Land­scapes, le­gends and nat­u­ral won­ders

Dis­cover deep fiords, dra­matic land­scapes and le­gends

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - TIM JOHN­SON

It’s push­ing mid­night, but still a glim­mer of gold lingers on the hori­zon, framed by the plung­ing walls of the fiord. Over­laid by a few wisps of pink sig­nalling the end of a long, sunny day, and per­haps promis­ing an­other to­mor­row, the MS Panorama skims out of Pa­treks­fjörđur on calm seas, cruis­ing at a nice clip into the Den­mark Strait.

Un­usu­ally warm and pleas­ant, that morn­ing our gen­er­ally stoic guide, Karl TK, was flush with ex­cite­ment, gush­ing, “You only get one day a year like this!”

Now a fin­ger of cold creeps down my back as we stand on deck above the bow, just a few hardy souls hang­ing on to the light as we tran­si­tion to­ward the long overnight dusk of a sub­arc­tic sum­mer, the moon, big and milky, hav­ing risen be­hind us.

Big, bearded and broad-shoul­dered, look­ing a lit­tle like a Vik­ing de­spite his slightly adorable tuque, TK breaks his sto­icism again. Ice­landic to the core and well-trav­elled in his own coun­try, he looks over at me. “It’s amaz­ing,” he says, shak­ing his head, the tas­sels of his tuque wav­ing back and forth. “It’s so spe­cial. Only, like, two per cent of Ice­landers get to see some­thing like this.”

Far from the busy streets of Reyk­javik and, nearby, the jam­packed Golden Cir­cle, which teem with tourists in the warmer months, Iceland’s West­fjords re­main one of the most iso­lated parts of this Nordic na­tion. Look­ing a lit­tle like a se­ries of fin­gers, ex­tended and reach­ing to­ward Green­land, these deep fiords and the dra­matic land­scapes in be­tween re­main sparsely pop­u­lated and in­tensely wild. Dif­fi­cult to reach by roads, which are forced by the ge­og­ra­phy to weave around deep bays and up over moun­tain passes, they’re best ex­plored ex­actly this way — by sea.

Un­fussy but com­fort­able, the Panorama is a 54-me­tre, three­masted sail­ing yacht with just 24 cab­ins, small enough to dock right at the main wharf of tiny vil­lages. I’m here as part of a seven-night sail­ing with Pere­grine Ad­ven­tures, which — in ad­di­tion to the ba­sics of the voy­age (meals, cab­ins) — or­ga­nizes daily tours with local guides.

Rolling up the fiords from Reyk­javik to Akureyri, the cap­i­tal of the coun­try’s north, most nights we steer out of the pro­tected wa­ters and into the North At­lantic, feel­ing a lit­tle like the Norse that once plied these wa­ters, ar­riv­ing each morn­ing at a bright, new port.

Nav­i­gat­ing north, we spend time on the Snae­fellss Penin­sula, ex­plor­ing around the flanks of Snae­fells sjökull, a soar­ing vol­cano capped with a glacier that served as the en­trance point to a sub­ter­ranean world in Jules Verne’s Jour­ney to the Cen­ter of the Earth.

We hike along the edges of steep sea cliffs and across black sand beaches, spot­ting fuzzy sheep and dark lava for­ma­tions. Jura TK, our cruise di­rec­tor, tells us to keep our eyes peeled for trolls and elves. In a land that’s nat­u­rally mys­te­ri­ous, where mists rou­tinely roll in from the sea and soar­ing ridges re­main al­most per­pet­u­ally wrapped in cloud, it’s not hard to see how the lo­cals be­lieve in mys­ti­cal be­ings. “They are ev­ery­where around us,” she says, quite se­ri­ously. “If you’re sen­si­tive enough, you can feel, or even see them.”

While the trolls re­main hid­den, we see some Vik­ings — well, one at least. Docked at Isafjörđur, we make our way to the tiny vil­lage of Pingeyri, where we find a man will­ing to re­count a saga. The only ac­tor for miles around, El­far Logi Han­nes­son per­forms a Vik­ing play here more than 350 times a year, ex­plain­ing that, hun­dreds of years ago, itin­er­ant sto­ry­tellers used to travel from farm to farm, re­gal­ing the fam­i­lies with sto­ries drawn from their an­ces­tors. “In the sagas, the Vik­ings are like su­per­heroes,” he says, with a slightly ironic smile. “And they ’re all true.”

First, he out­fits us in Norse robes, as we down big mugs of morn­ing beer. Then Han­nes­son takes us for “saga walk,” re­count­ing a story that, he says, took place right here. It’s an in­cred­i­bly com­pli­cated and blood-soaked tale, in­volv­ing a heroic brother, and a mur­der dur­ing a pond hockey game, plus some­thing about Val­halla ... but it’s not long be­fore I lose the plot.

Just be­fore set­ting out on the walk, Han­nes­son told us, “When I fell in love with my wife, I fell in love with this fiord, the peace and quiet,” and that’s what re­peats in my mind as we make our way over the green fields and down to­ward the grey ex­panse of fiord, as we pass Ice­landic horses, manes flow­ing, and stark sum­mits ris­ing all around, a lit­tle fringe of snow hang­ing on, still, even now in the mid­dle of sum­mer.

And then we do some­thing truly Nordic: We visit the (former) her­ring cap­i­tal of the world. Dock­ing in Siglufjörđur, we ap­proach a cheery red build­ing where five women decked out in red flan­nel and yel­low wa­ter­proof aprons are gut­ting fish at a break­neck pace, slic­ing off the heads and pulling out the guts be­fore drop­ping the fin­ished fish in a bucket. The work­ers fin­ish with a happy song, arm in arm, a man in cov­er­alls ac­com­pa­ny­ing them on ac­cor­dion. Karl TK in­ter­prets it for me. “It’s a song about the her­ring process … I will take more salt ... I will go danc­ing tonight.”

Inside the Her­ring Era Mu­seum, I learn about how this sleepy lit­tle place was once a boom town.

“It was al­most like a gold rush. It was a her­ring rush,” a mu­seum guide says, re­count­ing how, from 1903 to 1968, Siglufjörđur be­came a ma­jor des­ti­na­tion for thou­sands, both young fish­er­men who brought their boats back to har­bour so heav­ily weighed down with fish that decks were al­most even with the wa­ter, and the young women who pro­cessed those her­ring, some­times for 20 hours a day.

The fish were shipped around the world, and the oil ex­tracted lit the street lamps in Lon­don and Paris. By 1940, her­ring made up 40 per cent of Iceland’s ex­ports, earn­ing Siglufjörđur a nick­name: Iceland’s bank ac­count. But in 1968, when the boats went out for the sea­son, the fish were gone, and stocks have never fully re­cov­ered.

Our jour­ney fin­ishes — as any proper Ice­landic voy­age should — in a hot spring. Nav­i­gat­ing to Akureyri, the largest city in the coun­try’s north, we tour the area south of town, hik­ing around Mý­vatn Lake, then get­ting close to the bub­bling, steam­ing fu­maroles and mud pots at Ná­maf­jall, and the tum­bling majesty of Gods­foss — waterfall of the gods.

Wad­ing into Mý­vatn Na­ture Baths, a blue oa­sis carved out of a

lava field with pools that con­tain 3.5 mil­lion litres of wa­ter that reach 40 C, I or­der a Vik­ing beer. The sun slants off the sea nearby as I slide down to my neck in the min­eral-rich wa­ters, let­ting the geo­ther­mal warmth per­me­ate my bones.

I may not be a Norse­man, or a Vik­ing, or even a her­ring fish­er­man. But hav­ing sailed the West­fjords, ap­proach­ing these wild places from the sea, I feel a lit­tle Norse. And maybe it’s the beer, or the heat, but I im­age I see a troll, or maybe an elf, just across the way — be­yond the blue.


The tum­bling majesty of Gods­foss — the waterfall of the gods — is just one of many stun­ning sights in Iceland, a coun­try of abun­dant nat­u­ral won­ders.

The Lá­tra­b­jarg cliffs, Iceland’s west­ern­most point, of­fer vast coast­line views and are home to mil­lions of birds, in­clud­ing puffins, north­ern gan­nets, guille­mots and ra­zor­bills.

The sleepy fish­ing com­mu­nity of Siglufjor­dur was once a boom town and the her­ring cap­i­tal of the world.


Bathers soak in the sun and the blue min­eral-rich wa­ters at Mý­vatn Na­ture Baths.

Vis­i­tors marvel at the steam­ing fu­maroles and mud pots at Ná­maf­jall, a geo­ther­mal won­der.


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