Lumpfish Life: Growing Up In A Remote Fishing Village

Lumpfish Life: Growing Up In A Remote Fishing Village

Ragna Guðmundsdóttir
Photos by
Ragna Guðmundsdóttir
Guðmundur Guðmundsson

An amusing interaction in a Facebook group caught my attention the other day. A small-town resident wanted to order pizza. Seeing a mass order as her only chance to get the pizzeria to deliver, she rallied her townsmen. Together they put in their order. But the understaffed pizzeria wouldn’t budge. Finally, someone in the group was able to make arrangements to go pick up the pizzas and distribute them to the rest. She got her pizza. But, you’re probably wondering, why all this fuss about ordering pizza?

These people are amongst the 60 or so residents of Drangsnes, a small fishing village in the remote region of Strandir. The closest pizzeria is located in Hólmavík, a slightly larger town populated by 337 people. Fifteen years ago, nobody would even have thought of ordering pizza from Hólmavík—it would have taken almost two hours on an unpaved road to make the trip there and back. Fifteen years ago, if you wanted a pizza in Drangsnes, you simply made it yourself—at least that’s what my friends and I did, growing up there in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Drangsnes in numbers
  • 71: people (including a few who are registered, but don’t actually live there)
  • 30: kilometres to the nearest town (Hólmavík)
  • 5: streets
  • 33: residential homes (including 9 summerhouses)
  • 1: swimming pool
  • 260: kilometres from Reykjavík

I arrived there from India with my adoptive parents at eight months old, the first adopted resident of Drangsnes, to my knowledge. I’m told that I was adored from the start, but then new babies tend to cause excitement in small places. I rarely noticed that I was a little different. I had a complete sense of belonging to this tiny place and its people. Icelanders, especially those from the countryside, often attach much of their identity to their place of upbringing—and so do I. People sometimes ask me where I’m from, and though I know they’re usually wondering about my foreign roots, my first instinct is always to say:

“I am from Drangsnes.”

The fishing village was founded in 1930s. With the ocean proving fruitful, the municipality built a fish processing plant and an elementary school in the 40s, which both remain central to today’s community. Unregulated fishing allowed the population to prosper and at its most flourishing period to date, the 1950s, about 300 people inhabited the village. But the population has fluctuated along with the stock of cod, prawn and other fish, upon which the local economy is dependent. More recently, Iceland’s quota system, which was introduced in the 1980s, has also made it difficult for local fishermen to compete with larger fisheries. How can a one-man company with a single five-tonne boat compete with a company that has dozens of employees and a fleet of hundred-tonne trawlers?

drangsnes_harbour

Of course, such matters didn’t concern me. I was just enjoying the privileges of growing up in my tiny hometown.

In a community this small, it’s inevitable that everyone knows everyone, and in my experience they are there for you when you need support. In Reykjavík, I hardly know the names of my next-door neighbours, whereas in Drangsnes I know every villager by name, and three quarters of them are my relatives. Children have the freedom to be outside on their own, without anyone worrying too much about them, even after dark.

Some of my best childhood memories are of the outdoors, exploring the shorelines, the moors, and my grandparents’ farmland or soaking in the hot tubs. Children of all ages played together outside. Since there were often only one or two kids born in the same year, it seemed natural to us that the fourteen-year-olds would play with the seven-year-olds, and so on.

In elementary school we also all played together during recess. The school typically has fifteen to twenty students— divided into three classes—and three to five teachers. This student-teacher ratio enables the teachers to tend to each student individually and to be creative in their teaching. For example, the well-known musician Borkó has taught at the school for several years and now all the kids are talented instrumentalists. In my school years, other teachers sparked my interest in creative writing. One of them was also my best friend’s mother, who was like a second mother to me, encouraging my creativity both in and outside of school.

It was probably weird for my friend to call her teacher ”Mom” and to always be with her at work, but then again, in a community like this, parents and children don’t live separate lives and children often start participating in their parents’ occupation at a young age. As a little girl, I could think of nothing more fun than going to the pier when my dad came from sea to unload his catch from the boat, or tagging along to salt lumpfish roes or hang up lumpfish for drying—Lumpfish, an exceptionally ugly fish, that happens to be a local speciality. We even have a saying, “Lífið er grásleppa” (“Life is a lumpfish”).

Life at sea is not a walk in the park

In the summer of 2005, at the age of fifteen, I started going to sea with my dad, and that became my summer job for the next decade.

On a typical day at sea, I wake up between three and five in the morning and drive to the harbour, which is two kilometres away because the village is too windy for a good harbour. Then we sail for up to three hours, looking for good fishing spots with an echo sounder. When we find a good spot, we lower a line with several hooks into the sea. The reels automatically detect when the fish bite, and when that happens we start reeling them in. We then unhook the fish and bleed them before sorting them into containers by size. Sound easy? If so, you’re underestimating the strength of a codfish. The workday can last from one to fourteen hours.

Life at sea is colourful and the phrase ”cursing like a sailor” always makes perfect sense there. I’ve had many memorable experiences at sea. Once a whale started nosing around the boat, startling me to a scream. Dad mocked me. When the whale surfaced again with a huge blow, dad screeched. Sweet vindication. A less funny incident occurred when dad decided to sail halfway to Greenland (ok, maybe not, but unusually far from land) because he’d heard of some good spot and the boat started leaking. Poor dad had some serious second thoughts about bringing his only daughter to sea ever again.

Fishing communities in decline

Today I mostly watch daily life at Drangsnes through Facebook. Social media has given small-town comradeship a new dimension, as people use it to ask for assistance, share information and resources, and order pizza. But the community is endangered as young people—such as myself—leave for college, many only returning as visitors or summer workers.

Fishing communities like Drangsnes are in decline, partly because government policies tend to favour larger fisheries over smaller ones, and partly because young people seem less interested in the fishery sector. But perhaps the rise in tourism will be the solution to keeping these places populated, as tourists are increasingly looking for peaceful remote places. In any case, I really hope there will be a move to save these communities from extinction so that people will be able to experience this way of living.

How to get there:
Head to the Westfjords! Go through Búðardalur, turn right at Þröskuldar, and follow route 645 all the way to Drangsnes

View towards Grímsey – and the swimming pool which was constructed in 2005.

How Drangsnes got its name:

Long ago, three night trolls set out to separate the Westfjords from Iceland, for the purposes of starting a troll colony. For fun, they decided to compete against each other to see who could dig faster. Two of the trolls started in Breiðafjörður Bay while the third, a hag, went to Steingrímsfjörður with her ox. The two trolls to the west created numerous islands but the hag’s terrain was tougher. As dawn approached, the two trolls fled to Kollafjörður for shelter, but they were too late and turned to stone before making it there. When the hag realised what was happening and that she hadn’t even made a single island, she furiously rammed her shovel into the ground, splitting a piece from the land, creating Grímsey island. The petrified hag still stands and watches the island along with her petrified ox. Drangsnes is named after the hag, ”drangur” referring to an upright boulder.

The Hag

The Hag

Top five things to do in Drangsnes

  1. Go to the hot tubs – Discovering a geothermal energy source in 1997, the locals were quick to fill up some tubs to soak in. This is simply a must!
  2. Visit Grímsey – This island is home to huge colonies of sea birds, including adorable puffins.
  3. Go fishing – Sea angling is an exhilarating experience and it comes with the chance of seeing whales.
  4. Eat some lumpfish – Lumpfish is processed in two different ways: the female fish is half-dried and the male smoked.
  5. Pick wild berries – In autumn, the region is rich with crowberries and the juiciest bilberries.

This article originally appeared in issue 04, 2015, as “”Life is a lumpfish” – Growing up in a remote fishing village”. Read the print edition HERE, or find your copy all over Iceland.