December 30, 2017No Comments

Westfjords (Vestfirðir)

Some nights, home is where you park the car. Other times, we've been lucky enough to be invited by others to make their home our home.

I've woken up to cold mornings warmed by the coffee Vincent has prepared. Woken up to cuckoo clocks, to the warmth of our car's seat warmer, to a gushing river, to the drumming of rain, in a former fish-factory-turned-hotel, to mornings too cold to leave the cocoon of my sleeping bag.

I've gone to sleep under a sky illuminated by northern lights, with the purring of a cat, paranoid in a gas-station parking lot, or in complete darkness – unsure of what landscape I would be waking up to.

At Gudrun's place, we woke up to rooster calls backed by the chimes of cuckoo clocks. Her cat Frosti was already up on his favorite perch, watching the chickens from the window. The rooster didn't seem fazed, and as if sensing our assumptions Gudrun corrected them, "Frosti's afraid of that rooster." For breakfast, she fetched fresh eggs from the chicken coop and vegetables from her garden — not an easy feat considering the harsh weather as we entered fall. She mentioned that for dinner, she planned to cook the Arctic char her son caught. Frosti turned around to look at us expectantly upon hearing the word fiskur, Icelandic for fish.

cat watching chicken

Frosti scheming from the window.

The walls of Gudrun's house are adorned with drawings and art from friends, her bookshelves are brimming with her favorite books, books she translated, and books she wrote. To my delight, there is no dearth of photo books. To page through her photo books is to see Iceland rendered in a new light. The landscape we visitors are so spellbound by are rendered secondary by local photographers since they wake up to this grandeur every day. Instead, they grasped onto traces of humanness — the light trails of cars and synthetics. Others, as if challenging the grandeur of the landscape, shot inches away from mountain-faces. What is typically ignored in my line of sight is joyfully rendered anew.

Yet some things never get old. To Gudrun, the northern lights were a phenomenon that never ceased to excite her. Each night, she checks on the northern light report and reports the predictions. That night she excitedly shared that we were entering a good week for northern lights - clear skies with a high chance of lights.

Gudrun lives life with the spirit I hope to possess at her age. After a dinner, we cleared the table of plates and replaced it with a sprawling map of the island. She pointed at the highlands, an area impenetrable for our car, and recounted her trip biking and rafting through the area. We struggled to imagine the sheer magnitude of that experience, as we had emerged wide-eyed just from hiking Fimmvörðuháls which only touches the fringes of the highlands. These days, Gudrun is volunteering at a cabin in the middle of the highlands in the extreme isolation and perils of Iceland's harsh winters. Nearly nobody ventures into the highlands at this time of the year. Yet, she tells us that she is entertained by the company of three crows and the tiny house mouse that seeks refuge in her cabin.

Sometimes when I want to return to the peace of Gudrun's home, I put on Ásgeir's album. Gudrun loved to play the tracks of her old neighbor along with other tracks from local Icelandic artists.

That night we eagerly stayed up looking into the distance from our attic room, yet we see no lights beyond the occasional passing car. The next morning, we semi-reluctantly head out to Þingeyri, as we had grown accustomed to Gudrun's hearth and interesting conversations. Yet while winding through the quiet roads of the Westfjords, it's impossible not to be drawn back into the landscape. There is only one path to take and we follow it to Ísafjörður, where we find our friend Helgi's recommended fish buffet Tjöruhúsið. We took a gamble, as the manager said, "we may or may not be open since the season is winding down" when we called. But to our delight, we see them setting up the tables in the cozy lodge-like restaurant and linger around until they opened up shop. Helgi's nostalgic description of the restaurant already set high expectations and we had planned this leg of the trip around eating at Tjöruhúsið — and yet, we were blown away to the point we wanted to stay another night just to enjoy the dinner again. At Tjöruhúsið, the daily catch determines the menu, a surprise for both chefs and visitors, until the fishermen arrive at the dock a few hours before the restaurant opens. The fresh fish is brought out of the kitchen still simmering on skillets. From there, guests are allowed to help themselves to as much fish as they want — after all, it's a fish buffet.

Completely sated by Tjöruhúsið's fish soup and buffet, we drive into the dark, continuing westwards with no particular destination in mind. As we drive further into the night, we begin to see an irregularity in the sky. It's as if there's something tugging on the sky and the folds are giving off a reflection. Yet it's so faint, we're not sure if it's a trick of the eye and can only see it when we take a long exposure photograph. A few minutes later the phenomenon intensifies and by then we're completely spellbound by our first northern lights sighting. The irregularity of the lights movement is bewitching and it's easy to see how it has inspired so much lore around the world. We later found out that fall is a great time to watch the northern lights and that week happened to be one of the strongest periods of northern lights, to the point that the Reykjavik government mandated that all the city lights should be turned off so everyone could enjoy the intense Northern Lights. Falling asleep blanketed by the dancing Northern Lights while car camping remains one of my favorite memories.

Driving Westfjords

December 3, 2016No Comments

Horse roundup in Skagafjörður

In the spring, farmers release their sheep into the wild to graze and roam. It's not uncommon to find sheep wandering in the most extreme of places. While hiking Fimmvörðuháls, we saw some precariously perched on craggy rocks that looked impossible to ascend or descend, while we found another that had unfortunately lost its footing and careened down to the bottom of a canyon we were hiking through.

In Iceland, Fall brings the dangers of extreme weather and malnourishment, so the farmers make a collective effort to bring the sheep home, painstakingly tracking them down by horseback and by foot. Running after the sheep is actually a job you can volunteer for on workaway, if you have sturdy legs and lungs. Each farm is required to contribute volunteers relative to their farm acreage. After all the sheep are brought back, they are sorted back to their original farms based on the tags on their ears.

Iceland sheep wool

Sheep we encountered in Borgarfjörður Eystri.

After a whole spring and summer of roaming, the furthest a sheep goes is within 3 days worth of horseback riding.

As we drove along the northern fjords, we found that the same goes for the famous Icelandic horses. After pulling out of Hofsós, we came across a group of horseback riders who invited us to try their spirit of choice, hot chocolate and Icelandic alcohol, and take a closer look at the horse roundup.

The horses from the valley shifted impatiently in the temporary corral, having grown unfamiliar with confinement. They had been sorted by farm earlier in the day, and the farmers were ready to bring them home. They burst out when the gates were opened and a young teen rider led the team of horses towards their farm. Impressively, the horses followed in an orderly fashion. Punkish manes to butts to shaggy mops to butts to luscious locks. Until one horse broke out from the team, giving rise to an intense chase and eventually a reluctant return to the herd. Skagafjörður's annual horse roundup is especially impressive, considering it's the only county in Iceland where the horses outnumber the people and famous for its horse breeding and training.

The horse roundup brings together all the farms in the valley, and usually wraps up with generous libations and singing, while we were generously invited to join, we had to politely decline and drove to meet our hosts on time, just a few blocks away from the post-roundup festivities.

December 2, 20162 Comments

Hiking Fimmvörðuháls

Finding solitude in Iceland is more difficult than it sounds.

While we're fed a steady stream of Iceland images that seem to be set in the remote wilderness, many of the famous sights and waterfalls are within 5 minutes walk of a parking lot or constantly inundated with selfie-stick wielding tourists. At times you even start to run into tourists – funny for an island that's 39,769 mi² (roughly the size of Maine). One man even remarked to me, "I can't escape the drone! I've been to three sites and the man flying the drone always turns up!"

Accessibility to natural sights is totally underrated – so I'm glad Iceland does a great job of it. However, for those who are looking for some more solitude it often means spending a bit more to rent a 4WD to get into the highlands or strapping on hiking boots. Being on a tight budget, we opted for the latter.

We seized the opportunity to go on a long hike after finding out we had a rare Autumn day of 100% sunshine coming up on via vedur. Our spur of the moment ambition to hike to Þorsmörk, led to some frantic mobile phone research, while pressed against a closed wifi-emitting booth at 11 PM the night prior. We ditched the idea of hiking there from Seljalandsfoss, and opted for the more conventional Fimmvörðuháls trail (aka Five-Cairn Trail) that starts at Skógar.

South Iceland landscapes

Common FAQs about Fimmvörðuháls.

No. Only 4WDs. There is the option to bus to Þorsmörk without the hiking, or bus back after one-way hike (runs from mid-May to mid-October). You can leave your rental car in the Skógafoss public parking lot for free.
The Fimmvörðuháls trail is 25km long (estimated 9-11 hour hike), but it depends on your end destination (see 'Where do I sleep'). Altitudes reach over 1,100 m. We did it in one day, but some prefer to split it into a two day hike.
It's a popular trail, and it is neatly marked with wooden poles, which become tall yellow poles when you reach the glaciers. With good visibility, we had no problems, however; fog can complicate that. You may have difficulty with wayfinding when the ice on the glaciers build up and decrease the visibility of the yellow poles.
This is dependent on the weather. We hiked it at the end of September, some people say ~ October is when it should be off-limits for hikers. Be sure to confirm the trail status with locals establishments.
Check out Ultvist's recommendations. Rain, snow, and high winds are not uncommon, even in the summer, so be sure to be prepared!
Listed by distance: There are two no-frills huts around 16km and 20km into the trail. These huts are small and require booking in advance (and are usually only open mid-June to mid-October, ~65000 ISK). Near the end of the trail into Þorsmörk, is the campground Básar (24km in, N63°40,559 / W19°29,014). Next would be the lodge Skagfjordsskali (28.3km in, 63°40.960 / 19°30.890), and the fanciest for last – Volcano huts (30 km in). You're not allowed to camp off the trail, however; use your judgment if you find yourself in an emergency situation.

Fimmvörðuháls was perhaps the most demanding, yet subliminal hikes I've ever done. You start by climbing to the top of Skogafoss and for some time, you can slake your thirst with glacial run-off that's tumbled down the numerous waterfalls you'll encounter.

Then incredible wind. The scenery transforms into otherworldly hues, as you pass Magni and Móði – spawned by Eyjafjallajokull's 2010 eruption.

volcanos near eyjafjallajokull

Baldvinnsskali hut bathrooms

Outhouse of the newly rebuilt Baldvinnsskali hut.

Volcanoes-iceland

Móði and Magni, the two new craters that emerged from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption.

A monochromatic landscape dramatically opens into the lush vista of the Land of the Gods (Goðaland).

hiking-thorsmork

The river(s) in the distance is the one you would have to cross with your vehicle to drive into Þorsmörk!

Cat’s Spine (Kattarhryggi) calls command of heights, with a real risk of teetering off the either side of the ridge. It's flanked by velvety hillocks and a craggy primordial landscapes.

Thórsmörk-landscape

backpacking-FimmvörðuhálsFimmvorduhals

By the end of Fimmvörðuháls I was definitely on auto-pilot, footslogging my way through due to dehydration (eat sodium-heavy camp food in moderation), though the intoxicating feeling of drifting between planets and fiction is something I'll remember for a lifetime.

We reached an eerily empty Básar at the end of the hike – and as if on cue, the sun set behind the mountains. Soccer nets and burnt campfires seemed frozen by the arrival of autumn, however; fresh bananas in the trash and an up-to-date weather report hinted live habitation. What looked like complete abandonment of the site meant we had our top pick in terms of camping spots. We got to work setting up our tent and cooking ramen and ginger tea for the night.

Despite our minimal packing goals, at the end of the hike, I realized that John McPhee’s The Control of Nature hitched a ride in my backpack. Luckily, the stories of how humans have made foolhardy, cartoonish, and sometimes "successful" attempts to tame nature made for the best tent read-aloud. The chapter Cooling the Lava, an epic hail mary involving dedicated manpower and puny water hoses to stop lava from reaching an Icelandic harbor, seemed fitting to read while nestled in the shadow of Eyjafjallajokull.


Photographs by Vincent Ribeiro and Jocelyn Chuang.

Other great resources that cover hiking Fimmvorðuháls can be found at Spice & Dice, Iceland for 91 days, and Alex Buri's write up on KimKim.