In the Autumn of 2013 writer Dan Crockett and photographer James Bowden went to Iceland in search of waves. Guided into a remote valley in the far north west of Iceland, something about the valley captured them; initially it was the fast breaking sand bar waves that caught their attention. Then they met Betty, the valley's last remaining farmer. James introduced us to the valley, and Betty, on our latest adventure, and there was no one better to help us tell her story. Over to you, Dan.
The Valley gets under your skin. You sort of happen upon the place with its long, snaking road in and its hanging valleys and the echoing songs of long-dead whales that swirl about. The sheep collect mean dags that dangle like fine Rastafari locks in the frequent gales. Melrakki the grey mountain wight stalks their babies and bites off their lower jaw, waits for them to bleed out on the wet ground. Down in the valley you feel suspended somehow, nestled in the crook of the surrounding peaks. If you go up high you find lethal silvery-white plateaus with no trails. Betty is part of the valley, soft as eider down, hard as a sheep's tooth in a frozen skull.
Things change in the valley. People come and go. They go, mostly. Betty has outlasted them all. Her son Þór is the seventeenth generation to live in the valley. But even he will not do the winters for he had school to attend. When snow gathers eight foot deep outside, clouding out the windows, nobody comes to the valley for months at a time. They don't like keeping the road open just for her. She's been known, in her younger years, to hike out to Flateyri just for a dance. In October 1995 an avalanche hit Flateyri village, destroying 29 homes and killing 20 people.
I liked this place so much that I came back and walked hundreds of kilometres from Ísafjörður to Látrabjarg one June and July. We'd been guided to the valley initially by Henry Fletcher of Wildfjords, a childhood friend and wilderness lover. He'd introduced us to a Canadian surfer called Danny (an ancestor of the great English nature mystic Richard Jefferies). Danny had talked about a beach where the wave broke too fast to surf. Our ears pricked up at that.
I remember the first drive into the valley, knowing we'd found something special but not really knowing why. The beach is a deceptive sucker. From the house it is dwarfed by the surrounding hills so that the stretch of sand appears small. It is only when you start walking, and walking. Same with the wave. What looks like onshore mush is way overhead, double-sucking shorebreak with little in the way of corners. If you get a good one though, it's worth it. One trip I picked up a bodyboard and fins for Þór and he went over the falls screaming with laughter. We worried about leaving him with it.
The Westfjords itself is depopulating. People leave due to lack of employment and purpose, taking the long road south to Reykjavik or joining the Icelandic diaspora. I expect it sits close under their skins though, even those that have made good their escape. Now the valley is on the international radar, has been for years. But in reality the waves are fickle and brutal, the weather is harsh and unpredictable. It is good to come with respect and love for this special place. Buy a jumper or some gloves from the farmhouse, I still have mine. Give Rosa a pat. Break bread with Betty and learn a little about the spirit of Iceland and what it means to be a farmer out here on the edge of the world. In her smile, warmth, and goodness, there are many lessons to be learned.
The annual roundup is a true indication of Betty's standing in the community. People come from far and wide to physically capture the sheep, or sheeps as Betty calls them. There are epic tales from the hillside, hair-brained sprints across half-vertical bog in pursuit of veteran ruminants, highly skilled at evading would-be captors. The Icelanders charge around the mountains until the last of the sheeps are penned in but there are some renegades, Betty says, who have lived wild for years. You see them up in the hanging valleys, sometimes even with lambs, impossible to catch. Sipping tea outside with Betty, her house guarded by whalebones, the conversation often returns to the sheeps and their year. “To live here,” Betty says, “I have to let the seasons control my life.”
At every step my heart seemed to obtain a wider
horizon of feeling; with every inhalation of rich pure air, a deeper desire.
The very light of the sun was whiter and more brilliant here.
By the time I had reached the summit I had entirely forgotten the petty circumstances and the annoyances of existence. I felt myself, myself.
The Story of my Heart ~ Richard Jefferies, 1883.