Where waterfalls outnumber people

The Westfjords are the wildest and most rugged corner of an already wild and rugged country. But those who make the journey find some of Iceland’s most beautiful and untouched scenery.

In a two-room museum in a tiny town in northwest Iceland’s Westfjords, a local man detailed the avalanches and long winters that often isolate the residents of the peninsula from their neighbours. The Westfjords are the wildest and most rugged corner of an already wild and rugged country. Fewer than 7,500 people live scattered throughout its 22,000sqkm, making it the least populated section of inhabitable Iceland. It’s also the coldest. In winter – which can last from September until June – severe winds, dense fog and heavy snows can close the region’s airports for weeks at a time.

Given the challenges of living in such a remote area on the far edge of the country, I asked the man, who’d introduced himself as Midge, why he would choose the Westfjords as his home.

“Well,” he smiled, “have you looked around?”

Fewer than 3% of Iceland’s tourists visit the Westfjords, the small fjord-filled peninsula that reaches from Iceland's northwest corner into the North Atlantic Ocean like a gnarled lobster claw. Tempestuous weather and a lack of tourist infrastructure can make travel throughout the Westfjords difficult, but the reward is some of the most beautiful and untouched scenery in Iceland.

My husband Dan and I took the long way around from Reykjavik, driving our rented campervan each day and sleeping inside it each night as we circled the country. The campervan had a bone-jarring suspension, a broken headlight and a tendency to stall unexpectedly on steep inclines, but it survived the 1,500km drive to Ísafjörður.

Home to 2,600 residents, Ísafjörður is the largest settlement in the Westfjords. The town’s commercial hub fits on a pier slightly more than 1km long and half as wide. The aluminium-sided houses that line the town’s streets hardly seem strong enough to withstand the north’s volatile weather; it was only mid-September when we arrived, and the forecast was already threatening snow.

Despite concerns about the weather and the campervan’s reliability, we risked the short drive to neighbouring Súðavík to visit the Arctic Fox Center. The two-room café, museum and rehab centre cares for orphaned and injured foxes, Iceland’s only indigenous land animal. The lone employee on duty was Englishman Stephen Midgley, the aforementioned, Midge.

Midgley knows a lot about the challenges of living in the Westfjords. In addition to his work at the centre, he is one half of the two-person volunteer rescue team that looks after Súðavík’s 150 residents. When major disasters strike, additional locals volunteer, arriving by boat from other towns if the road is closed – and road closures are common occurrences. The 15km stretch of coastal road that connects Súðavík to Ísafjörður is dotted with more than 20 known avalanche danger zones. In 1995, a series of avalanches buried Súðavík and nearby Flateyri, killing 34 people. In 2013, avalanches closed the road for nearly a week. Midgley’s wife was stranded in Ísafjörður and had to stay with coworkers. “But that’s what we do around here,” he said. “We take care of each other.”

The next day, we decided to chance a journey farther from Ísafjörður. We started our road trip in a long, deep tunnel that cut through the mountains to the next fjord. When the tunnel narrowed to a single lane, we’d pull over into small bays to let oncoming cars pass. Midgley had warned us of the difficulty of judging distances in the tunnels and the frustration of a long wait if you pulled over too soon. He’d proposed the idea of painting murals in the waiting bays to give drivers something to look at. There was no funding for the project yet, but that wasn’t a roadblock for Midgley. Though people in the Westfjords know the value of relying on their neighbours, they also know when to rely on themselves. “Maybe I’ll round up some friends and we’ll do it ourselves,” he’d said.

It was pouring rain on the other side of the tunnel, but within a few kilometres the clouds became a filigree of white with patches of brilliant blue. Though winter’s chill had already arrived, the landscape was surprisingly colourful. There were mountains and valleys in every shade of green, from the pale grass growing to sheep-dotted hills to the vibrant spongy moss that clung to the coast. Rust and gold leaves gripped the lava rocks and climbed up the sides of the mountains that cradled the fjords. Bales of yellow hay sat ready to be stored for winter and hues of brilliant blue sparkled in the many waterfalls that poured down from the mountaintops. I started counting them but stopped when I reached 87 in less than an hour.

More than 80km from Ísafjörður, we paused at the region’s largest waterfall, the multi-tiered Dynjandi, one of the area’s most popular attractions. For more than an hour, we had it all to ourselves. I’d read the Westfjords were home to more waterfalls than people; now I started to believe it.

We then headed 60km southwest to the nearest town on a road deep with ruts and potholes. The town, Bíldudalur, was little more than a cluster of houses. A single unattended automated gas pump passed for a service station. Dan and I debated the wisdom of taking the unreliable van any farther from civilization, but I was determined to push on to the towering sea cliffs at Látrabjarg – the westernmost point in Iceland.

The road to the cliffs was so badly marked with puddle-filled ruts and craters that we figured it would take us more than an hour to cover the final 50km to where the route dead-ended at Látrabjarg. Around every curve the weather changed from sun to rain and back again; we spotted several rainbows and passed red and gold sand beaches, rusting shipwrecks and dozens more waterfalls that tumbled down to the dramatic coastline. There wasn’t a single car.

When Dan and I had originally chosen the Westfjords as our next destination, we hadn’t known how much we’d need to be in the middle of nowhere, how badly we’d want to pretend that nothing outside the sheltering arms of these mountainous peninsulas existed. In May, five months before the trip, my stepfather passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. And then a week before we left for Iceland, Dan’s mom passed away with just as little warning.

We’d decided to take the trip anyway. “Grief doesn’t have a geographical boundary,” Dan had rationalised. And as such, it was fortuitous that we’d decided to spend our time in a place where it was easy to be alone. Outside of the towns, we had only each other, the endless curving road and the green mountains, towering over us like silent, protective guards.

It wasn’t long, though, until we were reminded that the region’s emptiness could also be cause for concern. With just a few kilometres until we reached the cliffs, the van stalled. We were almost 50km from the nearest town, near the literal end of the road, where there was little chance anyone would come to help. To my relief, the engine hummed back to life when I restarted it. A few kilometres later, it stalled once more.

While Dan looked worried, I was uncharacteristically optimistic. Maybe we could call the Artic Fox Center and ask Midge for a rescue, I joked. Thankfully, the van restarted once again and we finally arrived at the site’s small parking lot just as another group was leaving.

Strong winds battered the cliffs as we made our way carefully up the spongy incline towards the land’s edge and I held tightly to Dan as the wind pushed me sideways. Though I laughed at the warning sign depicting a stick-figure falling head-first off the cliffs, I made sure to keep a safe distance from the drop-off for fear that the wind might actually propel me over.

At 14km long and 440m high, the cliffs at Látrabjarg are the largest bird cliffs in Europe and the second-most western point in Europe (bested only by the Azores). We stopped a short distance from the edge, watching as a lone bird practiced acrobatic swoops and flips in the wind. Below, the sea made a thick foam as it thrashed against the rocks, sending an occasional bubble floating to the sky. Like the few tourists who visit this remote place, the millions of birds that nest in the cliffs in summer had already migrated elsewhere for the coming winter. The silence was magical.

Getting to the Westfjords wasn’t easy and venturing so far into a remote and unpopulated region in an unreliable van with winter arriving any day was foolish. In fact, the next day, we’d wake to the first snow of the season covering the tops of the mountains that encircle Ísafjörður. On the 450km drive back to Reykjavik the van would stall once, twice, 12 times before it would finally give up entirely. Dan and I – deciding this time we’d save ourselves instead of wait for a rescue – would abandon it in a hotel parking lot and hail a taxi.

But for now we were grateful that the clunky van had brought us here, where we could be completely alone. As we stood staring out over the cliffs, the deep blue of the North Atlantic Ocean stretched on until it blended with the pale pastel hue of the sky. To our backs, the undulating green of the clifftops seemed to roll on forever. I felt far away from the tragedies of home, separated from sadness by the endless blue on one side, and shielded from the rest of the known world by the mountains on the other. This tiny corner in this compact peninsula in this little country was bigger, wilder and more beautiful than I could have imagined. The inconveniences, rough roads and challenges of traveling in the Westfjords could only seem small in comparison.

I could understand now why Midgley would choose to live in a place where avalanches are a yearly threat, winter can last nine months and waterfalls outnumber people. All I had to do was take a look around.

Practicalities
Ísafjörður can also be reached by a 45-minute flight from Reykjavik on AirIcelandHappy Campers and KuKu Campers both offer campervans. In Ísafjörður, Gentle Space Guest Apartments offer one- and two-bedroom apartments in the centre of town.