Days 187-188: north by northwest

As I mentioned in my last post, my friend Kevin (who came to Iceland for New Year’s Eve) was stationed here back when he was an Air Force admin officer at a remote post in the southeast part of the island.  Years afterward, Kevin went to law school and became the Air Force’s chief prosecutor in California and the surrounding states; I met him when he came to Vandenberg AFB, where I tried my first case.  I didn’t know we were supposed to lose and he was smart enough not to tell me; so we didn’t.  We’ve kept in touch over the years since then.

As it turns out, Kevin didn’t get to see a lot of Iceland when he was here, so we set about remedying that.  Our first major outing of the new year was a trip to Ísafjörður, the largest town in the Westfjords.  Icelanders are fond of saying “Westfjords are best fjords,” and I think they may be onto something.  It was dark when we set out and dark when we arrived: in between there was beauty, wind, snow, and a fair amount of peril.

Not a bad adventure, actually.

There were a few moments when I thought we weren’t going to get out of Reykjavik.  We left before dawn and the roads hadn’t been plowed in several hours, but my trusty little Honda CRV managed to churn its way through the dark and the snow drifts until we made it through north of Borgarnes.  Once the sun came up it was much easier going: at least half of the road was fully plowed.  It generally seemed to be the *other* half of the road, but there’s not a lot of traffic in Iceland, so we usually could pick the half we wanted.

By the time we got to Staðarskáli, the sun was as high as it was going to get over the horizon, which is to say not very high at all as it hovered between sunrise and sunset.  The light was gold and magnificent, and the shadows were long and spectacular.  We left the main highway to follow roads alternating between pavement and gravel packed with ice.  Here and there were small villages, beautiful and isolated and quiet.

Sunset in the Westfjords. The light lingers a surprisingly long time, but when it’s gone the darkness is an almost tangible thing.

After about five hours on the road we came to this intersection and realized we had about five more hours to go.  That’s when it got to be amazing.

I really thought we were much closer than this.

The sun was setting, and we had to cross the mountains separating the Westfjords from the rest of Iceland.  The wind picked up, and although it wasn’t actually snowing as such, the fresh snow all around us was whipped up by the wind and that had the same effect.  I have no photos of that part of the trip because (1) it was a little like being inside a ping-pong ball, and (2) I was focused mostly on not plunging into one of the many lakes and canyons on either side of the road.  Icelanders don’t put up a lot of guardrails.

Eventually we made it to the edge of the water and the fjords themselves, long and craggy and mostly calm.  The road did a lot of doubling back and forth – if you missed part of the fjord you were bound to see it again.  When darkness came it was utterly black; no moon, no city lights, no cities.  It was an insanely stressful drive, and I can’t wait to do it again when the roads are a bit more clear.

About 10 hours after we set out, we arrived at Ísafjörður.  Located at 66 degrees north latitude, it’s farther north than Nome, Alaska, or Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.  About 2,600 people live there, and a few hundred more in the surrounding villages.  Nice, quiet, and no more driving.  I was exhausted.

Night at the harbor.
Downtown Ísafjörður. Traffic jams really aren’t a thing here.

The next day, we got to see the fjords by daylight.  A little more eye candy for you here:

Ísafjörður at dawn.
A view from the other side of the water.
Square fjord
The walls of the fjords.

We also stopped in at the Arctic Fox Research Center in Súðavík, where a couple of little guys were outside studying us while we studied them.


Then it was back along the same long and winding road to Reykjavik.  It was a tough drive, and if I had it all to do again, I’d spend more time in the Westfjords.  As luck would have it, though – I do have more time, and I fully expect to go back.

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