Landing in Keflavik airport is always a bumpy affair, but once the plane touches down it feels like falling into the arms of an old friend you haven’t seen in a while.
I’d never seen Iceland in the summer, and even from the plane window I could already tell how different it would be. For one thing, the coastline comes into view beneath the clouds and it’s incredibly green. Even better, you can see the steam from geysers spiraling up in the distance. It reminds you that you are about to disembark in a place unlike anywhere else on earth, and more blissfully remote.
Of course, Iceland’s tourism industry has boomed in the past decade or so, and in many ways has become unsustainable. As we all deplaned and were packed tightly into a shuttle bus, a middle-aged American woman shook her head in wonder.
“Can you believe it? Flying over those icebergs on the way in.”
“Clouds. You mean clouds.”
“Well gosh, no, I looked down and there were icebergs!” (They were clouds.)
Fortunately for me, I was leaving the crowds to Reykjavik and driving 6 hours north into the Westfjords, a gorgeous and isolated region of Iceland that’s accessible, but less accessible than anything along the ring road. With ragged cliffsides overlooking the stormy Atlantic, the Westfjords is a wilder destination home to whales, puffins, and a hardier stock of human who decides that gutting fish on a rugged outcrop of land is a life worth embracing.
The road took me straight north until I reached the fjords, and then the road wound in and out of each one, the way you trace the fingers on your hand with a crayon when drawing a Thanksgiving turkey. The swinging curves of the road mirrored my exhaustion: I had to turn off the heat, roll down the windows to let the cold in, and blast some bluegrass to stay awake. I would swing from drowsy to awe-struck. The scenery here stuns, always. You drive a straight black road through mossy hills and then BAM! You’re hugging a glassy fjord, boatless and pecked at by terns and seagulls. It’s breathtaking. It’s nature’s caffeine.
Just before arriving in Flateyri, or if you wish to visit Ísafjörður, you must drive through the most terrifying tunnel ever. Vestfirdir tunnel is a lengthy 9km through the mountains, with little intersections depending on which fjord you are hoping to visit. Crawling through dark mountains at 50km an hour is a special fear on its own, but it’s worth noting that about halfway through, the tunnel becomes one-way.
“They were trying to save money,” my AirBnB host, Eyþór, told me later. “It’s the first and last one-way tunnel in Iceland.”
Watching the kilometers tick down ever so slowly, I prayed I wouldn’t meet another car – there are pull-offs here and there, but hard to gauge how far apart they are – and simultaneously marveled at the mythological proportions of the tunnel. It felt likely that this was where Loki tricked those dwarves into forging Thor’s hammer (even though that was Norway, and this tunnel wasn’t completed until 1996, but still).
Emerging – at last – you find yourself among mountains, the little colorful town of Flateyri appearing ahead, jutting out into the water where it gently prods its fjord, Önundarfjörður.
Overhead, a shy sun began to show its face.
Flateyri is a wonder of a town. It has one petrol station, two cafes, and one restaurant. With a humble population of approximately 150, it’s a quiet shadow of the bustling whaling village it used to be.
“The population used to be 650,” Eyþór told me. “But since the economy went down and whaling is no longer the industry it used to be, things have changed.”
Eyþór runs the old bookshop in town, passed down from his family since it was opened officially in 1914. It calls itself the oldest bookstore in Iceland, and I was staying in an apartment above it. This is a lit nerd’s dream. My little bedroom had a little window with a gorgeous view of the fjord and the mountains. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect space.
Walking out the door, I passed through a clump of licorice-scented ferns and tiny purple flowers that are sometimes used for tea. Despite the looming rain, I dug my longboard out of the car and coasted down the back street that ran alongside a rock wall. On the other side was the sea. I was literally on a finger of land surrounded on all sides by water.
While boarding, I came across a sign near the sea wall that noted how in one day during one particularly bad storm many years ago, nearly 70 fishermen were lost at sea. It was a reminder that, though the town was sleepy now, it had a rough past.
After a nap and some coffee, I wandered up a path on the mountain that cut through fields of lupine, buttercups, and cottonseed to a nice little lookout point with a view of the town. Later, I asked Eyþór if the path went any further.
“You can walk off the path there and along the avalanche guard,” he told me.
He explained that in 1995, a massive avalanche struck Flateyri, killing over 20 people and destroying nearly 30 homes. Nature is a powerful thing, but it seems to wreck even greater havoc out here. After the avalanche, a lot of people left town. 20 people may not seem a significant amount, but when your population is as low as 150, that’s a pretty staggering percentage.
The avalanche guard, or dam, was completed in 1998 and has already served its purpose, deflecting at least two avalanches.
In the summer, the dam is also covered with colorful wildflowers, a reminder that nature is as destructive as it is beautiful.
I dined at Vagninn, my sole dining option for the evening. I’m thrilled to report that the food was outstanding. Eyþór recommended the fish soup with smoked rhubarb and the cod. He and the bartender assured me this would not be too much, but it was an effort to finish it because it was so rich and so tasty.
In addition to delicious nosh, the restaurant gave me the opportunity to get a feel for the town by eavesdropping on conversations. One woman was explaining to her friend how the sweater she was wearing was one she’d knitted for a friend, but borrowed back on this particular evening.
Another pair featured a man hugging a woman, explaining that he was in town for a few days, and subsequently getting invited to a party the woman was throwing where he could only wear red or white.
My favorite was a man paying his bill, who was tapped on the shoulder by another man who suggested he stay with him and his family that night. The other man agreed. It seemed like everyone knew each other on some level, or at least offered a special hospitality you might reserve for extended family. It was lovely.
At 9:30pm Eyþór and I set out to capture some shots of the arctic summer sunset, which was scheduled to occur sometime after 11:30pm. Even then, he assured me, it would never really get dark.
He drove me around to the other side of the fjord under a clearing sky.
“This the worst summer Iceland has seen since 1918,” he told me as we drove. “There’s still snow on the mountains. There usually isn’t this time of year.”
Of all the years I pick to visit Iceland in the summer.
Between photography stops, Eyþór explained where we were standing and why it was significant. He told me about spotting whales in the fjords, and even seals sometimes. Then, he pointed at a wooden sign mounted on some rocks.
“Have you heard of the Wonder Cow?” he asked me.
I had not.
He explained that a cow was meant to be slaughtered over in Flateyri and somehow escaped, swam across the fjord, and arrived on land right where we stood.
“The farmer called this farmer over here, and he thought it was a prank, until the cow came up.”
The surprised farmer got to keep the cow, who also happened to be pregnant. A cow had not swum the fjord before, which is a good enough reason to spare slaughtering it. Once the cow grew old, the farmer brought it back down to where it had once swum ashore and shot it.
“She is buried right here, where I am standing,” Eyþór said. Furthermore, this August, the town would commence a yearly event where locals can swim the fjord in the hoof steps of the Wonder Cow. I asked if he would be participating in this frigid swim, and he laughed. I take that as a no.
But I guess the threat of death to you and your unborn baby is all the motivation you really need to make the plunge.
After, Eyþór pointed out a barren square of field where arctic terns darted overhead.
“They made their nests here, but I think all the young have left,” he said. “Let’s see.”
It’s important to note that I have recently watched Frozen Planet, where one scene features a hungry polar bear – those large, fearsome creatures, you know? – venturing desperately into a field of arctic tern nests.
David Attenborough narrates with honeyed voice as the terns dive bomb the polar bear and peck its face viciously until, bloodied, it retreats.
So no, I would not follow Eyþór out into tern territory. Luckily, he did not get his face pecked out as all of the young had flown the coop, but the territorial terns were still threatening as they swooped too close to his head for my comfort.
As a local, though, this wasn’t his first rodeo.
He emerged unscathed and showed me an old tern egg. He also took me past a horse farm where the small, friendly Icelandic horses approached the fence curiously and let me pet their noses. On the way back, he stopped on the side of the road to show me where the blueberries grow.
“They’re not ripe yet,” he told me, showing me some shriveled green ones. The next day in the cafe, I overheard an older couple ask the cafe owner if they were too late for blueberry picking.
“Too early,” the owner replied, and I watched their hopeful faces crumble in dismay.
That morning, I also asked Eyþór where I could get breakfast.
“You could go to the cafe again, but the petrol station also serves a great brunch,” he said. I blinked. “Yes, at 11am all of the women in town go to the petrol station and gossip. It’s fun.”
As I waited for the petrol station to open, two children rolled down a nearby hill. I decided then that I loved this little town where people brunched at the petrol station and tourists flocked in small numbers to collect blueberries.
I spent the day on a mountainside, where I hiked out to a waterfall and found a soft spot in the grass to lie down and watch gulls hover on wind currents without another human in the world, a waterfall to my right and a few interested sheep uphill.
The next day I would have to leave this idyllic town, but for now, I would put away my camera and soak in every breeze and mite of pollen (I paid for that one later) I could.