Iceland: Into the Westfjords

June 16

(Photos here.)

Got up early (already I’ve begun to think of 7 a.m. as early!) and took the ferry from Stykkishólmur, north across Breiðafjörður and into the Westfjords.

I watched gentle ripples move across the broad waters, watched Stykkishólmur’s green-topped black cliffs recede behind us. I thought of all the people who’d made their livings from these waters, during settlement and saga times, and since then, too. I thought, too, one more time, of the husbands Guðrún had lost to these waters.

Looking back, I could see Helgafell in the distance. I could see, too, Snæfellsjökull, the glacier-capped volcano at the end of Snæfellsnes, the peninsula on whose north shore Stykkishólmur lies. Also, the volcano from which Jules Verne began Journey to the Center of the Earth. Only the lower slopes were visible, though. Unlike Hekla, Snæfellsnes chose to remain hooded with cloud today.

We stopped briefly at flat, cliffless Flatey island, then continued on, docking in the Westfjords.

Even before I got off the ferry, I had the feeling I was in a wilder country than I’d been a couple hours before. The slopes were sharper, more brown mixed in with the green grasses, more sweeping stretches of black rock above where the grasses ended. And there was so much snow, on the higher slopes. Much more than in Stykkishólmur.

We stopped in the tourist center, got our bearings, and then followed a lovely brown dirt road, first along the coast, then across the interior. Lovely in the sense of steep drops and frequent curves. Our guidebook described it as rather alarming, but we were used to this sort of road from our travels in the west in the U.S.–though in snow or rain, I suspect it would have seen far less pleasant. But as it was, it was a glorious drive.

Several times we gained altitude, heading up above the tree (okay, lichen and moss) line, into a jagged rocky gray wilderness. Oddly, though, it wasn’t as volcanic a wilderness as we’d seen in the south, especially in the region’s under Hekla’s grip. But it was very, very barren.

This is an interesting thing about the Westfjords, which I thought about often while there: that the wildest, least settled part of Iceland–also the region, according to some, most known for sorcery–should also be the geologically quietest, the rocks here older than those of most of the rest of the island.

The patches of snow were large, above the moss line. Once, we came to a faded red emergency rescue hut, a place for hikers and other travelers to stay should they find themselves stranded and needing shelter here, a reminder that it doesn’t take much, for barrenness to change from fascinating to threatening.

The wind blew and blew as I examined that hut. Winter or summer, I don’t doubt that the storms in those passes can be fierce.

Not that the wind ever fully stopped blowing for long, during our trip.

Eventually we descended our final pass, and somewhere–near the small town of Þingeyri, perhaps–stopped at a dark gray sandy beach along a fjord. I trudged through its turfy grasses, listened to red seaweed crunch beneath my feet. Nearer the water, that seaweed turned browned, slicker. A single bone, the vertebrate of some animal, lay outlined against the dark sand. That sand felt crumbly between my fingers.

There was no one clear place where the water began; the sand simply became wetter and wetter until, in my shoes at least, I couldn’t walk any further, even though the edge of the water proper was still a ways out.

We drove on, past some small seaside towns, clusters of brightly colored buildings; and past some isolated groups of farm buildings, too, all with sharp green and black hills rising behind them.

We drove through an impressive five kilometer tunnel; sometimes, apparently, it’s easier to dig one’s way under a mountain than to drive over it. That tunnel was long enough that there was even a fork in the road. We took the right branch, and emerged, at last, into the town of Ísafjörður.

Ísafjörður is not a large town–it has somewhat more than 4000 residents–but it is the largest town in the Westfjords. And it doesn’t really feel small, in many ways; it has a deeply settled and European feel to it. Colorful buildings, many with corrugated metal siding, lined the streets, against a backdrop of steep, steep hills. There was peeling paint, given the harsh weather much of the year, but the town wasn’t at all tired-looking for that. Square gray bricks cobbled the sidewalks, and everywhere, it seemed, were children out riding their bikes.

Dress was more casual here than in Reykjavík, which meant us tourists stood out a little less, in our fleeces and walking shoes. Or maybe it was just that there were so many fewer tourists here, far from the Golden Circle tours and the Ring Road. Fewer signs were translated into English here, which we took to be a good sign.

We checked in at our guest house, then walked around a while. Ísafjörður is, of course, along a fjord, which made for pleasant walking, especially given the bright red tulips planted not far from the water’s edge. We visited the local Folk Museum, too, which was focused on maritime history. We did see one tour group there, a bus of French tourists on a cruise who were in and out in 20 minutes. The young people in historical costume outside had clearly practiced their French hellos, and were, I think, a little disappointed when their polite Bonjour received a Góðan daginn back from us. Then again, it’s also possible that our accents were awful, and that they were reacting to that. 🙂

Eventually, after dinner, lnhammer and I settled in to a cafe/bar for a while over cups of tea, one occupied by us, a couple of Icelandic women, a friendly bartender named Hawk (though I can’t imagine that’s also his name in Icelandic), and a fairly drunk Canadian from Nova Scotia who was in Iceland building summer homes for German tourists.

The drunk Canadian shared his Icelandic vocabulary with us; he seemed to have learned rather quickly how to tell women they were beautiful in Icelandic. I had just enough vocabulary in turn to thank him for the compliment.

Around 10 p.m., folks began making their way into town and out onto the streets to hang up; by 11 p.m. quite a few cars were cruising the town, round and round. The sun had dipped beneath a tall hill by then, and the air had chilled up, but the sky was still blue, twilight an hour or more away.

I felt like I was heading to bed early, when I turned in around midnight. The children had mostly stopped riding their bicycles, but everyone else, it seemed, was still awake.

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