Return to Iceland, Pt. 6

Skagafjörður and Tröllskagi

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I woke up early – I was overdue for a shave and needed the extra time. Johann kindly set us up with breakfast and coffee. The other house guest, who had arrived late the previous evening, joined us. She was visiting from Germany, driving the Ring Road on her own. She said that she’d spent some time in the U.S. as an au pair and working with horses in Ireland. After breakfast she planned to go for a ride – Johann was preparing a horse for her. We talked about our impressions of driving the Icelandic countryside and the temptation to pull over at every possible opportunity. She had strapped her GoPro to the driver’s side mirror using the camera’s headband, which I thought was clever. She left when her horse was ready, and we wished each other a good trip.

Katelyn and I cleaned up the breakfast table as much as possible and gathered up all our stuff. Arndís saw us out; she asked about our plans and I told her we were going to drive around the Tröllskagi peninsula. She gave us a heads up on the tunnels (which ones were old or new, short or long). Her mother lives in Siglufjörður so she makes the trip with some regularity. We said goodbye to the dogs and were on our way.

The tiny hamlet of Hólar was on the way – “Hólar at ya boy!” I joked – so we detoured to check it out. Established in 1106, the town is home to the Hólar University College, where the folks back at Sturlureykir (had it really been only 2 days since we stopped by there?) had trained in Equine Studies. The Museum of the Icelandic Horse was closed, so we just walked around a bit, checking out the large church (built in the mid-18th century) and the Nýbær turf house. Low cloud cover and brooding mountains added to the quiet atmosphere. When we returned to the car, we were amused by a camper van that had “Kisses from Belgium” inscribed in dirt on its back window.

Iceland’s first printing press arrived in Hólar in 1530 and was used to print sagas and religious texts.

We continued on to Hofsós. Just south of town there was an area called Grafarós which was once a trading post in the 19th century. Some old buildings were still visible. Here, the river Grafará streamed into Skagafjörður – we had the scene to ourselves and I found it rather peaceful.

river entering fjord iceland

In town, we found the Icelandic Emigration Center also closed. The museum tells the story of fully 20% of the population relocating to North America at the end of the 19th century due to economic and climatic hardship. Interestingly, around the same time, a renewed national pride took hold. This developed over the next 50 or 60 years into a bid for independence from Denmark.

Only a couple hundred people live in Hofsós, but the town has benefited from their efforts to renovate and preserve many historic buildings. We took in the the colorful architecture – from bright yellow to pitch black – as we walked down to the waterfront and back.

pier icelandic harbor hofsos

I didn’t have any specific stops in mind, except that we’d probably get lunch in Siglufjörður. The mountainous landscapes made for a stunning drive – almost overwhelming. I’d heard that, as far as the north goes, Tröllskagi was as close to the rugged Westfjords as one could get.

Prior to the first (and oldest) tunnel, outside Flókadalur, we came across a monument to Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson, who in the 9th century located Iceland using three ravens. The first raven flew back the way the ship had come; the second flew up in the air and landed on the ship; and the third flew northwest and didn’t return. They put their trust in the third raven and came upon Iceland. I find stories about sea journeys fascinating to begin with, and it kind of blows my mind that humans could find their way to such remote locations a thousand years ago. The exploits of Scandinavian sailors remind me of the Polynesian voyagers who long before settled the myriad islands of the Pacific – I’m impressed by all of it!

hrafna-floki monument pillar
hrafna-floki monument north iceland

Coming around a bend, we saw goats being herded, which was an interesting change of pace from the usual sheep or horses. A little ways up the road we decided to pull over and take in the landscape. The view west over Miklavatn was beautiful – calm weather resulted in mirror-like waters reflecting the mountains.

iceland mountains reflected in lake

Finally we reached the tunnel. It was single-lane, with pockets hewn from the rock where we pulled over, allowing oncoming cars to pass. We emerged from the tunnel into an even more remote northern landscape. This area is notorious for avalanches in winter. After Siglufjörður suffered from particularly devastating avalanches in the mid-90’s, the government implemented ongoing mitigation measures to help protect the town and others like it. Siglufjörður’s position at the base of a steep mountain made it particularly vulnerable. My take-away was that the barriers were not meant to arrest an avalanche so much as redirect it; in any case, the measures were certain to protect lives and infrastructure.

Siglufjörður – the “Atlantic Klondike” – was built around the catch and processing of herring, until the fish began to disappear in 1967.

It seemed pretty quiet in town. The brightly painted restaurants Kaffi Rauðka and Hannes Boy sat next to each other by the harbor (Rauðka in red, of course, and Hannes Boy in cheery yellow). A locked door to Hannes Boy made the decision for us. There was only one other group inside Kaffi Rauðka’s rustic, exposed-wood interior. Katelyn had fish and chips, a solid choice for a fishing town, while I opted for a chicken sandwich and coffee. Afterward, we enjoyed the calm, picture-perfect harbor, and took some playful photos with the sculptures outside Hannes Boy.

I’d heard of a folk music museum nearby, but couldn’t seem to locate it, and it was likely closed anyhow. We considered the award-winning Herring Era Museum instead, which appeared to be open by appointment. In the end we chose to get back on the road. I was prepared to encounter businesses and museums that were closing for the winter; still, I thought it kind of a shame. I would have liked to have seen some of these places. I guess I also felt bad about calling someone to come open up a museum just for us; and what if we were running late, inconveniencing them? Anyway, there was no shortage of things to see, including an excellent viewpoint above town just before the next tunnel. I imagined the town’s heyday – the harbor full of fishing boats, the streets full of carousing sailors and townspeople, the sounds of industry.

On the other side of the second tunnel was Héðinsfjörður, a deserted fjord that, prior to the tunnel’s completion, was once only accessible via a narrow mountain route. Now people can easily visit the fjord for hiking and fishing.

Hedinsfjordur became the site of Iceland’s worst plane incident in 1947 when a DC-3 passenger plane crashed there, leaving only wreckage behind.

The next two tunnels took us through Ólafsfjörður and Dalvík. We hoped to take a tour at Bruggsmiðjan brewery and had been trying to call ahead, but weren’t getting an answer. The website indicated they were open so we continued to Árskógssandur. We ended up at Bjórböðin (the beer spa) where the bartender let us know the brewery was closed on the weekend. We hadn’t booked the hot tubs – traditional or beer-filled – in advance, so we decided to enjoy a beer, then move on. Katelyn had a blonde lager and I had the dark lager, both from Kaldi, and we watched as the bartender served beer to patrons in the hot pots. Afterward, with the last of the day’s light waning, we went down to the water. The ferry from Hrísey had just arrived (or was getting ready to depart, I suppose).

meadow and mountains iceland
north iceland harbor

After driving all day, I was glad to arrive in Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest urban area, where we were welcomed into town by red traffic signals shaped like hearts. At a fuel stop we laughed when we came across the “Kisses from Belgium” van again. Our AirBnB on Hrafnagilsstræti was on the upper floor of a boxy blue apartment building. Our host had gone swimming and let us know the door was open. I tend to be very gentle with other people’s property and thought the door was locked; turned out it just needed a firmer hand (Katelyn’s!).

We got ourselves situated and relaxed for a bit. Our host seemed to be an academic and the walls were lined with sophisticated books (although my favorite was Boring Postcards). The apartment felt homey but also modern. Our housemates, a family with a small child, arrived, then went to visit the community swimming pool. As for us, we headed out for dinner at Greifinn. The place was hopping – apparently the place to be for Saturday night dinner!

We spent the rest of the evening at the AirBnB. When the family returned, we listened in amusement as their kid pulled books off the shelf, opened and closed them, and declared them “finished!”