30 August 2012

Forty-Eight People

Pan in from a birdseye view of Iceland to its northwestern appendage, the Westfjords.  The inkblot lobster shaped collection of fjords reaches up and over toward Greenland.   Zoom closer to the eastern coast of the Westfjords, a coast so full of inlets and bay that its name (Strandir) literally translates to "coasts."  This is a land that was once chock full of sorcerers, witch hunts and spells cast.   It was also a haven for criminals, so remote that you could be sure to escape the authorities' clutches for good.  At the northern tip of this wild and woolly Strandir Coast is Árneshreppur.  For the most intrepid tourists, it is the very last bit of civilization before heading into uninhabited Hornstrandir for subarctic hiking.  Zoom in, finally, to this dock at dusk and down beside it, to a dead jellyfish.   Its translucence was so perfect that it acted like a gooey, rimless magnifying glass.  The stones below it were smooth, black and shining.  Árneshreppur is not just the end of the world, although the moniker wouldn't be too much of an overstatement.   It is a world unto itself.
That dock and this one both stuck out into Reykjarfjörður, the fjord into which Djúpavík is nestled.  As Eva and Ási's laundry billowed and snapped violently in one of the oft-occurring bouts of heavy wind, this line of drying, headless cod held strong.  "The young people don't like to eat it like that anymore," Eva said of the age-old preservation method.  Once the 15 - 20 day process is completed, the harðfiskur (wind-dried fish) is eaten in strips, dipped into butter.   Nor do the young people like to stay in Árneshreppur anymore.   Population decline is nearly an epidemic throughout the Westfjords, with a 20% average decline in the last 80 years.  The largest rate of decline has happened right here.  50% of the population has disappeared since the 1920s.  Kind rounding places the population of Árneshreppur at 50 people.  Accurate data says 48.  This is the least populous municipality in Iceland, the least densely populated country in Europe.
The whole "there are more sheep than people," thing is very, very literal here.   Approaching Árneshreppur from further down on the Strandir coast, at just about the last house we'd see for two hours before reaching Djúpavík, we saw sheep down by the water, nibbling at kelp.   There was something bizarre about the scene to me. My brain just couldn't marry the images, the atmospheres, the feelings that are usually attached to "oceanside" and "grazing sheep."   It was like two icons of isolation, the lone sheep in the mountainside and the waves that lap with no one around to hear them had met and decided to go it together for a while.  Our guidebook reports that its not uncommon to taste a hint of seaweed in the local lamb.  Oceangrassfed.
The residents of Árneshreppur are proud, resilient, welcoming.  Appropriately, the heart of their municipality is its northernmost point, the village of Norðurfjörður, less than 5km from where the road just... ends.  Its cafe is one of the northernmost in Iceland, its store (the Steingrimsfjordur Coop) is lovingly stocked with the expected canned and dried goods and the delightfully surprising ripe bananas.  Three women with identical, unflattering bowl cuts, stood and talked near the door. Most likely the work of the one 'hairdresser' for miles.  We walked into the Bank to get more cash and found a man sitting behind a desk among piles of papers and folders.  Just north of town, right near the last steps we could possibly take, was the geothermal swimming pool at Krossness.   This nearby spigot shot the scalding water out.  The spray and steam was cast into the cold air like a rippling flag marking the spot - the furthest north I have ever been in my life.
The landscape is just gob-smacking everywhere you look. This is a wilderness made of clean lines and somber hues.   We thought that the big, rusted ship on the shore in front of Djúpavík was perfectly picturesque.  The boat docked here in the 1940s, brought in as extra housing for workers in the Herring Meal Factory's heyday.   Eva saw the rusty ruin differently, as a blight on the scenery.  Its deterioration saddens her.  The corrosion is weighted in meaning.  Next to the factory is an old, unremarkable car similarly rusting away.  Its windows are covered in garbage bags.  Her neighbor refuses to remove it or store it away inside the factory with Árneshreppur's other dead cars.   "It is part of the landscape!" the neighbor argues.  They are rarely around to have to look at it.
The wider sections of Árneshreppur's shores are covered in driftwood, settling here after a journey all the way from Siberia.  As we marveled at the Siberian wood at our feet, at our place on the earth, one rainbow and then another appeared in the sky.   Sometimes our brains can do nothing but incredulously ask, "Where are we?"
A cleverly drawn map of Árneshreppur was given to us upon arrival at Djúpavík.   Each settlement up the coast was given a rectangle of promotional space on the back.  Their presence on the map itself was so accurate that if one little red house and two blue ones were drawn next to the name of one of the more populated villages we would find exactly one red house and two blues ones upon arrival.   There is Árnes, whose farmers make eiderdown pillows, blankets, etc, gathering the materials from the eiderduck community on Árnes island right offshore.  There is the old meat freezing plant turned hostel in Norðurfjörður.   There's the couple, Badda and Bjorn, who offer a very small scale summer camp experience for children 5 - 12 at their farm in Melar.   An immersion experience if there ever was one.  This old shed was in Gjögur just up from the coastal air landing strip.
It is impossible to get around in the winter, harder still to reach the rest of Iceland. The airstrip at Gjögur and the landing dock at Norðurfjörður become the only options.  When Ási and Eva moved to Djúpavík, there wasn't yet a road connecting Árneshreppur to the rest of the country.  So, they got a motorboat.  Amazingly, they were only people in the region to have one.  The lifelong residents of Árneshreppur were just used to moving slower, staying put, living off of the sea - fishing, hunting seals, using driftwood to build houses.   The people that remain here are content. Some site the fact that this part of the Westfjords has the lowest unemployment rate in Iceland as a sign of promise.   One could just as easily say 'there are only as many jobs as people.'
There is nothing easy about life in Árneshreppur aside from the simplicity of it all.   Eva believes her children have a self-sufficiency from growing up here, moving from Reykjavik at ages 4, 5 and 12.   She told us that they love it at Djúpavík and come back every summer.   It makes me feel like that corner of Árneshreppur is safe for at least another generation, it is protected by an attachment and a love.   Hornstrandir, that hikers' netherworld in the center of the Westfjords, was still inhabited as recently as the 1950s.   Once the last people left, Iceland put the area under national protection as a Nature Reserve.   An uninhabited wilderness.   Forty-eight people keep Árneshreppur from a similar fate.

2 comments:

  1. as always.........captivating, educational and having THE most stunning photos imaginable. I am now craving the decadence of that lobster soup,both with and withought the visuals!

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