Photo Essay by Buddy Mays
The unruffled little country of Iceland lies 750 miles off Greenland’s southeast coast between the Denmark Strait and the Atlantic Ocean. I say unruffled because the folks who live there seem not to worry about much of anything, least of all the Arctic cold which during the winter settles over the island like an unrelenting fog.
Being an Icelander has never been easy. First settled by Gaelic Monks in the 8thcentury, then later occupied by Norwegian Vikings and finally by Danes, Iceland was belted back and forth across the net of foreign subjugation like a tennis ball for a thousand years until it finally declared independence in 1944. Early life on the island was based mainly on agriculture and fishing, but long, cold winters and perpetual inclement weather made both occupations challenging and often unprofitable. Relentless religious scuffles between Pagans, Catholics, and finally Evangelical Lutherans, often threatened civil war. Black Death arrived in 1402 and killed half of Iceland’s population, then returned in 1494 with equal ferocity to kill half of what remained. In the 1700s, smallpox, famine, and a devastating volcanic eruption reduced the island’s population once more, from 50,000 people to just 38,000.
Despite its historical difficulties, Iceland is one of the most hospitable and welcoming countries in Europe, hosting some two million foreign visitors each year, the majority of them from the Continent and the United States. It is also among the most sparsely populated countries on earth; about the size of Kentucky, the island is home to just 330,000 people, two-thirds of whom reside in, or near, the capital city of Reykjavik on the country’s southwestern coast. The remaining 100,000 or so—farmers and fishermen mostly—inhabit the other 99% of Iceland, living on isolated farms or in small, rural towns and villages along the coast.
Recently my wife, Stephanie, and I spent a couple of unscripted weeks driving around the very rural and very isolated southern coast of Iceland, gawking at the jaw-dropping scenery and feasting on the culture and magnetism of the region. These are some of our favorite places and things. There were plenty of others.
A Challenging Panorama
Iceland’s corrugated, lava-strewn landscape, dotted with active volcanos, snow-blanketed mountains, and glaciers the size of Yellowstone National Park, is perhaps the most beautifully bizarre subdivision of treeless, out-of-the-way volcanic terrain anyone could ever imagine. This rugged stretch of cliff-bound coast and black sand beach on the Dyrholaey Peninsula near the village of Vik, is typical of the island’s topography.
The Hidden People
Icelanders are a fanciful folk when it comes to the inexplicable. According to a recent nationwide poll, at least half of the country’s population believes in, or at least doesn’t deny the existence of, Huldufolk, the Hidden People, mystical magical beings from a parallel world who make their homes in the rock-strewn Icelandic countryside. Yes, I’m talking about elves. Called Alfar in Icelandic, they are supposedly a handsome and often impish folk who are invisible to humans except on special days, most notably the Summer Solstice (Midsummer’s Night).
Alfar prefer living in or near rocky outcrops and boulder fields, and you’ll often see brightly painted miniature houses known as álfhól (elf houses) constructed by local residents especially for Alfar families. Icelanders say that Huldufolk typically keep to themselves, although anyone who fancies sitting at a crossroad within eyesight of four churches on Midsummer’s Night might be offered presents of gold, silver or food by local Elven clans. Acceptance of a gift results in immediate insanity; if you refuse and continue to do so until daylight, the Alfar disappear leaving the gold and silver behind.
Country folk in Iceland take Alfar very seriously indeed, by the way. Highway construction crews, for example, usually consult with local elf experts before routing a new road through a rocky area that might be elf habitat (elf habitat is usually marked by vertical piles of flat rocks). There is even an afternoon-long Elf School (Álfaskólinn) in Rekyjavik, where for about $65, you can learn everything you should know about Icelandic elves and their history. My wife and I spent a lot of time searching for álfhól and their occupants with limited success; lots of elf houses, not many elves though I did manage to photograph one in a blue jacket near the caves of Laugarvatn. Or not.
The Courageous, The Sober and the Surefooted
Icelandic Horses were brought to Iceland by the Vikings sometime between 860 and 935 A.D. and, by government decree, are the only type of horse allowed on the island. Pony sized with shaggy manes, long, coarse tails, and forelocks that drape down over their eyes like hairy curtains, they are adorable and cuddly and friendly, but they are also tough as nails. “There is no more sagacious animal than the Icelandic horse,” wrote Jules Verne. “He is stopped by neither snow, nor storm, nor impassable roads, nor rocks, glaciers, or anything. He is courageous, sober, and surefooted. He never makes a false step, never shies. If there is a river or fjord to cross (and we shall meet with many) you will see him plunge in at once, just as if he were amphibious, and gain the opposite bank.”
I made the mistake of calling an Icelandic horse a “pony” at a farm near Hvolsvollur, and it did not go over well. The owner of the farm informed me tersely that calling an Icelandic horse a pony was like calling the Queen Elizabeth II a boat. “They may be smaller than American horses,” he said, “but they are strong-hearted and full of fire, just like the Vikings that brought them here in the first place.”
There are 80,000 of these sturdy little animals in Iceland, and they are often treated more like household pets than beasts of burden by their owners. Yet nearly every rural Icelander rides (though his or her feet may nearly drag the ground) and the horses are workers, used for everything from pleasure riding to pulling a plow to rounding up sheep.
Church in the Wildwood
Robert Louis Stevenson said he never wearied of great churches. Icelanders don’t seem to mind them either. The island’s sparsely populated countryside boasts hundreds of them in fact, all Evangelical Lutheran, all of them open to the public, and all of them beautiful. Nearly every rural community, no matter how small, has its own little house of worship. Most are painted unblemished white with a steeply pitched, cherry-red roof and neatly manicured graveyard somewhere nearby. Each one is the epitome of orderliness and labor-intensive TLC. Oddly enough, most Icelanders aren’t particularly devout in the traditional sense and don’t attend church very often these days (you’ll have to ask them why), but the chapels are still well-kept and patently attractive. This one is the church at Oddi, on the island’s south coast. Locals claim that a church has stood at on this very site since Icelanders first adopted the Christian faith in 1000 A.D. The current chapel was built about 1924.
In his book Tales of Iceland, travel writer Stephen Markley got it right when he said, “The problem with driving around Iceland is that you’re basically confronted by a new soul-enriching, breath-taking, life-affirming natural sight every five goddamn minutes. It’s totally exhausting.”
Waterfalls top the list of “most visited sites” on the island, mainly because there are thousands of them scattered across the landscape (the latest estimate is at least 10,000 permanent falls in the country, although who exactly took the time to count them is a mystery). Some, such as Gullfoss Falls on the Hvita River in the south and Godafoss Falls on the Skjálfandafljótare River in the north, are world-class cascades and will take your breath away. All of them, however, large or small, are splendid examples of what erosion, time, and lots of water — most of it from glaciers —can create. This is Seljalandsfoss Waterfall along the Ring Road in south Iceland; it falls 180 feet from the lava crest to the base pool.
Life in the Ground
When the Vikings arrived in 847 A.D., Iceland was covered with birch forests. By the 15th century, however, almost every tree had been chopped down and hauled away for firewood, leaving island residents nothing with which to heat or cook. The only thing left to burn, in fact, was driftwood, and because there were no trees left to drift, it was rare. Early Icelandic homes like these partially underground “turf houses” at the ancient farming community of Keldur had no internal heat whatsoever, even during the sunless arctic winters. What fuel was available was used almost entirely for cooking in a separate kitchen structure. To stay warm, rural farm families, often ten or twelve people strong, lived and slept in one small room, heating the space with body heat alone. There were no deodorant salesmen in Iceland at that time. Life could not have been pleasant, at least from an olfactory point of view.
A Nation of Sheep
There is precious little wildlife in Iceland except for seabirds, but the country has more than its share of a half-wild, walking puffball with horns, known as the Icelandic sheep. More than 800,000 of them inhabit the island, nearly three times the number of Icelanders, and they are direct descendants of sheep brought here by the Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries. Robust and stocky, with bare legs and a heavy white, brown, or black wool coat that is seldom sheared, they surely fit somewhere between kittens and koalas on Mother Nature’s most adorable animal list.
At one time Icelandic sheep were the island’s predominant milk producers but today they are bred and raised primarily for meat. From June until September they run wild in search of water and grass, and because fences are rare in Iceland they range virtually anywhere and everywhere except onto the glaciers. In September local farmers join together in community drives and round them up on horseback or on foot. The sheep are then sorted out by ear tags as to which animal belongs to what farm, then penned up in barns and sheds until the following May when lambing season begins. Once the lambs are born, the sheep are released to run wild once more.
Perhaps Iceland’s most endearing creature, and one that almost everyone recognizes, is a curious little bundle of feathered Charlie Chaplin charisma known as the Atlantic puffin. Ten inches high with black and white plumage, stubby wings, and an oversized, Technicolor bill, puffins are the clowns of the bird world, almost as much fun to watch as Saturday Night Live. Sixty percent of the world’s puffin population– six to eight million birds—nest and breed in Iceland annually. Arriving in April and staying until mid-August, mating pairs care for a single egg laid in a burrow dug into coastal cliffs. Puffin burrows are always within eyeshot of the sea. They are excellent fliers and can reach speeds of up to 55 miles per hour, but oddly enough they won’t fly unless they can see the ocean below them.