Total distance covered: 470 km | 292 miles
Driftwood piles dotted the coastline as we traveled the eastern shore of the Westfjords. In particular, Steingrímsfjörður was filled with stack after stack of driftwood. After listening to Egils Saga Skallagrimssonar, an audio book I discovered online, gathering driftwood was a typical chore. During the age of Egils Saga, Iceland was still a land covered with trees. When the story told of collecting driftwood along the beaches, the task had not struck me as odd. Today, however, no trees stand near this coast. Yet here lay huge piles of logs. The task of collecting driftwood seemed as alive today as during the saga era. Where had this wood come from? Did Ocean currents bring in this bounty? Did the placement of this particular cove in relation to other land masses make it a good landing point? What would become of this wood? How would it be used? Who had gathered the wood and stacked it into piles?
Bara Hlin Kristjansdottir provides the beginning of the audio book Egils saga Skallagrimmsonar free of charge. Bara has both her Bachelors and Masters degrees in comparative literature and uses these readings to “warm up” her voice. If you are interested in Icelandic sagas, I highly recommend listening to this. Being a non-Icelandic speaker, I have found the names of people and places long and cumbersome in text, often distracting me from the story. In the audio book, Bara handles the pronunciation allowing the listener to drift into the story with ease.
We reached the town of Hvammstangi before noon. This was where we had intened on spending the night. However, after a relaxing soak in the pool at Hotel Reykjanes the night before, we had both fallen asleep early and woken up early. Since we were back on Rte. 1, (the Ring Road) the larger road made traveling much faster. There was a much greater volume of cars traveling this road, changing the driving experience dramatically. The weather was grey and wet. So, we decided it was a perfect day for driving. There was no need for stopping yet. Onward to Akureyri! Nicknamed the “Capital of the North”, Akureyri has a population of around 17,000 people. This urban settlement is by far the largest town outside of the Reykjavík capital area. The past two nights, our meals of cheese, salami and crackers had been fun, but we were excited to get to an urban center with more options. During our foggy journey we continually encountered a plethora of sheep.
Skagafjörður Heritage Museum focuses on 18th & 19th century rural Icelandic life. The Glaumbær Farmhouse is the main attraction. This complex consists of buildings from various ages. But, the house is believed to have been in its original location since the age of settlement (900 A.D.). The Farmhouse consists of 13 buildings, all constructed of turf, stone and wood. The walls are extremely thick, although they vary from one to the next. The rain and wind, on this stormy day, forced us inside the sod dwelling. The deep layers of turf, set in a beautifully stacked herringbone pattern, provided incredible insulation. Inside the Farmhouse, it was quiet, cozy and dim. Turf construction was tradition in Iceland until around the 1900’s when concrete became the building material of choice. The book Independent People by Halldór Laxness describes rural Icelandic life through the tale of a poor sheep farmer in the early 20th century. Halldór’s descriptions of living in a sod house and living in a concrete structure are remarkable. This story, while depressing at times, is known for its social realism as it confronts the survival of people on isolated crofts/farms in a severe and challenging landscape. A project I submitted last December “Thermal mass in Independent People” highlights quotes from the book that contrast these extremely different living conditions and experiences (sod + concrete).
Akureyri was described in the Bradt Guide to Iceland as “having gardens planted with gusto” and “streets lined with tall trees“. After days of experiencing relatively few plants and almost no trees, I couldn’t wait to see what this city had to offer in the way of vegetation.
Birch and Mountain Ash were the two most common tree species we observed in the city. While these trees were “tall” in comparison to other trees we had witnessed in the country, I would estimate the average size to be around 35 to 45 feet. It felt strange to be walking under a canopy after so many tree less days. Akureyri displayed well-kept, colorful flowers, in front yards and planters throughout the city. Seating options in the city center were inventive and memorable. Some seats were part of planters, some wove in-between trees, and still others stood out for their creative re-use.