, but I only started ice climbing in December 2012 and I loved it right away. I was hooked. Because of the climate and geology of Iceland, rock climbing can be rather challenging, but ice climbing makes much more sense - here in the Westfjords we can ice climb at least half of the year”.

Sigga

“The first time I came to the Westfjords I went on a sailboat ski trip with Aurora Arktika, so my initial impression of the region was through skiing. Ice climbing came much later. But these two activities are the main reasons why I decided to come and live in the Westfjords, so that I could make them a part of my daily life”.

Dyrafjordur

Ice climbing

“Although people often think it’s a dangerous sport, it isn’t if all safety precautions are followed. When people aren’t familiar with the equipment and safety procedure we follow, then they have misconceptions about the sport.”

Dyrafjordur ice climbing

Spot the climber

Coffee at Myrar

“When we go ice climbing we often stop at farms to get permission to play on their land. Then we often get invited in for coffee and a chat. It’s funny, the farmers find it a very strange sport and they are curious about it. They don’t understand how anyone can find it fun to hang on an ice fall!”

First days of summer

In Iceland the seasons are rather blurred. We still keep old traditions, following the Old Norse calendar which divides the year into only two seasons, winter and summer. Hence, the official First day of Summer, Sumardagurinn Fyrsti, is held annually on the first Thursday after 18th of April.
 
Keree Smith
 
Even though it’s summer in Iceland, it certainly doesn’t look like it - yet. But the locals and guests of Isafjordur don’t let the weather affect their summer spirits and rather embrace the elements - with summer in heart.
 

The doer

Meet Wouter Van Hoeymissen. He arrived in the Westfjords over ten years ago with just a car and a case of curiosity. After exploring the fjords, he stumbled upon a neglected house in Thingeyri that he could buy for €30 from the town in exchange for putting it to use. So he and Janne Kristensen bought the rusty tin building and set to work. Each day for five years, they restored the building – completing it with beautiful wooden floors, hand built cabinets, and a large kitchen for the Simbahöllin Café they open in the summers. Then without ever having ridden horses, Wouter bought four of them.

Today, he happily owns 22 horses in a nearby valley and runs tours for eager visitors. He says, “There’s no ideal Icelandic horse. They’re not so much unique because of how they look or their five gaits, but because of their personality. They are all different. And it might take twelve rides before you meet their personality.”

Post by Audrey Sherman; a curious storyteller and newfound Westfjords transplant from the US.

Our kind of science

Kids in Iceland may not be the best in mathematics or physics, but at school they learn all sorts of other skills instead. They learn carpentry and how to sew and cook. At every interval these Bildudalur kids are required to go outside and play, no matter how cold it is. There they learn all about velocity by rushing down the hill on little sledges and they learn all about snow science by building snow men and caves.

Grettislaug in Reykholar

Patreksfjordur swimming pool

Most people in Iceland live by the sea - and Iceland has abundance of hot water. Therefore it only makes sense to have obligatory swimming lessons, once a week all winter, in any weather. They learn breaststroke, front crawl, backstroke and even butterfly. And most importantly, they get to play around.

Hemingway

Þórður Sigurðsson was sitting in his forklift truck in Thingeyri.

"Last summer a Canadian tourist stopped me on the street and asked if he could take a picture. He said I looked exactly like Ernest Hemingway!

- Can I offer you some raisins?"

24 hours

Even with only 24 hours to spare, the adventures you can have here are pretty great.  With such a short time frame it’s important to minimize transit time and maximize fun time. Adventure is a state of mind; it can be had at any time and any place.

We've followed what Alastair Humphreys has in recent years been actively promoting: the concept of microadventures. His recipe for a microadventure is to do “something different, something exciting but cheap, simple, short, on your doorstep. Grab a map, close your eyes, point, go.”

Departure point

And that’s what we did one day in March.  Weather was good and the aurora forecast looked promising. At noon, we came up with the idea to take sea kayaks and go camping – three hours later we took this picture. We had driven half an hour out of town and Maik had a big smile on his face. We had kayaks, camping and camera gear, instant noodles, cookies and chocolate. Everything to survive the night and return home the next day.

Arctic fox

Seeing an arctic fox in the wild is always a fun event, but they usually stay far away from humans.  This one, however, didn’t seem to be afraid of us at all. He came right up to us when we were preparing our kayaks, he sniffed around and then walked away – seemingly not very impressed by our colourful figures and toys.

Kayaking

We didn’t paddle far, a mere 6km. But it was a good distance to take it easy and enjoy the paddle and reach camp before sunset. Seals and numerous birds accompanied us along the way and upon approaching the camp, we saw another arctic fox running on the beach. 

Maik taking off his wet suit

When kayaking in arctic and sub-arctic waters it’s important to be well prepared and warm. Most kayakers wear a dry suit but Maik, who is used to surfing, wore his Patagonia wet suit. Not ideal but definitely warm – until we arrived at our campsite and he had to undress in the freezing cold.

Old shipwreck

When looking for some driftwood to make fire, we found the remaining from an old shrimp boat, Dröfn ÍS 44, that was abandoned in a storm in December 1993.

Maik making fire

There are very few trees in the Westfjords so making a bonfire can be a challenging task. Luckily, we found a few pieces of driftwood along the beach. We were both so deeply focused on the fire-making that we didn’t even notice when the auroras started to form on the sky. All of a sudden we looked up and the whole sky was glowing.

Aurora borealis

Northern lights

We spent the evening whoa-ing and wohoo-ing under the aurora display. The excitement level was so high we didn’t even notice the freezing cold. The bonfire also helped keep us warm.

Camp

The northern lights continued throughout the night and there was no sign of them stopping. We were tired and happy, satisfied with what we had seen and experienced that day. It was certainly a different end of the day than we had foreseen when the day started.

Hotel room view in the morning

Our 5 star beachfront accommodation with a view. Perfect for Maik to do his morning meditation.  

Skyr for breakfast

Skyr is an Icelandic dairy product made from pasteurized skimmed milk. It’s been a part of Icelandic cuisine for a thousand years and nowadays they make it in easy plastic cups – with blueberries.  A great breakfast out in the wild.

Paddling towards home again

It was time to head back home. The water was calm and the sun was shining. When we turned into the fjord, we discovered there was a thin layer of ice covering the surface. Our kayaks turned into Russian icebreakers and the way back took much longer than the way out. We managed to get home at 3 o’clock, exactly 24 hours after our departure.

Paddling through thin layer of ice

Living in the Westfjords of Iceland does give a certain advantage to easily access stunning nature. But adventures can be had nearly anywhere near your home, whether you live in Bildudalur, Berlin or Baihrain. Go somewhere you’ve never been. Go on an adventure that is close to home, that’s cheap, simple, short and effective. That’s what we did – and it was fun.

Download the GPS track of the kayak route here.

Stuck in Holmavik

We met Susana and Andrew in Holmavik.

“Upon planning a trip to Iceland The Museum of Withcraft and Sorcery came up and I knew I had to go there, as this has been a long time interest for me. It wasn’t too easy to find information on how to get here from Reykjavik, even the tourism staff said it was too difficult to get here. But this made us even more curious and we decided that it would be great fun to go somewhere off the beaten path. So we found a bus and it was a smooth ride."

While in Holmavik, the Coloradan couple saw the local theatre group perform an American horror-comedy in Icelandic, strolled along the harbour, listened to a concert by a Reykjavik singer and songwriter, joined a bunch of irresponsible locals for a drive through a snowstorm, and went for a dip in a coastal hot spring in the middle of the night.  

“I regret nothing - coming to the West Fjords was surreally beautiful! We can’t wait to come back!” said Susana.

Driving in storm

Dip in a hot spring

Spark

The streets of Isafjordur are generally covered with snow in the winter. Distances are short and the town is flat. No need for a car when you have a kicksled.