Finding True Iceland Up North: The Sagas Of Skagafjörður, A Siglufjörður Gold Rush, Húsavík Whales

Finding True Iceland Up North: The Sagas Of Skagafjörður, A Siglufjörður Gold Rush, Húsavík Whales

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There are many ways to get to the North from dear old Reykjavík. One entails flying, which provides an impressive view of the mountains as you close in on Eyjafjörður. Another way would be renting a car, which might be the cheapest one if others are pitching in. However, for our purposes, we’ll settle for the bus.

By the time you arrive at the Mjódd bus station in Breiðholt, it already feels like the edge of civilization, and your journey is just beginning. There are many stops on the way. Some people get off at Mt. Esja to go hiking, others stick it out all the way to Borgarnes where the famous poet and plunderer Egill Skallagrímsson lived. I, however, sit it out until I arrive in Skagafjörður.

The biggest town in the fjord is called Sauðárkrókur, “Krókurinn” for short. At least two remarkable works of Icelandic literature are set here. One is the famous Grettis Saga, about an 11th century outlaw who was eventually slain in Drangey. Both sides of the fjord offer a clear view of the impressive island where Grettir the Strong hid for many a year, and those who want to follow in his footsteps can enjoy a dip in Grettislaug, where the man himself purportedly liked to unwind. The island is accessible by boat, but the true fan will not settle for anything less than swimming the seven-kilometre distance from the mainland. Sixteen people are recorded to have done this so far, including the progenitor, Grettir.

Born in America, brought to Skagafjörður

The second notable work of literature to be set in this area was released in 2005 and details the misadventures of Böddi, an alcoholic schoolteacher who sees himself as a latter-day Grettir. Writer Hallgrímur Helgason went left his comfort zone in 101 Reykjavík to write ‘Rokland’, a book which in many ways captures the Iceland of the boom years. The film version premiered right after the economic collapse, and together the two tell the story of their times. A scene is set in Grettislaug, but a trip to the hotel bar would probably be more apt for those seeking to walk in Böddi’s footsteps.

Other stories connected to the area are the Vinland Sagas, which tell of the time Icelanders found North America and then, as Oscar Wilde supposedly said, had the good sense to lose it again. But the story does not end there. Þorfinnur and Guðríður, the parents of the first European born in North America, moved to Skagafjörður around the year 1007 and settled in a farm they called Glaumbær. Their son Snorri subsequently took over—a monument to him and his mother can be found here. One can also visit the rather impressive turf farm that was home to his descendants and many an important local lord, although the farm itself is from a somewhat later date, around 200 years ago.

Gudrunogsnorri

Every year, select young Canadians and Americans of Icelandic descent take part in the Snorri program, which allows them to spend the summer in their ancestral homeland. To most European medieval enthusiasts, the name Snorri conjures images of the great Saga writer Snorri Sturluson, but the program is named after this Snorri, the one who was born in America but grew up in Iceland. It would take almost 800 years until Icelanders rediscovered North America.

The King in the North

On the other side of the fjord, the tiny village of Hofsós commemorates the ones who did. Almost 20,000 Icelanders left for North America in the late 1800s, settling in Manitoba, North Dakota and other places. Their history is recounted in the Icelandic Emigration Centre, in exhibits that span three buildings.

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One more point of interest in Skagafjörður is Hólar, where the bishops of the North dwelled until 1798 (yes, the Northerners had to have their own bishop, separate from the rest of Iceland). The most notable resident was Jón Arason, Iceland’s last Catholic bishop, who was executed in 1550. This was partly for religious reasons but mostly to teach the Northerners that their lot in life is to be ruled from the South, a lesson they still stubbornly refuse to learn. Jón the bishop was brought down South for his beheading, his body being sent back up North after. You can visit him in the church there, if you must.

Before heading over to what they like to call “The Capital of the North,” Akureyri, it is worth continuing up Tröllaskagi (“the Giant’s Peninsula”) to visit scenic Siglufjörður, a town almost laid to waste in 1968, not by bands of marauding hippies (as one might expect by the date) but rather by the disappearance of herring stocks from the surrounding waters. In Siglufjörður, they have everything you always wanted to know about herring, but were afraid to ask.

After the Gold Rush

In between the profiteering of World War II and the banking bubble of the early 2000s, the biggest gold rush in Iceland’s history was driven by herring. In Siglufjörður, it actually started in 1903, and—as with so many of the small towns dotted along the coastline—it was the Norwegians who first set up fisheries that would drive it.

Modernity arrived late in Iceland, but when it did, it came with a splash (and then a crash). People flocked to Siglufjörður from all over to salt herring into barrels, which was a relatively well-paid job that at times accounted for up to 20% of Iceland’s GNP. Then, in 1968, the so-called “Silver of the Ocean” suddenly vanished. The people left, too: Siglufjörður’s current population stands at around 1200, less than half of what it used to be. Today, the town is participating in the latest boom, tourism, sporting a brand new hotel and attractive harbourside restaurants.

The herring era is commemorated in Siglufjörður every year with a huge pissup over Merchant’s Weekend during the first weekend of August, and at The Herring Era Museum, which proudly displays a full-size fishing boat. It is surely one of Iceland’s better museums, even for the non-herring enthusiast.

A Herring Museum ticket will also admit you to Siglufjörður’s Folk Music Centre, which is certainly worth a visit. For the longest time, the only instruments found on the island were the Icelandic fiddle and the langspil, both of which slightly resemble a poor man’s steel guitar. Actual guitars were introduced in the late 1800s, and as in the Old West, playing it was a woman’s job (Johnny Cash, for one, learnt how to play guitar from his mother). Indeed, even today, the basic chords are referred to as “vinnukonugrip,” Icelandic for “Working Woman’s Chords.”

If you’re particularly lucky, you’ll find one Hildur Heimis manning the centre’s reception desk, a young girl from Reykjavík who currently resides in Texas, but works here over the summer. She is a member of the band Duo Svanni and will happily play any and all of the centre’s numerous instruments for your enjoyment. You can even practice singing along to if you like.

Whales, sails and a touch of seasickness

Skipping Akureyri for now (we’ll get there, eventually), we instead head over to Húsavík. As everyone knows, Húsavík is known primarily for whales. While the town’s Whale Museum makes for an impressive visit, the jewels in Húsavík’s crown are the whale watching tours, often referred to as the best you’ll find in the country. North Sailing is one of the companies that offers trips, and—unlike the floating bars that take you out from Reykjavík—they conduct their whale watching trips on old-timey sailboats. The trip takes about three hours, and while there is no guarantee of whale sightings, they do claim a 90 percent success rate.

In fact, much excitement comes from the hunt itself, as you scout the horizon in search of a fin, as if playing a particularly tricky game of “I spy.” Our excellent tour guide shouts out which direction to look in, sadly refraining from shouting “Thar she blows!” The blue whale season is in early summer, and the humpbacks come out in force in early autumn, so us early August visitors must make do with spotting a couple of minke whales. Only the fins and backsiders stick out, making them look more like dolphins than giants of the deep, but when one comes close enough it sure is an impressive sight.

Romantic Vopnafjörður

There is nothing like a burger at Baukurinn after a hard days’s whale watching, before heading on eastwards. The coastal route is probably more scenic, but we take the ring road directly to Vopnafjörður. Even inland, the scenery changes rapidly, from green hills to black desert to grey fog.

As we emerge out the other end, we are warmly welcomed by one Jósep Jósepsson. He is just the kind of local you want to show you around, the sort that knows the history of every building and which epic battle from which Saga took place where. As it is raining (it often is up here), we decide to tour the local museums. Burstarfell flaunts an upscale turf house, in use until the late 1960s. Some of the family members are to be found in the nearby cemetery, which also has a monument to ‘Vopnfirðinga Saga’, which—as the name implies—was set here.

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There is also a museum dedicated to songwriter brothers Jón Múli and Jónas Árnason, who are directly responsible for many a ditty that every Icelander knows by heart and will hum to him- or herself every now and again. Vopnafjörður also hosts a small centre dedicated to the people who left from here to the Americas in the 1800s, since Vopnafjörður housed one of the biggest harbours back then.

Today, one of Vopnafjörður’s main employers is the HB Grandi fish processing plant, and we are offered a tour of the facilities. One’s view of freezehouses is usually informed by places like the Herring Museum, along with the numerous songs that have been written about working the fishing industry grind, so it is interesting to see the almost fully automated modern-day version operate, and observe the free food and lounge that are meant for the employees.

Truth be told, it doesn’t look bad for a workplace. Then again, it probably won’t inspire many romantic songs, either.

How to get there: Ring road 1 lies directly through Skagafjörður, via Varmahlíð, from which it is only a 25min drive to Sauðárkrókur, and ~40min drive to Hólar or Hofsós. It takes around 3 and a half hours to drive the 285 km from Reykjavík to Varmahlíð.

Looking to make a Akureyri-Kjölur-Reykjavík trip?
Bus trip provided by SBA-Norðurleið
Looking For a Whale Watching tour?
Tour provided by North Sailing