Touring the Remote Westfjords

Flatey Island: A Taste of the Simple Life

The houses in the village of Flatey

We said goodbye to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and boarded a ferry in Stykkishólmur for the Westfjords. As the ferry works its way through the Breidafjördur, it stops at tiny Flatey Island, where visitors can take a layover if they choose. We were on the afternoon ferry, so we decided to send our car along to the other side and stay on Flatey for the night. Part of the island’s charm is that it is only inhabited by five year-round residents, who just received cell phone coverage thisyear.  

You can circumnavigate the whole island in under an hour and see nearly every corner of it from its midpoint. Of course, birds outnumber people in Flatey by far, and they have recently decided to close the trail around the northern part of the island so that the birds have a safe place to nest, making the island feel even smaller than it already is. There are plenty of birds to see on the island’s southern half, and it’s a great stopover if you are looking for a taste of the simple life. Watch this to see exactly what we mean:

http://vimeo.com/84099587

Látrabjarg: A Puffin Paradise
One of the main reasons that we chose to come to Iceland was to visit the Látrabjarg cliffs, one of the premiere destinations in the world to photograph puffins. It is located in the northwest corner of Iceland, which coincidentally is the westernmost point in Europe.

At nearly 14 kilometers in length and standing some 400 meters high at points, the cliffs are a veritable high rise for nesting sea birds. Here you will find millions of guillemots, kittewakes, razorbills, fulmars and various gulls.

The sheer number of birds nesting on the cliffs will blow your mind. But, despite the variety on offer, the definite stars of the show are the puffins. Resembling chunky sea parrots, the impossibly cute puffins of Látrabjarg are incredibly tame.

As pelagics, puffins spend roughly ten months a year at sea, but from mid-June to early August, you will find thousands of them at the top of the cliffs as they prepare their burrows, lay eggs and eventually raise their chicks. With few predators and loads of photographers around, the puffins seem oblivious to all the attention they receive. You can literally crawl up to the edge of the cliff and shoot away to your heart’s content; you just have to be sure not to get too close to the edge as it is a long way down with little hope of survival.

There are all kinds of opportunities for great compositions: puffins posing on rocks, sitting in flowers, preening feathers, plucking grass, flying awkwardly to their nests, displaying their wings, etc. You can get group shots, extreme close ups, wide angles. It’s a veritable Puffinpalooza!

Látrabjarg is located about 45 kilometers down a rough and often steep gravel road, but it is definitely do-able in a 2WD as long as you are careful and take it slowly. We stayed at the free campground located between the last village and the end of the road, a mere 2 kilometers from the cliffs.

IMG_9373 The prime time for viewing the puffins is early in the morning and after 8:00 in the evening, although they can be there at any time in the day. You definitely want an overcast sky as bright sunlight creates too much contrast for the black and white birds. We found the evening light to be the most forgiving. We stayed for three nights altogether and never left the cliffs before midnight. It was heaven!

While you are not shooting, there are a lot of other things to do in the area. Our favorite activity was hiking farther along the ascending cliffs of Látrabjarg. The higher you go, the fewer puffins you will see, but the views are incredible. We spotted several seals and even a Greenland shark cruising among the unbelievable numbers of birds floating out in the water. You really feel like you are hiking at the end of the world here.

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You can also visit the golden sand beaches in the village of Breidavik, but beware of the quicksand if you venture out at low tide. We were lucky enough to spot an Arctic fox one night on the way back to the campsite, which was an exciting diversion as well.

IMG_0649 Back on the cliffs, you will undoubtedly run into loads of other photographers. Be sure to give anyone with a really large lens a double-take, because you never know who it might be. We kept running into these two men who seemed to have as much patience for shooting the birds as we did. One of them even had a Better Beamer, which is a flash extension device invented by Walt Anderson who happens to be a member of our camera club back in Chicago. After several shooting sessions and casual conversations together, we discovered that they were none other than Joseph Van Os and John Shaw, who are pretty famous in the world of nature photography.

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Photographing at Látrabjarg with none other that John Shaw was an unexpected thrill!

Coincidentally, Alison learned about Látrabjarg while visiting Joe’s Photosafari website (he’s a tour operator) and dreaming of all the wonderful places to go in the world to shoot nature. What a thrill to be shooting shoulder-to-shoulder with two amazing professional nature photographers!

John and Joe were kind enough to point us to another great place for shooting birds nearby: the fishing harbor of Patreksfjördur. We spent an enjoyable morning strolling the town and photographing the hustle and bustle of the harbor.

Dynjandi Falls
Driving along Iceland’s roads, we have been struck by the sheer amount of waterfalls. There are so many here that they do not bother to name or even mark most of them on a map. Given that, we were curious what Dynjandi (touted as the Westfjord’s most impressive) would be like. Let’s just say that there is a definite reason why this one is on the map.

Spilling nearly 100 meters over the face of a cliff in a broad spread like a wedding cake, Dynjandi is in fact not just one beautiful waterfall but rather a series of waterfalls.

We read that the falls were best to photograph in the evening, and we timed our arrival perfectly. There is a free campground at the base of the falls, and when we first pulled up, we were the only ones there!

IMG_1568After setting up camp and having dinner, we set out to explore the falls, which were bathed in beautiful golden light. There is a trail that you can hike up to the base of the main falls, and there are half a dozen smaller but equally photogenic falls to visit on the way up. We spent a few hours slowly making our way to the top where we were dwarfed in proportion to the massive cascade. Heading down was quicker of course, and we enjoyed a lovely deep sleep courtesy of the constant flow of Dynjandi.

The Arctic Fox Center in Sudavik
Iceland is home to only one mammal, the adorably cute Arctic fox. Nowhere do you have a better chance of seeing them than in the Westfjords and more specifically than in its remote Hornstrandir peninsula. Accessible only by an expensive boat ride with a guided tour ($200/person), a visit to the Hornstrandir was not in the cards for us on this trip, so we opted for the next best choice, Sudavik’s Arctic Fox Center. 

A pleasant combination of education center, orphanage and café, the Arctic Fox Center is a really great place to spend an afternoon.

Opened just a few years ago by super-friendly and knowledgeable Esther, the center is set in an old house originally built in Norway and reassembled in Sudavik over a hundred years ago. The house was quite run down not too long ago but has been lovingly restored by the community as a meeting place and exhibition center for the town. Esther was kind enough to sit down with us and tell us about founding the Arctic Fox Center and the good work they do there.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the delicious smells of fresh homemade breads, soups and desserts that are lovingly prepared daily by the amiable staff. We hadn’t planned on eating as we had just stocked up on groceries in nearby Isafjordur, but our stomachs protested. We devoured the tasty vegetable soup and warm nutty bread while enjoying the free fast Internet access.

The Center has a speedy free Wifi connection!

We also toured the informative exhibit which includes a short film, historical artifacts, stuffed still-lifes as well as descriptive panels detailing the natural history of the fox and the fragile relationship that exists between Iceland’s sheep and eider farmers and the mammal.

Outside, we visited with the two orphaned pups that were brought to the center a few weeks ago. Playful like puppies, we couldn’t resist laughing at their antics. The Arctic Fox Center is a wonderful stop-over and a great way to support a worthy cause.

Esther and her friendly staff are happy to answer any questions that you might have about the foxes or what to do in the surrounding area.

If you are eager to photograph an Arctic fox in a semi-natural setting, you can head down the road to Heydalur, where there is a very nice farm/hotel/campground with opportunities for hot potting, hiking, kayaking and horseback riding. The owners of the hotel have a dog who has befriended an Arctic fox, and, where you find one, you often find the other.

IMG_1799 The two like to wrestle and roughhouse with each other, but the dog definitely has a distinct size advantage over the tiny fox. The hound often grabs the fox by the tail, dragging him all over. We felt sorry for the poor fox, but he was a clear glutton for punishment and constantly went back to the dog for more. If you are patient, you can grab a few shots of the fox in the tall grasses that surround the farm. Check out their unusual play date here:

Djúpavík: Touring the Abandoned Herring Factory
On July 7, 1935, a state-of-the-art herring factory opened in the then non-existent town of Djúpavík on the remote eastern edge of the Westfjords.

The abandoned herring factory in Djupavik represents Iceland’s first foray into industrialization.

At that time, there were no roads leading to the sleepy village that stands over the deep bay today. Ships had to carry in the 200 workers, who built the factory and later worked there, as well as every bit of building material needed to create what would become the largest factory that Iceland had ever seen.

Made primarily of concrete, the processing plant was designed to perform three major tasks: the salting, grinding and pressing of herring which in turn produced food, fertilizer and oil. Seemingly an odd place for such a venture, this site was specifically chosen because of its location on one of the deepest fjords in Iceland and its proximity to a fresh water source provided by a nearby waterfall.

IMG_1683While still quite close to the open ocean where the herring could be harvested with ease, it provided a deep, sheltered bay where large ships could both bring in the enormous catches as well as take the processed fish products back to commercial centers. The ships sailed right up to the factory and dumped their hauls right onto a conveyor belt (Iceland’s first–borrowed straight from the assembly lines of America). The factory was so successful that it paid for its construction in just two years and ran at a profit thereafter.

By 1948, the Djúpavík factory shut its doors due to over-fishing and competition from a nearby second factory. The building and all of its equipment were completely abandoned; it was far cheaper to leave everything than to haul it out. After years of neglect, the factory is being lovingly restored by the owner of the Hotel Djúpavík as a cultural museum and an art exhibition space for the community.

We arrived in Djúpavík just before the tour left from the hotel at 2:00. It was fascinating to get a glimpse of mid-century industry and the tough working conditions in this remote corner of Iceland.

9 thoughts on “Touring the Remote Westfjords

  1. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to vicariously engage your adventure! Photography and blogging outstanding!

  2. It’s all so neat and orderly, even an abandoned factory, which I think are great photography subjects. Still no Mopy.

    1. Apparently the owner works on restoring it every day–a true labor of love for him. We really enjoyed the tour but wished we had remembered to bring our tripods.
      We are still looking for a really good location to give Mopy his glam shot!

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