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Edging into Grímsey, Iceland’s Arctic tip

An excerpt from Iceland, Defrosted by Edward Hancox

Kolbeinsey is the northernmost outpost of Iceland, but that’s just a dot of rock in an ice-cold sea. Grímsey is the most northerly inhabited point of Iceland, and the only place where Iceland is intersected by the Arctic Circle.

It’s not easy to get to Grímsey. You either have to fly or take one of the infrequent boat trips from the mainland. Days on Grímsey are not named as the rest of the world names them, but rather as ‘ferry days’ and ‘non-ferry days’. The arrival of the ferry is often the only thing that distinguishes one day from another up there. I chose the flight.

We took off, and I started to relax. I was quite looking forward to seeing Grímsey; I’d read a fair bit about it and I was intrigued. I wanted to find out why people would want to live there. I wanted to find out what it felt like to cross the Arctic Circle for the first time. I wanted to find out about their obsession with chess. For now, I sat back and relaxed, occasionally trying to work out which glacier we were flying over, which glacier was so brightly, brightly white that it caused me to scrunch my eyes and furrow my brow. It reminded me of being a child and going snow-blind during winter days. You could close your eyes and see a ghostly green silhouette of the snowman you’d just built. It was a happy memory, and my mum was calling me back in for tea (sausages and mash) as I drifted off to sleep in my seat.

After a tedious couple of hours twiddling thumbs in Akureyri, I boarded the twin-otter plane to Grímsey. The passenger list was getting gradually smaller. There were no air hostesses on this flight, and I could see into the flight deck from my seat. Announcements were made by the pilots simply turning around to face us.

We flew through a dark narrow fjord and out into the open sea. The mountains, still topped with snow, disappeared behind us. I kept checking the ocean below my window, convinced I could see whales breaching and pods of dolphins.

Four minutes away, the co-pilot put a call in to Grímsey. The reason? To clear the extensive birdlife from the runway. I’m told that a Land Rover is driven up and down to clear the way for the plane. I think that is brilliant.

Grímsey has to be the smallest airport in the world. It’s just one tiny green building, but one which proudly bears the island’s name. The vastness of my fellow passengers seemed to make the petite airport look even smaller. Some enterprising soul has built a hotel next to the airport, and just behind this lay the close-to-mythical Arctic Circle.

Grímsey is roughly diamond shaped, but with an extended point at the north end. The island is encircled by cliffs, and to warn ships there is a squat orange lighthouse that looked as if it had been placed there by an avid Lego fan. There was a wind blowing, which I suspect never stops, and an incredible soft blue haze to the light, which I suspect is from being so far north. The island was surprisingly green, with dashes of yellow summer flowers.

My guide for this part of the trip was Halla Ingólfsdóttir. Halla is a summer visitor to Grímsey, but her family live there year round, along with the other eighty-odd residents. I mean ‘odd’ in the sense of an estimate, not that they are odd, I should add. Halla certainly wasn’t odd. She was in her early forties with a face full of freckles and a huge smile. She greeted me like a long-lost relative, and as I climbed aboard her rusting fifteen-year-old van, she was talking non-stop. Her phone rang and she barked something Icelandic into it, then apologised profusely to me and sat on the phone to prevent any further interruptions to her magical mystery tour of Grímsey. Even this northern outpost has a mobile phone signal.

Grímsey is 5.3 square kilometres in size and Halla had something interesting to say about every centimetre of the place. She pointed out where her young niece lived, in a row of white houses that formed most of the town. It was her birthday soon, she told me. ‘Children here ask for chickens and ducks for pets,’ she said, before going on to point out the brightly painted chicken house her niece had already carefully prepared in anticipation. I thought this was great, a far cry from the nine-year-old kids in my town, who want the next games console, and probably have no idea that those nuggets they are eating used to cluck.

The houses were all carefully kept, and looked cosy and inviting. There were problems with gardening, Halla told me, due to the wind and salt from the sea. Nothing really grew there, but some of the houses had compensated for this by painting stones in bright colours and putting them in the garden instead. It brightened the place up, in a landscape that was otherwise predominantly greens and greys.

The same salt and damp air played hell with vehicles, Halla told me, which might have explained the ailing condition of her van. That, or just the way she drove it across the unpaved and rough tracks that passed for roads around there.

The day was overcast, and I suspect that a lot of days up there are the same. It was not raining, though, so I was pleased about that. Halla continued to talk as she drove me to the southern point of the island. I got out of the van with my mouth gaping. Halla was still talking in the background, but I was not listening. In front of me was what I’d been searching for. In front of me was a puffin colony. A proper one. The puffins were everywhere. I was on top of a sheer cliff, but all along its length, for as far as I could see, and directly downwards, were puffins. Puffins on top of puffins. Puffins next to puffins. Puffins squeaking, puffins cawing. Puffins with perfectly white fronts and super multi-coloured beaks. Puffins with orange feet.

A puffin in Iceland

I was able to walk up to about a metre from them before the suspicious staring began and they took flight to the sea below. There are no natural predators on the island for puffins, unless you count the islanders. I grabbed my camera and took some of my best ever puffin photographs. No, they were better than that, they were world class. Puffins, on that northern outpost, are alive, well and extremely photogenic. Halla stood by, arms smugly folded across her chest. ‘I told you this place was special,’ she said, her smile nearly as wide as mine.

Back in the truck she continued to show me around: the oil-heated swimming pool, the church built from washed-up timber, the school (children up to fourteen go to school there, after which they have to go the mainland to continue their education), the busy little harbour, and the shallow pond where local young children get their sea-legs by building and sailing their own boats. The island is surprisingly self-sufficient, if you count the exchange of fish for vegetables on ferry days. The weather isn’t too bad either, with the Gulf Stream and the sea preventing the temperatures from dropping below minus 10 in the winter, but also keeping it cool in the summer. Even the snow finds it too windy to stick around. I bet it can be a cold and desolate place on a mid-winter’s day though. I imagine the thing that keeps people going is each other’s company, and community spirit was much in evidence – children were out playing in the street, one neighbour was helping another with their fence, and elderly residents were sitting around talking about nothing in particular.

One pastime that has taken hold on Grímsey is chess, undoubtedly encouraged by the philanthropic actions of a certain Willard Fiske, a nineteenth-century scholar from New York. Despite never having set foot in the place – the closest he got was passing by on a ship – Fiske became besotted with Grímsey. He sent the island eleven marble chess sets – one per household and one extra. One of these boards still lives in the community hall on the island. Chess (skák in Icelandic) has at times been taken so seriously on Grímsey, apparently, that a local story talks of how one match ended with the loser facing the ultimate forfeit: throwing himself off one of the island’s many cliffs. Fiske also sent wood and finances to build and maintain a school and library. He passed away in 1904, bequeathing $12,000 to the island. Not surprisingly, there’s a monument to Fiske down by the harbour. It’s the one that looks like the ship that presumably sailed past with Fiske on board.

The big problem around there, Halla told me, was not crime but Arctic terns. Arctic terns are slight birds, with white plumage, a forked tail and a black cap. They have an alarming call, something akin to an 80s car alarm, and have a habit of swooping down, no, sorry, dive-bombing intruders. This is done at speed, and can be quite frightening, particularly if you have ever seen Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. These slim birds have sharp beaks and a protective bent, which means that they will attempt to injure anyone or anything that comes too close to their nests. Halla had warned a recent visitor about this, she said, advising him to wear a hat and carry a stick when out walking. The stick was for holding in the air – they only attack the highest point – and the hat was in case the stick didn’t work. The visitor had clearly ignored the advice: he returned from his walk a couple of hours later with blood streaming from his face. As she was telling me this, I heard a sharp thud on the roof of the van. ‘That,’ said Halla, ‘was a tern.’ And she turned to look at me, as if to say, ‘I told you so.’ I decided to stay inside for a bit.

Our next stop was the Article Circle, just behind the airport. It was actually a small metal platform with handrails, and a signpost attached: ‘325 kilometres to Reykjavík, 1949 kilometres to London, 4445 kilometres to New York’. I set foot across the Arctic Circle. I didn’t feel any different. Nothing changed. There were no fireworks, no trumpets. It felt somehow hollow. I crossed back and forth, but it was no good. I still didn’t feel any different. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting. I had the obligatory photo taken, and on the flight back, I was ‘awarded’ a certificate from the pilot as I had now crossed the Arctic Circle. It all felt so incongruous. Halla noticed I was not smiling. ‘It affects people in different ways,’ she said. ‘And besides, you had already crossed the line when I was showing you the terns earlier.’ She was a cheeky one, that Halla.

Halla took me to another puffin colony on the other side of the island. I sat in the long grass and pretty pink flowers on top of the cliff. I gazed out to sea. I didn’t need any more photos. It was all there. I enjoyed the present. The sound of the sea against the stones below, and the noisy puffins appearing from their burrows. The sea breeze blew the grass in one direction, liked combed hair. The smell of good, fresh air. The next stop from there was the ice sheets of eastern Greenland, but it felt like I was sitting on the edge of the world. I loved the feeling. Halla was right. The place was special.

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