By Sverrir Sigurdsson
The Westfjords (Vestfirðir in Icelandic) is the name of a large peninsula on the northwest corner of Iceland. Together with The Eastfjords (Austfirðir), they make up the oldest parts of Iceland. They are the geological scabs of volcanic activity that took place 10-15 million years ago and have long since ceased. In contrast, the middle of Iceland is still an open geological wound that oozes oodles of molten lava every now and then.
The Westfjords is the most isolated and sparsely populated region in Iceland. It lies on the Greenland Strait, directly across from Greenland. The terrain is mountainous, and fjords shred the coastline into strips, making travel by land difficult. The Lonely Planet travel guide recognized The Westfjords’ uniqueness and listed the region as No. 1 on the list for Best in Travel in 2022. "The Westfjords is where Iceland's dramatic landscapes come to a riveting climax and where mass tourism disappears – only about 10% of Iceland's visitors ever see the region."
Fishing has traditionally been the mainstay of the economy here. The villages sit on the shores of fjords, which are long, deep, and narrow inlets carved by ancient glaciers. Towering over the towns and protecting them from severe weather is a mountain
plateau. The combination of shelter and deep water creates natural harbors.
Until the 1950s, the connection between the communities was exclusively by sea or foot. To walk from one village to the next, one had to climb up the highland, hike across it, and scramble down another sheer escarpment. A one-way trip could take days. Today most of the area is connected to the rest of the country by road.
Most of these roads hug the steep mountainsides as they weave their way in and out of the fjords. What looks like a short trip on the map can take much longer because of the often-primitive roads. For those wishing to shorten their drive to The Westfjords from the mainland, a car ferry operates from Stykkishólmur via the island Flatey to Brjánslækur on the south coast of The Westfjords. There are also flights to three destinations, Ísafjörður, Bíldudalur, and Gjögur.
Ísafjörður, with a population of 2,600, is the largest town in the area. It is at the northwest corner of the peninsula and is connected to the rest of The Westfjords via a 9.1 km tunnel, the longest in Iceland. Ísafjörður has a rich history as a fishing town and trading post. Today, it is a modern center for tourism, culture, and the arts and is famous for its annual music festivals. Ferries depart from here to the Hornstrandir nature reserve at the northern tip of the peninsula. This is the most rugged and wildest part of the country, where humans have been replaced by birds, seals, arctic foxes, and perhaps even the occasional visiting polar bear.
Ísafjörður is also known for its activities in higher education and technology. The University Centre of The Westfjords, located here, provides distance learning for ocean-related studies at the master's degree level. A local biotech company, Kercesis, established some ten years ago, has found a way to turn cod skin into a magical material that heals difficult-to-manage wounds, such as burns and chronic wounds that refuse to heal.
At the tiny village of Djúpavík on the eastern shores of the peninsula, an entrepreneurial couple turned a women’s dormitory of a long-defunct herring processing plant into a year-round hotel and restaurant. The once state-of-the-art processing machinery is now a museum. The road ends a few miles north of here, and the place is accessible only by snowmobile in the winter.
The westernmost tip of the peninsula (and of Iceland and Europe, for that matter) is named Látrabjarg. Its majestic vertical sea cliffs stretch about 14 kilometers along the shore and reach well over one thousand feet in height. The top of the cliffs is easily accessible by car. The cliffs are the home of countless seabirds. On December 5, 1947, the trawler Dhoon left Fleetwood, UK, with a crew of 15. A few days later, it was stranded in a snowstorm on the rocks at the foot of the cliffs. A rescue crew from the area climbed down the cliffs, shot a line to the wrecked ship, and, during a period of three days, managed to save 7 of the men by cajoling and hauling them on ropes up the cliffs. A 1949 film named Björgunin við Látrabjarg (The Rescue at Látrabjarg) reenacts this event. Maritime accidents in the rough cold waters around here are not uncommon.
Now, let me focus on my favorite town in The Westfjords—Bíldudalur, my mother’s birthplace. The person credited with being its founder is Pétur Thorsteinsson, also known as the King of Bíldudalur. He was born in 1854 as an out-of-wedlock son of a wealthy merchant and a maid. Banished to a foster home, he worked his way up, first as a shop assistant at a nearby trading post. At 26, after a decade of learning the ropes of commerce on the job, he was ready to move into the big league, the risky but lucrative business of fishing and fish trading. Around that time, he married a woman from a wealthy family. Almost certainly, with the help of his well-heeled father-in-law, he purchased the defunct trading post and farm called Bíldudalur.
Soon after settling at Bíldudalur, Thorsteinsson started transforming the place into a company town. The beginning was rocky, but with smarts and guts, he overcame the challenges of a record cold and long winter. For the next two decades, he whipped up a frenzy of investment activities. By the turn of the century, Thorsteinsson’s enterprise owned ten fishing and cargo vessels. The company built a quay with equipment to load and unload ocean-going vessels and installed a railway link to the fish processing plants. It constructed numerous residential and commercial buildings, all served by a piped water system and roads connecting the town with the surrounding areas. Bíldudalur grew into a “boomtown” of 270 residents.
To put these achievements into context, it is worth noting that Reykjavík did not have harbor facilities to service oceangoing vessels until 1915. Thorsteinsson was at least ten years ahead of the rest of the country.
Today, Bíldudalur is a village of 238 people. Fishing is still the major part of the economy, including fishing trips for tourists eager to try their luck in these fish-rich waters. As a child, I visited my mother’s hometown several times by a coastal steamer, the only way to get there then. As a grown-up, I once toured The Westfjords by driving on the rugged roads winding around the fjords. That was quite an adventure, and it has left me in awe of the unspoiled natural beauty of the place and the self-reliant resourcefulness of the people. Aside from the sites I mentioned above, there are many other interesting places in this remote corner of Iceland.
Sverrir Sigurdsson is the author of Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir, available at http://getbook.at/VikingVoyager. The Icelandic translation of his book is Á Veraldarvegum, available at Penninn Eymundsson.