Isafjordur, Iceland

Jul 19, 2019 - National Geographic Explorer


Our morning excursions began at the dramatically situated town of Isafjordur (ice fjord), the largest town in the Westfjords region with a population of just under 3,000 inhabitants. Isolation has accentuated the town’s role as a cultural centre as those of us who participated in the morning walking tours quickly sensed the metropolitan feel of a town that in the 19th century represented modernity in a region still living a rural lifestyle that had scarcely changed for centuries. The 19th century brought prosperity through the fishing industry, and the deep-water harbour was home to a fleet of fishing boats and employed a large workforce in the fish processing industry. Salt for preserving fish had been imported here since the end of the 16th century and the sale of salted cod to Catholic Europe enabled the town to import much needed timber in exchange, the historic quarter of the town having some excellent examples of fine wooden houses from that period. Today the fishing fleet is much diminished, over-fishing having led to a collapse in the numbers of migratory herring. Today, tourists have largely replaced herring in the Icelandic economy.

Our morning options included a bicycle ride through dramatic scenery from Isafjordur to Bolungarvik, some 9 miles to the north and a culinary walking tour in the old town, which featured a visit to an Icelandic artist’s home. Some 60 guests chose a short bus ride around the fjord to hike in the valley of Valagil. A gentle climb took us through varying vegetation zones from the wet lowlands with sedges and rushes to a small birch “forest.” Hidden in a side canyon, a beautiful waterfall cascaded to the valley floor below. The excursion included a stop at the Arctic Fox Center in Sudavik to observe Iceland’s only native land mammal. There also was a bus tour that focused on a nearby botanical garden and a delightful bookstore.

An exploration afternoon saw us land by Zodiac on the small island of Aedey (Eider Island), farmed by a single family, which was a veritable “paradise of birds,” to use the words of the Irish monk Brendan the Navigator who passed his way in the seventh century. Nesting Artic terns, black guillemots, and puffins were out and about in profusion all chattering noisily with a descant of the distinctive buzz and flight display of the snipe.

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About the Author

David Barnes

Expedition Leader

David studied history at the University of York in England and theology at the University of Wales. Research in the field of religious history (at Cardiff) followed on naturally. He has spent most of his professional life teaching history, most recently in adult education departments within the University of Wales where he has taught a wide variety of courses pertinent to the wider Atlantic world. In 1988, he made his first lecture-tour of the U.S. for the English Speaking Union. He has published extensively on Welsh history and topography–his most recent book being the Companion Guide to Wales (2005)–and is a frequent contributor of articles and reviews to Welsh cultural and literary journals. In the1990s, David was active in the field of international education, traveling worldwide and spending a year in the U.S. (in Atlanta and New York City). He speaks English and French in addition to his native Welsh.

About the Photographer

Karen Copeland

Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor

Born and raised in Canada, Karen received her B.Sc. in biology from the University of Waterloo, her M.D. from the University of Western Ontario and interned at McMaster University in Hamilton. Detouring from hospital hallways, Karen soon became a whitewater guide and published photographer, fulfilling a passion for knowledge that began with botany and led to geology and ornithology.

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