A short excerpt from my book Out in the Cold:
PART THREE: ICELAND
Time at sea is balm for the soul, respite from the workaday, a chance to contemplate the great wash of water upon the Earth. The sea is fluid; change is the sailor’s constant companion, and today we change countries aboard an obscure ferry across the north Atlantic to Iceland. A proper shipborne adventure.
Surely the passenger manifest holds no names of any ethnicity tied to terror. Here is a ship of Sigurds and Sigurdssons, Johanns and Johanssons. Still, when you change countries you offer your passport. In Torshavn’s little harbor, though, the young woman in the window just smiles and flutters her hand. “Never mind.”
Arriving at Iceland, no passport control. It’s not that no one wants to stamp your passport. There is no one to size you up at all.
Years ago I arrived at Stockholm on the party boat from Helsinki. That is what everybody called them (at least us young people), the Silja and Viking Line ferries that set out between capitals in each direction every night, their promenades overfull of food and drink and shopping, and a telephone in every room so you could call the United States if you wanted.
In my short-lived role as a businessman peddling my wares, I walked off the Viking Line onto a ramp into Sweden, where I expected someone to nod in recognition of my gravity. Nobody cared. Same thing. Nobody was even there.
A couple of days from now, flying from tiny east Iceland for the tiny capital, there will be no security. No x-rays, no walk-through machine, no questions. Just press a button on the counter to summon the clerk from the room behind a window where they can see you but you can’t see them, to take your ticket.
The Norröna, the flag ship of the Faroese shipping line Smyril (the Faroese name for a type of falcon), runs this route between Denmark, Tórshavn and Iceland. Packed, it carries 1,500 people and 800 cars. In winter between Tórshavn and Iceland, it is never packed.
Up in the heated, enclosed outdoor view point a husband and wife knit together as we take our beers to the window and watch the spray spin off north Atlantic waves in a frosty, freezy way.
Spume slaps the window while the bartender allows that the Tórshavn to Seydisfjordur leg, she is the roughest. True enough; the red LED numbers read three a.m. sharp when buffeting rearranges the interior of the cabin in the dark. The Norröna sails with all the aerodynamics of a shoebox.
The Norröna tries to nestle into Seydisfjordur in the morning, but it is more of a wedge than a nestle. Seydisfjordur, where the sun sinks behind the mountains in November not to be seen again until the end of February, is a community of houses opportunistically assembled around the inside of a fjord steep and narrow, an entirely Arctic place with cliffs covered with snow, some buildings half-buried under drifts, with a wind across the Norröna’s deck that will drive you straight back inside.
A man down at the docks, just the bundled form of a man really, claims Seydisfjordur should have been the main town in Iceland. No one but he makes that claim. When wild men ruled here, a long time ago before governments, Seydisfjordur started life around a herring fishery set up by Norwegians and they say it thrived. For a time the world’s largest whaling station, also Norwegian run, stood on the shores of Mjoifjordur, today a village of 35 people just four or five miles over the ridge, the next fjord south.
Telegraph first connected Iceland to Europe from Seydisfjordur in 1906. Engineering feats like this buck up pride out at the far end, and this one helps Iceland insist it is part of Europe. Europe is like, whatever.
Seydisfjordur has scant relation to the Faroes. It is colder and meaner, harder core, smothered by snow, an outpost at the end of a water trail, cliffs along either side narrowing onto the dock.
It takes some time for the Norröna to find a fit. The husband and wife tag team knits unconcerned on deck. Faroese and Icelandic men used to knit of necessity. Now it is sport, or perhaps chivalry. During endless winters people learn to entertain themselves. Fun is where you find it.
These Norröna passengers might not enjoy the Helsinki to Stockholm party boat. Not that kind of crowd. Neither do they exhibit any of the bovine wobble of Americans on a Caribbean fun ship.
Imagine history, long and dark. In living memory northern Icelanders read without electricity, learning their heritage, the Sagas, by the light of oil lamps. Because of Iceland’s great isolation the original Norse language has held so fast that Icelanders can still read the original Sagas like they were last week’s newspaper.
In this context the Sagas are not only the great historical epic of the northern peoples, but also social glue, nation-building tools, and in the living, breathing life of even a hundred years ago they were sources of wonder, fascination and high entertainment. Just those few years ago, you might never meet anyone you hadn’t known from birth.
Consider that while settlements sprouted on the island more than eleven hundred years ago, only for about 170 years have people in this world had effective pain killing medicine. Prior to 1846 there was no anesthesia. Before the last century rudimentary medicine served to comfort the afflicted until they healed, or they didn’t.
Before the invention of the telegraph in 1837, information could travel no faster than a sailing ship or a man on a horse. In Iceland’s earliest days killing had not yet been outsourced to the gun, to a machine. It relied on hand tools and the brute application of pressure.
WELCOME. NOW GO! HURRY!
See each place with child’s eyes and embrace the moment you do. For the strange grows fast familiar, nevermore wondrous and new.
There is a lovely blue Lutheran church in the center of town, dramatically backlit by the sun’s bounce off a snowy backdrop. In summer Seydisfjordur touts itself as an artists’ colony. An arts camp in July, musicians at the church on Wednesdays. In summer there are 4×4 tours, bird watching, biking, sea fishing and kayaking and a nine-hole golf course over the hill in Egilsstaðir.
The Blue Church at Seydisfjordur
In winter it is tough. Home-bound knitters do their best to snare the passing tourist dollar. Buy a mitten, buy a bootie. A ski lift once ran up the hill, but it is closed tight this winter. The Norröna delivers its passengers, but only once a week in winter, and today despite cerulean skies, the buses hurry straight over the pass because the captain advised passengers by public address to leave the Seydisfjord straight away, forecasting a debilitating, road-closing storm.
Nodding to the wisdom of skating quickly over thin ice, we follow. Beyond the blue church and the ship from the Faroes is just the road out, over the hill to Egilsstaðir. Up toward the pass a Scania truck that was hauling fish lies on its side, a stark admission of failure.
Happened yesterday. Driver unhurt, fish still inside. They are frozen and unlikely to melt.
I scoff at the idea of a storm under these brilliant skies but by 14:30 the world is reduced to white and shades of gray, as snow sweeps the road. The horizon winks out. By then we have run up to the foot of Snæfell, “snow mountain,” the ancient volcano that reigns over the highlands at 1,833 meters.
EGILSSTAÐIR, EAST ICELAND
We are in the hearty care of a big man named Agnar. First time I see him I feel he isn’t my kind of guy. Something about his slouch against the wall. Nobody slouches when the air is below zero.
Maybe Icelanders do.
Agnar is imposing, a ruddy man, ample and not naturally affable. He strikes me as a “from my cold dead fingers” sort and maybe he is, for he is an avid hunter, enumerating at length and in considerable detail the requirements for reindeer hunting – and his techniques.
Iceland’s reindeer have no natural enemies. Their population is managed by government-controlled hunting between July and September. Reindeer meat is an Icelandic delicacy and there is demand enough for hunting permits to require a lottery.
Agnar wears a black turtleneck of thermally appropriate fiber, tight enough to display his girth. Flitty eyes in a big head suggest a distrust I don’t think he means. Half me, half his lifetime among few strangers.
His on-and-then-off black wool cap and black fleece outer layer lay against his ruddiness to make him out as a confident outdoorsman. Might be just the guy you want around here, on second thought.
He has a Super Jeep. If super means how far off the ground you must step to climb in, it sure is super. It comes with its own Italian air compressor en suite. Essential equipment, for we haven’t made it up to the glacier by the time we slide and our back end wobbles around in one place until Agnar hops out to let air out of the tires.
Lower tire pressure flattens the tires. They relax a few inches, spread out and get a better grip. And it works. Eventually you’ll need to re-inflate the tires, and that’s where the air compressor comes in. Once we attain the main road back to Egilsstaðir toward the end of the day, Agnar stops at a junction with a billboard for us to regard in the whipping wind. It explains how geo-thermal power works around the region while Agnar sets about re-inflating the tires with the compressor.
It makes a lot of racket and he goes round to the tires one at a leisure time as if it weren’t minus eight degrees, the wind howling like a penned sled dog.
Largarfljót, the longest lake in the country, flows down from our destination, so we run alongside it on the way up. We’re headed to the great Vatnajokull, (“jokull” is “glacier”) up onto the edge of Europe’s largest glacier. The national park around it covers 14 percent of the country.
What is it about narrow northern lakes and worms? Lagarfljot has its own Loch Ness-style monster, 300 meters long with scaly humps and revolting spikes and a very, very long life. It has dwelt beneath these waters since 1345, spotted as recently as 2012. In legend its appearance augurs ill for the local folk.
It is just as well to contemplate a legend, for the landscape reveals little beyond the sweep of barren land and Iceland’s largest organic vegetable farm. Four-foot trees, a reforestation experiment that I expect isn’t destined to reach new heights, admit their discouragement in mangy patches on the road out of Egilsstaðir.
They hope the old saw about what to do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest (put the cork back in the bottle, stand up and look around) may one day get a challenge. The Forest Service claims 130 square kilometers of birch forest have taken hold in the past twenty-five years. That represents one and a half percent of the country, although you’d be challenged to find the first tree on the flight from east Iceland to Reykjavik. Still, they’re hoping for 25 percent birch coverage one of these days.
They reckon birch forests in valleys and willow scrub along the coast covered about a third of the island at the time of settlement. Iceland’s fate doesn’t run as raw as Easter Island’s, where the colonizers appear to have cut down every last tree, but the temptation to cut down trees in the Arctic for warmth and shelter must have been at least as mighty as on Rapa Nui.
Climbing toward Vatnajokull, sheep folds, circular pens for gathering and sorting sheep, line the Largarfljót flood plain. The herder might sort sheep into any of half a dozen pie-shaped low stone sections that comprise the circle, with a commonly accessible further circle in the middle.
Iceland has no passenger rail, and automobiles only found their way here in the 1920s, so horses were the main means of transport until very recently, especially for distance. Meghan O’Rourke, in The New York Times: “The Icelandic horse … is unique with its quick, short-steeped gait, so smooth a rider wouldn’t spill a drink.”
The horses in the valley of the Largarfljót graze at quiet farms on either side of the road, long manes and tails waving with the wind down the valley, white manes with dark bodies or the mirror of that, light bodies and dark manes. The river flows turbid and steady, scarcely a hundred meters wide, even less as it snakes through sand bars.