To Russia with Love

(All photos of town below are of Barentsburg)

The USSR, currently Russia, established a couple of towns in the archipelago; Pyramiden was abandoned in 1998 and Barentsburg, which is still an active town today. Both are accessible by boat or snowmobile in the winter. We had hoped to go to Pyramiden but boats were unable to dock.  During this time of year, the ice loosens and moves and can block the dock and prevent the boats from anchoring. It’s a great time to take a boat ride though, you might catch a walrus, seal or polar bear floating by on icebergs.

There is a certain mystery surrounding Pyramiden.  It’s as if it was abandoned over night. Some say that a plane crash killing 141 residents contributed to its rapid descent and eventual evacuation.  But it happened over a period of several months and the weakened economy was also a factor. Many things were left as if people just walked away and never returned.  A few Russians now remain in the town to operate a hotel to accommodate visitors overnight. You can read more about it in this interesting article.  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/soviet-ghost-town-arctic-circle-pyramiden-stands-alone-180951429/

 So instead of Pyramiden, we headed off to Barentsburg.  There are no roads that lead there.  It’s accessible by boat, snowmobile or helicopter.  We took the boat from Longyearbyen and across the way to  first see a glacier before heading to Barentsburg. It was a full days trip. To give you a reference, it was a two hour leg from Barentsburg to Longyearbyen.

The boat cut through ice to get as close to the glacier as possible. 

At a certain point it stopped, going as far as was safe to go. The boat was now wedged into the ice.

To my surprise, the boat crew lowered a wooden ladder from the side  of the boat onto the ice. 

That’s me!

Passengers had to put on life vests and were welcomed to walk on the ice. It was incredible!  That was my second highlight of the trip! 

Once we were all onboard, the boat had to backup out of the ice. We were then enroute to Barentsburg.  The crew BBQ’d whale and salmon on the deck and lunch was served. 

Once we docked, we were greeted by an old, I’ll assume, Russian bus…correct me if I’m wrong in the comments.

We had a walking tour of the town from a Russian woman who shared the history of the town and pointed out the architectural features.  Many of the buildings are painted bright colors.  So much of the year the landscape is white and colorless.  The colors and murals add splashes of cheer. 

The town’s size is approximately 400 people but can reach 550 during its peak season.  The main industry is coal, as was Pyramiden.       

On the day that we arrived , so did the Russian priest…it was just a coincidence!  He lives full time in Oslo, Norway but comes to town several times a year to deliver special services.  Although the towns people had their own special Easter celebration on Easter, they were able to finally gather for an official service with the priest a week later. 

My favorite building in the center of town is a small, wooden church.  It’s really too small for many people to gather in so they hold most services in the community center. 

Groceries and supplies are delivered to town every 2 months.  That requires a lot of planning ahead.  I’d probably starve to death if I had to buy food that far in advance. Luckily there’s a restaurant in town that many people frequent because the prices are very affordable and they have the opportunity to catch up with friends and neighbors.  Speaking of neighbors, I ran into one myself. 

How awesome is that!  We live 20 miles away yet meet in a small town in the arctic circle. Barrett, his brother and two Norwegian friends were off on a four-day snowmobile adventure.  

After walking through town, we took a short, entertaining bus ride back to the dock. The bus was rocking to the beat!

The visit to Barentsburg was too short.  Although the town is very small, there was a lot more to explore. I would have enjoyed a drink in the local pub and perhaps a lively conversation about Putin andTrump!

There is a hotel in town for those who would like to visit overnight.

During the boat ride, I had the pleasure of meeting Ingunn Solberg Sandholm. She’s a 65 year old teacher from Levanger, Norway.

When asked:

What’s the best thing about Svalbard?

She had come to visit her nephew who is living in Longyearbyen  but is also drawn to the mountains and the nature in Svalbard.

What makes you unique?

I was actually surprised by her response.  Earlier in our conversation, she shared with me that every Friday morning at 8 AM she joins a group of friends and goes swimming in the sea.  Keep in mind that she lives in Northern Norway.  She has been doing this year-round for eight years.  In the winter, since it is dark all day, she wears black clothing so when she leaves it to swim, she can easily find it contrasted against the snow.  To most Americans, this would stand out as unique.  When I lived in Southern California, people thought you were daring if you went in the water during the winter there.

What is also unique about Ingunn is that she makes women’s clothing.  You can check out her designs at http://designingunn.blogspot.com/

The views from the boat were spectacular!

I didn’t catch the history of this little abandoned building in the middle of nowhere…imagine!   Here’s a link with a little bit of information. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grumant

I would love to get a peak into the lives of others…hmm, reminds me of a German movie I love.    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lives_of_Others  (Well worth watching!!)

“Peace is not unity in similarity but unity in diversity, in the comparison and conciliation of differences.” –Mikhail Gorbachev (Russian Politician, Environmentalist, Social Activist, 1990 Nobel Peace Prize Winner; b. 1931)

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Oh my goodness, I went dog sledding! It was such an adventure, more than I expected. We took a ride in a cool vehicle to get suited up and to sign waivers.

The company provided the boots, gloves, goggles and snowsuits. We got back in the vehicle but this time it was even more of a challenge. Try climbing/rolling gracefully into a high vehicle wearing a snowsuit!  I felt like the kid in the Christmas Story movie all wrapped up in his winter suit.

When we arrived, we were encouraged to interact with the dogs.  The first dog I walked up to jumped on me and then proceeded to pull my gloves out of my pocket. I had to pry them out of his mouth.  I think that’s when the intimidation started…immediately!  We watched as our guide demonstrated the technique of harnessing the dogs.

We split into pairs and were instructed on how to retrieve our dogs and hitch them to the sleds.  Once a dog was hitched, one member of the pair had to stay with the sled, otherwise the dog would take off with it. You can’t imagine the enthusiasm of the dogs. Each was hoping to get picked and harnessed.  It’s an understatement to say that they wanted to run! 

I let Nik harness the first couple of dogs and then decided I could do it.  I found my dog and was about to give up because he was jumping and twisting and difficult to maneuver.  I finally got him and walked him on his hind legs to the sled. Because the dogs pull so much, they recommend you hold them up so only their back legs are touching the ground. This reduces the pulling and makes it more manageable to pass by other dogs on the way to the sled.

Once I got that little rascal hooked up, I let Nik get the rest. Each sled was pulled by 6 dogs. 

One “preflight” instruction was to not let go of the sled if you happen to tip over (which I was told happens regularly…maybe to scare me).  You let the dogs drag you until they look back and notice.  They will stop momentarily and you’ll have 7-10 seconds to jump back up (in the overstuffed suites) and hop on the sled before they start running again. Now I was thoroughly intimidated.  I sat in the sled (because I wasn’t about to do the driving) and looked to my right. Exactly at eye level was the red, metal hook you use to anchor the sled to the ice when you stop. All I could imagine was tipping over and having my eye impaled on the hook.  The best we could do was to turn it in the other direction. 

The closer we got to hitching up the last dog, the more vocal and rambunctious the dogs got.

The guide, with gun strapped on back, led the team.  And we were off! 

I was paying attention to each snow heave and made sure to lean appropriately.  I was determined that we were not going to tip.  Thankfully no one tipped the entire time.  That was not to say that the ride went without consequence. 

We had to stop numerous times for a variety of reasons.  Dogs were fighting and getting caught up in the lines. Some had to be rearranged to be paired with more compatible dogs. 

We were instructed to not pass sleds but to stay in line and I was surprised to see dogs out the corner of my eye.  Twice, the same pair of dogs got loose from their sleds but were still joined together.  They were running freely passing the other sleds. Luckily they were captured and returned. It appears that one of them was chewing through the lines and releasing them.  When offered to drive the sled, I declined.  I was content to sit! 

Because of the frequent stops we were making, we weren’t going to get to experience the full course.  Our entire dog sledding experience was to be about 4 hours.  The guide asked if we wanted to stay out longer which would then require our help to feed and return the dogs and break down the sleds. We were all game!  On the second half of the trip, the dogs seemed to get into the rhythm of things. That’s when I got up the courage to drive the sled and I’m glad I did.  It was something I may never have the opportunity to experience again.  It was one of the highlights of my trip. 

Oh, here’s an interesting tidbit, prior to my trip I had read that if a dog has to go to the bathroom while running, they don’t ask for a potty break but just go.  Yep, it’ true! 

After we got the dogs settled, we enjoyed a warm drink while socializing with the puppies.  They are enclosed in a cage with their mother and a surrogate step-dad.  They were adorable!  It seems they have a penchant for gloves and boots!

Shortly before leaving, the dogs started to howl.  It was quite the day!

Stay tuned for a couple more posts! Sign up for emails if you want to be alerted for new blog posts.

Svalbard or Bust!

Just a little tidbit from Wikipedia about Svalbard to give you some context https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svalbard

“Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. Situated north of mainland Europe, it is about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole.   Administratively, the archipelago is not part of any Norwegian county, but forms an unincorporated area administered by a governor appointed by the Norwegian government. Since 2002, Svalbard’s main settlement, Longyearbyen, has had an elected local government, somewhat similar to mainland municipalities. Other settlements include the Russian mining community of Barentsburg, the research station of Ny-Ålesund, and the mining outpost of Sveagruva. Svalbard is the northernmost settlement in the world with a permanent civilian population. Other settlements are farther north, but are populated only by rotating groups of researchers.”

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We had a short stop over in Oslo, Norway. We stayed the night and took an early flight to Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

The walk on the tarmac from the plane to the airport wakes you up quickly.  The wind was blowing, my eyes were watering and I was sure I had frost bite on the tip of my nose.  Maybe not instant frost bite but it was COLD.  And then we saw our first polar bear…stuffed on top of baggage claim.

I won’t leave you in suspense.  We never encountered a live polar bear (many skins  and stuffed ones though.) 

( http://www.polarriggen.com/)

The only wildlife I encountered were reindeer.  25,000 roam around freely and aren’t intimidated by humans.

So back to the polar bears…people in town share many stories about polar bear sightings.  This past February, a mother and her cubs walked through town.  For 4 days, they stayed close by without intervention.  In Svalbard, it is the polar bear’s territory and people must be the ones inconvenienced, not the bears.  In the late 1990’s, there was a sad ending to a polar bear encounter.  I heard the story from several people so I’ll assume there is validity to it. 

Three women were hiking along a hilltop and came across a polar bear.  They decided it was best to split up.  One ran away, another jumped off a cliff and recovered from minor injuries in the hospital and the other froze from fear.  She was eaten by the bear. 

Svalbard mandates that unless you’re walking in the main part of town, you either carry a gun or hire a guide who carries the gun. 

For those with a gun certificate, you can rent a rifle for a couple of hours if you want to go for a hike, as Christian and Nannette did, or for longer if you’re going out on an exploration.

It’s not being over cautious though since there are approximately 2,000 people and 3,000 polar bears.

While riding in the shuttle from the airport to town I noticed an odd structure on the side of the mountain.  I overheard someone mention that that was the Seed Vault.  It was so unassuming, I didn’t expect that.  This was as close as I came.  People are not allowed to visit.

As stated on their website:

“Deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, lies the Global Seed Vault.

It is a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time — and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters. The Seed Vault represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity.” You can read more at  https://www.croptrust.org/our-work/svalbard-global-seed-vault/

The town of Longyearbyen is not very big.  Most buildings are situated in a concentrated area.  This makes it very convenient to walk to stores, the museum, the university and hotels.  You’ll soon notice that there are more snowmobiles than cars, parking lots are full of snowmobiles.

 Many are outfitted with gun holders and some pull carts to carry things.

I’m not sure if this is actually a coffin or maybe a practical joke.  I didn’t open it to find out.

The first day we arrived in Svalbard was the coldest.  The wind was whipping and actually it was really only my face that was cold.  If I had a face mask, I would have been content.  I’m not someone who likes the cold and I was really concerned that I would be freezing in Iceland and Svalbard but I was never warmer!  I may have overcompensated  with layer upon layer, but it worked.

The hardest thing for me to get use to was taking off my boots every where I went.  In the US, it’s not often customary to remove your shoes when entering someone’s house.  It is in Iceland.  In Svalbard, they take it one step further.  We had to remove our boots at the entrance to the apartment building but we also did it when entering the Svalbard Museum, Galleries and some restaurants.  Thankfully we didn’t have to grocery shop in socks!  But complimentary crocks were available to wear at some places.

I loved the design of the Svalbard Museum http://svalbardmuseum.no/no/

It was beautiful and quite informative.  It highlighted the animals in the area as well as the way of life for many residents current and past (such as coal miners, fishermen, trappers, explorers etc).

Svalbard has banned births and deaths!  The first is more practical to enforce and deaths have been banned since 1950.  Apparently, bodies were not decomposing in the cold and live samples of viruses had been found on bodies who had died decades ago.  Pregnant women 3 weeks prior to their due date leave Svalbard. If someone is contrary and “decides” to die or perhaps give birth in Svalbard, their certificates will be marked as happening in Tromsø, Norway (a northern town on the mainland.)

Dinning in Svalbard can be challenging for vegetarians and even more so for vegans. For meat lovers, I would assume, a sort of heaven. The choices were typically seal, reindeer, whale (a favorite of many) and various types of fish. All our meals, at various restaurants, were delicious. One place that stands out is Mary-Ann’s Polarriggen.   http://www.polarriggen.com/

It has so much character.

 We dined in a glass greenhouse. The views were spectacular.  We were there for the first midnight sun on April 19th when the sun never goes below the horizon.  They’ll have 24 hour sun until the end of August. 

You have to be cognizant of the time because it’s easy to stay up late without realizing it.  I was surprised on one night that it was almost midnight when we were finishing our dinner. You can look out the window and see people walking their dogs, going by on snowmobiles and even hiking up the mountains.  I would think the winters, with hours of darkness, would be the most challenging.

A parked bus is a creative way to provide a smoking section to diehard arctic smokers.

There are many adventurous people visiting Svalbard.  In the lobby of Marry-Ann’s I met a Polish guy, his dog and a friend. The three were heading out on a 12 day trek!  They had skis, a couple of sleds full of supplies and of course a gun. I wondered how safe it would be sleeping in tents in the wilderness where polar bears lived.  He said his dog adds a layer of security because he may smell the bear in advance and warn them by barking.  I’m not sure how much security that would offer me but I guess it’s better than nothing. His dog was so enamored with him, I’m sure he would do his best to protect them.

Not many people are officially from Svalbard, especially since no one is officially born there!  People come for different reasons and from different regions.  Two of my favorite people from Svalbard are Nikola and Romano, they both work at Mary-Ann’s. 

Nicola Bunyan is 30 years old and was visiting from Paisley, Scotland a year ago. She fell in love with the place and decided to move there. Upon returning home, she quit her job as a graphic designer, sold most of her stuff, except for a few things she left at her mother’s, and headed to Longyearbyen with 2 suitcases. 

When asked:

What’s the best thing about Svalbard?

Nicola said that the people are friendly and the atmosphere is so relaxed.  It’s such a diverse community and you can meet people from all over the world. 

What makes you unique?

Nicola doesn’t follow the way of the world, but rather thirsts for new experiences.  She can’t accept that’s all there is and is constantly looking for more. “There is always more.  It’s never the end!”

Romano Juric is 38 years old and from Primošten, Croatia.  He came for more opportunities and plans to stay for many more years. 

When asked:

What’s the best thing about Svalbard?

Romano says it’s stress-free (I’m starting to see a theme here too!)  It’s calm and quiet and there’s no traffic or rushing around.  It’s OK if you want to be alone or if you prefer to socialize with others.

What makes you unique?

Romano is not a quitter and doesn’t like limits but instead believes he can accomplish anything in life he puts his mind to.  His goals energize him.  The challenge is being patient since he want things to happen immediately.

On the road again!

It’s time to hit the road. A group of us will be flying to Svalbard but we first need to get to the airport at Keflavik, 45 minutes from Reykjavik.  It will take us 2 days to get there.  We are going along the east coast, and although it takes a little longer in that direction, the scenery is beautiful.  On the way to þórshöfn, we went along the west coast.  So essentially, I will have traveled along the perimeter of Iceland and done a complete circle. 

We came across a curious sight… fish heads drying!  It’s not something you see everyday nor smell.  Yep, it stunk but there was a strong, cold wind off the water so it wasn’t overpowering. 

The roads in Iceland change between paved and dirt.  There is no highway but rather a two laned road, a lane in each direction.  The bridges are most often a single lane so you have to make sure no one is coming from the other direction.  They’re not very wide either so it’s imperative you keep a close eye on the road.  There are very few guard rails (I saw one over a steep cliff so I was thankful for that since the roads were icy at that spot) and no street lights.  Every few yards are orange poles with reflectors.  At night the headlights shine on the reflectors and outline the road.  Without them it would be impossible to stay on the road since there aren’t painted lines on the shoulder. You may see town lights across the fjord and think you’re almost there but it may take another half hour until you reach it because you have to follow the contour of the fjord and it may go deep inland.  There are few straight roads. 

The roads yield to the landscape and often times are moved because nature is unyielding.  These steel struts are the remnants of a bridge and one example of natures power.

While driving I’m used to looking out for animals crossing the road.  There are no deer or squirrel or many of the types of animals that one might expect to see.   The only wild animals I saw near the roads were birds and geese.  Iceland does not have deer but the east coast does have reindeer, although we did not see any. 

I loved Glacier Lagoon http://icelagoon.is/.  It’s a pool of floating icebergs that make their way to the sea. It was a tranquil place where I could imagine spending hours.  There was something transformative about watching the icebergs float into the sea.  Imagine the years it took to make that journey.  It’s like the final hoorah. 

One day I would love to rent a camper and meander the countryside. They rent campers and 4 wheel drive vehicles.  Some 4 wheelers have HUGE tires.  The gas mileage isn’t great but they can go wherever they want. And people love to explore many isolated areas. 

The scenery is spectacular.  I’d love to see it in the summer as well.  I would imagine that most people would prefer the summer when it’s light almost all day long but some have said that the winter skies are spectacular. 

Once in awhile you can spot hay bales in pink covering.  Even the Icelandic farmers support breast cancer awareness.

We stopped along the way and had dinner at a nice restaurant.  There was a small museum that described how the French came to the area and started fishing.  The conditions were treacherous and many died.  The beds were tiny and shared by 4-5 men, I hope  at least in rotations! 

Antje “Asa” Müller is 22 years old and from Bremen, Germany and came to Iceland to work on a sheep farm.  She has been here for one and half years.

What’s the best thing about Iceland?

The mentality that you can leave your keys in the car.  There is less stress here.

What makes you unique?  

I think working on a sheep farm makes me unique.  While working I get many bruises…and I like bruises!  It’s like a tattoo that changes.  It’s a form of body art.  I don’t connect it to pain.  It creates memories of what I’ve done and reminds me of my hard work.

Sigurjón Pórðarson is 35 years old and is from Reykjavik, Iceland.  He is the police officer in þorshófn.  They would typically have 2 officers at a time so the other can have time off but they haven’t been able to fill the position.  If he wants a drink of alcohol or to take vacation, he needs to arrange for coverage.  Now that’s dedication!

What’s the best thing about Iceland?

The nature, the waterfalls, the Icelandic water, Landmannalaugar https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landmannalaugar, and Jökulsárlón http://icelagoon.is/

What makes you unique?

Although it was a difficult question to answer and friends around him agreed, he is a social person, friendly, down to earth and a good communicator!

Steven Headman is 23 years old and from Luderits, Namibia.  He came to Iceland as a child.

What’s the best thing about Iceland?

It’s the people!  They are so easy to be friends with.

What makes you unique?

I’m funny and I’m a good friend.  I want to work on a sheep farm but currently work in the fish factory.

I hear the fish are biting!

Nik, Kele, Grega and I were invited aboard Johann’s fishing boat…what a treat! Johann is a cod fisherman as is his dad and generations before him.  He was raised on a small island north of Iceland’s mainland, called Grimsey.  Approximately 40 people inhabited the island. By boat, it is 17 hours to þórshöfn  When he was 18, he moved to þórshöfn where he has lived since.  As is typical for Icelandic weather, it can change dramatically.  When we got past the break water, the seas were a bit rough and the boat was pitching back and forth.  For anyone with a weak stomach, this wouldn’t be the day to go out.  It was challenging to photograph since walking around the deck wasn’t an option. Bracing myself up against something was my only option of staying afoot.

There were a couple of times I feared we might be throwing out a life line for Kele or Nik.  They were brave enough to throw out a fishing line off the deck.  Kele caught two and Nik caught one! 

They also fished the modern way.  I’ll try to describe it adequately.  Along the side of the boat are large reels with computers.  You drop a line with several hooks on it that resemble fish.  The computer will react once it gets a bite, and based on the weight, will reel it in at the appropriate speed.  Let’s just say the fish were biting today!  It was amazing to watch Johann in his element.  He was lighting quick at pulling them on board and “harvesting” them, (I’ll leave out the gory details).

The pitching of the boat didn’t seem to matter to him. Kele on the other hand almost landed in a fish hold…I had my camera ready!  He was half way in but managed to recover. 

My biggest regret was that I wasn’t able to capture the most exciting moments.  In a rush to get on the boat, I left my iPhone behind, which I like to use for video.  If I had had it, you would have seen Johann pull in 400 kilos of fish in under 7 minutes!  There were 5 to 6 fish on some lines…one right after the other.  It was hard to photograph, he was going so fast.  The fish were big! The biggest was about 45 pounds.  For anyone into fishing, you would have been in your glory with plenty of fish stories to tell.  The trip ended safe for all except my camera lens!  As I was photographing, my Canon 24-70 2.8L fell off the body and landed hard on the deck of the boat.  I have no idea how it released.  Maybe with all the jostling, the release button was pushed.  I can’t seem to get it on the body.  I’m hoping it’s not a total loss and a camera shop may be able to fix it. 

As we arrived at the dock, Johann’s father met the boat.  In his seventies, he is still fishing and a legend in the town. 

Once docked, Johann and his father started to filet the fish.  We came away with tons of cod…ok, that might be an exaggeration but it was a lot. 

We returned to the Báran and celebrated with a glass of cognac. 

Later in the evening, Nik hosted a dinner party  complete with candle light.  The entrees were duck, beef, lamp and whale.  I resisted at first but then decided to try the whale…not my cup of tea.  It tasted like liver! 

I had so much fun getting to know everyone.  I can’t wait to introduce you to more of my new friends on future posts…but it’s late and we have an early morning tomorrow. 

A new day, a new dawn…

I woke up at 10 AM, only 5 hours of sleep…I usually require 8-9.  It must be the Icelandic air that energizes me.  I walk across the street and start my day at Báran Restaurant.  It may only be 2 days, but I feel sad to say goodbye to my new friends Milós and Blanka.  They are heading off on their new venture…brave souls!

IMG_6398

As I mentioned before, they both left professional jobs to explore and enjoy life.  I admire their courage.  It reminds me of a poem by Ulrich Schaffer about leaving one shore yet not arriving at the other… adventurous souls!

The best part of Iceland has been meeting everyone…those born and raised here, those traveling through and those who have decided that Iceland is their new home.  I wanted to get a sense of why others cherished Iceland so I decided to ask.

I basically asked 2 questions: What is the best of thing about Iceland? What makes you unique?  I hope you enjoy learning about everyone as much as I have.

Miloš Zajíc  is 43 years old and from Plzeň, Czech Republic. He just returned from the Czech Republic to work in Iceland. He took his vehicle on the ferry from Denmark.

Milos

What’s the best thing about Iceland?

It’s sparsely populated.  There are no trees, the landscape is open and you can see the mountains in the distance, it’s beautiful and interesting.  “I feel the power inside the earth!”

What makes you unique?

I have no formal education.  I educated myself and feel that I can hold my own with other colleagues who received a formal education.  I have a different view on life.  I’m not tied to my job or social expectations and therefore free to give up things, I’m not afraid.  Losing fear has freed me!

Blanka Konečná is 40 years old and from Vlkoš, Czech Republic.  She is joining Miloš on the journey.

What’s the best thing about Iceland?

The Gulfoss Waterfall!

http://gullfoss.is/

What makes you unique?  

I see myself as average, “average is my comfort zone.” I want balance  in every situation and I don’t like extremes. But my heart is wild.  Privately, I imagine myself as a free mustang running.

Next stop…

Sauðanes on Langanes

We visited one of the oldest churches in Iceland.  We walked up and went right in, no locked doors. That seems to be a theme in this part of Iceland at least.  People don’t lock their houses or cars and apparently a precious church with authentic artwork as well.  The feeling of openness, in its many forms, seems to be pervasive.

It appears Nik has a hidden talent, he plays a mighty organ!

 

Agust’s family has owned the land where the church, museum, farm and previous airport used to be.  You’ll know exactly where that is when you see the plane that remains in a field from a crash landing.  That’s also where the Icelandic horses like to hang out.

 

Welcome to the sheep house.  This is where they stay during the harsh winters.  Once it’s time, the barn doors are opened and they graze in the fields and hills for months.  When it’s time to bring them home, Icelandic horses are mounted and ridden up in the hills with sheep dogs to herd them back to the farms. Townspeople come out to help sort the sheep by farm.  They’re identified according to tags or perhaps marks on their ears, if they still follow old traditions.  They may be gone for 3 days at a time, riding up in the hills.  It’s typically done on the first weekend in September. A second run may be necessary to make sure they don’t leave any stray sheep behind.

A bunch of babies were born early in the season.  It appears an amorous ram got loose and had relations with quite a few sheep.  I’m not sure if he was the same ram that Agust was offering us a bite of.  Several babies were born the day before and I was able to hold them!  So cute! 

After we visited the sheep, Agust impressed us with his horsemanship. He trains the horses for both sheep herding and competitions.  Icelandic horses are known for their 5 gaits.  It was so exciting to see him ride.  We rode alongside in the car to film.  I wasn’t sure how good the video would be because of the bumpy road but was rather pleased with the quality.  Agust continued on with his training while I was greeted by the horses in the field.  They were SO friendly and curious. I didn’t want to leave!  I would love to come back and hang with them again.

Waking up in Iceland…

Thank God for eye masks, I was able to sleep in.  I took the long walk across the street from Nik’s flat to his restaurant, Báran Restaurant  http://baranrestaurant.is/is/  .  It’s the BEST restaurant in town!!! Well, sure it may be the ONLY restaurant but that doesn’t diminish the quality and atmosphere.  þorkell which translates to helmet of Thor, better known as Keli, (the best cook in town), served me up some fish and chips…delicious! You can’t get any more local. The fishing boat is right out the back door.

Fishing Boat Harbor

Báran Restaurant is not only a restaurant it’s also an informal community center, after all, the population is 380. Villagers will stop in to get the local “news”.

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Going to the grocery store seemed to be a social event as well.  As soon as Nik walks in he’s engaged in conversation with a handful of people.   If you want to go to a large grocery store, you’d need to travel 100 miles. Keep in mind the roads are twisting and turning.  That trip may take 2 hours…as a local said, “it depends on the season and the driver”…some never make it! Flying on IcelandAir I found it comical that they featured a cartoon character “Elfish”, who instructs  visitors on driving in Iceland.  I feel fortunate to have watched it, I’m sure many wished they had! I won’t mention any names here.

And then it’s off to the hairdresser for more chit chat! Eygló did a great job!

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Everything you need is basically located at an intersection: a bank, grocery store, police station, gas station, restaurant….and coming soon, a bed and breakfast.  Nik hopes to have his B&B opened by June (2017).  Building supplies are limited. Nik flew to Poland to pick out and purchase doors, fixtures, wood…basically everything he needs to complete the job.  There’s no running out to Home Depot if you forget something.  The builder is anxiously awaiting their arrival, it’s being packed on a shipping container in Denmark and making its way to Iceland shortly.

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Ever heard of Leader Sheep?  Neither had I until Daniel Hansen shared his wealth of information and passion for these interesting/unique creatures.  In fact, he opened up a museum and established an educational foundation to preserve and promote them.  http://www.forystusetur.is/is/forsida

The leader sheep are known for their leadership characteristics and a specific sense of direction, which are highly valued in extreme farming conditions in Iceland. The leader sheep were used to bring the flock home in bad weather during winter grazing and they are still used to lead the flock when sheep are moved to and from summer pastures.

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The drinking age in Iceland is twenty.  The natives were restless, so to speak 🙂 It’s vacation week and although it’s not typical for a week night, Nik’s bar was the place to be.  At about midnight, they started coming.  The doors closed at 3 AM but another door opened down the street!  The merriment moved down the street and so did I.

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It was a short walk, cold but beautiful!

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5 AM and I was finally settling down for some sleep…and I wasn’t even tired. I put on my eye mask (since it was fairly bright out) and got some shut eye.

I have arrived!

I can’t believe I only arrived yesterday morning (April 11, 2017).  I have already met SOOOO many people and have seen so much of the countryside.  After Nik picked me up from the airport, four of us took off on a little road trip.  His friend Ulrika (Nik met her while teaching in Estonia and she nows lives and works here) and Agnete (a 13 year old Danish exchange student coming to live with a local farmer’s family).  We left Reykjavik on our way to  þórshöfn , the trip took about 12 hours and we did make a few stops along the way.

Iceland Map

One thing to note is that things are very expensive in Iceland. Fish and Chips at a local diner cost $25 and that’s considered cheap.  During lunch Agnete said that she has only been to a restaurant 8 times in her entire life! I can do that in a week!  Maybe she will have inspired me to cook more.

We stopped at Hofsos https://www.northiceland.is/en/what-to-see-do/service/hofsos-swimming-pool and went into a geothermal swimming pool.  The outside air was 2 degrees Celsius (35.6 Fahrenheit) and the water  was 38 degree celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit). The best part was the warm water, the view of the ocean and surrounding mountains but the worst part were the bathroom accommodations.  I guess people in Iceland are not modest.  You are required to shower naked in a “group” shower.  They have a poster describing what areas to wash.  I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Hofsos PoolChurch

The next stop was to visit a friend of Nik’s who will be joining us on our trip to Svalbard.  It was probably about 10 PM by the time we arrived. It’s hard to describe where we met him but I’ll attempt to.  We went into a building that seemed like a “men’s club”.  It had couches, a pool table, a bar and TV etc etc.  oh, and yes, some men.  They work on road construction and since it’s so rural, they live in shipping container buildings.  Mummi (Nik’s friend) was very hospitable.  He prepared sandwiches and coffee…and vodka!  I had the nicest surprise…he had a gift for me, an Icelandic sweater!  It’s gorgeous!  A local woman made it from the local sheep.

Icelandic Sweater

The roads were narrow and winding and conditions changed immediately..sun, snow, wind.  We went through many tunnels.  Some had one lane requiring trucks to pull over in specific spots to let cars by.  Cars were very infrequent though.

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We went through some treacherous roads towards the end of our trip.  The snow was falling, there were snow drifts and it was a bit of white knuckling.  Sometimes the roads are closed and driving is prohibited.  At one point, we saw a car turned over on its roof on the side of the road.

We dropped off Agnete at her host family, Ulricha at her home and then Nik and I went to his restaurant/bar.  Waiting for us were his friend Milos, from the Czech Republic, and his girlfriend Blanka, also from the Czech Republic.  They just arrived to Iceland on a ferry earlier in the day and made their way to Nik’s place.  They both quit their professional careers to go out and explore Iceland, find stress-free jobs and enjoy a less structured life!  We stayed up until  about 3:30-4 AM before falling fast asleep.

Milos, Blanka, Nik and IBaran Restaurant

Welcome to My Whimsy!

In a couple of weeks I will be setting off on an adventure.  First stop, Reykjavik, Iceland…jumping in a car to þórshöfn ( 8 to 9 hour drive to the opposite end of the island) but stopping overnight at Stykkishólmur.

A week later the adventure continues stopping over at Oslo, Norway on our way to Longyearbyen, Svalbard and Jan Mayen!