The Old Ways in Iceland
I probably could have found a way to get to Drangey Island on my own but Selma, who was working at the front desk of the Reykjavik Youth Hostel, had the biggest, brightest blue eyes I had ever seen. I thought asking her to help me would be a good enough excuse. As it turns out, following my intuition was a good idea. Selma placed a quick call to Omar who runs a charter boat out of Saudarkrokur in Northern Iceland. According to Selma’s translation, Omar said that he would be happy to ferry me to Drangey and back for only 3500 kroner. I said takk fyrir to Selma. She gave me a wink and I caught the northbound Ring Road bus for Varmalid. At Varmalid, I transferred to the mini-bus bound for the tiny fishing village of Saudarkrokur. I was the only passenger and the driver spoke no English. As a result, it was a quiet ride across the lava field.
When I arrived in Saudarkrokur, I quickly found the harbor. It isn’t hard to navigate towns that are only inhabited by about 500 people. Selma had given me a good description of Omar’s boat so I found him easily. He told me that I would be tagging along on a charter trip for an Icelandic bird-watching club and that when we reached Drangey, he would make a short stop so I could disembark.
Drangey Island and its seastack
From the harbor I could see Drangey on the horizon. It looked like a lopsided pedestal rising sharply from the place where the North Atlantic grudgingly becomes the Arctic Ocean. The fog made it look almost mythical as I remembered the sagas about Grettir the Strong and how he met his end on that jutting pedestal called Drangey. The heaviest item in my backpack was a book of Icelandic sagas which I read each night under the midnight sun before crawling into my tent to sleep. I had planned to visit as many places as possible that had served as settings for the sagas and Drangey was near the top of the list.
During the boat ride, I tried to follow along as the guide pointed out the many species of seabirds that were dive bombing the minnows in our wake. As we approached the basalt seastack that stands just before Drangey’s natural harbor, the squawks of the birds became louder than the amplified voice of the guide. The black rock was stained white with their guano and the avian guards were taking to the skies to fend off these new intruders.
Omar had his first mate drop anchor and lower the rowboat. He and I descended the rope ladder into the tiny wooden boat and he rowed me to Drangey’s dilapidated dock. Omar handed me my backpack, wished me luck and told me he would be back the following afternoon. As he was leaving, he reminded me to pray before venturing to the north side of the island. “It was never blessed when Iceland was Christianized,” he said. “That means that it’s still home to the pagans.”
I stood on the dock at sea level gazing up at the 200-meter walls of the island that I would be camping atop and wondered how I would make it up there. The little trail that led from the dock quickly got so steep that it required steps cut into the rock and a chain anchored to the ground to help me keep my balance. With my center of gravity thrown off by the weight of my pack, I began my ascent. At some places the trail was so narrow and the overhanging rocks so low that I had to take off my pack, pass it ahead and crawl along the trail.
After about an hour of climbing I reached the top of the island. The view was spectacular. It was about ten in the evening and the sun was low in the southern sky. Drangey is topped by a large rolling meadow the size of about ten football fields. The grass is long and thick and gives a springy feeling when walked upon. I noticed the puffins, their orange and red beaks poking out of their burrows, scurrying to safety whenever I would walk by.
The cabin, Drangeyjarskali
I had planned to camp but soon after arriving on top of the island, I found a little cabin with the name “Drangeyjarskali” posted above the door. I assumed this translated to “Backpackers Welcome” and let myself in. From the amount of snoring taking place in the dark cabin, I could tell I wasn’t alone.
“Allo,” called a voice. A figure met me in the doorway and I backstepped onto the porch. I was followed by a quirkily dressed Icelandic fellow about my age. After establishing the facts that I was an American backpacker and that this was my first time in Iceland, he volunteered to give me a tour of the island. He was staying in the cabin, which is open to the public, with some friends for the purpose of puffin-hunting. They would catch the puffins in nets at the ends of long bamboo poles and sell them to the vendors in the marketplace. The birds would eventually end up on the plates of fine restaurants in Reykjavik and Akureyri which cater almost exclusively to tourists.
My new friend, whose name sounded entirely different each time I asked him to repeat it, told me to grab one of the non-netted bamboo poles. “You’ll need it for the tour,” he explained. What started as a stroll soon became a technical rockclimb without the benefit of technical gear.
We lowered ourselves down the cliffs that make up the sides of the island clinging to rocks, tufts of grass, and our bamboo poles. When we reached a ledge, we would walk along it until it ran out and then jab the pole into another ledge, usually two to three meters below, and shimmy down to it. The thought crossed my mind that it would be extremely difficult to get back up. I comforted myself with the belief that my guide surely knew of a trail, and that there was no way I’d be expected to free climb crumbly basalt walls 600 feet above the ocean while holding a three-meter bamboo pole. I was soon to be proved wrong.
Three types of birds make up the majority of Drangey’s avian population – puffins, whose wobbly flights make them look like overgrown bumblebees; kria, who are very territorial and have no qualms about dive bombing perceived intruders and pecking them on the head; and terns, who live in holes like the puffins but have the uncouth habit of vomiting on the feet of anyone who walks by. Our boots covered with “shrimp-cocktail,” we pressed on.
When we reached a spot that combined a great view with the absolute impossibility of going any further, my guide announced it was time to return to the top of the island. With that announcement he began an ascent that would make Spiderman jealous. I had done just enough rockclimbing to know that you don’t climb something like this without ropes, protection and a harness but I really had no other choice but to follow. I gripped my bamboo pole in one hand, the first available handhold in the other and started to climb.
We reached a ledge which was large enough for us both to stand on. It was separated from the next ledge by about one meter horizontally and two meters vertically. My guide used his bamboo as a pole vault and launched himself up and over to the ledge. I had played soccer in high school. We did not have a track and field team. I had never pole vaulted before and decided that now was not the time to learn.
I passed my pole to my guide and decided to span the gap the non-technical way. I would jump. I got as far back as possible and took a running leap for the ledge. I caught the edge of it with both hands and felt the rock give way. The basalt had crumbled upon impact and was no longer supporting me. As I began to fall I dropped the useless newly-loosened rocks that I was gripping and swung an arm around toward the wall. I somehow spotted a handhold and grabbed onto it with all I had. It held. I hung there for a little while, caught my breath, and quickly scampered up to the ledge where my guide was waiting. “I thought that was the end for you,” he said.
We finished the ascent back to the top of the island and I set down my bamboo pole, never to pick it up again. We returned to Drangeyjarskali where I rolled out my sleeping bag onto a vacant cot and quickly fell asleep – as soon as my heart rate slowed down.
Puffins on top of a cliff on Drangey island
The next day was spent catching puffins and talking to the rest of the hunters about puffin-hunting and the other vanishing Icelandic traditions. They were proud to be among the few of the younger generation that still came to Drangey to live for the summer and hunt. It’s a tradition that is extremely time consuming. Apparently, nobody hunts like that anymore.
At the appointed time, I returned to the dock and waited for Omar to return. As his boat rounded the seastack, I shouldered my pack and watched the first mate lower the rowboat. Omar rowed out to meet me.
“Well, what did you do on Drangey?” he asked.
“I went rockclimbing with a bamboo pole,” I replied.
“A bamboo pole?” Omar was surprised. “Nobody climbs like that anymore.”