Independent People on an Iceland Journey (continued)

While cod stocks may now be plentiful in Icelandic waters, Iceland experienced a precipitous decline from over-harvesting of another important fish. A museum in the north of Iceland taught me about the Herring Girls. In mid-20th century Iceland, the herring run lasted a month or two, and women from the south would come for that time to help process the fish. They stayed in bunkhouses, one of which is preserved as part of the museum, with tiny beds built into the wall only a few feet from each other. “Nice” pairs of shoes and dresses were neatly stowed as if their owners were about to come back, ready for the Saturday night dances that were held.

I am surprised that anyone had the energy for frivolity. The women filled barrels with layers of fish with salt strewn over each layer. The first rows required bending from the waist to ground level with each row slightly higher. There had to have been a constant strain on the back, but the piece-work pay was good, for the herring industry was profitable. Our guide’s mother had been a Herring Girl, and remembered it fondly as a time of hard work, yes, but those Saturday night dances had, apparently, been worth it.

In the 1960s, about half of Iceland’s export income came from herring, but a decade before, the herring catch had dwindled. Instead of seeing this as a warning sign, herring fishing, aided by new technologies, increased. Then in 1969, the herring did not return to Iceland; they had been over-exploited. Neither the herring industry nor the towns that relied on it have returned to the glory days. There is a lesson here.

          Just about everywhere I could see another traditional mainstay of the Icelandic economy. Almost every field had sheep—usually ewes with two lambs, which, of course, were always cute, especially when the lambs bounded about as if they were on springs. Lamb was regularly on the menu, and every shop from roadside rest stops, to souvenir shops, to upscale stores had woolen sweaters for sale. I resisted buying any because I did not like the styles; they were enormously expensive; they were too heavy for indoor wear in modern America; and I already own an Irish fisherman’s sweater for cool autumn days when I attack fallen leaves.

Living a sheep’s life

          Every drive outside of a city or town also passed fields with horses, not as numerous as sheep, but a presence nonetheless. They are all of one breed—the Icelandic horse. The strain goes back a thousand years or more, although seventy percent of the stock were wiped out in the 1783 volcanic eruption. (The volcano afterwards was given the name Laki.) The breed has remained pure because Iceland forbids the importation of horses, and even if an Icelandic horse is sold abroad—there are heavy populations of the breed in Northern Europe and America–it cannot be brought back to the island. There are only one-way tickets for the animals.

          These long-lived horses come in many, many colors—our guide said 400 but another source said 100. Perhaps this counts as diversity in Iceland. The animals are known for their small size, but when we went to a horse breeding and training center, our guide cautioned us against calling them “ponies.” Icelandic horses are also known for having five gaits, unlike the usual three—walk, trot, and canter or gallop. Although it was demonstrated, I did not understand the uniqueness of the fourth gait. I gather that the gait is like a walk, but the horses can do it at much faster speeds up to the equivalent of a canter. Although training can improve this locomotion, the gait is natural to the horses present from birth.

          The fifth gait is pacing, where the legs on each side of the animal move together. The pacers I have seen in America have been pulling sulkies with a driver, but the Icelandic horses were ridden—and I gather raced with riders on their backs. The pacing horses we saw with a rider zipping along on the backstretch were quite beautiful.

Iceland Horses Grazing
Icelandic horse

We also saw cattle in fields, but besides the arctic fox, there are no other mammals native to Iceland—no elk, caribou, reindeer, moose, or bear. (On occasion a polar bear stranded on an ice floe finds itself in Iceland, and apparently, because it will not survive, it is shot.) Early settlers were not hunters.

The island, however, is also known for whales in its waters, which we did not see, and for puffins. Accompanied by beautiful blue skies and calm waters, we took a boat into the Greenland Sea (near the Arctic circle) to see an island where puffins nest in holes and tunnels. (It was cold on the water, and the crew provided us with full body suits against the frigid winds. Besides being warm, the suits, we were told, would inflate should we be unceremoniously thrown into the water.) Puffins come to Iceland in the summer, but they winter somewhere on the ocean. Little is known about their life at sea. They mate for life, we were told, but if the male does not find its mate at breeding time, it might take up with another female. However, if the first mate shows up, the male returns to the original partner. In what I am sure is a well-worn Icelandic joke, the sad look of a puffin comes from the male apologizing to the first partner. (I thought, however, that the sad expression perhaps came from mating for life.) Although some think the population is declining, puffins are eaten. However, some restaurants proudly proclaim that they will not offer the bird. I wanted to try it but could not find it on a menu.

Puffin nest

The boat, berthed in Husavik, had a crew of three. The captain, with whom I did not speak, was Icelandic. I asked Sophia whether she was from the island. She replied, “Do I look like an Icelander?” After a glance at her slightly dark complexion, I replied, “No.” She said that she was born and raised in Argentina and was a marine biologist. During the winter when the boat did not operate, she lived in the Canary Islands (which she pronounced can-uh-ree). When asked what she did there, Sophia said, “Surf.”

The third member of the crew was the exquisitely handsome, 6’2” Christian. With his perfectly trimmed beard and his stylishly unrimmed glasses, he looked to have been type-cast by Hollywood for the role—no, of course, I was not jealous. In fact, Christian was a German economist who spent his winters at home in Bremen. He said that as a kid he had been fascinated by whales, and while our group was going to see puffins, the boat often went further into the open seas for whale watching. He said that combining a hobby with a job was great. 

The Puffin Crew

(to be continued)