Tucked away into the Hornstrandir Peninsula’s silent fjords and icy rivers, rusting ruins from the 20th-century whaling industry remind those who come across them that paradise, once lost, can still be found again.
Situated in Iceland’s far northwest, the Westfjords are the country’s most sparsely populated region. Only ten percent of tourists make it out here, for the rugged landscape is located far from the country’s Ring Road to which most sightseers hew. The region’s 7,000 residents live scattered across an area half the size of Switzerland, with many concentrated in Ísafjörður, the Westfjords’ largest city.
On my sixth trip to Iceland, I finally made time to venture to the Westfjords. For five days, I trekked across the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the north of the region, which is only accessible by boat. Consisting of deep fjords and jagged mountains that span an area of 580 km2, Hornstrandir is the textbook definition of remote. This is perhaps the peninsula’s biggest selling point for those who come to Iceland not only for the waterfalls, hot springs, and free refills on soup and coffee, but to get away from it all.
No cars can reach Hornstrandir, as there are no roads. In the 1950s, the Icelandic government decided it would be too costly to construct overland connections to the rest of Iceland. This led to the swift depopulation of the many villages and farmhouses dotting the country’s northernmost fjords. Writing in 1978, one author observed, “Hornstrandir, the most magnificent coastline in Iceland, has been left to the birds.”
The author should have also added that Hornstrandir has been left to the Arctic foxes, which are plenty, and the hikers. In 1975, the peninsula was designated a nature reserve. Long, rough trails marked only by cairns crisscross the undulating terrain. There is one lighthouse that can accommodate hikers in bunks. A former doctor’s house in the village of Heysteri also offers beds and hot meals. But otherwise, hikers have to rough it and carry their own tents. On the boat over to Veiðileysufjörður—one of several stops for the ferry that services the Westfjords daily in June and July—I read a brochure enticing visitors with the notion that they would have a chance to see a place which, having been depopulated in the 1950s, remained uniquely untouched by mechanized agriculture.
So, imagine my surprise when, after four days of hiking, I came across an enormous rusting oil drum stuck in a river near the crescent-shaped beach at Hlöðuvík. Save for the magical lighthouse at Hjornbjargsviti, a beaming orange beacon meriting its own blog post, and the occasional tiny red triangular wooden building housing a campsite privy, I’d hardly sighted a trace of the twentieth, let alone twenty-first, century. And now, while trudging in sopping wet hiking boots across the sodden tundra, where the only sound for miles besides one’s squidgy footsteps might be raindrops prickling a puddle of snowmelt or a squawking fox pup, I’d come across a creaking piece of metal so big that it is visible from space in Google Earth.
Trying to deduce the oil drum’s backstory, my companion and I guessed that perhaps it had fallen off a wayward boat many decades prior and come to rest where the river meets the sea. After all, it was surrounded by piles of driftwood that had made its way via ocean currents to wash ashore on the beach. Sticking out into the North Atlantic, the Westfjords, like little forks in the sea with mountainous tines, catch the logs that sail by from the rivers draining into the Arctic from Siberia’s boreal forests. Maybe this was how an oil drum ended up here, too, providing a startling reminder of the modern world’s rough and sometimes tetanus-lined edges.
Once we reached the other side of the mountain pass, however, we laid our origin story to rest upon discovering the oil drum’s more likely source: an abandoned whaling station at a place called Stekkeyri, two kilometers from the old village of Heysteri, which was our final destination. After a breakfast of toast slathered with jam and yogurt heaped with muesli at the aforementioned Doctor’s House—a real luxury after days of porridge and instant coffee made over a campstove—we went for a stroll up the fjord. We expected to see maybe an Arctic fox or a seal, or just some other picture-perfect example of an Iceland untouched by mechanization. But, rounding a small crest, we came across an abandoned building that looked something like an old processing plant. If the Westfjords are the definition of remote, this site was the definition of ruined: crumbling bricks, rusting metal, and old boilers.
There was something faintly familiar about Stekkeyri’s jangled mess sticking out into a placid harbor. I trawled my memory for other ruins I’d come across in my years of seeking out forlorn and forgotten architecture. Suddenly, it dawned on me: two years ago, in another misty corner of the North Atlantic, I had cycled by an old whaling station in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Just like the ruin in front of me, Bunavoneader, as the Scottish site is called, had a tall, narrow brick chimney and quays sticking out into the water.
Stekkeyri, I figured, must have also been a whaling station. We later confirmed this fact when we accessed the internet back in Ísafjörður. The ruined site also contained big rusting oil drums identical to the one we’d seen in the river on the other side of the mountain. That stuck drum, then, probably hadn’t fallen off a ship headed for a distant port: it had more likely originated in the Westfjords themselves. So, here we were, trekking across lands untouched by mechanized agriculture—yet less than a hundred years prior, Hesteyrarfjörður, as the fjord is known, had been filled by the smoke of belching furnaces fueling the global whaling industry.
Today, the official Visit Westfjords website says of Hornstrandir: “Completely off the grid it’s like going back in time, a hiker’s paradise where nature is the boss and elements fill your senses.”
But going back to 1940, the last year the whaling station operated, would have meant breathing in the stench of boiling cetaceans. Describing a whaling station in another part of the world, one observer in 1926 noted that a steersman could navigate to it upon sighting a “red blot and yellow of smoke.” That is, floating blood and combusting blubber. The odor from these processing plants was so dreadful that a 1915 guide from the U.S. Hydrographic Office advised seamen not to anchor near a certain whaling station “on account of the smell.”
So the impression of the Westfjords as Iceland’s most untouched expanse is a wholly modern creation—or, more precisely, a post-industrial one. The whaling station at Stekkeyri closed its doors in 1940, after having operated since 1894 when it was set up by an intrepid Norwegian family. (Another group of Norwegians, whalers par excellence, had also established the Bunavoneader station in the Outer Hebrides). The immigrants to Heysteri even imported timber across the ocean from their home country to build the village’s church and seventeen houses.
Yet their efforts would prove short-lived. As whaling populations dropped worldwide in the 1900s, Iceland’s parliament decided to ban whaling in 1916. The Stekkeyri plant switched to processing herring, but this, too, only remained lucrative for a couple more decades.
By 1952, Heysteri was all but abandoned. As across much of the Westfjords, some farmhouses have been lost to long and wild winters, frequent avalanches, and pummeling winds. Other houses have stood the test of time, cared for by the descendants of their original owners. Likely living in the big cities of Reykjavik or Akureyri, today’s landlords return each summer for rest and relaxation, or to earn a tidy sum accommodating tourists.
Hornstrandir is only regularly accessible by ferry for about two months a year. The occasional boat carrying passengers from cruise ships docked in Ísafjörður also makes the hour-long trip to the Westfjords, as happened while we were in Heysteri. Despite these seemingly small numbers contained within a short season, tourism has grown to the extent that the government moved to enact more stringent environmental protection laws in 2019. A specialist at the country’s Environment Agency, Kristín Ósk Jónasdóttir, explained of the new environmental regulations, “In all reality, we’re trying to keep the preserve as untouched as possible and what we’ve been trying to do in the preceding decades should still be possible for coming generations to do as well.”
Before the Westfjords were depopulated seventy years ago, however, residents would have likely prioritized keeping the economy alive for future generations.
In the span of a little over half a century, the region has gone from being a noxious node in the global whaling industry to a place prized for its purity. But tucked away into silent fjords and icy rivers, rusting ruins remind those who come across them that paradise, once lost, can be found again. It is a hopeful lesson for those who champion conservation. It is also a humbling lesson for those who think that what humans have built today will last forever.