It’s almost 2pm when our tiny propeller plane passes over the glossy white mountains that mark Iceland’s northern coastline. I press my face to the cold glass to see the fjords below. They’re vast and undulating, full of intriguing nooks that seem to invite exploration.
But today, we’re leaving the sub-Arctic island of Iceland entirely. Soon, the plane banks, and the island of Grímsey comes into view. It’s even tinier than I’d imagined—a rocky outcrop, 39 km north of the mainland, that fits into one small cabin window, like a single comma in the North Atlantic.
At 1030 metres long, the airport’s runway is about 20% of the island’s length, but we still need to brake rapidly during our landing. As the door opens, we immediately feel a chill in the air. Grímsey sits at the threshold of the Arctic Circle, and although it’s not far from the mainland, the difference is tangible.
We’re greeted by Ragnheiður, also known as Grímsey’s own “Lady Gagga.” She’s the owner of Guesthouse Básar, and also works at the airport, amongst other things. With her is Anna María, who owns Gullsól, the other guesthouse on the island. “You can stay in either,” laughs Gagga. “There’s no competition, don’t worry!” We opt for Gullsól, and Anna packs us into her 4×4 for a tour of the island—or, at least, the portion with roads. “You came at a good time,” she says. “The puffins arrived yesterday.”
Within minutes, we’re bouncing along a coastal track next to some sheer cliffs. “There they are!” says Anna, and sure enough, we see not one, but hundreds of bright-billed puffins, diving from the clifftop as we approach. “The newspapers like to write about them coming back,” says Anna, “so we keep a lookout. We hunt them, too—there’s been some debate about stopping, because it upsets the tourists. But it’s a big part of the island’s tradition.”
The lighthouse keeper
We cruise through Sandvík, Grímsey’s only town. Its two streets hold a gas-powered electricity plant that chugs 24/7, a tiny store, a cafe that’s still closed for winter, and a school that also acts as a community centre. We don’t see a single person. “There are only about thirty people on the island right now,” says Anna. “A lot of the fisherman are out at sea.”
At the end of the road is the island’s lighthouse. Anna’s father, Bjarni, is the lighthouse keeper, like his father before him. “The guest book goes back to the 1930s,” says Bjarni, as his daughter translates. “You used to have to pay half a króna to come inside, which was quite a lot back then.” I sign the book, and leaf through the pages, watching the gradual deterioration from the pristine, slanted penmanship of the 20th century into the messy handwriting of the 90s and 00s, and, finally, my own scrawled name.
Bjarni fires up the light array, and we climb a ladder to see the view, warmed by the powerful revolving bulbs. I’d imagined from maps that Grímsey would be far from the mainland, but in reality, the entire southern horizon is a magnificent vista of Iceland’s snowy northern coastline, glowing a gentle pink as evening approaches.
To the end
The next morning, after a night of aurora made brighter by the lack of light pollution, we set out to hike the island. Grímsey’s southern coast is lined by spectacular basalt cliffs. The geometric pillars have eroded over time to form a staircase down to sea level, where the columns flatten out into a natural hexagonally-tiled floor.
After a heavy-going hike up the rugged heathland and high cliffs of the east coast, we cut across the island, past a frozen lake in its centre—one of Grímsey’s four freshwater springs. The west coast has, for the most part, well marked paths. Through a rusted farm gate, we pass through a herd of Icelandic horses and arrive at the towering cliffside of Básavík bay. A roughly-hewn wooden seat—like a humble throne, somehow—overlooks the crashing sea, far below. The slowness of Grímsey life is easy to adapt to, and as I sit watching gulls hang on the wind against the curved horizon, I drift into half-sleep, feeling the earth turn beneath me.
The island ends without ceremony, its northernmost tip marked by a pile of rocks with a metal bar jammed into the centre. There’s nothing between this point and the North Pole, except for Kolbeinsey, a rapidly deteriorating islet that’ll soon be gone completely. We rest in an wind-eroded sandbowl, scattered with tiny bird bones. Up here, the pyramids of tough grass have been clawed flat by the biting wind. I shiver, pulling up my hood and sipping hot coffee from a thermos, imagining a time when this wild island might be blown from the map, too. The waves crash, the birds shriek, and after a final glance towards the Arctic, we start the walk back to Sandvík.