WELL, THAT HAPPENED: Voyage of the Gerpir
An abandoned fjord hides Iceland’s majesty.
JACKSON HOLE, WY – Living out here in Neskaupstaður, Iceland, nine hours from Reykjavík, I’ve come to embrace the idea that the most beautiful places in Iceland are those hidden away and difficult to reach.
The hotel I work at has recently purchased an old fishing boat named Gerpir, which can hold about 30 to 40 people, comfortably. It’s about 15-meters long and has a cozy cabin beneath the deck with benches, tables, and a kitchenette. Gerpir is now part of the Hildibrand Hotel family and will be bringing guests into the fjord, Norðfjörður, throughout the summer.
Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of joining our staff and bosses on a quick fishing tour into the fjord. We’d been spotting two humpback whales—a mother and a calf—for the past few days, and were eager to get some good photos of them. Iceland doesn’t have any indigenous land mammals (the Arctic fox’s origin is still up for debate), so spotting whales can be a big event, even for the Icelanders.
We hopped into the boat and began sailing east in the fjord towards the Atlantic Ocean. Heavy cloud cover made for a chilly adventure, but we were bundled up tight and far too focused on whale searching to notice. Northern fulmars soared past our boat, curiously flying just feet from where I was standing on the deck. Our eyes were peeled for blows and black backs, and we prayed that the whales hadn’t abandoned us in the few hours since we’d last seen them.
But the expedition was fruitless as the calm waters revealed nothing but eider ducks, black-headed gulls and more fulmars. We switched off the engines and proceeded to dip our fishing rods into the fjord to see if we could catch some dinner. Icelanders have a fishing birthright, meaning they are able to fish as much as they want, as long as their catch is not being resold. Fishing companies have far more regulations and quotas they need to abide by, but if you’re just a fellow trying to feed his family, you can fish to your heart’s content.
As we pulled wriggling cod from the sea, the clouds opened up and the sun brought the sea to life. Shimmering reflections bounced off the sides of the boat and shadows of the circling fulmars fell across the deck. We may not have found any whales, but there wasn’t a frown in sight.
Before heading back to the harbor, we decided to make a trip into the next fjord south of us, Hellisfjörður, or the cave fjord. Sailing around the bend was awe-inspiring, as the ocean swells crashed against the cliffs with thuds that can only be described as thunderous. It felt like Jurassic Park and I nearly expected our elusive whale to reappear right then and there. The massive mountain towered above us and soon we had exited our populated fjord and achieved utter isolation.
The wind died down. The birds dissipated. The swells began to soften.
In the early twentieth century, a whaling station operated out of the fjord. They pulled in around 3,000 whales before ultimately shutting down sometime before 1950—the exact year has faded from general knowledge. All that remains there is a vague skeletal structure on an abandoned beach.
We shut down the engines and bobbed in the waves. I couldn’t help eagerly taking in the 360-degree view. Other than the remains of the whaling station, there wasn’t a single sign of human life. We were alone. Steaming coffee and tuna fish sandwiches were passed around. Cigarettes were bummed. Two inquisitive puffins landed in the water next to us. And it was at that moment I realized how thrilled I was to be living in this part of the country.
Yes, it’s sometimes annoying to be so cut off from the rest of Iceland. And I’m often asked why I chose to live in such a remote place in Iceland when I could have easily reaped the city comforts of Reykjavík. Bobbing there in Hellisfjörður, I could have shouted my answer to the world. But, like a fallen tree in the woods, there was no one around to hear me.
A half-mile in the distance, I spotted a blow from our whale friends. I smiled, bringing the coffee cup to my lips, telling no one. PJH