With September comes autumn, and a whole lot of sheep. This year I was rounding up in the north of Iceland, Melrakkasletta, and the east, Fljotsdalsheidi. Alltogether we found probably 6 thousand sheep.
It’s always a little bit sad when summer ends. You first start to notice the nights getting dark in the beginning of August, and by the end of August, some mountain tops will already have had their first snow fall. By the middle of September, the valleys have started to bronze and the trees have become fiery shades of red and gold. By the end of September, the leaves have blown all over the place, but bits of green still scream for sun as a few summery days still pop up here and there. It starts to rain more, and every day is literally 9 minutes shorter than the one before, so the nights come noticeably quicker and stay longer every morning. The strange thing about autumn is that it’s probably the most beautiful season, but one can hardly call it a season since its over as soon as it begins; after 4 months of summer come 8 months of looming winter and noone really knows where the fall went or remembers anything about it until next fall. You can’t really pinpoint when summer and winter meet to make the autumn, but at some point it feels like you fell asleep on a summer night and woke up on a winter morning.
After the horse season ended, I went back to the east to chase sheep in the annual round up ´réttir´. However, after an early snow storm and some other uncooperative weather, it became more like a hide-and-seek sheep-search instead of a chase; they were much harder to see in the melting snow, and a bunch of sheep were dug up from their soon-to-be snow-graves. We couldn’t even do the sheep round up on horse back, as is custom because Fljótsdalshérað is such a huge area, but instead of taking 3-4 riding days, we had to use snowmobiles, 6-wheelers, a bunch of dogs, our own feet and some walking sticks to cover the area. There are still some hundreds of sheep missing, so the round up goes on, weather permitting.
I went east this weekend to collect a horse. Not just any horse, but my horse, my first and only Icelandic horse I can call my own. It was given to me over a drunken conversation on the last night of the sheep round up by a nice farmer named Magnus. We didn´t discuss many details, but he held true to his word and I showed up with a horse trailer and took him without any further questions. I only recently found out he´s a 6 year old, 5 gaited horse from Kollaleira, which has some very good horses and I can´t believe the luck I stumbled upon to just have him. If I had searched far and wide across Iceland for my perfect horse, and could spend a pretty penny on one, this is probably the exact horse I would have chosen.
My aunty got remarried in September, and my mother came for the wedding since she´s her sister. My Aunty Myrtle has lived in Iceland for more than 30 years and blends in alot better than my mom who showed up with her dark skin and Chinese features wearing a sparkling Indian sari to the ceremony in Laugafellskirkja. It was a wonderful wedding, probably the happiest wedding I´ve ever been to, but every wedding you go to seems to be a perfect day so its hard to say if it was really the best wedding ever… but still, close.
The sunsets seem to get brighter and more beautiful as fall draws to a close, with red and purple skies flaring up earlier each evening. I´ve spotted my first northern lights already and look forward to seeing more and more in the star-studded sky I had almost forgotten about. This fall has gone by particularly quickly. The days of smelling like horse and spending more days in the mountains than civilization just ended abruptly, and I was thrown back to the life’s reality in Reykjavik where reverse culture shock and my unfinished masters thesis awaited. I escaped back to the countryside a few times in September, once to chase sheep, once to collect Mj0lnir, and the other time to ride horses and eat reindeer lasagne in Hvanneyri. There I was reminded yet again why autumn is such a beautiful time of year, since the dark skies and falling rain can create so many, spectacular rainbows and I probably saw twelve in one day that weekend.
I went directly from Holardalur to Fljotsdalur to chase more sheep. The round up area in the east is probably ten times bigger than the valley in Skagafirdi, and we were looking for a couple thousand sheep over a 3 day mountain ride.
We started in Skridaklaustur, the same farm where all the horse trips start from, and rode up from the valley into the mountains. We were about ten riders, each riding one horse and holding 1 or 2 extra, and I learned very quickly its quite difficult to ride with 3 horses over the swamped ground and crossing ditches and rivers. Some other riders started from deeper in the valley and another from the other side of the mountain in Jokuldalur, and we rode all day alone looking for sheep and chasing them towards the mountain hut where we’d all meet.
After a 14 hour day, we somehow did all make it to the hut, with all our horses and the tired sheep. For dinner we had lamb soup, a welcoming meal after eating dried fish and drinking vodka all day.
On the second day, most of the sheep had crossed the river that leads us down the other side of the mountain into Jokuldalur. We had the river on the right side and a mountain on the left side of us to help funnel all the sheep together into a massive, crying herd of white fluffy mass. Some sheep that didnt get the memo stayed on the wrong side of the river, and one farmer on a 4×4 had to spend the whole day chasing 5 or 6 sheep down the harder way.
Lucky me spotted 3 sheep standing in the middle of the river gorge on a huge piece of broken-off cliff, so I took a nice long hike straight down to the bottom of the gorge, and literally crawled on my hands and feet up the loose-gravel cliff. I took with me Tyra, a 6 month old border collie puppy who probably did more harm than good. She kept fighting me over foot space on the narrow sheep track we were following down, and would stop dead in her tracks if the leash got tangled between her legs. If I took her off the leash, she would stop, stare and cry at me. I certainly couldnt carry her as I had to keep grabbing at the ground with my hands for balance. When we finally got close enough to the sheep to see them and try to yell at them, they just ran further up the cliff, and it was me who had to go fetch them. It was times like this when I wished my eye sight was a little worse, so that I wouldn’t have spotted them and noone would have known these three stubborn sheep weren’t in the right place.
One day I spotted two sheep as far as my eyes could see and started riding nearly 5 km over the flat marshy ground towards them. When I got closer, half an hour later, I realized it was 2 swans and made a mental note to self: not all white things are sheep.
At the end of the second day, the sheep arrived in Klaustursel, a famous farm in Jokuldalur that has a petting zoo complete with reindeer and foxes. We had a traditional Icelandic christmas meal – smoked lamb leg and creamy potato stew, and drank even more vodka and beer. We sorted out which sheep belonged to that valley that night and the next morning, and the rest of the sheep had to be ridden back over the mountain to Fljotsdalur where we started.
The last day was less lonely, since we rode in a massive herd together – 1000 sheep, 10 riders and 20 horses, but moved quite slowly. We lost one and two sheep here and there, those too sick or old to keep up. It was always a difficult decision to make, when to stop chasing them, pass them by and just say goodbye.
My hand horse on the last day was a young, newly trained horse called Freyr that nearly managed to kill two of us on the trip. The first day he threw one of the riders off, Lilja, and she had three massive, blue/black bruises on her back and ass. After this, he galloped off and went missing for an hour until me and Hallgrimur found him in the middle of nowhere. Then, of course, Hallgrimur (the farmed from Skridaklaustur, who owns most of the horses from the horse trips) decided I should ride him the rest of the trip, since Hallgrimur has a weird way of showing his affection to me by giving me crazy horses. Freyr was always getting tangled up with the second horse I was riding or holding, and he doesnt know how to stand still but he’s very good at rearing up. He tried to rip 3 of my fingers off at one point and managed to tear a chunk of my index finger and sprain my ring finger by tangling my hand up in his reins as he reared away from me, the entire weight of his body pulling on my right hand for a good 2 seconds! Hallgrimur thought it was funny, laughed, and cleaned my bloody hand with some vodka before bandaging it up with electricity tape.
The final sorting happened on Saturday, at Skridaklaustur farm in an old stone-walled round corral. It was the busiest I have ever seen the valley, with cars and people crowded everywhere, and even when it started pouring rain, all the farmers and their kids and very extended families kept on sorting sheep.
The drowning “baaaah” rang in my ears days after the sorting was finished, and I’ve still got black and blue bruises on my legs from all those gnarly sheep horns. Its hard to believe that now, one week later, the smell of horse and sheep is completely gone, and even the dirt on my fingernails has completely disappeared. Its hard to convince people I really was manhandling sheep in eastern Iceland one week ago, as I sit in the sun in Munich mentally preparing for yet another Oktoberfest night, so Im glad I still have the bruises as proof.
After the touristy summer season ends in Iceland, the farmers have start to prepare for the long winter ahead. The biggest task is probably the sheep round-ups, when all the sheep in Iceland have to be brought down from the mountains back to the farms where they belong. They’ve been left to roam freely during the long days and good weather, turning grass into meat, growing bigger and stronger. In the highlands and mountainous fjords there are no fences, so the sheep graze themselves over huge areas, as far as the highest cliff will allow. Each farm, valley or peninsula picks a day or two in mid September to go and round them up, combing these vast areas by foot or horseback.
Working with horses all summer has made me some horsey friends, and that plus traveling a lot in the countryside has allowed me to meet farmers from all around Iceland, so I managed to sneak my way into a couple sheep round ups. It’s a tricky thing to get into, and Ishestar even sells a sheep-round up tour for the tourists who want to experience one of Iceland’s most authentic events. The first for me was this weekend in Skagafjörður, a bay in northern Iceland that boasts amazing scenery and most of Iceland´s best horses. I was staying with Gunnar from Víðines, the farm beside Hólar, Iceland´s only horse university. I would ride again with Denni, my horse boss from the east, since his girlfriend Arna works at Hólar and is a good friend of Gunnars.
There were about 15 riders of all ages, all farmers or children of farmers from the area, or students from Hólar, doing this sheep round-up. We started at the crack of dawn on Saturday, getting up before the sun and riding into the sunrise to the end of the valley. The valley has two names, since a river splits if in half, and 6 of us were responsible for the southern half, Hólardalur. Once we got to the end of it, blockaded by some big snow mountains, we started riding back out in a line formation, yelling at any sheep we passed along the way to head on out. I rode one of Arna´s horses, and held another horse for the poor guy that had to walk to the top of the cliff and clumber along the rocky tops yelling at sheep to go down.
It took about 6 hours clear the whole valley of sheep, and then drive the couple hundred of them over a small river where some managed to get away and run back into the valley. The northern part of the valley brought their sheep down a couple hours later, and then all 5 or 6 hundred sheep were escorted along the main road to the sorting corral, closing the highway to any traffic faster than 5km/h.
The next day, all the farmers from the valley and their very extended families came to the corral to sort the sheep. The corral has a circular center with lots of doors, each leading into a pie piece of the outer circle that’s split into many different fences. Sorting them involves a few rounds of sheep being herded into the center corral, and each indiviual sheep being manhandled in order to read their ear-tag number. We were looking for 12S4 and 27S4, and lambs went into one door while adults went into the door beside. After a couple hours of tackling sheep, atleast one ends updragging you in the wrong direction, another manages to throw you over, and many of them leave horrible purple bruises on your thighs from trying to headlock them with your legs. Sheep may be small, but don’t be fooled by their cuddly exterior – they are tough, crazed little buggers in the corral. My entire body aches and the palms of my hands are still throbbing after trying to drag them by the horns to the right door.
There were children sorting that were smaller than some of the sheep, and they resorted to a full-on rodeo tackle tactic. Some still tried to get the sheep between their legswithout realizing they weren’t quite tall enough, so the sheep bounced away with them as they struggled to hang on to the horns and wait for an adult to rescue them.
That same weekend, another valley was doing a horse round up. Its the same idea as the sheep round up, but instead you’re herding horses on horseback, and sorting the right horses to the right corral fence requires it to be a little bit more of an adult-only event. Its Iceland’s best showing of the bold and beautiful horsey people, the tough, young farming generation, and people seem to be having too much fun as the sobriety levels dwindle and herd after herd gallops off into the distance, in all different directions to their respective farms.
Once we found all of Gunnar’s sheep, we said a regretful goodbye to all the lambs taken out for the slaughter house, and reuinted the rest with their mothers, silencing the drownding “baaaaaaah” we had been listening to all day. All the other farmers did the same and took their sheep home. At the end of the day, Gunnar´s herd of colourful sheep were also returned to Víðines farm, and peace and quiet was restored once again to the valley.