At 65° 27’ 0” north latitude, Reykhólar is the southernmost town in the
Westfjords. Home to approximately 120 people, Reykhólar is the seat of the
municipality of Reykhólarheppur, population approximately 280, which
encompasses a broad swath of land—a peninsula of sorts—that extends into Breiðafjörður as well as the northern coast of Breiðafjörður as far west as Flókalundur.
The town lies about a single main road approximately three miles in
length that descends south from the base of a volcanic hillside, over a rise
past a church (the predominant visual center of Reykhólar) on the left, and
then down to the edge of Breiðafjörður. A second
loop road, Hellisbraut, of about half mile in length departs to left from the
main on either side of the rise and circumvents it to the east; several short
streets extend perpendicular to the main road to farms on the west side of
town. On most days, you can look south and see the hills on the southern coast
of Breiðafjörður; on a clear day
you can see the glacier, Snæfellsjökull, to the southwest.
In Reykhólar, there is a town office (serving the entire municipality),
a guesthouse, a nature museum, a tourist information office, a N1 gas station
and convenience store, a nursing home, a church, a pair of commercial greenhouses,
several private greenhouses, a school, several farms, a swimming pool, a
campground, approximately 40 houses, a natural area with hiking trails, a
machine shop, a kelp processing factory. One may notice the absence of several
services that might be taken for granted, such as a bank or a hospital. A room
in the town office serves as a bank one day a week, when a banker comes to town
allowing people to take care of such matters for which a banker may be
necessary. Likewise, a doctor comes to town every Monday (“If you are going to
get sick, Monday is the day to do it,” I was told), although the town does have
a regular nurse and a clinic identified by a red cross located the loop road. For
other services, residents travel to Akranes or Borganes, about an hour to the
south, or to Reykjavik, about an hour further.
I was given an introduction to the town for part of day by Eygló Kristjansdottir, who works in the town office. In
many ways, she tells me, the town has less in common with the Westfjords than
it does with the towns to the south in the area of Iceland known as Vesturland.
Geographically, it lies just north of the narrrow (7km) bridge of land
extending from Gísafjörður (south of the town on Breiðafjörður) to Birtufjörður on east which defines the southern boundary of
the Westfjords. Because of the quality of roads leading to the north, in the
summer it takes longer to reach Ísafjörður (about 3.5 hours) than it does to
reach Reykjavik; in the winter the drive to Ísafjörður is more like 6 hours.
Geologically, the area is home to
several geothermal springs, which are rather sparse throughout much of the
Westfjords. Wisps of steam rising from these springs can be seen throughout the
lowlands south of town. The springs provide heating for the homes and greenhouses
as well as the town pool. The
water is quite hot; enough so that one can bake bread in it (a large thick loaf
of brown bread takes about 36 hours).
Additionally, in terms of the natural history of the area, the area has
several small forests and shrub areas, which are uncommon throughout the
Economically, as well, the
town is quite different from many other of the Westfjord communities. It is not
a fishing village, due in large to the shallow waters of the eastern end of Breiðafjörður. Historically, however, it has made its way
over the years through the harvest of natural resources. In the past this has
included the harvesting of seals and birds, the history of which is documented
in the Gifts of Nature Museum located adjacent to the tourist information
center on the way into town.
Presently, the primary employer in town is
Thorverk, which harvests and processes kelp for sale to the pharmaceutical and
feed supplement industries. The plant (which is owned in part by the FMC
corporation in Philadelphia) has contracts with several boat owners whose ships
harvest the kelp and then transfer it in large bundles to a transport boat
which brings it into dock. The kelp is then unloaded, transported by tractor
from the dock to the plant, where it is dried, and pulverized into different
grades of kelp, and then bagged for shipping. As the plant manager explained to
me, the process of harvesting the kelp is a rather green operation. The boats
use a special fuel which is highly economical, and the drying process is
enabled by the use of steam from the geothermal resources in the area. The
steam enters the plant at 112˚ C and leaves as water at around 65˚ C. His big
challenge, he tells me, is to try to identify a way to use the remaining heat
from the water in the plant´s processes.
As the plant employs
primarily men from the town, women in the town find employment in the service
areas. Approximately a dozen women are employed at the nursing home, which
serves 18 residents ranging in age from late 50s to mid-90s.
Similarly the school employees 7 women teachers (and one male), and serves 50
students, 20 of whom are in the kindergarten (ages 1 to 5) and the remaining
are in the upper grades, grunnskollinn (ages 6 to 15).
I spent a day and half in Reykhólar,
camping at the tenting area behind the local pool. As an outsider (not the
generic “outsider” but a person with a particular cultural perspective), I was
intrigued by the differences in the culture here, the way people live. Many of
my friends and colleagues at home may imagine (and indeed have expressed the
sense to me) that life in a town such as this must be rather difficult, as if
people had no other choice but to live here. In fact, from my discussions with
the people that I met, I got quite the contrary point of view. Many of the
folks that I met had in the past lived in Reykjavik, and were happy to get away
from the city. When I pressed to find out what the attraction was, many
explained that they were happy to get away from the complexity of life in the
city. Eygló told me that it is a great place to have a family and to raise
children, that they can go out and play, and enjoy themselves without much
concern about safety. In fact, since she moved to the town with her husband,
Bjöggi (who grew up in Reykhólar), several of the members of her family have
moved there as well.
Certainly, though, it must be difficult to keep one´s self employed,
particularly if, as is the case with Bjöggi, one works as a carpenter—there is
not an abundance of new building going on. He explained that you make do.
Sometimes he is able to work in town, other times he has to commute to Arkanes
or Borganes, or even Reykjavik—a circumstance that has been made considerably
easier by the improvement of the highway south. In fact, this improvement (as
is the case with the improvement of other roads in the area) proves to be for
many of the people (in fact throughout the Westfjords) one of the most
significant changes they have experience in their lifetimes. And the winters I asked, when it is
dark, what do you do then? “You just do it,” Eygló explains. “Yeah,” says Bjöggi jokingly, “you make lots of love.” Indeed.