At the Skálanes nature reserve, a quiet revolution is happening
Getting to the Skálanes nature reserve, which sits at one of the easternmost points of Iceland, is an adventure in itself. After taking an hour-long domestic flight into Egilsstaðir (and, with luck, a view of the Holuhraun eruption on the way), visitors take to a minibus or hired car to cross the infamous and beautiful Fjarðarheiði mountain pass. This dramatic, narrow road zigzags up through the snow and passes a beautiful and unexpected mountaintop reservoir, often seen through a spectral sheet of white mist.
The road then descends gently past countless waterfalls into Seyðisfjörður—a small but thriving town with a weekly ferry to the Faroe Islands and Denmark, and also the home of Skaftfell gallery, LungA School, Heima Collective and an intriguing assortment of creative businesses and artistic-leaning ventures.
But Skálanes is further out still. After passing Seyðisfjörður’s famous baby-blue wooden church, the diminutive-but-fascinating technological museum, and a large fish factory, the road continues through the town and and along the south side of the fjörd. This breathtaking route reveals the area’s long and rich history, dotted with crumbling farm buildings, collapsing piers and even the sparse remains of a church amongst the sweeping cliffs and mountains. By the time the final river is forded, it feels like passing into another world entirely.
But arriving is just the beginning of the Skálanes experience. The project has grown many interesting and unexpected strands since it started ten years ago, when Ólafur Pétursson was considering his options after studying for a geography degree overseas.
Lining the nest
“Skálanes was bought by my family,” says Ólafur, “in a collaborative approach to running an eider colony. Eider ducks are a farming tradition in Iceland. We’re responsible for eighty to ninety percent of the world production annually, which is only three tonnes. It’s a nice symbiotic way of living with wild animals—they leave their down, which they use as insulation for their nests, and you collect it. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are commercially farmed ducks, kept in sheds and then plucked alive. Buying eiderdown used to be about it being two or three percent warmer, but it could be considered a choice about how the animal it came from is treated.”
Ólafur quickly saw potential for Skálanes to develop into much more. As he developed his vision, the eider farm became just one aspect of a newly established independent nature reserve, also containing a guest house and a field centre for students to carry out research.
“We hosted about 100 students last summer, coming to do projects of all sorts,” Óli explains. “They leave the information which they collect behind for us to use. So we subsidise them, they get to do interesting work, and people who stay here can feel they’re supporting a place that’s trying to make a difference.”
Skálanes is run in a mindful way, and Ólafur is keen to think outside the box. It’s refreshing to hear his views, which form a holistic picture of what each aspect of running his business means.
“We want Skálanes to be truly eco-friendly,” Ólafur explains. “So everything we use here will be rainforest certified from now on. To accomplish this, we calculated how much food we get through each year in a spreadsheet—the average weight of the food we buy. Let’s say it’s ten million kilocalories—the question becomes, ‘How can we then grow that much food?’ Even if it’s only in potatoes or a few other crops. So, we hope we can say by 2016 that ninety percent of the food we consume will either be produced at Skálanes, or offset and bought from within Iceland.”
This approach far outstrips the current criteria for eco-friendly hotels in Iceland by taking into account the carbon footprint of running the guest house. “I think it’s more interesting than saying, ‘Well, we built a 30-storey hotel and we have organic salads and we recycle, so we’re a green-certified operation,” Óli says. “That green label doesn’t mean a lot in my opinion—it’s a boring way to look at the problem. There’s no green label yet for what we’re trying to do here.”
Off the beaten track
All of this is super-interesting, but I wonder what kind of people come to Iceland to hear about environmentalism rather than to look at waterfalls. Does the trip appeal to a certain type of person? “It’s two things that attract people here,” says Óli. “First, we have beautiful mountains, the view over the fjörd, whales sometimes, seals in summer, and reindeer; and then 600-metre bird cliffs right next to house. People like to come and look at all of that. Second, we set things up with people who want to come to Skálanes for longer—those who come to be involved with our projects, and have an interest in how the place is run.”
For those seeking some sanctuary—from city life, or even from the standardised hotel accommodation that’s dotted around the Icelandic ring road—Skálanes and Seyðisfjörður offer something even further off the beaten track.
“This trip is definitely different from most,” says Ólafur. “For example, there’s always a bus leaving to Mývatn from Akureyri, and there’s always a boat going whale watching at Húsavík. But there’s not always something happening here. We’re aiming for something more intimate, that shows a lot about the area. We don’t want to reduce the trip to ‘Seyðisfjörður—the town of a fish factory’ or ‘Seyðisfjörður—a historic town’ or ‘Seyðisfjörður—a bohemian town.’ Because it’s all of those things, and more besides.”
Skálanes in numbers:
- 90%: amount of food consumed at Skálanes to be home-grown or locally sourced by 2016
- 100: number of students hosted at Skálanes last summer
- 600m: height of bird cliffs by the house
- 1927: Year Skálanes was built
- 2007: Year the building was renovated into its current form
- 8,000 ISK: Return pickup from Seyðisfjörður
- 9,800 ISK: Bed & Breakfast cost per person