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Posts Tagged ‘Ísafjörður’

Arctic Henge

1 Dinner at Hotel Norðurljos and the Arctic Henge

Because we had time, we went up the northeast corner of Iceland hardly any travellers check out,  cutting off the corner from Mývatn to Egilsstaðir on the Ring road.  There’s a great outdoor sundlaug north of Vopnafjörður, Langanes peninsula, and the northernmost tip of mainland Iceland, but still, it sees far fewer tourists.  In Raufarhöfn, there’s a project to change that- the Heimskautsgerði, or Arctic Henge, is partially constructed.  We arrived at dusk and found the giant columns of stone in the twilight much larger and impressive than I expected.  Just like Stonehenge, I was wondering how they built the center piece, with massive rocks leaning together and dependent on the last keystone at the top.  Hungry, we then wandered into the recommended Hotel Norðurljos for dinner.  The only customers there, our host Erlingur made us a truly exceptional meal (no menu, just a couple of verbal choices), talked with us at length, and then turned out to be one of the main incentives behind the Arctic Henge.  Hotel Norðurljos DessertHe brought out a scale model of the full project, talked about how they had done what they had so far, the other minds and skills at work on the project, the meaning and philosophy of the design, and the full vision of the completed ideal.  It is layered and deep and rooted in Icelandic mythology and poetry, and it will certainly be an un-missable attraction, one of Iceland’s great sights, when completed.  We studied the plan and talked about it for some time, and he explained how they had built the four legged central spire.   I could not have been more enchanted with the idea.  I hope work continues and it sees completion.

Arctic Henge Model

Arctic Henge Model

2 Secret hot pool at Mývatn.

No I’m not going to explain where it is.  Apparently the instructions of how to get there are on the internet already, and other tourists find it.  We had a friendly local tell us about this hot pool that the locals  keep to themselves, as they must- Mývatn area is inundated with flocks of loaded tour buses in the summer.  After saying that it’s closed to tourists, especially since one tourist broke a leg there, he then gave us exact (if arcane) instructions, saying you could find directions on the internet anyways, and if we could find it, we were entitled to be there, and besides if we encountered anyone, tell them he told us about it.  We followed his insider instructions in full night darkness (instructions like “walk along the fence until you see a rock on the other side…the fence curves a little and there’s a bit of a shrub…walk along the edge and look down into it until you see a board”), and we found it.  I memorized his words as he spoke, and I was going to find it.  The best part was the “it’s all straightforward from there”, referring to the technical scramble down the wet and icy crevasse down to the water.  I can sure believe someone broke a leg there, what I can’t believe is that he was extracted from the spot with a broken leg (“Icelanders do it blind drunk all the time, I don’t know how”).  The water was an ideal temperature- clear and clean and deep.  Crystal clear is a term often applied to water, but this water was so clear we could watch H.W. dive to his limit, about 50 feet, without finding the bottom, and I could still see his tattoos by headlamp, while stars from the Milky Way shone dimly overhead.   We even survived the climb out, and that night was possibly our best in Iceland.  In gratitude we tidied the place up and packed out a bag of garbage.

Herring Factory

3 Herring factory at Djúpavík.

The road north of Hólmavík on the east side of the Westfjords from Drangsnes terminating at Krossnes (both places with notable hot pool action), snakes along a minimally populated fjörded coast and through Djúpavík, a ghost town relic of the herring industry.  The three water tanks standing outside the factory have old heating coils in them, and are majestic, echoing concrete cylinders, astounding that they were formed with wood and poured by hand in the 1930’s.  H.W. especially was fascinated by the huge factory building, and naturally, with that much dedication, he found a way to slide into the inside.  I’m not going to describe that, either.  The place is deadly dangerous and there are tours of the factory in the summer, but be assured our entry point didn’t involve any doors, damage, or force.  There just happens to be a way in that really doesn’t look like a way in, so it has probably been overlooked.  Or else they don’t care too much, if you’re that determined to get inside.  The inside is a catacomb of multiple layers, floors full of ancient, rusted equipment, storage, and parts of it have been turned into museum and art exhibit space.  We tiptoed around for a long time, mesmerized by the abandoned infrastructure that became useless so suddenly when the herring schools failed to return.

4 Pool with kids at Höfn.

Swimming pools in Iceland are social spots, especially for children.  There are piles of bicycles outside, and the kids seem to all come to the pool after school, leaving just as suddenly before suppertime.  They play wildly, a dozen children with only a few adults around, splashing and running and leaping and shrieking with exuberance never seen or permitted in North American pools.  It works, because there are distinct kid areas and adult areas, so the kids play wildly without rules or restriction in their area, and behave in the hot pools, where the adults soak and chat.  Icelandic philosophy of ‘full freedom as long as it doesn’t impact others’ in full effect.   Amazingly, no one ever gets hurt.  We were minding our own business in the hot pool, but apparently the pair of foreigners aroused the kid’s curiousity.  As if on a signal, every child suddenly got up out of the kids side and filed deliberately into the hot pot we were sitting in, completely filling it.  There were about 18 kids, approx ages 8-13.  They rambunctiously hollered between themselves until one boy, who’d clearly been prearranged, possibly dared, to do it, turned to us and said “good morning”.  That brought a cascade of scorn down on him, which I could understand, of course.  They teased him for having said good morning, when it was nearly dark, and he defended that’s what Anglos say!  Then one astute little girl who’d noticed I’d responded to him in Icelandic, quietly and shyly asked if I spoke Icelandic.  I told her some, yes, I’ve been learning, and that was it.  All the heads swivelled and stared raptly at us, and question after question was shot at us in Icelandic and English.  “Can you understand what we’re talking about?” (in horror).  Yes, some.  Where are you from?  All the usual questions, and then, asking me to say word after word in Icelandic, their names, names of towns and places, pointing at things for me to name them in Icelandic, asking about my husband’s tattoos that announced he was Amerískur while I was Canadian, questions about movies and TV shows, laughing uproariously at my pronunciation and correcting it patiently, answering my questions of how to say stuff in Íslensk.  It was like a media scrum.  One of the boys routinely held his arms out and pushed back on his friends, “back it up, back it up”, doing crowd control, because they were literally pushing on us, crowding in with their little faces and rapid fire questions, all shouting at once.  “No, niður”.  It was kind of scary to have that much questioning attention turned on us,  my Icelandic was being severely tested, and it was adorable, too.  For some reason I found their voices vastly easier to understand, and it was easy and fun to talk with them.  I learned a lot, very quickly.  They were so shy to speak to us and bold with each other.  Eventually our novelty wore off, and they said goodbye and filed as one back out of the pool to resume chicken fighting in the big pool and dancing on the pool deck to Lady Gaga blasting from the loudspeaker.

Ísafjorður Theater

5 Watching Looper and Skyfall in Ísafjorður.

Ísafjorður has a wonderful old movie theatre.  The kind with a double pair of big wood entrance doors, and between the inner and the outer doors, there’s a ticket window on the side.  Pay your fare for lower or upper balcony (and get a seat assignment), then go through the inner doors and you’re looking at the screen and the back of the seats.  There’s a little kiosk on the left back corner selling popcorn and candy, but not fresh stuff- pre-made, in bags, which by the way tastes like Smartfood and is amazing.  The bathrooms are in the same big theatre room, and stairs go up to the balcony.  I love the institution of intermission.  No matter what is happening on screen (Intermission in Skyfall caught Javier Bardem with his mouth open mid-sentence in a very intense part), someone pushes pause, the screen freezes, and everyone rouses to reality momentarily to go pee, buy more popcorn, and stand, stretch, mill about, and chat.  It’s a great opportunity to talk about what’s happened so far and share your speculations about what happens next.  Intermission rocks, and this beautiful theatre is wonderful.  It doesn’t even play shows every night.  Possibly, the schedule may have influenced our decision to spend another night.

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Although I still love sleeping outside, I was ready for a hot pool.

I woke up irritated by the wind battering on my tent.  The sound of it intruded on my dreams until I woke up resentfully, and found that it wasn’t my dreams; the worst gusts of wind were flattening my tent right down to my face.  At least that was unique enough to be interesting.

There was nothing for it but to get up and bag my feet. I was pretty pleased with myself for producing two plastic bags somehow out of my luggage, out of the depleted food supplies no doubt, and I bagged my feet and last dry socks against my sodden hikers.  It was fabulous, however brief.  They didn’t last.  The plastic breached and slowly my socks sponged up water, but it started the day out right.

Alone, I hiked past Hesteyri to the mysterious red brick smokestack we could see past the town, that turned out to be an old whaling station.  I didn’t see any evidence of whales; the carcasses were of big beached iron ovens with rusted bellies and gnarled straps and gears.  None of it made sense to me, but the scale was amazing and impressive.  There were huge warehouse floors, ovens, and the tower was startng to crumble.  Some walls and whole structures were intact, but the roofs were caved in and rotting, and I felt weirdly unadventurous and reluctant to go squeezing into cracks in tumbledown buildings or to go under moss-covered partial roofs.  I trust the manmade much less than natural crevasses and outcroppings.  The trail to the whaling station was varied by bridges and little waterfalls, but I’d brought no camera.

Back near camp I picked some blueberries for breakfast (muesli) and woke Derek.  The wind was bad.  My tent had gotten all wet inside while I was gone and I was bitter about it.  I packed it all and hiked it to the one unlocked boat shed in town, right by the dock.  I finished the complete inspection of the town by snooping on the remaining four houses.  Like all the others, they appeared to be furnished, well-used, and every one locked up tight.

While Derek packed I picked blueberries in the low hills behind the town.  The blueberries were rampant and endless.  The mist was bordering light rain, heavy and dark.  That kind of moisture in the air seems to permeate waterproof clothes.

The yellow shed we sheltered in

It leaks in at your wrists and seems to come inside you with your breath, so it’s impossible to feel really dry although you may not be wet.  At any rate, I was cold.  By the time Derek came to get me I had a big bag of berries and my hands were stiff and vein blue, uncannily like  a corpse.  We went to the dock and hid in the yellow unlocked shed.

Self portrait of waiting

We waited.  We made hot chocolate, we looked around the shed.  We waited.  I can still picture the meagre contents of that boat shed in my minds eye.  A mysterious tool with a snarl of cable, nails and buckets, rags and old sacks, shreds of rope on the ground, oars and worthless warped lumber stacked on the rafters.  We were too cold not to stand, so we stood, stomping and clapping and occasionally mustering enough energy to shout and jump around, which didn’t really help too much.  Occasionally we laughed with a moment of objective perspective of us, hiding in a boathouse.  Mostly we stood staring numbly out at the long dock pointing into the bay, listening and longing for the boat that was coming to get us to appear out of the fog in the bay.

The boat was two hours late.  No zodiac this time; it could pull right up to the end of the long dock built far out into the deep enough water.  It dropped off two guys that had more luggage than I would think possible.  Boxes and drybags and backpacks, all impressively packaged gear, piling and spilling all over the dock.  They were rushing around, tossing and grabbing and hustling their stuff around at a near run.  I was soporific with our long hypnotizing wait in the boathouse, and dazed by their pace and the quantity of their stuff.  Probably the equivalent of six of our backpacks for each of them.  They tersely responded to my conversational questions that they were staying on Hornstrandir for 10 days, and continued barking at each other in German (I think), and hustling their gear around.   In fact, by the time we were on board, they’d moved their giant colorful pile of gear to the end of the dock.  It’s still a mystery what they doing with all that stuff.  Obviously it wasn’t just ten days of food, so they must have been up to something specialized, but their gear didn’t give away what.

The boat was two hours late.  No zodiac this time; it could pull right up to the end of the long dock built far out into the deep enough water.  It dropped off two guys that had more luggage than I would think possible.  Boxes and drybags and backpacks, all impressively packaged gear, piling and spilling all over the dock.  They were rushing around, tossing and grabbing and hustling their stuff around at a near run.  I was soporific with our long hypnotizing wait in the boathouse, and dazed by their pace and the quantity of their stuff.  Probably the equivalent of six of our backpacks for each of them.  They tersely responded to my conversational questions that they were staying on Hornstrandir for 10 days, and continued barking at each other in German (I think), and hustling their gear around.   In fact, by the time we were on board, they’d moved their giant colorful pile of gear to the end of the dock.  It’s still a mystery what they doing with all that stuff.  Obviously it wasn’t just ten days of food, so they must have been up to something specialized, but their gear didn’t give away what.

The pilot was the same driver as before, so needless to say he completely ignored me and spoke only to my brother.  The sea was rough, which made it very fun.  The prow of the boat heaved up and crashed  down on each wave, rain pelted the windshield and it was wild and noisy.  I played at standing on one leg at a time as long as I could in the middle of the cabin.  No one noticed.  The driver rattled on and on about “shelter” and finding the “right path” for the least turbulence.  I suggested we could go faster, and was ignored.

Back on land, we shucked our wet backpacks into our car and drove directly to a gas station.  In the washroom mirror, my face was dirty and my skin coarse.  The weather was more clear immediately. Back in Ísafjörður, we went on a binge of erranding.  A pile of food at Bónus, then back to Gamla Bakaríið for pastries and bread.  I was on the hunt for some light, simple sneakers.  My hiking boots were the only closed shoes I’d brought and I thought I could get by with them everyday, but these days it seemed they never got a chance to dry out completely, and wet heavyhikers were getting tiresome.  There was an ideal thrift store upstairs from the Bónus, but we could only gaze wistfully at the treasure trove of chaos behind the glass, as it was closed that day of the week.

At Hafnarbúdin, I declined to pay $100 (on ütsala – sale) for a pair of cheaply made $30 shoes.  Such is Iceland.  Hopefully, you’ve brought you everything you need, lest you have to buy something there.

Next we discovered the best souvenir shop, the Viking (Víking?), a chain shop.  It was staffed by a remarkable woman with a surprising UK accent.  The prices were relatively reasonable too; by this time we were adjusted to the gaggingly high price levels in general in the country.  The only customers in an oasis of kitsch, handverk (crafts, did I need to explain?), and brilliantly designed woolens, we piled things on the counter and ticked off nearly our entire list of people to bring back gifts for.  Feeling very successful with a big yellow plastic bag, we carried on Vin Búðin (“the wine shop” – Icelanders are literalists).

A friendly staffer whose name I was delighted to see was Snorri, gave us the lowdown on Brennivín.  The green plastic bottle with the striking black and white label is considered Iceland’s signature spirit.  While we were purchasing several to try out and bring home,  Snorri told us that it was cheap, trashy liquor, flavoured with caraway, and that many people died of the drinking of it so it came to be called “black death”, and had been packaged at one time with only a skull and crossbones.  The tense was a little unclear.  It seemed more past, when in harder times gone by more people were “dying of drink”, while in the present, it is considered a low level choice, but unique to Iceland, therefore a source of pride.  Iceland’s bottom of the barrel booze, in other words.  Sold primarily to tourists, it seemed. There were also lots of local beers and cider for sale singly, so we loaded up with an assortment of creatively designed cans for the road.

With that bender of shopping complete, counterbalancing a few days outside of civilization, we drove on.  At Súðavík, we stopped at the Arctic Fox Center, which was tragically closed.  I’d been so looking forward to it.  They had an inviting cafe, too, and posters outside cheerfully explaining how polar bears sometimes make landfall in the Westfjörds after swimming from Greenland and get shot for their trouble.   In the yard, though, there was a large enclosure dusted with seagull feathers around a fox play structure with one fox puppy (I know, a kit) with a big brush tail.  He totally made the stop worth it, he was such a photogenic and entertaining little fellow, not cringing or shy at all.  We lingered, taking lots of photos trying to capture his ultra-quick pouncing and smiling at his antics.  He was such a wild being.  Very primal somehow, and outside of the human world, especially in his eyes.

Can you see the truck on the other side?

The road east of Ísafjörður and Suðavík stays low in elevation and follows the coast, “fjörded” like the teeth of a comb.  For several kilometers, you drive south, pointed inland, while across the narrow finger of water you can see the next car ahead of you about 10km, driving the opposite direction.  At the “bottom” of the bay, you make a short turn and then drive several kilometers towards the ocean and the North Pole, while across the water you can see the road you were just on and maybe a big truck, the next vehicle behind you.  At the tip of the fjord, you turn again and repeat.  There’s the same car on the other side, still about 10 km ahead.  Repeat.  Repeat.

As the afternoon faded, we drove past Hotel Reykjanes and then turned around for it, deciding it was late enough to stop.  It was a strange looking place, a conglomeration of white cubes in the middle of nowhere, but it was perfect.  The owners were sweet and generous, and we paid (quite low) camping fees to tent on the big lawn in front of the buildings.  I produced a giant bag of laundry, and got taken into the basement and told all about how there was a problem with the breaker and the husband was working on it.  His tools were scattered around.  No charge for the laundry!

Their big square hot pool was about the size of a community lap pool (50m!).  It had a deep end and everything, but it was hot, clean water.  It was the perfect temperature to lounge in indefinitely, especially after days of hiking.  All the space to myself, I rested and stretched while steam rose off the water while the sky gently changed colours getting ready for the sun to set.  My brother stalked the sunset with camera, and it delivered another wild one.

For the first time, I had wifi in my tent, which was such a novelty that I had to stay up to 1am on the internet.

For a whole whack of fuzzy little Arctic fox pictures, click here.

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