Monday, March 07, 2016

Mondays in Iceland - #52

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This weekend was so full of activity that I don’t think it has caught up with my mind yet. It was full of colors, massive amounts of Icelandic input, and the gritty Icelandic landscape.

Yesterday we spent the day on Snæfellsnes with a friend (S) whose family has been in the area for generations. His grandfather (the oldest man alive in Iceland, over a hundred years old) bought the land in the 1920s and it has been part of the family since then. The land lies on the edge of Breiðafjörður, a hammer-shaped fjord that separates Snæfellsnes from the lower portion of the West Fjords. It is dotted with islands of various sizes and was apparently a pretty great place to live hundreds of years ago since it was one of the few places you could always find something to eat and didn’t starve.

The intention of our mission was to catch fish, but this late in the year we weren’t sure there were going to be any. This plot of land is well-suited for it, with two rivers of different temperatures joining together before flowing into the fjord. We suited up in all the warm clothes we had, plus some borrowed shin-high rubber boots, and set out across the hummocky grass to the sheep fence. S said, “here is your first obstacle” as we toed our way over the barbed wire.

The second obstacle came soon after as we started wading across various bends in the river, the mud sucking at our boots. At one point the water was too deep for our boots, so S, fully suited in waders, had to piggy-back both of us across. Our destination was a bend in the river where apparently the fish like to sleep behind the rocks. We baited with mackerel and gave it a try, but no success was to be had. The point of the trip seemed mostly about the location though, as we stood below the snow-covered spine of Snæfellsnes with the sun filtering through the clouds. I realized that it was the first time in months, if not years, that I had been somewhere that it was impossible to hear a single car. We were far enough from the road that the once-hourly (if that) car was inaudible, and there are no distant highways in Iceland that can be heard from miles away. The most amazing thing about this is that it is only 2 hours away from where J and I live.

We then adjourned for lunch in the family summerhouse that had been built a few decades ago from the wood used to build car shipping crates. After lunch, we tried a different location for the fish, and I decided to go for a hike out to the waterfall S had said was nearby. I had to first climb the hill up to the sheep pasture, through the wild blueberries, the red berries S said were called “mouseberries” and the waist-high grass the color of wheat. I climbed a few more fences and happened upon a pair of surprised sheep as I wallowed through the hummocks. The land oozed with water, so between some of the mounds of land I could hear the gurgling of narrow brooks (sprækur eins og lækur) that came straight from the ground.

I followed the sound of the waterfall across more pasture, before I came to the edge of the gorge. There was a separate fish-ladder on one side, and the cliffs were covered with more red blueberry bushes and tiny birches whose leaves were turning orange. Birds swooped across the gap and in the distance I could see the snow-covered mountains and the sprinkled islands in the fjord. When I returned from my walk, S and J had still caught no fish, so we walked down along the river to where the rocks were covered in seaweed and mussel shells and the high-tide mark was visible on the rocks.

The tide was fully out, so the three of us set out across the muddy tidal flats, strewn with kelp and snail trails. S told us stories of the islands in the fjord, but his words were snatched from his mouth by the fierce wind that had been blowing straight from the north all day. We skirted one island and caught a glimpse of our goal, a haphazardly tilted shipwreck the next island over. It had been abandoned there some decades ago by the owner since the boat was worthless even as scrap metal by then. The ravages of the saltwater were evident on the hull, which must have once been as tidy as some of the ships I’ve been seeing in the shipyard in Reykjavík. Now it was deep rust-red, and flaking apart in sheets off the surface of the boat.

A rope was hung over the side so we hoisted ourselves up onto the deck, which was pitched at more than a 45-degree angle. By this time the sun was below the horizon so the wind felt even more chill as we leaned on this abandoned boat, unprotected in the middle of an enormous fjord. As we walked back across the tide-drained landscape, I had a newfound respect for the people that had lived here for so many centuries before. I had spent a whole day out fighting the wind, and I had had the benefit of modern clothing technology with my Goretex, my polypropylene, my (borrowed) well-sealed rubber boots. I also could look forward to a well-sealed, well-heated, bright house, plentiful food, and a hot shower. How must it have been to be out in this weather wearing clothing that probably never dried fully in the unpredictable weather of this land? What was it like to spend the whole day outside fighting to find food, only to look forward to a dark sod house at night? It’s no wonder people here are so unfazed by the weather and strangely proud of the peculiar national delicacies like hákarl. I have to also say that in a field test (yesterday) I also have concluded that the Icelandic wool was one of the other secrets of their success. The hat I made last year in Boston (from wool I had bought here) served me proudly.

By ECS.  First posted October 10, 2005, used by permission.

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By Professor Batty


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