Hornstrandir: 8 Days on Iceland’s Finger

Map of the Walk
Map of Hornstrandir

Intro

The benefit of keeping detailed journals allows me to look back and write with the benefit of retrospect. Without such records there is no way that I could have recalled the following events  on the Hornstrandir peninsula during our adventure in Iceland, even if I have Chelsie’s impeccable memory at my disposal. The following is not word-for-word from my journal, but put together from pieces, hence the use of past tense.

Chelsie strolling along in Isafjördur
Chelsie strolling along in Isafjördur

25 July 2015

The first 10 days in Iceland were marked my constant hitchhiking, awe of the scenery (both natural and the little that was man-made), and spur of the moment decisions. Fittingly Chelsie and I reached the only town of any distinction in the Westfjords region, Isafjördur by thumbing it through some very difficult stretch of unsealed highway (that was a story in itself). Once there, we essentially reached the end of the road and then it was decision time. Should we spend the money for a ferry ride across the fjord to the Hornstrand, the last crooked peninsula of land, roadless, or continue thumbing it back out of town to the next settlement? The ferry was quite expensive, but we were encouraged by a German couple Judith and Gert a few days before, that it would be a highlight of their trip.

This is when that cliched mentality of “no regrets” was most apparent. Breaking my stingy streak, Chelsie made the decision and we booked in after she exclaimed that “Well, I’m going.” We would have 8 nights to trek a circuit and explore the end bit of the Hornstrand. Excellent! With the ferry booked for the next day, we prepared our gear at the local campsite. There we happened to run into the fellow that picked us up earlier that day and drove us the final 100km or so, Sigurlaugur from Reykjavik. In town for a football (soccer) match, he invited us to join him and his mates for some drinks and a night in town to see a local musician. I was in, but Chels, thinking it was to be a boys’ night, had a early one. In the wee hours of the still light morning, I strolled back to camp and proceeded to sleep through the next day’s provision preparation with a lingering hangover.

Ferry landing at Hesteyri
Ferry landing at Hesteyri
Chels getting amongst it
Chels getting amongst it
Tasting the wildflowers, yum
Tasting the wildflowers, yum

27 July 2015

Arriving by ferry to the once small settlement of Hesteyri, we excitedly began what would become our highlight of our month spent in Iceland. The Hornstrandir peninsula was once settled by a few rugged souls. The nearest landmass looking west is Greenland, and looking north nothing except the Arctic Sea. They had to be hardy people, even by Iceland standards. With the appeal of easier existences south, gradually they all moved toward an easier life. In their wake, the peninsula turned into a national park with a few of the houses grandfathered in and remaining in those families’ possessions. So the area has the distinction of being a secondary wilderness preservation area. Settled and grazed by sheep, then abandoned and left back to nature to take over. (Hopefully the brief description matches the story that our historian friend Sigurlaugur is familiar with.)

Views on Day 1
Views on Day 1, typical of Hornstrandir

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We followed vestigial wooden telephone poles up and over the treeless hills over a pass and into the next fjord and Adalvik Bay where a few summer homes and the remnants of an old US military installation are situated. There at the designated camp site, I did the usual food inventory that is habitual during camping. And, “uh-oh,” I thought, there will not be quite enough food for the both of us for the week. Chelsie packed according to the hunger level of two people with her appetite whilst I slept off that hangover; I am normally ravenous when walking. So we had to strictly ration our food intake. What really saved us and provided us with energy was the local staple, hardfiskúr; sun-dried fish that is about the most protein-heavy sustenance I had ever tasted. I loved it, and felt noticeably more energetic after consuming some.

Eating hardfiskúr
Eating hardfiskúr

28 July 2015

The following morning was beautifully clear and sunny like the previous day. So incredible! Everywhere you looked across the treeless expanse was stunning. Every angle could be a photograph worth keeping. Warm enough to wear just shorts and a jumper, and if the Arctic wind would calm, then short-sleeves would suffice. Morale between me and Chelsie was at an all time high. Even though on that second day we made a wrong turn and hiked up a cliffside thinking it would cutover. Nope. On the descent we were fooled by assuming we could cross the river running into the bay at its narrowest point. Again, nope. We  backtracked through bog (which was made bearable with my Keen sandals), and cross at the widest point: 200 meters across a shin-deep lake! Quite a surreal experience. The open landscape could still be tricky to navigate, we would make sure to pay attention from then on.

Chelsie crossing the lake
Chelsie crossing the lake

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29 July 2015

The next morning, our highs turned quickly to lows as I realised that I had packed the wrong gas canister. Collected from the free bin at the Isafjördur campsite the day before we left, I managed in my hungover state to grab a canister without the threading for my Snowpeak stove. Needless to say, I was freaking out for a bit; especially with an already dire food situation. Contemplating turning back, we were spared that by our campsite neighbours, a French couple, that were able to trade canisters with us. Disaster averted and lessons learned; namely to try and stay sober the night before a week-long trek.

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Yes!
Yes!

Breaking camp on another stunning day, we continued through boggy undergrowth, wearing shorts and short-sleeves again. Soon we began the daily ascent up and over into the next fjord, passing a few shallow alpine tarns. Traversing semi-circular ridge lines and then ascending even higher. Eventually the descent was clear and steady downward back to sea-level. And there close to shore, near some rock pillars, we spotted our first Arctic fox, Iceland’s only endemic land mammal; a small cute fellow with a grey-bluish coat. He was sneaking about, scavenging and doing fox things. I love foxes, and still believe they are a spirit animal of sorts of mine. There at the Hlöduvik Bay we set up on an idealistic camp, watching the sun slowly lower close to the horizon us facing the Arctic Sea.

My spirit animal
My spirit animal (Look closely)
View from our tent home
View from our tent home

30 July 2015

Leaving Hlöduvik we set our sights on the Hornvik campsite and the ensuing two days of day-hike exploring we had planning in the area. The day was full of more open views, with a few clouds rolling in. We had a few challenging bits of the trek, including clambering up and over steep bits on the shore with the aids of ropes. As we were navigating the ropes, we came across the same Korean lady that originally hitchhiked in front of us (against the Rules of Hitchhiking) in the middle of nowhere, then we ran across her again at the campsite in Isafjördur. All of us reaching the end of Iceland together.

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Near the Hornvik campsite we were welcomed by Arctic fox pups. Curious and keeping a safe distance away they stayed in front of us for a few hundred meters and essentially led us to our campsite where they lingered amongst a dozen or so other campers. We took our time in choosing a site for my tiny Mountain Hardwear SuperMega UL tent. Most of the ground was soggy and, like a dog choosing its bed spot, I circled the spot slowly before I decided that I liked it.

View in the distances of Hornstrandir's iconic Horn
View in the distances of Hornstrandir’s iconic Horn

31 July 2015

The anticipated stormy weather arrived in force. Speaking to the ranger on site yesterday, he believed that the fishing boats would stay docked; a rare occurrence in those parts. So the entire day was spent inside our tiny, ultralight tent, weathering the storm. The winds were smashing the front tent pole inwards, pushing the rain fly flush with the mesh. Thinking it would eventually break, we hoped for the best. In between the noisy gusts of wind, the roar of the ocean left no room for silence. The din was chaotic. So we stayed cooped up, venturing outside only to pee, and returning to the tent drenched even while wearing our rain jacket and pants.

We figured that if we spend all this time together in such a tiny tent and still like each other afterwards, then that would bode well for the future of our relationship. I wrote in my journal as much as I could, and Chelsie drew and wrote as well. We just had to share the same pen. Luckily no conflict arose besides boredom.

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Watching the storm come in

1 August 2015

Day 2 in the tent. The storm actually picked up intensity, so we were out of luck with our day-hike ideas. I guess the brilliant weather we experienced during the first four days was fortunate. Seems that these big Arctic storms were quite normal on a weekly basis. However we found out later that that one was above average. We consoled ourselves by watching some new hikers arrive from the route we walked two days before. We agreed that our tent-bound situation was better than having to trudge through a difficult hike in the same weather. Poor souls.

Toward afternoon I was fetching water when the ranger approached and asked if I could lend a hand in moving a tent that was inundated with water. I consented. Afterward the kind fellow invited Chelsie and I into Vestinn’s (definitely misspelled) small cabin, the only non-nylon structure there, for a hot beverage. Yes! After nearly two full days inside our little tent, that was the best coffee with scotch and chocolate I have ever tasted.

Soon we found out that the owner of that saturated tent was that same Korean lady, who had foolishly decided to go off on a day-hike up on the Horn. There, were a slip could send you over a precipitous sea cliff. With emergency services on the cusp of being summoned, she returned, soaked, muddy, and psychologically bruised. She had hiked alone, gotten lost, fell, but returned essentially unscathed 13 hours after departing! I admired her spirit, and hopefully she learned a lesson and is not turned off from trekking.

Its wet
Its wet

2 August 2015

We awoke to two surprising sights this morning. The skies were clearing, and our tent was the only one that remained pitched in its original location. The other half dozen had moved to the slope above the ranger’s cabin to escape the bog cum pond. Ours was slightly perched above on a little island, my canine instinct had worked.

Packing up a dry campsite
Packing up a dry campsite

We had a long look at the iconic Horn, but could not venture to that portion on this trip as we had to hike to our ferry landing spot for the following morning. We gazed long at the spot, and, with smiles, and only slightly wet, we walked up our last hill, a steep one and a challenge. One that felt better than the previous ones because we had a renewed sense of respect for the place; the harshness of the weather and of the people who once called the area home. I cheers-ed the place with some birch-bark Icelandic schnapps that we somehow kept during the whole trek.

Schnapps cheers to Hornstrandir!
Schnapps cheers to Hornstrandir!

3 August 2015

We caught the ferry early in the morning and bid adieu to the adventure as we headed back to town. Sharing the experience of the last few days were a couple Guillaume and Dominique, from Switzerland. We shared some moments and laughs. Upon docking, they offered us a lift onward. Easy enough way for us to continue on our trip around the island country! One adventure leads to the next sometimes.

Chels lounging
Chels lounging
Our boat ride back to town
Our boat ride back to town

I am happy to recount, quite easily events that occurred over a year ago. Thanks to the benefit of keeping a detailed journal, which I encourage everybody to do, photographs, and the collective memory between Chelsie and myself. Even on a trek where you expect to go quite smoothly, some of the toughest and most rewarding challenges, big and small, arise. We are exceptionally lucky as well to have made two good friends in the Swiss couple. Chelsie and I later took their invitation and visited Guillaume and Dominique at home near Lausanne, Switzerland a month later.

New Swiss friends
New Swiss friends

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