Jul 11 2019

The Birds

Published by at 7:57 am under Travel

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Did you know that “Iceland” in Icelandic is “Ísland”?

At 8:00 sharp this morning when they opened, Molly was in communication with Wild Westfjords, the leader of our canceled trip, hoping to find an alternative activity for the day. They offered another hike, this one with less elevation gain but double the distance. Since Molly had been seeking cliffs, and I, something easy, we opted instead for a three-hour trip to the small island of Vigur half an hour from the Ísafjörður harbor.

Our Café, Name of “Heimabyggð”

Coffee and muesli in the café beneath our apartment (and the use of their functioning potty).

Wandered around town, first to the three-story Maritime Museum down by the water.

It featured all kinds of life-in-Iceland exhibits: a stuffed polar bear, squid and fish hooks, an old diving suit, stacks of salted dry cod (it lasts forever) and explanations of flora and fauna in the region.

Then we walked back down the main street to the Museum of Everyday Life, with several oral history themes, including the stories of immigrants to Iceland and life in the Westfjords over the past 50 or so years. One display was of various shoes on a wall, each with an audio track that explained where the boots and high heels and sneakers and sandals had been. On another wall were mounted a number of old books in Icelandic. On the inside cover of each was pasted a photograph, and on the following page, a story associated with the picture, first in Icelandic and then English.

We also watched a 20-minute documentary that included a section about the commercialization and marketing of the northern lights in Iceland, something I’d never thought about.

On our walk, we bumped into Gunnar, the host of our AirBnB, who had a toilet update for us: a part was being brought in from Reykjavík on the evening flight. So maybe we’d have a working toilet before we check out tomorrow.

At 1:30 we made our way to the pier to board the boat for Vigur (meaning spear, for its long, narrow shape). The only thing on the privately owned island is a single farm inhabited by just two people (the farmer and his wife) where until recently they raised sheep. Now their livelihood is gathering and processing eiderdown (and of course, these tourist visits also help), which is lucrative but time-intensive. In springtime after their eggs have hatched, the eider duck plucks down from its own chest and lines the nest with it, to keep the babies warm. Once a week the farmer gathers a small amount of down, leaving enough to keep the chicks safe and cozy. Then, once the young’uns are big enough, the birds abandon the nest forever, leaving the farmer free to grab the rest of the down. And then the preparation is arduous, involving many steps of cleaning and refining, and is done in small batches.

View of the Farm

We met our group, about twenty of us, at the dock and crammed into a motorboat that just barely fit us all, cozily. Though it was windy and rainy (and cold and heavily misty), the ride across the Ísafjarðardjúp Bay was only a little bumpy. We sat next to a couple from Melbourne who had had better luck than we at Hornstrandir, having just done a three-day trek through there. The Westfjords receives only ten percent of Iceland’s visitors because of its remoteness and wildness, and thus seems to attract people who are far more adventuresome and agreeable than on the main tourist circuits.

We first looked at a quaint little windmill that I didn’t get a picture of, because I was struggling to put a rain cover on my backpack (it started to rain heavily as soon as we stepped off the boat) and the group had moved on by the time I succeeded. Also, I was being dive-bombed by Arctic terns. You see, we were passing through their nesting grounds (where we could see a few of their tiny, fluffy mottled brown chicks staggering their tiny way through the tall grass). They’re aggressive birds to begin with, but in this place during the season for rearing their young, they’re downright pugnacious. Or is bellicose the better word? Our guide, Lisa, advised us each to pick up a red-tipped wooden stick, to carry as a decoy above our heads so that the birds would peck it and not us. It worked for most people. Me? Twice I got nailed by a sharp beak to my bean. It was creepy to see scores of angry birds circling and diving and squawking, reminiscent of course of Hitchcock.

That reminds me: on our drive through the west, we kept encountering this orange road sign:

I interpreted it as Watch out! You’re about to be dive-bombed. In fact, it translates to Warning: low-flying birds.

Anyway… around the corner, lo and behold, we saw a bunch of puffins!! I had wanted to put on my close-up lens, but again, the other travelers didn’t stop long enough for me to do so. I do get frustrated on tours because I’m not able to manage my own time.

Wait: I’ll zoom in on this. Here ya go:

Puffins don’t have hollow bones like other birds. They’re such fat, heavy little things that they have to beat their wings extra-fast to stay aloft. They nest in holes in the ground, creating a separate one as their potty. If you look carefully at this next picture, you can see the nesting holes in the grassy hillside. Puffins mate for life, and always return to their same nests year after year during their twenty-year lifespan.

At the end of our circumnavigation of the island, we stopped at a big dining room near the farmhouse for cheese, bread, sweets and coffee. We sat next to a friendly couple from Reykjavík who told us that if we wanted to see what Icelanders were really like, we should soak at one of the geothermally heated swimming pools in the capitol: a popular activity for natives.

On the return boat ride, we were joined by yet another fun couple, the woman a political science professor from Queens who was a riot. Half an hour later, at about 5:15, we came ashore and walked over to the Dokkan microbrewery near the docks, but it was too crowded. So we went to the nearby Vínbúðin to buy a couple beers, this time the third microbrew I’ve tried: Einstök Icelandic Arctic Pale Ale. Perfectly acceptable.

For our last act, we got to Tjöruhúsið in time for our 7:00 reservation. It’s a popular restaurant (we couldn’t get in last night) by the water that serves a set menu of half a dozen kinds of daily-caught fish. It’s family-style seating so, as earlier in the day, we hung with some fun people, three of whom had been on the boat with us. There was another guy from Melbourne, a German, a Norwegian-Icelander, a couple of Americans who lived in Scotland, and us.

The restaurant served fish soup to start, and then fish stew (cream sauce), halibut, trout, plaice, cod, char, and salad and potatoes. By the way, I won’t eat halibut, ever since I saw a parasite wiggle its white-wormy way out of a piece that I was cubing several years back. When I took the hunk of fish back to the butcher, he assured me that this wasn’t an anomaly; halibut’s often like that. I’ve heard it’s because they’re bottom-feeders but that could be oh-so-wrong.

Returned to our apartment at 10:00 p.m. to find the toilet working, though I didn’t quite trust it. Packed up for tomorrow morning’s flight. Our taxi is due here at 8:15 for a 9:00 flight. I’ve been assured that’s ample time.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “The Birds”

  1. Molly says:

    Would you like my windmill pictures? I have several.

    Your puffin photo is so clear once zoomed! Wow.

  2. Anna and Frank Reynolds says:


    I have really enjoyed reading about your adventure.
    I think one of my favorites was learning about the Eider Ducks and their use of the down.
    And then the photos of you and Molly fighting off the birds with sticks.
    The waterfall photos were so dynamic ! They made me wish I had been there with you and Molly.
    You are such a good writer, especially when you told of the faulty toilet, flat tire and the scary tunnel in a humorous way.
    Thanks for sharing your adventure with Frank and I. We really enjoyed it.
    It made us want to get on a plane and fly off to another country.

    Anna and Frank
    PS Frank was so envious of you hanging out with the Puffins.

  3. Syd says:

    What Anna said! Yup, you are not only a keen observer, exquisite travel buddy, and insightful woman, your knack for describing terror in such a way as to dispel its power is so remarkable. So I am marking upon that. Again.

  4. Elise laird says:

    You documented your trip beautifully…sorry you did not have time to take the pics that you would have liked. They would have been amazing…yes, birds are fierce when protecting their nests. I got beaned by a hawk once…lucky I was wearing a hat, but I had to carry a stick from that day forward…not too fun. Still not sure what the meaning of Hitchcock’s film, but it still scares me today to see birds lining up on telephone lines! lol.

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