We sat down on the outside deck for a glass of beer on a sunny late afternoon. Sitting a few tables away were two couples, enjoying a glass of wine and visiting. It was impossible to not overhear their chatter and laughter as they waited for their dinner. Elmo mentioned that except for their distinct German language, they looked like they might be from Sacred Heart or some other nearby Minnesota town. We were certainly not in the Midwest anymore. The distinctive appearance of the hills and water as we gazed out toward the small harbor told us that in so many ways.
The deck where our table was had a railing decorated to the appearance of a Viking sea-faring ship, appropriate for the tiny settlement of Hauganes along the west side of a nearly 40-mile-long fjord, north of the prosperous city of Akureyri, on the north coast of Iceland.
The weather was comfortable and sunny as we relaxed, waiting for the launch of the Neils Jonnson, a Hauganes-based oak hulled whale-watching and fishing boat, that would take our group of good friends, along with more than a dozen others, north onto the 300-feet deep water of the fjord for three hours prior to dusk.
We had already spent three days, exploring the natural parks, waterfalls and geyser areas around Reykjavik, the busting capitol of Iceland, the northernmost national capitol in the world with nearly 200,000 of Iceland’s 350,000 inhabitants. Now we were a few hours to the northeast near Akureyri, the second largest city in Iceland, with 18,500 residents. The rest of Iceland’s population is spread out in small towns and farms along the fjords and mountain valleys in a country that is less than half the size of Minnesota.
Reykjavik, in southeastern Iceland is about 175 miles south of the Arctic Circle and is known for many cloudy days and fits of rain. Interestingly, Akureyri, only about 60 miles from the Arctic Circle has weather that is generally warmer, with many more sunny days. No matter, we saw sunshine and mild sunny days as well as cool rainy days in both locations and in the other places we visited in more than eight days there.
We explored the volcanic lava fields and the soaring hillsides dotted with tidy dairy and sheep farms as well as the small coastal fishing towns. We visited the tiny fjord village of Hofsos where the late Minneota writer Bill Holm not long ago spent several summers (and other times) at a small cabin, writing and soaking up his Icelandic heritage.
Bill’s spouse Marcy Brekken still owns that little seaside cabin and travels there once or twice a year to see friends in Reykjavik and in Hofsos and for a little respite. We could see why. Marcy lives near Granite these days and we all visited with her before launching our group’s journey there. Her insight into life in Iceland was fun and helpful.
The peacefulness of the countryside and the small towns were amazing and so were the gracious and welcoming people. To a one, they seemed delighted to visit with us and were glad we were there. We felt the same toward them.
While waiting on the deck, we talked about those remote Iceland villages and wondered how it would be to live there, so far away from the world and lifestyle that we are used to.
The warm sunny afternoon and our time on that deck were getting on when the time came for our boat to launch. The dozen or so other travelers who joined us on the boat were Norwegian, Dutch, German and a few other Americans. We were about to take in a true Icelandic experience.
After each of us got outfitted in the required safely gear and boarded the boat, our captain headed out of the harbor into the fjord, Within about 10 minutes saw the first of what would be many whale spouts, shooting up out of the water.
Although several species of small and large whales have been spotted there, the most common is the humpback whale which as an adult is over 60 feet long and weighs around 40 tons. The humpbacks have a pattern of coming up for air and spouting water four to seven times, about a half minute apart. They then dive, or “fluke”, deep into the water, flipping their massive tails upward out of the water as they head down deep for anywhere from four to eight minutes. Then they will resurface once again and repeat the pattern.
Our boat came within a few meters of several of the whales and we could hear their exhale spout and then the whales’ long, low inhale. It was a marvel to see and hear.
After more than two and half hours of whale watching, we trolled back toward Hauganes to where fishing was likely to be good in 100-feet-deep water and dropped our lines in, jigging about a foot off the bottom. Almost immediately we got bites and our whale watching boat became a fishing boat. Cod and haddock were plentiful and the fishing action was fast, if not furious. We trolled back toward the harbor as the gibbous moon rose from behind the steep hills of the fjord and landed three hours after launching with some very good memories and a nice stash of filleted fish. The next evening, that Icelandic “fisk” catch proved to be one of the best meals of the trip.
We took in more sights and also the geo-thermal heated water that Iceland is famous for. The ancient Nordic roots of the Icelandic language kept us a bit confused but was delightful to listen to and understand but most of the Icelanders speak English too (as well as other European languages) so communicating was never a hurdle. It was a delightful visit in a country that seemed delighted to have us there.
A six hour (and six time zone) flight later and we were back in Minnesota, a bit confused about the time on the clock but not about the places we had seen and the people we had met. It was all very good.