Occasionally the most fun and interesting things come along when you are least expecting them. That is exactly what happened to us on Sunday!
This day had been planned as a low key rest day in the sleepy fishing town of Djupivogur. The town is located a short way off the Iceland Ring Road in an area of the country known as the Eastern Fjords. It’s greatest claim to fame is that it recorded the highest temperature ever recorded in Iceland in the modern era. The temperature was 30.5 degrees Celsius or 87 degrees Fahrenheit and it was recorded in June of 1939.
When we arrived in Djupivogur on Saturday evening and found our hotel, the staff of the hotel informed us about a daily cruise that left the harbor at 1:00PM and sailed to the off shore island of Papey. The island is the largest island on the eastern coast of Iceland and had for many, many years been inhabited. In recent times the families that called this island home have left and now the island is only home to thousands upon thousands of birds and a few dozen sheep. There are still 3 standing homes on the island that are occasionally used by the former residents as vacation destinations. But full-time human habitation of the island ceased decades ago.
When we awoke on Sunday morning we did our normal breakfast routine and got some of the normal “hotel” breakfast. (I always put this in quotes as most European hotels tend to offer breakfast as part of your stay. In many cases the breakfast certainly isn’t that spectacular but it tides you over until lunch.) After finishing breakfast we headed out to do some exploration around the town. There wasn’t much to explore in the town itself but there were plenty of natural highlights to see right around the town. We climbed one of the steep hills shortly removed from the main street of town and spent a good bit of time just looking at the sights.
After further exploration of the town, we stopped by the local “grocery” store to picture up some food to keep us going until we returned from our trip. Grocery stores in the small towns of Iceland are unusual affairs for us Americans. In most cases they seem to be little more than what we would consider a large 7-11 convenience store. However in many of these towns they are the main center of activity and provide many different functions. Besides selling a small selection of food they also sell other things like common car care products, outdoor products, gasoline and they also have restaurants inside them. The fare served at these little restaurants is what you would expect from a store like this – fast food, burgers, hotdogs, sandwiches, etc. For what we saw they don’t serve any meals that would be considered to be truly Icelandic.
Quickly grabbing some snacks at the store we then hurried to buy our tickets for the boat. The boat that was to take us to Papey Island was quite small and so I was concerned the trip could possibly sell out on us. We were able to get our tickets without a problem and we still had some time to kill so I decided we would explore the one and only souvenir shop in town. To be precise the souvenir shop was one of only about 7 or 8 shops/stores in the entire town.
It turned out that the majority of the souvenirs/art in the store was made by the store’s owner. She was a very impressive woman in terms of the fact that her artistic talents were quite varied from knitting to glass working to print making. On top of that, during the time we were in the store we heard her speak 4 different languages. I guess if you want to survive economically in a small town like Djupivogur you have to be willing to work hard and exploit all of your talents. We spent about fifty dollars buying an assortment of small artwork and crafts. There are quite a number of people for whom I want to buy something so we had to get busy!
When the time came for us to board the boat at 12:45PM we made our way back to the harbor and got onboard. The boat’s name is Papeyjarferdir and it is small with only limited indoor space. Given we were each required to don a life jacket when we boarded the boat, it left us feeling pretty cramped. However, many of the passengers decided to remain standing on the stern for the trip. We were told not to stand on the bow for reasons that we would shortly find out.
Casting off into the harbor the ride was smooth. Though the boat was small you got the feeling that there was a lot of power in her engines. Once we were past the breakwater it became readily apparent why we were advised not to stand on the bow. Due to the size of the swell and the boat’s speed the bow was frequently underwater as we crashed from the top of a swell to the valley between the swells. Zack and I were standing at the front of the indoor space looking out the forward facing windows. Though it was a pretty bumpy and turbulent ride we both loved it as crashing to the bottom of each valley between the swells felt pretty wild. Neither one of us got sea sick. Given the size of the swells it would have been quite possible to get ill.
(Zack and me on board the Papeyjarferdir.)
Several miles outside the breakwater we passed the first several rock outcropping we had seen. The captain immediately slowed down the boat as there were several seals sunbathing on the dry portions of these rocks. They weren’t fazed at all by our presence. They gave us a look and then went back to their sleep.
Passing these outcropping we broke out into the open ocean beyond the protective sides of the bay. The chop of the surf got a little worse but nothing too drastic. Within a short time we came up to Papey Island and several other small specks of land. There was a channel between the main island and one of the larger specks of land. The captain took the boat through this channel and brought the nose of the boat almost up to the steep rock wall of this speck of land. He then brought the boat to a stop and let us all get a good look at the rampant bird life on this little tiny bit of land. There were thousands of nesting birds crowding every inch of this place. We were all amazed and in awe of the birds we saw. But the dramatic part was yet to come.
After pulling away from this speck of land we continued our way around Papey Island. We spotted several more seals – this time they were in the water and were much more curious about us. They came as close as they dared to the boat and then would disappear below the waves. They would pop up a few minutes later to get another look at what we were doing.
Our next brief stop was for something I found to be tremendously amazing. The captain pulled the boat into a small bay/cove in Papey Island. There was no beach, just steep walls of rock plunging down about 50 or 60 feet from the top of the island to the surf. Along these walls were literally tens of thousands of birds. Even before the captain cut the motor of the boat, you could hear them making so much noise you actually wanted to put your hands over your ears. Regardless of the sound it was a fantastic sight to see. Out guide on the boat provided a great commentary about all the different kinds of birds that we saw in front of us. There were at least 4 different species of birds that we saw on those cliffs, including the famous puffin. What impressed me the most was just watching the inaction between all these birds. All of them had nests and I was dumbfounded in terms of how a parent could find their way back to offspring. The sight of the hundreds of birds in flight at one time, wheeling and spiraling in the space above the bay was truly an act that only nature could create.
Twenty minutes after we slid into the cove, the captain fired up the engines again and we were off to another cove that had a beach and provided a safe harbor for us to land. Once we approached the landing area, the captain and our guide demonstrated some nifty seamanship in terms of bringing the ship close enough to shore for us to get out. There was an old wooden docking structure that they were able to attach the bow of the ship to so that we could jump across to the land. It was too difficult to get onto the docking structure for Zack and me, but some of the older people in our group definitely had a little bit of a harder time.
(The boat we took to Papey Island.)
Once on land we dumped our life jackets near a picnic table and set out on our walk around the island. Our tour guide was quite knowledgeable in the biology and background of all the birds that made the island their home. He led us off in the direction of the first cove in which the boat had stopped. Looking down on the birds from above was a different view than we had seen before. Additionally, since puffins tend to make their nest at the top of these stone walls we managed to get up close and personal with quite a few of them. (The interesting thing about the puffin’s nests is the fact that they dig them into the ground to a depth of almost 9 feet! The puffins will dig a long tunnel into the earth and at the end of it create two separate rooms. The first room is the nesting area will they will raise their young. The second room is used by them as a toilet to keep themselves and the nest clean.)
Zack loved seeing the birds. He used our binoculars to see a number of different nests. Every time he found another nest with a young chick in it, he announced it to the entire group of 20. He was of course the youngest person on the trip as I would guess the average age of people on the trip was in their late 50’s or early 60’s.
(Puffins, puffins, puffins every where!)
Traversing the wide and open spaces of this small island would seem to be easy, however the land was extremely rough and we had a hard time walking. There are many small hillocks that are covered by the deep grass. As a result, it was easy to find your foot falling into a hole or tripping over a large mound of grass. There are several reasons for the uneven terrain. First, the puffins tend to dig a log of holes for nests. So it is easy to trip over those holes. Second this land has been grazed by sheep for hundreds upon hundreds of years, which has resulted in them wearing distinct paths into the ground which are now generally hidden by the overgrown grass. And lastly, though I could be wrong about this, it seems the island is a result of volcanic activity which means the top of the island is a lava flow covered over with grass. Lava flows can have one of the most uneven surfaces – lots of small hillocks and little crevices.
We spent over 2 hours wandering through the overgrown fields of the island. I was constantly taking pictures of just about everything as I found it so beautiful. We got to climb to the top of a twenty foot light house that sits on the highest point on the island. We also got to see ruins of some of the easiest structures on the island. Today all that remain are stone walls and an occasional door or window frame.
(Ruins of an old structure.)
The island is also home to the smallest and oldest wooden church in Iceland. The building is maybe 18 feet long and 10 feet wide. It is very small! But there is a tremendous history behind it and of course as in most things Icelandic there is a myth behind it. The myth is that there is gold hidden under the foundation of the church from a farmer who lived on the island many hundreds of years ago. No one attempts to dig it up because there are superstitions associated with never digging up a church’s foundation. This is of special meaning in Iceland since almost every homestead seems to have it’s own little church.
(Zack in front of the small church on Papey Island.)
After we got to explore the church we all headed back to the boat for the ride back to Djupivogur. Donning our lifejackets we each found a comfortable position for the hour ride back to shore. Zack was sleepy so he managed to curl up on the bed located in the forward position of the boat under the bow. I let him hang out there and sleep if he could as the sea had gotten a tab bit rougher and he was fearful enough of the ocean that I didn’t want him getting scared that we were going to sink. We were of course never in any kind of danger at all, but the seas were higher with some swells reaching a height between 6 and 8 feet.
We arrived back in Djupivogur after almost 5 hours on the ocean and the island. It was a tremendous experience that I had never expected to have. For me it ranks as one of the high points of our trip to Iceland. I feel this because it was something so off the beaten track that it wasn’t even mentioned in any of the tour books that I read. If it isn’t mentioned there, then you can bet that not many people are going to know about it. Because of this lack of knowledge we got to experience this beautiful island with such a small number of people. Just to have been on that island was a very special experience!
If anyone is wondering about the name Papey Island, the name comes from the Scandinavian word for monk. This island was supposed one of the places that Irish monks came to an established a monastery before the Norseman arrived. There have archeological excavations on the island to try and prove this suggestion, but to date nothing has been found to justify this belief.
I will always remember Papey Island and the natural beauty I experienced there. More importantly I think too that Zack will remember this experience for a long time to come. Maybe some day in the future he will bring his children to Iceland and return to Papey Island with them.
That’s it for another day. I am still 2 days behind in my writing but I will eventually get it all written. I love being able to write this tale and share it will all of my readers. I hope that you have enjoyed all that I had told so far. I hope too it brings to you a little understanding of what Iceland is like.