Horseback and Hunting

Spending the summer riding horses gives you a new perspective of the landscape around you. For one thing, it passes much slower, as you have time to stare and think about the scenery unfolding. Getting into a car and flying at 90km per hour after a week of reaching maximum speeds of 30 (bouncy) kilometres per hour causes me to panic and hold onto the side of the car seat and wonder if Im moving at lightspeed. Requests for the driver to slow down just gets a chuckle from those in the car, but eventually people’s suggestions to relax are possible.

One thing I noticed is that crossing bridges is a lot easier in cars than on horseback. I was once riding a really safe gelding over a bridge while holding a hand horse, and at one point, in the middle of the bridge, they both decided they were too close to the sides of the bridge, and in attempt to stay as far away from the rail as possible, they stopped and had a push of war against eachothers sides. My leg was pinned between the two, and as one edged the other out, their shod feet started sliding out on the concrete, making sparks and stressing them more. The herd pushed from behind, also uncomfortable to be stuck halfway on the bridge, and eventually we made it over without losing anyone overboard.

One lonely old male has made a home out of Fljótsdalur, near this narrow

4x4ing through glacial streams

bridge where you get the most beautiful sight of glacier water mixing with the heavier fresh water and causing the bright blue water to line up against the brown stream. We also saw a herd of 900 reindeer when we were driving up to Vatnajökull for a glacial walk, blasting through river crossings and peering into icecaves.

At the end of August, I went reindeer hunting on horseback with 5 hunters and 14 horses. We started 15km north of Egilstaðir town, from a farm at the base of the snow-covered mountains. The beginning was a bit rocky, as 4 riders fell off their horses and we temporarily lost the herd as the 7 loose horses galloped off. I realized the hunters weren’t true horsemen (yet), and that having handhorses might reduce the chances of the herd galloping off with our food, beer, tent and sleeping bags again. We eventually got our act together and made it to Hrundalur where we tented in a rented Marmot tent that came with no ground pegs. We creatively experimented with saddles and extra horse shoes to hold fasten the tent down securely.

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searching for 200 reindeer, not as easy to spot as youd think

The next day we hiked hours into the mountain tops, and spotted a herd of 200 reindeer. There were 4 hunters on the trip, all doctors and good friends, but only Kalli had the hunting permit. By noon, he had shot a 90kg male, that we had to gut, chop into three pieces, and tie down on the back of one very calm, patient horse called Postskjoni. He carried the deer back down the steep slopes where we left it submerged in an icy river.

Kalli, the hunter, with his reindeer

Postskjoni carrying the deer down

There was 1 reindeer hunter guide, and me, the horse guide. I was the new Denni of the trip, in charge of all the horses and also the riders who transformed magnificently into true horsemen after 3 days of riding. Instead of Leo, Denni´s dog with the innate knowledge to herd and nip at heels regardless of getting kicked square in the head, we had Molli, a black labrador that was more interested in our wellbeing than the horses. He paced alongside us, always looking up at us riders for eye contact and assurance that we were doing ok.

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the hunters, our horses and the dog Molli

I remember one of the first horse trips I rode with Denni, he wore converse shoes and a cowboy hat, so I tried to put some style into my outfit and wore Timbalands and an old beige riding hat I found at a second hand store for 450kr. Jón, the former Denni, could ride with a wild goose in one hand and a bottle of schnapps in the other, but there was nothing I could do to top that except drink a little schnapps during riding pauses.

taking a break at the top of a moutain pass

This trip was a little more difficult, with no path or tracks to follow, and the horses unsure of where they were or where to go. At least I knew all the horses by sight, no longer confused by the lookalikes or needing strips of coloured tape to tell them apart. We also didnt have to ride past other herds of horses, since we had one stallion escape twice from a fence and run along with our herd during the summer trips. On the first day of the Ishestar trips, my cell phone fell out of my pocket and a herd of 90 horses trampled it dead, but on this trip we only lost one pocket knife. We may as well have lost our phones, since we rarely had service and my battery was basically dead the entire weekend, relieving me of any contact with the outside world and only focusing on the horses and my new best friends.

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riding with hand horses

After completing our main hunting mission, we rode over a mountain pass, over rivers and snow, to Klyppstaðir, arriving well into the unexpected dark of night, to tent at the afterparty of a country ball in the valley where the icelandic band KK had just finished playing. We sat under the stars and watched northern lights flicker behind the silhouette of the mountains, and ate sheep heads, salted lamb, dried fish, homemade moonshine and whiskey. All 6 of us crammed into the 6 person tent that probably fits 4 more comfortably just as we started to feel a little dizzy, as the horses grazed just beyond our heads.

goose hunting on Fljotsdalsheidi

I got to choose the horses I knew and liked best from the Ishestar horse trips, and pair rider to horse like an intricate matchmaker. It was nice not to have to ride the crazies and untamed, like the case so often was one the regular tours. By the last day, the hunters had transformed into horsemen, as we all found our groove and rode triumphantly back into the valley we started, over another icy mountain pass. The next day, they skinned the reindeer, and after becoming a tight riding, tenting, hunting family unit, the boys invited me goose hunting. We drove Frikki´s Land Rover up into Fljótsdalsheiði and sat beside the pond with the most abundant, shiny goose poo that we could find and waited for nightfall. We sat very still, nibbled on chocolate, and only one flock of geese flew overhead but never landed. I fired the shotgun once anyway, without killing anything, and decided I liked goose hunting better than reindeer hunting.

Summer in Iceland

September creeps up on you like the chill of sunset sneaks under your skin after a sunny day in Iceland. All of a sudden its getting dark at 8:30 when you’ve grown accustomed to never fearing nightfall, and you start to realise how much you appreciate the warmth of the sunrays in this sub-arctic island.

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a glorious summer day in the countryside

Reykjavik awakens for the summer months, with a noticeable population boom from all the tourists walking downtown decked out in outdoor gear and big-lens cameras. People are out and about, drinking coffee and beers on patios, mothers walking their babies in killer heels, and the city folk flock to the countryside for hiking, bathing and summerhouse time.  There’s also a surge of concerts and festivals, the biggest two days this year being Gay Pride day and Menningarnótt (Culture Night).

the view of Reykjavik from the top of Esjan

Gay Pride in Iceland is probably the only place in the world where its more of a family event than a sexy, nudist, liberal movement. Last year’s gay pride saw Reykjavik’s current city Mayor dress up as a drag queen in the parade, and this year the parade, open-air concerts and sunny weather forced all road-traffic to be replaced by hundreds of thousands of rainbow-decorated people wandering around town.

Menningarnótt was even more vivacious, blessed by the best weather day imaginable, and organized into a 4 page spread schedule in one of the local newspapers. There was always 20 things going on at once, and there was no way to pick what to go to, since there were always two things happening simultaneously that peaked your interest, compounded by 5 other things that you had no idea what they were and your curiosity sometimes got the best of you. I had ten friends in town, 2 from London and 8 from New York, so I spent most of the day battling through a crowd with 8 obnoxious American men in tow, so my more mellow British friends had no difficulty in finding us in the crowd. I visited the Faroese embassy for some rotten food and nordic cider, saw a choir sing Psalms at Hallgrimskirkja, shopped an outdoor market that resembled more a garage sale, and listened to the informal Kaffibarinn mens choir sing acapella, pissed drunk at Austurvollir. There was always live music, and a couple main stages where the night came to a close with a bang. A sparkling Harpa and firework show sealed the deal, unimpressive by international standards, but a big enough deal to Icelanders that a parking spot within a 5 km radius of downtown could not be found as everyone came to town to see it, all 5 minutes of it.

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the concert crowd at sunset on Culture Night

I went to Bræðslan, a 2 day music festival in Borgafjörður, a small sea-side village in Iceland’s easternmost fjords. Glen Hansard was the headliner, but

Glen Hansard performing at Braedslan

like a true icelandic concert, Jón Sigurðsson and some other of Icelands other most famous artists ended the concert. The final encore included everyone coming on stage and jamming together, improvising and freestyling with a

my cousin Sara, cooling off

crazy light show in the abandoned fish processing plant where the amped crowd flocked. It was July 23rd, the weekend when summer finally arrived, and people spent the days lounging in the sea and icy rivers to keep cool. We tented at the base of  a place called Elf hill, and the magic in the place was real, atleast to me.

One of the riding days on the Egilstaðir riding tour takes us to Sanddalur, a remote sandy valley accessible only by foot, horse or 4×4, believed by the superstitious to be rich in elf life. Their troll-like faces are cut out in the jagged rock, blaring out from the steep, sandy slope, and while we take our lunch break there, the restlessness of the horses can only be explained by one thing – elf presence.

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Sanddalur

Growing up in Iceland and Canada has given me a lot of privileges, but they say allergies are a bigger problem for the advantaged, since 30% of people develop allergies from having too much hygiene. I’m allergic to summer, all the pollens and freshly cut grass, even horses themselves and the sun-dried dust clouds a herd of them kicks up.  This was the coldest summer on record in 75 years for Iceland, and even the warmer east only saw summer fully bloom in late July so I survived more comfortably than expected. Still, I frequently suffered from a runny nose, snored from congested sinuses, and breathed a little raspy from asthmatic suffocation. Ironically, the hottest days were just this last week, with temperatures reaching 20 degrees even though the confused trees have started to golden. Now the rains will start to come, but with the darker skies come northern lights, a sight that makes the arrival of fall more welcoming.