Saturday, August 9, 2014

A(nother) return to Iceland

This July, I was lucky enough to return to Reykjavik for research and a conference (which actually had very little to do with Iceland and a great deal to do with Chaucer—go figure).  I was delighted to return to my favorite city, but I took two days at the end of my stay to travel north with a friend and visit an area that is very much not a city.

On the way up to Skagafjörður, we drove the scenic route around Hvalfjörður instead of taking the tunnel under the fjord.  There, we saw haunting mountains, strange abandoned buildings, and sudden rainbows. 

Then we had lunch at an odd establishment that was one part café, one part grocery and video store, and one part whaling museum.  I shall spare you the disturbing images plastered on the billboard outside the building (complete with a happy cartoon whale advertising the museum without an ounce of irony).  However, the food was very good and the view was even better.

We also had the—for us—thrilling experience of spotting a rainbow in the very village of Bifröst, which, as all Thor fans know, is the Norse name for the rainbow.  Had we pulled off the road into the lava fields, would we have found ourselves in Ásgarður?
Skagafjörður itself is just east of the Westfjords; at the head of the fjord is a charming little town called Sauðárkrókur, filled with pastel-painted buildings lined up along two or three streets. 
But my friend and I didn’t stay there.  On the east side of the fjord is a lovely village called Hofsós, even smaller than Sauðárkrókur, where you can get excellent fresh fish at the towns’ one restaurant on the town’s one main street. 

But my friend and I didn’t stay there either.  We stayed at a wonderful hotel called Litla Brekka, four kilometers north of Hofsós and nestled in the hayfields directly under the fells.

We stayed there overnight, and the next day, we drove back around the fjord and up the ten-kilometer gravel road to Reykir, where there is a hot spring called Grettislaug.  (The next two pictures arefrom last year's trip, when the weather was significantly better.)
The story goes that the saga hero Grettir, after swimming through the icy waters of the fjord, revived himself by sitting in the hot spring that is now named for him.  The reason he was swimming in the fjord is that he was an outlaw, and he had sheltered on a cliff island seven kilometers out to sea.  When his fire went out, he swam back to Reykir to fetch a torch.  What he wouldn’t have given for a box of waterproof matches, no?

That island, Drangey, which looks like a slab of meat dropped onto a slate, was the object of our pilgrimage.  We had visited Grettislaug last summer, but they only run tours to the island once a day, and we had missed it when we were last there.  So this year we determined that we would make it.  The boat tour takes you out into the fjord, past the lava formation known as the Kerling (the Old Woman)…

...and then around the island with its sheer, intimidating cliffs populated by thousands of fulmars and puffins during the summer.

The island can only be scaled at one point (in Grettis saga, he has a ladder that he pulls up to keep his enemies from getting to him).  You scramble up a narrow, muddy slope, hauling yourself up on ropes more than you actually hike.  All along the way, you pass puffins and other seabirds who watch you rather warily and don’t let you get too close.

And they have good reason to be wary, because once you reach the top—a surprisingly friendly, grassy meadow that looks like someplace in Ireland until you turn around and remember that there is a sheer cliff dropping a hundred meters into the sea—the first thing you see is a hunter’s cabin. 
It turns out that the tours of the island double as transport for puffin hunters, who stay on the island for a few days at a time during the hunting season in the month of July.
I’ve been told that puffin is very tasty, something like wild duck, but they are so cute that it seems rather unsporting to eat them. 
The only way it is legal to hunt puffins is by catching them in a net as they fly; they are rather clumsy fliers, but the net method is still inefficient enough that it presumably prevents overhunting. 
In any case, there was no shortage of puffins on Drangey, and the hunters take enough risks on those cliffs that perhaps they earn their harvest.

(Cliffs of Insanity, anyone?)

When all is said and done, it was a fascinating and beautiful trip to Skagafjörður, and even though we ended up with rope burns and soaking clothes and mud-caked shoes, I don’t think either of us regrets the effort it took to get there and back.  After all, at least we didn’t have to swim.