A well deserved rest-stop on the trail. Photo: Henry Fletcher.
Wildfjords - an Icelandic exploration of the natural world
7th September 2014
Daniel Crockett guided a 300km walk along ancient horse routes through the Westfjords, a remote, depopulating region of Iceland rich in nature, myth and magic. The wild, non-human environment enters our beings, he writes - and thus infected, the onus is on us to spread the message far and wide.
Three ravens sit atop a sea cliff above Keflavik. The evidence of their mischief quickly becomes apparent - a punctured eggshell covered in blood. They are raiding a fulmar colony and don't welcome our intrusion.
The snow cave called out to me, water cascading from its mouth. Far inside, a waterfall roared, the mist drenched in light. I crawled along the bank enclosed by ice and saw that the massive structure was melting.
For a long time, I sat inside and thought about our journey.
We had started a month before near Ísafjörður. What followed was 300km on foot through the fjords, lit 24 hours a day, sometimes with the assistance of kayaks and horses.
On trail, we encountered no other walkers until Látrabjarg, Europe's most westerly point. It was a rare chance to truly open to nature's influence.
Breaking the egg
The first footsteps into the snow mark a clear departure. Henry Fletcher, wilderness guide and founder of the trail, uses a bright blue guillemot egg to set our intentions.
A queen wasp weaves the first fabric of her nest, lonely as the single whooper swan I had seen in a high valley here, plumage stained off-white by snow melt.
Eider ducks, gregarious, divide into ranks of bright males and drab females with their ducklings. Red-necked pharalopes, delicate waders on matchstick legs, hunt through the neritic zone. Harlequin ducks, their beautiful skull-caps vivid, dive into the furious river on our arrival.
A steep ascent through loose scree. The top of the fjords is a barren landscape, endless plains of snow and all directions shrouded in silver mist.
A grey-black Arctic fox cub stalks us, for a long time a ghostly, peripheral flicker. At last he appears, picking his way proudly, watching us lunch and halt before a huge, vertical snow-slip.
The terrain here is constantly unfolding; a landscape in conversation. The group makes a perilous traverse, limits are exceeded. We are beyond our comfort zones.
The kayak is an elegant way to travel beneath bird cliffs. Curious, fickle winds stir in the fjords, jerked this way and that by changing temperature.
A fish farm boils with rainbow trout, a poor reflection of those immortalised by Ted Hughes:
Of the wild god now flowering for me
Such a tigerish, dark, breathing lily"
It's a sort of poverty, this modern solution. The fish all crammed in together. It sits with me like the first battery chicken farm I saw, where it seemed the very walls screamed.
Kári shoulders our tents for the road to Dalsdalur as foxes cackle splendidly from the hills. He's a tough little horse, happy over the saddle at Kaldbakur.
We eat well from the land - puffball mushroom, rhubarb, deadnettle, angelica, lady's smock and sorrel. Lying back with a full stomach, a godwit hovers close overhead, his orange chest and bright plumage magnificent. Fishing into a cleft in the rocks we catch nothing, but witness two plaice gliding their gentle dance, mottled skin near invisible.
From high on a track skirting the fjord we watch another fox, still half-dressed in white, being mobbed by two huge gulls that strike in pincer movements. Each time, the fox is ready for them, hackles and brush high, dropping flat as they soar down.
We are picking fjallagrasa when a huge bird flies across the valley above Rauðisandur. A white-tailed eagle, one of very few in the Westfjords, a gigantic wraith flapping across a mist-shrouded glacial lake.
The old birch forests, none of the trees over head high, have a delicate scent. On the bare ground are lingenberries but despite their vivid colours they belong to last year. We conduct a walking meditation in the valley of Moradalur. Under the midnight sun, terraces of cloud clash with each other.
We accept trees as they are (a broken limb, a stunted trunk), as Alpert said, in a way we cannot do with humans. I like the idea that forests have their own language, that groups of trees can communicate different things to each of us.
A half-day 'solo' on a high plateau, and I know from the start where I will go. On a flat terrace high above the valley sits a giant rock, a massive glacial erratic that guards the valley. I look at the rock from a dozen angles, trying to appreciate its shape. I boulder up on top, lie underneath it, go up into the wind and sing songs about it.
A pair of ptarmigans are my company; the male white-spotted flutters from the nest, the female mottled dun stays close: both are almost invisible.
Sheep are wedged impossibly high on a couloir, two tiny lambs, one black, one white. They are the only human thing in sight.
The Bird City
Rauðisandur, a vast acreage of orange-red beach, reminds me of Holkham in Norfolk. We are rewarded with beams of sunlight through the stifling cloud. Snæfellsnes in the southerly distance is cloaked in blackness.
The warmth is enough to inspire a dip in the shallow breakers. Half the walkers are lost in rapture at the place, the others seem unimpressed by the massive openness of the landscape. The same split is present when we share the story of our solo times - some affected, others unmoved.
Three ravens sit atop a sea cliff above Keflavik. The evidence of their mischief quickly becomes apparent - a punctured eggshell covered in blood. They are raiding a fulmar colony and don't welcome our intrusion. Up close, they look like children's drawings, as if they had been badly stuffed. The wild eyes look irregularly sewn in, the feathers tatty, likely from acid fulmar spit.
The southern reaches of the Westfjords are an incredibly sensitive landscape, the moss shows each individual footprint. The seabird colony at Látrabjarg resembles a city, this time seen from above. The dominant species in the higher reaches are fulmars but as we descend thick packs of guillemots and puffins are crammed onto every ledge.
At the westernmost point in Europe we say goodbye to the journey. As Henry said - there is no trail, simply what the land has dreamed. My personal journey ended a little later, enclosed in the snow cave, wondering at its walls and ceiling ebbing away. How like our group, who had gone their respective ways. How like our lives.
When I did my first ten days of silent meditation, the effect was gentle and took some time to process, but it changed me forever. I see exposure to wilderness in a similar way, no longer is it an escape - we must move beyond that narrow narrative - but a way of bringing ecological conversation to a wider audience, of changing ourselves and presenting this change to others.
The wild, non-human environment of which we are a part enters our beings by osmosis, creeping through our permeable pores. Thus infected, the onus is on us to spread the message far and wide.
Daniel Crockett is a tour guide for Wildfjords, and writes about human/nature relations for Kinfolk, Surfer's Journal, Caught by the River, Journal of Wild Culture, Huck and many others. One poem, made into a film called Uncommon Ideals, was shown on Channel 4 after attracting 142,000 views. He is the author of a non-fiction book - 'Wildonomics'.
More information: wildfjords.com/. Walkers on the trail are supporting conservation initiatives including a campaign for the creation of a national park. Wildfjords recently applied for funding to create a large scale ecological restoration project along part of the trail's route. The project aims to create an integrated management plan between voluntary and public sectors who are responsible for reforestation, wetland restoration and cairn restoration activities. Iceland's tree cover diminished drastically after the first settlers arrived and, in response, the project will collect and propagate native seed, identify suitable planting locations that do not compromise wetland habitat and work with volunteers and landowners to carry out the work.
Wildfjords has successfully applied to funding organisations to bring artists and youth groups onto the trail. At the centre of these projects is an understanding that direct experience of wild spaces often resonates deeply with people and engenders a commitment to working for and with the environment.
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