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Reykhólar

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 Westfjords.

 

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.

Vefumsjón