Islafjördöur, about a four hour drive from Reykjavik, means icy fjord and the fjord does freeze over in winter. The town lies about twenty miles south of the Arctic Circle. A Norwegian is credited with being the first settler here in 970 on the tiny peninsula, jutting out from the steep sides of the fjord. Chances are he was not really the first since he found a harpoon here and whaling was not in the Norwegian tradition. Most likely some Aleut (Eskimos) beat him to it. Today the town has about 2,500 residents, but when fishing was king as many as 13,000 lived in the area. They even caught and ate shark, a problematic fish to consume. Shark don’t have kidneys to filter out the ammonia generated by muscle activity, so they are hung in the open air to rot. Then the early locals found them good to eat.
Our ship is much too big to dock here so yesterday the crew practiced with life boats and tendered us to shore today. Anchors are no longer required; the captain kept us nailed to one spot using his Dynamic Positioning System. We were told that 80,000 cruise ship passengers visit here during the season, so it might be time to build a real dock. The tendering process went pretty smoothly until we tried to come back. A woman had been injured on shore and was returned to the ship by the paramedics. Lifting her in and out of the life boat and schlepping her up the gangplank on a stretcher was a tedious process. I’m not good at waiting, but it was easy to chill when I thought about how glad I was that it hadn’t happened to me.
This area is geologically the oldest part of Iceland and does not have the thermal activity or volcanoes that benefit Reykjavik. These days they import the cheap electricity from the capital, but they have a back up diesel generator for those wintry days when the show piles up and takes the power lines down. Snow avalanches are a huge problem here. Houses are built below the steep hillsides on any flat spot and every so often the snow slides down and buries them. We saw the spot where 24 people were buried and 10 were not rescued in time. The local government tried to develop policies to prevent this loss of life. No one is allowed to live in the homes built in avalanche prone areas; they are only used as summer homes. In other danger spots, massive walls have been built uphill to contain the snow. The only glacier in Iceland that is still getting larger is in the area, but scientists guess that in the next 200 years all of Iceland’s glaciers will be gone.
Three million birds nest on the cliffs here from May 15 - August 15. We’re sorry we missed them, especially the puffins. Birders used to wonder where they went when they left and were surprised to learn that they spend nine months of the year bobbing on the waves, eating fish and avoiding getting eaten by seals and sharks.
Our tour took us to the nearby town of Sudavik to the Arctic Fox Center. We were all surprised to see that they were dark brown, not white. The fox is the only large animal endemic to Iceland. Scientists guess they walked over here on sea ice. Those that survived the latest Ice Age, were foragers and carrion eaters. They hung around near the coast where the snow never lasts long and it was not to their advantage to be white. To survive in winter temperatures their fur is so thick they have 20,000 hairs/ square centimeter. Their feet do not have conventional pads like dogs and wolves do, but are also covered with fur, making walking on the snow easier. Because they can kill baby sheep and the eider ducks people raise for their feathers, they are still hunted, but not in the energetic way they used to be when hunters sold their luxurious pelts. Today one side of the fjord is where people live and the other side is the Hornstrandir National Nature Reserve. People stopped living there in 1952 so the fox has has a large protected territory to mate with his one true love and try to raise five pups a year. Usually only one makes it to maturity in these harsh conditions.
Our tour took us to the tiny Stolen Church, so called because it was moved here from the nature reserve. While we admired the simple interior, a young man gave us an acapella solo concert, singing Icelandic folk songs.
It seems that most of the folks who live here have left and seen the bright lights of the city, be it Reykjavik or on the continent, but they all returned when it came time to raise a family. It was fun to see this remote spot, but we need those bright lights - a a little sunshine and warmth. Too much solitude!