A square, two-storey guest house with bare, small rooms and a simple kitchen is snugged in between the trailer-cum-farmhouse and the sheep barn. The collection of buildings looks tiny against a sweeping backdrop: a deep valley that winds away from the mouth of the fjord, hemmed in by high cliffs.
Issue: 2017-01-11, PHOTO: Kim Melton
Iceland’s sparsely-populated Westfjords is dotted with sheep farms like this along the coastal roads
Think Tombstone, rolling arctic alpine terrain, but instead of meeting boreal forest at its lowest extent, the treeless plain is greeted by the sea. Instead of caribou, sheep roam the valley bottoms and even explore high up the craggy cliff faces. This is the Westfjords, a jagged, many-fingered peninsula jutting out of the northwest corner of Iceland.
My partner and I were in Iceland in October for an agriculture conference (see (Hot) Water Water Everywhere from the December 21 issue) and took some time to get out and see the stunning panoramas that are making Iceland a prime tourist destination, as well as the countryside that produces the food consumed in the country’s capital city of Reykjavik.
We arrived late at night at this particular farm after driving much longer than anticipated on windy gravel roads through some of the most spectacularly rugged country I have ever seen. Up incredibly steep cliffs above torrential waterfalls, across highlands of rock and rushing water, and passed a disheartening series of guesthouses and hotels bearing “closed for the winter” signs.
The symbol of a bed (and hot spring) at the turn-off to the farm gave me hope, but it was underlain by skepticism as I knocked on the door.
Issue: 2017-01-11, PHOTO: Kim Melton
Iceland’s sheep pastures have dramatic backdrops
A woman perhaps in her forties greeted me with the short-but-not-impolite manner I had come to expect from the Icelanders, and affirmed that yes, indeed there was a room. She showed us into the (empty) guesthouse where I helped her make up a couple of beds. She warmed considerably - for an Icelander - when she learned that we, too, were farmers.
We awoke to a see for the first time where we had ended up, and in the cliff opposite wisps of steam were visible trailing up from a stream of water cascading down to meet a creek that meandered to the sea. From that direction noises alerted us to the farmers already hard at work, after setting their kids on the bus to school in the nearest village about 45 minutes away.
We walked out over the rock-strewn fields to watch them bring in the sheep from a paddock down by the sea, herding with a truck and an ATV. We learned that their sheepdog had passed away the year before and they were waiting for the perfect pup – no predator protection required though, as arctic foxes are the island's only endemic mammal.
Before embarking once again on the curly coast road we treated ourselves to the ubiquitous “hot pot,” which here, as in many places, meant a garden-variety fibreglass hot tub with water piped in from the spring free-flowing in and back out again.
Did I mention they are a practical people? Gudrun and her husband Leifur (she traced their names out on the barn wall with a smile when I had no luck repeating them back to her) offered to let us stay and help for a few hours, won over especially I think by our traveling companion's nine-year-old. However given our experience the day before of driving late into the night past all the closed places we thought we'd best be on our way, so into the car we hopped.
Many Yukoners can probably sympathise with our mounting anxiety as we neared the densely-populated, greater Reykjavik area, with an ever-decreasing chance of finding somewhere to stay before we got into “civilisation.”
It was with reluctance that we left the farms behind for the suburbs for our last night in the country. We ducked into the Reykjavik Botanic Gardens for a quick tree fix on our last morning before driving back out across the eerie volcanic plain surrounding Keflavik International Airport, and headed home to the Yukon with a lot to ponder about the potential of our own agriculture.