Matt Willen | Friday 6. Novemberá2009
My hesitancy to classify the Westfjords as ‘remote´´ at this point is not, however, to deny that there are distinctive characteristics of this region that contribute to or are an effect of the fact that it is rather sparsely populated (about 7300 people in 9500 sq kilometers). One of these characteristics , that might contribute to the notion that the region is remote, has to do with the nature of access to the region. There are two flights a day in and out of Ísafjörður in the northwest, and two a week in and out of Bíldudalur in the southwest. Otherwise the rest of the region is accessible by car, or some sections in the north by boat or small plane.
There is a single system of roads (numbers 60, 61, 62, and 63) that makes a loop around the Westfjords roughly following the coastline (see the map on the Towns or Landscape pages). And then there are secondary roads which provide access to towns or farms located off the main roads. The character of the road system has a significant impact on the nature of life in the region. Most of the main roads (60, 61, 62, and 63)--about 75 % I would estimate--are paved, and the rest of the main road system and most of the secondary roads are unpaved. For the most part, the unpaved roads are in good enough condition for travel by passenger car, though travel along them is somewhat slow and laborious and inconvenient. While talking to a person in Reykhólar about the drive west to Patreksfjörður, I was told that, "You just follow the road, if you can call it that." The road is kind of rough in places. It is, for instance, considerably more convenient and faster to take the ferry from Stykkishólmur across Breiðafjörður when accessing the towns in the southwest Westfjords (Patreksfjörður, Talknafjörður, and Bídudalur) from the greater Reykjavik area.
In some places, especially in the west, the road passes from fjord to fjord by mountain passes (and consequently the road is closed during the winter); in other places (for example, in the north along the coast of Ísafjarðardjúp), the road tends to follow the coastline in and out of the fjords, and so the distance between locations via road is considerably longer than as the crow flies. And there are some sections (paved and unpaved) which are subject to objective hazards like rockfall or avalanches (the road between Ísafjörður and Bolungarvík, for example, is notorious-hence the tunnel project currently underway).
While some of the difficulties caused by these factors have been eased to some extent by the construction of tunnels and bridges (the first photo in the attached slide show shows the new bridge along Djúp from the air), the roads are a significant factor of life in the region. One effect of the infrastructure is that it renders some towns in the region nearly inaccessible (remote is a proper term to use here) from one another during the winter. The drive from Ísafjörður to Patreksfjörður, for example, in the summer is approximately 180 km; in the winter, since the west coast road is closed, it is closer to 800 km, a fair bit of which is somewhat treacherous (though I will say I haven't yet driven it in the winter, and my assessment is based on what I assume from my experience driving it in the fall and what I have been told). To get a sense of the drive, I spent a week driving the loop around the Westfjords heading east out of Ísafjörður. Many of the attached photos are from that drive.
In part as a consequence of the difficulty of access of one part of the region to others, it has occurred to me that the Westfjords might best be thought of not as a single region but as comprised of four different regions, each with its own identity, towns and set of concerns. The northwest (with its six main towns); the Strandir region with Holmavík as it main town in the northeast, the southeast region with Reykhólar as its main town, and which seems to identify itself more with Borganes and Akranes in the Vesturland region south of the Westfjords; and the southwest region with Patreksfjörður, Talknafjörður, and Bídudalur as its main towns. I am beginning to get a sense that this sense of four regions with different identities is significant politically as well, though I need to do more research before commenting on this.
The roads as well influence the economy in the area, the ability to (and cost of) import and export goods and services. In particular, in the southwest, the ferry is used rather extensively. The fish processing plant Þorsberg, in Talknafjörður, for example, gets its fresh fish on a truck that leaves town by four everyday to catch the last ferry to Stykkishólmur.
So, some more next week.