When I was a young girl, while playing Statues in the yard with my sisters, upon being spun and thrown into the lawn, I found myself stretched out, as if straining to reach something. When asked what my statue was doing, I responded, “Reaching for the edge of the world.”
Well, I have finally found my edge of the world and it is tantalizingly within reach.
The West Fjords are the wild outback of Iceland. A sliver of land is all that connects this far northern, wind-swept and fjord-carved land from the rest of the country. It is as far north as you can get in mainland Iceland and I truly feel poised on the edge of the Earth, in an untamed landscape that broods, listens to no one and demands utmost respect. And it has my respect completely.
I first entered the West Fjords on Saturday, in a pleasant and tame ferry ride across the massively wide Breiðafjördur, so wide it seemed as if we were on open ocean. After the mountains of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, I thought I knew mountains. Until the looming wall of majestic might appeared on the horizon and I knew I was in for something truly special.
The tragedy is that only a scant few tourists ever make it here. It is remote and the people living here are an untamed and resilient folk, like grizzled mountain men, only with fishing nets and boats. The bus ride from the ferry to the town of Ísafjörður (literally “ice fjord”) was an instant, terrifying, and fantastic introduction to this life. Steep, treacherous winding roads switchbacked up and down the fjord mountains, wide enough for one car and often no more than crumbling asphalt and gravel. At the top of these mountains, a rocky moonscape, eerie with its pockets of lakes so clear, they mirrored the sky. Down below us, the mist and clouds, wafting tendrils among the fjords. As we would plunge back down into the abyss, I turned my soul over to the mountains, as they demanded my utmost respect.
Today I met one of these independent outdoorsmen, a Viking if I ever saw one. Oleg is about my age and was my kayaking guide for a blissful morning paddle on the fjord, as the clouds drizzled their tears of heartache for men lost at sea. The lifeblood of the town depends on fishing and tourism. Oleg led me in learning the paddling technique and regaled me with tales of protesting in Reykjavik in 2008, in what has come to be known as the “Pots and Pans Revolution”, when the economic crash caused all three banks in Iceland to fail and the massive protests outside the Alþing lasted months, eventually leading the unpopular Prime Minister and his cabinet to resign. Like any good West Fjords man, he mentioned how they dealt with the mace used by the police – a dose of G-milk splashed in the eyes, the room temperature friendly milk that does not need refrigeration. He paddles with nonchalance, but as he talks of the spirit of the mountains and how they must be respected, pointing out where the avalanches occur in the winter months, I know he is alert and capable if I happen to capsize my kayak.
Yesterday I joined a tour group out to the true ends of the earth – or at least Iceland. Hornstrandir is now completely uninhabited because of how harsh life is there, but until the 1950s, a few small communities managed to live there, battling ice, snow and wind. We went to Hesteyri, abandoned in 1952, where the old houses and school still stand, lashed year after year by winter fury. Now it is calm and peaceful, the waves soothing to the ear and washing up the largest intact shells I have ever seen. I stood on the beach, my back to the silent homes, devoid of life now, and gazed out over the fjord as a dark, menacing cloud, heavy with rain, loomed in the distance. Yes, I have finally arrived to the edge of the world. Oh, the joy!