There is no shortage of places in Iceland that are off the beaten track—some are just more off the track than others. Take Vopnafjörður, for example. A village of about 700 people on the northeast coast of Iceland, travellers on the Ring Road will likely miss it entirely. Getting there by car involves a rather long trek off the main highway and over the mountains through a narrow, winding pass. Or, you can take a plane from Reykjavík to Akureyri, and then a 19-seater Twin Otter prop plane that will have you singing “Peggy Sue” all the way over.
Upon arrival, our photographer Natsha and I were greeted by Magnús, an incredibly gregarious and eager guide who would accompany us every step of the way. Driving from the airstrip into the village, the smallness of Vopnafjörður is perhaps exaggerated by the sheer size of the fjord upon which it rests. Even in the dense fog, you can tell you’re in the middle of a vast, wide-open valley that evokes something closer to the Wild West than the Settlement Era.
Not so bad-ass after all?
The first question I had on my mind was: how did Vopnafjörður get its name? Meaning literally “weapons’ fjord,” which is indisputably a bad-ass name for a village, I supposed that it had at one point been a centre of sword and spear production back in ye olde Viking days.
“It’s named after Eyvindur Vopni,” Magnús said.
Oh, so it was named after some bloodthirsty, heavily armed Nordic settler who earned this nickname through his blast furnace temper and array of readily available weapons?
“No, I don’t think so. I believe Vopni was actually his family name. I think there are a few still living in Iceland.”
Undeterred by reality’s uncanny ability to disappoint, we pressed onwards. The first thing Magnús wanted to show us was the primary school which, I discovered, is at the very least on par with, if not exceeding, the quality of schools I normally see in the capital area. One feature that stood out to me, though, were the recycling bins in the halls of the school. Children as young as six are being taught to sort between paper, plastic and cans.
Now, this might very well be the case for other schools in Iceland. Certainly, municipalities around the country have varying levels of green-ness. But Vopnafjörður, I discovered, has a history of environmentalism that goes from the Middle Ages to present day.
Waste not, etc.
An example of this would have to be HB Grandi, the fish factory that looms over the harbour. In terms of direct employment and the involvement of surrounding businesses, this company employs about half the village. Our tour began with a look at the process of making fishmeal. Sveinbjörn, the on-site shift manager, took us down to the control room to show us how this stuff is made.
I’m normally not very fascinated by modern industry of any sort, but as this man explained how waste water is used for the heating of different tanks, how the air is re-circulated and recycled, how every scrap of by-product is used in some way, I have to admit I was impressed. Fish factories are not known for being tremendous polluters, but they’re not exactly the first thing that springs to mind when you think of “green” industries. In this case, though, Sveinbjörn was proud and passionate about the pains the company had taken to avoid wasting anything, and to keep the surrounding water and air as clean as possible. Was this a part of the town’s cultural heritage?
It seems that might very well be the case. When we visited the village’s cultural museum, Ágústa (originally from Reykjavík, but a resident of the village for the past 40 years), talked to us about the town’s history. When I asked what was the most significant event in the town’s history, her answer was immediate:
“It was when we got our first trawler,” she explained. Before then, all work was seasonal. You never knew where your money was going to come from, and so everything had to be scrimped and saved. With the arrival of a trawler, people could now work year round. They began to put time into fixing up their homes, making gardens and so forth. Indeed, Magnús chimed in that the arrival of HB Grandi had had much the same effect.
They still remember
The following day, we drove out to the Bustafell, a wonderfully preserved turf house farm farther into the valley. Björg, our guide for the early morning tour, had grown up on this farm, and her family had lived on this land since the mid-1500s. As she showed us the various rooms, kitchen and farm implements and their uses over the ages, she made a salient point about environmentalism and necessity:
“I think it’s great that people are starting to think again about re-using things,” she said. “In the old days, everything was used. Even the ashes from the hearth were used, to clean floors or let the chickens have a dust bath, for example. When life is as hard as it was back then, you simply couldn’t throw anything away.”
After saying our goodbyes and being driven to the airport, I considered that our modern life has only seemed to have given us the luxury of being able to waste, to throw things away that could still be used. In reality, of course, we only hurt ourselves in the long run by practising this lifestyle, however easy it may be to forget that. In Vopnafjörður, at least, it seems they haven’t forgotten this at all.
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