At The Speed Of Birds: The Eyris And Eyries Of The Westfjords

At The Speed Of Birds: The Eyris And Eyries Of The Westfjords

angela rawlings
Photo by
John Rogers & a rawlings

The car is running on fumes as we emerge from the belly of the mountain, driving north out of a long single-lane tunnel into the Westfjords’ picturesque Súgandafjörður. As the road winds down the west bank, kittiwakes and fulmars glide alongside us. We follow the birds. A rainbow paints the fjord’s mouth as birds and car slow into the quaint fishing village of Suðureyri.

With a population of just 300 people, Suðureyri offers a firsthand experience of an environmentally engaged community in an isolated fjord. The village marina holds an international eco-label Blue Flag for its sustainable environmental management. Suðureyri’s local school is one of two internationally recognised eco-schools in the Westfjords, awarded a Green Flag by the Foundation for Environmental Education.

This village haven immerses the visitor immediately in the homely comfort of a rural community aware of its interdependence with the ecosystem. The swimming pool is nestled at the foot of Breiðafjall, offering a welcome opportunity to contemplate the mountain. After our morning soak and mountain meditation, the pool’s manager, Ívar, recommends plokkfiskur at Fisherman Café. We head there next.

Fisherman is a major attraction for Westfjords authenticity and environmental education done well. The ambitious establishment offers accommodation, a café, a restaurant and a gourmet seafood tour to experience local practices. By the end of our meal, we are on a first-name basis with Viktoria, our café hostess, who shows us the plokkfiskur recipe on proud display. Suðureyri proves a warm welcome to Westfjords hospitality.

Star-crossed plovers

After our soak and bite, it’s time to fly to our next post. Suðureyri’s only gas pump is permanently closed, so we weigh our options and opt to continue towards Flateyri rather than backtracking to Ísafjörður to refuel. We tunnel into the mountain again, driving south and west for dark kilometres until we emerge to overlook Önundarfjörður. The valley stretches far below, with the North Atlantic strung by an unexpected white-sand beach on its western bank.

We turn right and coast into Flateyri’s gas station with barely a drop left in our tank. The gas pumps have yellow tape haphazardly wrapped around them, with a hand-scribbled “lokað” sign announcing they are out of service. The station’s staff explains the pumps will open in two hours, as they are being restocked, so we commit to a walking tour of Flateyri.

Yet another tunnel—this time containing a footpath instead of a road—beckons us up to the hill above the town. Lupins line the path, and we sound our voices in echoic booms and hoots as we pass through the tunnel. Our vocal experiment has roused golden plovers and common snipes. Plovers lure us with “tuuuuu” up the path to ward us from their nests. Snipes murmur their neighs from the East—a sign of good luck in Icelandic folklore. Following the birds rewards us with a lovely view of Flateyri and gravel bank on which it was built.

“Snipes murmur their neighs from the East—a sign of good luck in Icelandic folklore.”

Flateyri is even smaller than Suðureyri, with a population of under 200 people. Walking into the village proper, a sign demarks the presence of Iceland’s oldest store—a bookstore that turns out to be a charming time capsule of the village’s history. On the main street, we pass several signs nodding to the local tradition of shark fishing, and the bar Vagninn, where the reggae band Hjalmar sets up for their evening performance as part of the town’s summer festival.

The two hours fly by, and we’re greeted with green lights when we return to the gas station to fill our car.

Wait your tern

Traversing the trio of eyris—Suðureyri, Flateyri, and Þingeyri— is a favourite road trip in the Westfjords. “Eyri” translates as a sand or gravel bank, and it is on such banks that these three villages have prospered. It’s almost shocking, really, to see life thrive on such slender spits of rock and sand between the imposing Westfjordian mountains and the cold ocean.

“The sand is warm, and the North Atlantic an almost Mediterranean aquamarine blue.”

As we backtrack along the 20km fjord, we decide to stop at a proper, unpopulated eyri—the white-sand eyri by Holt farm. We roll our car through a sand-dune track towards the ocean. The sand dunes are a protected nesting ground for eider ducks, so we inch along to minimise disturbance of the area. Scores of arctic terns circle their warnings above our car as we crawl along the track. One insistent mother tern hovers outside the windscreen, swooping and cawing. We soon spot the cause for her concern: in the roadside grass, three eggs ready to hatch.

The enticing beach is a safe distance from ducks’ and terns’ breeding grounds. Socks and shoes slip off rapidly. The sand is warm, and the North Atlantic an almost Mediterranean aquamarine blue. We are beach babes below the Arctic circle, plodging and beachcombing on a mid-teens summer day.

After a walk under the pier, our desire to learn the secrets of the final eyri pulls us from our shoreline saunter, so we pile back into the car in search of our next bird guide.

The world is our oystercatcher

After traversing the mountain pass to Dýrafjörður, Þingeyri appears across the bay. Oystercatchers line the road. Plump black-and-white bodies look at odds with the shock of neon orange beaks bleating cheeps as we park the car. One waddles from a gravel nest, where we spy three more eggs, similarly splotched to the tern eggs, but larger in size. The village of Þingeyri feels the most like the place to root and roost after a pleasant day exploring the fjords.

Simbahöllin Café has a strong roast brewing, and we refuel ourselves with a coffee in anticipation of the drive back to Ísafjörður, through the tunnels and fjords. The village feels lived-in, familiar, comfortable. If only we could stay to share the local gossip, learn to play the langspil, and take up residency in the co-working centre of Blábankinn. But there are more birds to follow, and more slow travel in our futures, so we set off home, our dreams ready to hatch and soar.

Read more about the Westfjords here.

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