This Backroads Life

At Backroads, I´m called a leader. I much prefer chasing sheep on horseback, but that job doesn’t pay as well, and I’m deathly allergic to hay, so I’ll stick to Backroads leading.

Skaftafell National Park for a Backroads day

You can also call us glorified tour guides, where we’re capable of acting as babysitters or bus drivers just as well as we get to shine in the spotlight, but Backroad’s leaders are really one of a kind – a rare and spectacular breed of individuals that are capable of so much. There’s benefits to being an Icelandic leader in Iceland, but actually it means I get to spend extra time defending Backroads in Iceland, and doing extra work for the company since Im the local language expert and live here anyway, so I’m not really that special, on the Backroads global scale kinda measurement.

on Fjallsjokull glacier

The trips I lead are called multi-sport: we do sports, different kinds, one for every day. Its a 6 day trip, and we hike, bike, glacier walk, and sometimes, horse back ride. We go from Hofn to Reykjavik, in our Backroads vans, and are always atleast 2 leaders working together. We sleep at Iceland’s best hotels; Hotel Ranga and Ion Adventure hotel, to name a  few, and eat like kings and queens. It’s hard to stay fit, even as an active tour leader, since the food weighs me down, day after day, in addition to all the snacks we’re meant to offer guests, but really just end up eating ourselves, out of boredom, or guilt, or satisfaction, or all of the above… I don’t know.

biking around Thingvallavatn

The Iceland season is short, beginning at the start of June and ending at the start of September. I start and end the season, with a few weeks off in between, and our groups are anywhere from 9 to 26 people, almost always only Americans. They tip, so I love them, and speak English, which makes my job easy, but the few weeks I get off from Backroads to lead horseback riding treks are also a blessing. I may be surrounded by middle-aged German women, who were expecting a Chris Hemsworth kind of Thor as their guide, and barely speak english, but the horses are always worth it.

horseback riding in Hella

A couple of nights in the highlands, in mountain huts without running water or electricity, sharing bunk beds in one big room, and I’m immediately ready to go back to Backroads leading. My Fosshotel glacier room feels more like home than my own bed in Reykjavik does, and I’m not sure I remember what life was like before Backroads… *sigh*

my well-worn hiking boots at Hoffell

This Backroads life was meant to be, the dream job I never had and the perfect lifestyle to enjoy Iceland and traveling. If only my midriff agreed.

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Hornstrandir

Hornstrandir has been on my bucket list ever since I moved back to Iceland, and one overnight visit to Hesteyri a few summers ago didn´t really cut it. I wanted to hike Hornstrandir, with everything I needed on my back, sleep in a tent, meet some arctic foxes, and see the green cliffs rise straight out of the sea. My friend Gudny was down too, had a week off, and the weather forecast was perfect, so we set off in the plumber car to the westfjords, where we´d take 2 days to get to Isafjordur town.

Hellulaug

From highway 1, we turned towards Budardalur and picked up an Icelandic hitchhiker, and his dog Saga. We stopped for a bathe in Hellulaug, close to the Bjarnslaekur ferry port, before ending our day of driving at Reykjafjardalaug. There, we had another dip, made more Icelandic friends, and camped for the night in the plumber car.

Dynjandi waterfall

The following morning we stopped at Dynjandi waterfall, did some grocery shopping and ran some errands in Isafjordur town, and boarded the 17:00 shuttle boat to Aðalvík. Gúðny chatted up the captain while I napped, until we arrived at Sæbol and decided to jump off there and walk to Látrar (you can be dropped off there since both stops are considered part Adalvik). We expected 7 or 9 km of hiking along the shore, plenty of time when the sun doesn´t set til 11pm, but it was more like 16km, since hightide means you have to take the up-and-over route along one of the sea cliffs, and detour into the valley around one of the rivers thats only 2m wide at the coast but much too deep to wade (or swim). We camped at midnight, met the neighbourhood fox, after running into a local summer house family, who told us where best to wade the river inland, and slept like babies in our tiny Decathlon tent.

starting in Adalvik

Day 2 brought us from Látrar to Fljótavík, over a highland pass covered in fog. The visibility was barely enough to get us from signpost to signpost, or between piles of rocks in a field of rocks, so even though it was also a 16km day, it took us all day to finally arrive in the right fjord. Once we were down from the pass, we ran into another summerhouse tenant, who told us where we should wade if we wanted to get to the Atlastadir campground, but we decided to go inland to the more private Glúmsstadir campground. The ground was damp but the view was gorgeous, and we had the place to ourselves.

helping out the ranger with signposts

Day 3 was slightly longer, more than 17km, from Fljótavík to Hlöðuvík, and the highland pass was wet foggy this time. We got damp thru our clothes and used the emergency shelter to dry our shoes and socks whiles we played games of cards and drank our rations of alcohol. We saw another fox, atleast 5 other hikers, and slept on the beach in a sanddune with two other tents pitched.

bays like this were an everyday sight

Day 4 was another 17km roughly, from Hlöðuvík to Hornvík, the main show, but the low clouds didn´t show us much of the seacliffs when we first arrived. Instead, we were greeted by a welcoming committee of baby foxes, still too young and playful to even notice us, and remained completely distracted by them and their antics.

baby Arctic foxes

We did, however, notice that the one and only ranger of the whole Hornstrandir reserve park system was not in, which was incredibly unfortunate, or unlucky rather, since we would only be spending a night there and her house was connected to the only flushing toilets we´d see all week, which were also locked. The door on the outhouse had broken, and with atleast 14 other people there, it got weird real fast. But we still had running water, and our cards, so we could cook, eat and play, and by the time we were ready for bed after a short hike around the fjord, the clouds miraculously parted and Hornvík mountain appeared before us, in all its glory.

the breathtaking colours of the moss in the highland pass

Our last full day of hiking would be the highest climb, getting over the 519m pass between Hornvík and Veiðileysufjörður. It was approximately 16km, in scorching sunshine, and though there were patches of snow at the top, there wasn´t a breeze or a cloud in the sky, and we probably got even more burnt from the snow reflection. We were to meet the shuttle boat between 5 and 7 pm at the bottom of Veiðileysufjörður, which sailed us into Hesteyri and Grunavík before returning us to civilisation in Isafjorður. There we went straight to the house “Husid” and ordered something hot and freshly cooked – I think I got fish and chips – and green and healthy (vegetarian Gudny got some amazing greens and vegetables) and a pint of beer. Such basic food and alcohol has never tasted so good, but we filled our bellies and gorged the whole while thinking, “the weather is still so nice… shouldn’t we go back to Hornstrandir and stay there a bit longer?”

Another Icelandic summer comes to an end

The definition of summer in Iceland isn’t very defined. Summer is when its not winter. Its when the grass is greenish, the moss turns neon, and the leaves are alive. It’s a time when the temperature can go higher than 10 degrees (but not necessarily). The sun shines and its rays actually give off heat (and a tan!). The average temperature in June is only 11 degrees. Anything over 18 degrees is kind of a heat wave, and Icelanders lose their clothes as easily as we lose the nights. This year, summer came in May, when the countryside dethawed and it stopped getting dark.

Hiking Fimmvörðuháls with my best friend Moli

This is a time when Icelanders seem to come out of hibernation. After 8 months of winter, holed up in that thing called ‘real life,’ then people come out to play. Then the days revolve around hiking, horsebackriding, summerhouses, camping, fishing, barbeques and no need for much sleep. And much more than that, summer means festivals.

on horse tour in Mývatnssveit

Now that summer is gone, we start looking forward to those holidays and festivals next summer. Iceland is probably the only country I know of that actually has a national public holiday for the first day of summer, and this year it was April 20th. For some reason other than religious ones, Ascension day (May 25) is the first long weekend where traffic jams to get north out of town can build up from the Hvalfjordur tunnel all the way to Mosfellsbaer.

Menningarnótt with my sister and oldest friend from Canada

Downtown Reykjavik is a family friendly party ground, with tens of thousands of people flooding the streets and Arnarholl, on only a few days a year. June 17th, Independence day, is the first major summer event. Ironically, the Gay Pride parade has higher attendance, and rainbow coloured balloons and confused gender identities make people of all ages happy. Menningarnott in mid August is the most drunken and dancy festival, and at this time of summer, short nights have started to reappear and it’s the first time that lighting fire works makes sense. Its also around then that the first northern lights show up, making tourists very happy that they don’t have to return to Iceland in midwinter to check that off their bucket list.

Herjólfsdalur filling up for Þjóðhátíð

The most defining part of summer for me, and many other Icelanders, is unquestionably Þjóðhátíð. Literally translated, this just means ´the nations holiday,´ and is held all around Iceland around the end of July/beginning of August, but the biggest one is always in Vestammanaeyjar. My father is from Vestmannaeyjar, which makes about 24% of the population my aunts, uncles and second or third cousins. This sleepy island on the south coast has a year-round population of around 4,000, but during Þjóðhátíð, it can swell to 16,000, perhaps even as many as 20,000 this year.

seaswimming beach days in Reykjavik… not as warm as they look but still an important part of every good summer

You know summer is coming to an end when the next festival people are gearing up for is Airwaves, which happens annually at the end of October. Airwaves is even bigger than Þjóðhátíð, but doesnt quite have the same ´Icelandicness´ to it with all those tourists and international bands… and lack of lopapeysas (hand knit sweaters with Grandma´s typical patterns and barn colours). The countdown to summer 2018 has officially begun.

Laugavegur trail: hiking from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk

The colourful moutains in Landmanalaugar

I got back from Poland and flew the same day to Höfn, an unusual place to end up after a week in Hamburg and Warsaw. Even coming back to Reykjavik sometimes gives me small-town culture shock, but Höfn’s airport makes you feel like you’ve arrived in the middle of nowhere. You’re right under Vatnajökull glacier, on an isolated peninsula that sticks out into the sea. They’ve got really good hot dogs there, and after the next 8 days riding horses from Höfn to Fljótsdalur, the first fast-food I ate again was another hot dog in Egilstaðir.

I got back to Reykjavik on a Saturday, and after almost 9 days without any contact with civilization except the other 15 riders,  the same city now gave me big-town culture shock. I was actually enjoying being back in a heated house with running water, until my friend Tom called me and asked if he could come to Iceland and hike Laugavegur with me… on Monday. I had no time to hesitate, since he booked his flight 20 minutes later, and flew to Iceland 36 hours later. Then, we backed our gear and provisions and set off for the remote highlands, once again.

Landmanalaugar

We started in Landmanalaugar, a mountainous and colourful geothermal region 5 hours away from Reykjavik. The elvation is 6o0 metres there and though you´re in the highlands, its a popular tourist destination and thus built up with basic services. The best part of Landmanalaugar is the hot river you can bathe in. It was freezing cold and windy, so getting down to our bathing suits was the hardest part, but once we had sat there for an hour, it was no problem to retain the heat while we redressed and started the 11km trek to Hrafntinnusker. We hiked through yellow steaming mountains and moss covered lava fields, even over some snow, but 3 hours later we were 500 m higher, home at a rocky camping ground just before dark.

the highest elevation point, at Hrafntinnusker

The first night we had frost, a lot of it, enough that our whole tent was frozen stiff and we had to shake off the ice before we could pack it up. The next day we passed 2 huts, Álftavatn and Hvanngil, doubling day 2 and 3 into a long, 28km day. The scenery was incredible, and we had fun stripping down to our underwear for repeated river crossings, but the last 3 kms were the longest, slowest kilometres of the whole hike. The weather changed constantly, from bright sun and calm winds to sideways hailing sleet, but one thing was consistent; everything around us was naturally dramatic.

We only passed a handful of other hikers, centered mostly around the 2 huts we passed, but on the 2nd night at Emstrur, we made some friends. There was the tour group in one hut that gave us left-over kjötsupa (lamb soup), the tour guide who sold us beer, and a German couple who let us use their primus to make tea. We crashed in out tent that night, and wake up way after everyone else had left.

the last 3 kilometres…

The last day was a gentle 12 kms, mostly downhill, back to greener pastures, and we ended in Þórsmörk prepared to indulge in all the services they had. We heated and stretched our sore muscles in the sauna for 2 hours, swam in the hot pool, cooked soup, drank hot tea, cold beer,  and the last provisions of whisky we had left. We made more friends by bonding over our hike experiences, and slept like babies before the bumpy bus ride back to Reykjavik.