Today was a tuft day. Not because of an endless day of problems, really just 1 and a whole lot of difficult hiking. I’m going to try to be more visually descriptive so bare with me.
This morning I woke up wondering what time it was, I looked over at my phone to see how much longer until my alarm would go off and it was out of batteries… Freaking out a bit because frankly in Iceland I never know what time it is, I turned on my laptop and it said 11:28pm phew. With the time difference I was supposed to wake up in 2 minutes. I guess on some subconscious level that whole internal clock when sleeping still works, just not when walking around town.
I get my stuff together, since today I don’t need to pack it’s a more relaxed pace. I make my way down to the bakery before the travel office. The weather is colder than yesterday, the internet predicts 6C as the high, but there are patches of blue sky. At the travel office they’re just opening and I buy my ticket to Hornbjorg, the Kings and Queen’s cliffs. It’s along a peninsula at the very north end of the Westfjords. The hike will be a full day starting with a 2 hour boat ride out there.
After some waiting for the shuttle, a cruise ship arrives and around 20 Americans flood the office. They’re loud and obnoxious and act like the world revolves around them. Like this is Disney Land, and the people living here are all actors in Mickey Mouse costumes. I really despise these sorts of tourists. I’m told Germans are worse because they’re very demanding and cheap, and though the Americans are obnoxious they at least they spend a lot of money. Luckily they’re too late to join my trip. There is an amicable spanish couple, or at least the husband is. We chat a bit. I discover he’s into photography too and that was also a big draw for him to go on this tour. We show each other our setups and complain about missing something or having to make some compromise. I also find out from my guide Viestinn that Megan, a New Yorker working at North Explorers, the company I went on a tour with the previous day, is joining today to help out. Viestinn is a tall man with bright blue eyes and short curly hair, he speaks with a North American accent thanks to years of living in Canada going to school and working. Megan is average height and looks like a strong woman, she exudes personality when she talks. Viestinn and Megan joke around a lot and there is a constant playful banter back and forth between them.
We head off to catch the boat in a small town called Bolungarvík up the coast. The ride is quick. The rest of the group is already on the boat and once a quick head count is done we set off. At first the water is fairly calm, we’re in the protection of the fjords, but to get to Horn we need to go out from the protection and meet the wind and waves coming from the north west. Rounding the most western point the water gets much rougher and with no mountains to block the arctic wind the temperature drops dramatically. I didn’t dress nearly warm enough by judging the weather in Ísafjörður and I’m immediately freezing cold. My guide lends me a beanie and some mittens which make a lot of difference. I’m still cold but now I can sort of feel my finger tips. I’m anxious to get hiking and warm up. The rough water has us bouncing around a fair bit, and more than one passenger is sea sick. The ride is longer than normal as well because of the roughness.
Arriving we dinghy ashore and group up. The cold wind pierces my clothing and I’m shivering uncontrollably. Jeesus. The weather is completely different up here too. Instead of patches of sun there is a thick layer of low lying clouds. I wish I had known, the views here are supposed to be spectacular, but all I can see is clouds capping the cliffs. We set off pretty quickly to warm up, I’m probably the coldest, but everyone is chilly.
The hike is strenuous, it’s not at altitude like Bhutan, but the path is steep and difficult, and the days of rain have left the grass slippery and the path muddy. It’s a long ways down as our path angles it’s way up the steep side of one of these fjord mountains. The Fjords as it turns out are part of the oldest part of Iceland, but glaciers in the cold north have over several ice ages carved out there deep grooves.
We eventually make it to the top of the first cliff, we never even see it though we’re 10 feet away, our guide tells us not to go any further, there is a 900 ft drop ahead. The wind is whipping over the top of it quite fierce, and all of the heat I’d built up climbing up there gets sucked away in a second. The wind is coming from the pole. Gulli was right when he said we’d be just a few miles away, I saw the GPS on the boat and it said 66°29 north, and the Arctic Circle is at 66°33 north. More than a couple miles, but still damn close. When the stories are of polar bears coming into this bay, and we’re on the lookout for Arctic Foxes, I still think that this counts as making it to the arctic.
We unpack our lunches and eat them shivering. The wind is less a little ways down but still howling and chilling to the bone. I don’t really remember what my lunch tasted like. All I remember is a bit of egg. Viestinn luckily has an extra fleece in his pack and loans it to me. I’m clearly way unprepared for what today is. I guess I have a lack of experience compared to the Germans and Canadians in my group, I rarely see snow at all, and never have done much but enjoy it from inside with a hot chocolate. The fleece makes a huge difference and I’m pretty comfortable the rest of the hike.
Next up was a steep climb up this mountain in the middle of the peninsula. The path is just a set of foot holds cut into the side as we angle our way up. I’m wondering if it’s good or bad at this point that there is fog, I might have been more nervous if I could see how high we actually were. Exciting stuff! At this point I had put away the SLR and took out the point and shoot which I pretty much only used until we made it back to the boat. There was a bit too much of me being worried about breaking a lens or something. It’s also quite wet now, we’re in the cloud and the wind is pushing mist on us the entire time. My glasses are never clean for more than a second which makes it even harder to see. Oddly my transitios coating is dark too meaning UV is coming through, just not much light. We make it to the top, and what is supposed to be an amazing vista but all we see is cloud and the small island we’re standing on. It’s a shame. The tour was pretty expensive and all we really see is fog. Some Arctic Foxes join us though, we can see their form scurrying around the rocks. Megan, our American guide did some fox research (I can’t help make a joke about how she’s not Megan Fox but Fox Megan), and she does some fox calls and they stick around a bit curious. It’s impossible to get a picture though and they don’t come any closer.
We then made our way down the mountain with the help of a rope and along some really cool looking cliffs, I can make out their form just barely through the super dense fog. There are bird nests all along these cliffs, they’re the largest in Europe. Puffins and a few others are around. You can immediately tell the puffins at a distance without even seeing their beaks because they aren’t strong flyers and have to flap their wings furiously to stay afloat.
We then descend down to the sea passing a lake and several water falls. Finally we make it below the cloud layer and can see again. The rest of the hike now feels oddly like a dream. The houses down at the water where we wait are empty, abandoned now that the high season is over. We likely have the very last of these tours for just the reason why today didn’t work out as planned. I guess it’s not all that bad, I found it an interesting experience, though I’m very disappointed to not have seen the view. If I ever find myself going to Europe during June or July I might need to see if I can book my flight through Iceland and make a quick stop up here to try again. I hear during June it’s always sunny, but they call August Fogust.
We make a trip out to this camping site down the coast to burn time because we’re early with not stopping for photos, and it helps keep warm. So much exercise today. I have no idea how far or how much we’ve actually climbed, but I know it’s quite a lot. Even my fairly fit legs are feeling a bit fatigued and tight. My pants are soaked to the knee but all the layers keep me from getting wet. My shoes hold up amazingly. They’ve taken a real beating since May with the trip to Asia and now out here and are still perfectly water proof and seem just broken in, they were a great birthday gift from my parents.
Stiggy(name also butchered I’m sure), our water taxi captain finally arrives and we pile in the dinghy and get on board. Before we leave the bay Stiggy says there are fish, stops the boat and walks to the back carrying a rod and real. We all kind of chuckle and he sends a line overboard. No luck, but we head to this bird rock and again he throws his line overboard. In less than a minute he has one on the hook and hauls it aboard. He proclaims “too small!” and chucks it over his shoulder back into the water and casts again. Again immediately a bite, this time much bigger. He pulls his line aboard and this time both hooks have fish on them! He tosses them overboard as well. Then he hands the rod to this little Chinese-Canadian woman on our tour and she catches a fish too. She can hardly reel it in but eventually gets it on board with Stiggy’s help. Amazing.
The ride back was nice and calm. Everyone sat inside this time with little risk of sea sickness and got warmed up. You can tell everyone was tired, some people actually managing to fall asleep despite the inherent bumpiness. I ask Megan where’s the best place to get a lot of food cheap. She says tonight is all you can eat pizza night at the place next to the tour office where I had dinner the night before. We head there right away after getting back to town and order and beer and pizza. Megan invites me and Viestinn to join her with her friends and I’m happy to have company. As it turns out there is a Masters Program through the University of Akureyri out here, and they’re all foreign students with most everyone at the table from that program. It was a lot of fun and they made me feel at home. Gulli eventually walks in and has a seat at the table next to us. I have to say, I really like Ísafjörður as a town.