Midnight Sun in the Hornstrandir, Iceland

July 17-29, 2013

Hloduvik campsite

11:30 pm: The sun is finally setting over our campsite on a bend in an unnamed river, draining the snowbanks above and and flowing north into the Arctic Ocean.


Monumental home and studio projects completed: Check. House rented: Check. Bags packed: Check! And we're off for another globe circling travel adventure...

Heading east this time, we're squeezing absolutely every mile from our long-hoarded frequent flier account. It turns out that on the way to southern Africa, one free stopover is permitted anywhere in Europe. And since Iceland has been on our bucket list for some time, this will be stop one. Of course "free" tickets are never optimally routed, so first we fly east to Frankfurt, north to connect through Hamburg, and finally west to Ísland (as it's called in Icelandic.) So after leaving our trusty steed "Silver" with friends for the next five months, we catch the airporter to SFO for what turns out to be 31 hours of transit fun, door to door.

The moon glows as we fly over over the misty Atlantic Ocean, approaching Iceland.


Bleary-eyed, we stumble off the Lufthansa plane (day 2) at midnight expecting the Keflavík international airport to be completely deserted. But hey, hold on, what's this? Teaming mobs of tourists are waiting in long lines to board late night departures, and the baggage area has such a big crowd that all the luggage carts are all in use. Things are a bit different here in Iceland.

We wait outside for our ride to the guesthouse at 1AM in the blowing mist and drizzle thinking back to the obsessive checking of the weather forecasts this past month, which always seemed to have about nine days of rain out of ten on the agenda. The driver says, "Every year, July, always sunny. But this year we're still waiting for summer. Very bad!"

Next day we fly north (cheaper than driving) to the biggest town in the Westfjords, Ísafjörður, population 2600. Our program is to try to recover from jet lag for three days in an airbnb apartment, then head out for a backpack trip across the roadless Hornstrandir pennsisula.





Dagný, host at our comfy apartment, claims Tjoruhusid is the best fish restaurant in the world -- I think she's right! It's all you can eat for 12000 krona (about $100 for two). Everyone sits together at long plank tables in the 200 year old building, as cooks bring out skillet after skillet of freshly caught fish: halibut, cod cheeks, skate, some in creamy sauces, others crispy fried, a raw fish salad. It's all unbelievabley good! The waitress claims most people take five platefuls, but we could only manage two.




The ferry service drops off hikers and also families who are heading to their isolated summer houses that sparsely dot the fjords in this area. We motor up the long Veiðileysufjörður (which we later learn means "fjord with no fish") and the Zodiac runs our backpacks and an assortment of hikers (most of whom are incredibly fit!) to the beach. Along the way we befriend several of these gregarious hikers who happen to be from Iceland, Russia, South Africa, and Germany.
After hiking eight hours from Veiðileysufjörður to our remote campground at Hornvik, a mossy, grassy meadow just at the edge of a black sand beach, we are exhilarated and energetic, tricked into thinking it is still early afternoon.  The sun still hovers well above the horizon and won't set until almost midnight.  We are delighted to find a trio of Arctic Fox pups cavorting in a driftwood-filled meadow: their "playground" is off limits to campers as we later learn from Linda, the local ranger.  They scamper together, leaping over logs, chasing each other, their dense, charcoal gray fur showing the first signs of turning white for the winter, which will arrive in just a few short weeks. 

Arctic Foxes are the only native mammals in Iceland; they arrived here about 10,000 years ago!
At the spectacular cliffs of Hornbjarg -- a sheer drop 220 meters to the Arctic Ocean -- hundreds of sea birds scream and screech as they swirl up in the brisk air currents, flashing past us as we walk up the Horn. We wander through wildflower filled heather, the spongy moss sinks beneath our feet, then springs back as though no one had ever walked here. There are fields of brilliant yellow dandelions in full glory, their thick yellow manes are vibrant and beautiful. I will never again think of dandelions as "just weeds"!

The fog swirls up, sometimes obscuring the peak of the Horn or the icy water below, then quickly parts and blue sky surrounds us. We imagine the howling winter winds, shredding any plant that dares to grow above knee height. Greenland lies beyond the fog bank, only 300 km from this northermost shore of Iceland. One giant iceberg is barely visible in the distance (we thought it was a ship!) Later we learn that an Ice Bear (Polar Bear) floated over to the Hornstrandur on one of these massive bergs just a couple of years ago, drifting along the currents until it came close enough to finally swim to shore, exhausted. Sadly, the government shot the bear just after it landed; each year they fly over the park in helicopters, checking for bears before opening the wildlands to visitors.

We meet the family who owns the farmhouse we passed earlier today, three generations out for a brisk hike. No one lives full time in Hornstrandur, the last family left in the 1950's, now there are just summer homes. All too soon, it's time to head back to our tent -- it took us four hours to hike here, through the sandy dunes, across a wide river, along the shore, each rock rounded to a perfect modern sculpture, then up through the meadows to the horn. We are not concerned about daylight, but our lunch is running short and we hope to have dinner before 10 pm.

Hanging with Linda the ranger and her companion, Baldur. This is the life!

We arrive at our campsite, tired but happy, ready for our standard fare: dried lentil soup with dehydrated vegetables, all carefully weighed and packaged, transported to Iceland from Berkeley. Suddenly Snorri, an Iceland Air pilot, is at our tent door, inviting us to share an Icelandic specialty: Arctic Char, caught by Jón and Halldór, two ace fly-fishermen. We came in on the ferry with these three friendly fellows. As we hiked in over the highest pass they raced past us, joking and in good spirits, carrying huge packs which we now discover are filled with all the acoutrements needed for a fried fish dinner! Our other new-found friends, Irina (from Moscow) and Jan (originally from South Africa), join the fun. We can hardly believe our eyes when Jón puts several pats of butter in the frying pan and starts sizzling freshly caught, glistening pink salmon fillets. It smells scrumptuous, and as we each taste this succulent treat, we can't believe our good fortune! It's past midnight when we head off to our tents, tired but contented, looking forward to tomorrow's adventures.
On our final night in this stupendous wilderness, we meet Jón, Hornstrandir's ranger for the last 23 years. He is a remarkable fellow whose wise nature, vast knowledge and care for the land has shaped our experience and will do so for all who follow us to this incredible landscape. I can hear his voice in the signs: "Youngs are extremely susceptible and parents are worried, let's not increase their stress by disturbance." The day before we arrived at Hestyri, he walked from Hestyri to Hornvik in one day -- in rubber boots so as not to trample "the nature." (That same "walk" -- a challenging hike for me -- took us three full, 6 - 9 hour days, always hiking at twice the time estimated in the park's brochure.) Jón knows that by August 1st, autumn will arrive in the Westfjords and all the plants will turn brown; on August 3rd he will see the stars in the first truly dark sky. This year, 700 lucky people will visit Hornstrandir during its eight week season, from mid-June until mid-August, when the nights turn freezing cold, the only access, the daily ferries, stop running (everyone must arrive by foot or ferry, no cars or horses are allowed.) We feel so incredibly lucky to have had this once-in-a-lifetime experience, and will always remember this place and all the wonderful people we have met -- tourists from around the world, Icelanders on holiday, landowners visiting their family homes, and the rangers. As Jón says: "My heart, your heart, they beat together."

Sunset fog rolling in at our meadow campsite 300m above Hesteyrarjörður.

New friends Jan & Irina enjoying end of trek pancakes and tea at the "Doctor's House" in Hesteryi.