Dateline: Isafjördur

I flew to this small city (+/- 3,000) in the northwestern part of Iceland yesterday morning. Isafjördur is a lovely little town and is set, as its name suggests, in the bottom of a fjord, so steep walls tower over the settlement on three sides. The mountains are, like much of Iceland’s topography, flat-topped and are made up of dark rock with small, bright green plant life streaking about three-quarters of the way up. At the bottom of the fjord it’s Ireland green formed by grasses and fields — but no real trees. There are scattered groves that have been planted by the residents, but no forests.

At the head of the fjord, to the west, there’s a road that leads to the rest of this region of Iceland which is known as the Westfjords. The region comprises a peninsula jutting out of the northwest corner of the island, and its fjord-pocked coast is one continuous series of undulations. But it’s remote out here: since fjords ultimately end in a high wall, that road out of town tunnels into the mountain to reach the next fjord. The tunnel was built in 1996 — which means that up until 15 years ago, travel from town to town around here was via the rough, dirt tracks over the mountaintops. And that’s just in the summer. In the winter? Whole other ball game. Now I know why everyone here has beefy four-by-four vehicles despite the high cost of fuel. It’s out there here in the Westfjords, that’s for sure.

On the east side of Isafjördur there’s a huge dike running diagonally up the hillside between the town and the slopes. It was built to protect a residential area from avalanches; in years past, slides have wiped out houses and ski lifts (they moved the lifts farther up the valley as a result; houses were a little tougher to move). The dike is 25 or 30 feet high and a good quarter-mile long, and there are also a series of man-made conical hills, also 25 or 30 feet, upstream from the dike. That’s how big the avalanches get around here. A couple of fjords over, there’s the village of Flateyri which was buried by a slide in 1995 that wiped out a bunch of houses and killed 20 people. So yeah, it’s out there here in the Wesfjords.

And yet there’s a reportedly good hospital here in Isafjördur and a university too. There’s also a pro or semi-pro soccer team: a Reykjavik team was on my flight yesterday, coming up here for a match. Cruise ships call regularly and there have been steady stream of European and North American tourists wandering town. The houses here are charming and brightly colored, with beautiful flower gardens out front and in windowsills. And the town is home to several high-profile music festivals annually.

So the combination of out-there and civilization makes Isafjördur a pretty neat place. And on a summer day like today — brilliant blue sky with not a cloud in sight, temps in the mid 60s — it’s not only charming but quite idyllic here. I suspect winter is a different matter but for now it’s wonderful.

Which is good because the Polar Bear soap opera is ongoing. Boogie and Marlies offloaded a group of Russian photographers the day before I arrived. They were unable to get through the ice to Greenland (a couple of hundred miles away) and this week’s scheduled group wasn’t interested in NOT getting to Greenland so they canceled. As a result, Boogie and Marlies and I are staying here, watching the weather and ice forecasts, and waiting for Saturday when a couple of friends and Boy Wonder will arrive and we’ll give Greenland another go. Boogie was hoping to head west to Akureyri or Husavik in the next day or two in order to give us a more westerly track to Scoresby Sund but Boy Wonder emailed today saying the ice report indicates that we’ll have a better shot running straight north from here rather than from farther east. So…we’ll see.

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