Row after row of steep but flat-topped mountains, interspersed with deep fjords. There’s barely enough land in between to make up a coastline, let alone farmland. But on the green patches between the cliffs and the waves, there are still more than a handful of farms dotting the landscape. The Westfjords have always been isolated, but after World War II, when the rest of Iceland experienced a period of sped-up industrialisation, the Westfjords were left behind. Once-thriving communities were slowly drained of life when the young people moved south, and a series of economic setbacks made life difficult for the ones that remained. and new generations still find ways of making it work.
“I could drive
this road with my eyes closed,
I know it so well.”
Mikkjall Agnar Þórsson Davidssen’s alarm goes off. It’s not light yet in the Westfjords but for farmers, this isn’t unusual. Mikki isn’t getting up to milk the cows or feed the sheep but to get his stepdaughter ready for school. At precisely 7.15, the school bus arrives. Rauðsdalur farm is its first stop on the way to bring the preschool and elementary school-aged kids to get their education in Patreksfjörður, the town on the other side of the mountains.
Íris celebrated her tenth birthday the day before. She’s still waiting on her present, set to arrive any day now by mail from Reykjavík. The post arrives twice a week but the present is yet to turn up. Mikki and Íris are up but her mother Svanhildur is still sleeping, and so is six-month-old Ástey Kolbrún. An online sleep specialist whose aid her parents had requested insists that Ástey be woken up. With bated breath, her parents comply and Ástey rewards them with a smile. They have a whole day to brace themselves for the bedtime-inspired screaming set to happen later.
Svanhildur and Mikki met in 2019 in Reykjavík. Mikki had lived in Norway for a few years before that, in the same region as the first Norse settler to intentionally sail to Iceland, Raven Flóki. Unlike Flóki, however, he’d never even been to the Westfjords. A couple of years later and he’s building himself a house there.
The couple bought a prefab house and were hoping to have it ready last summer. Enter Ástey. Svanhildur got pregnant, delaying their plans for a while. They did manage to get the walls up, so all that remains is indoor work. While Mikki is new to the area, Svanhildur is born and bred. She grew up in Rauðsdalur with her parents and two brothers, moving away, like so many of the local youth to go to school, not planning on moving back. “We’d still visit every chance we got,” Mikki notes. “Summer or winter. I could drive this road with my eyes closed, I know it so well.”
Mikki’s father-in-law drives the milk tanker. He’s been doing it for decades. He’s happy to have some help. Mikki’s taking half the shifts lately. Completely unrelated, his father-in-law is now spending a couple of weeks in the Canary Islands. Alongside the milk truck gig, Svanhildur’s parents run the farm, taking care of their cattle and sheep. They also dabble in tourism, running a guesthouse and campsite. Someone on the next farm over used to take half the shifts on the milk tanker. When he quit, there was an opening for Mikki. “We spent a lot of time here but I needed something more to do than just helping out at the farm.” Mikki and Svanhildur moved west in the spring of 2021, during the lambing season. Despite being raised in a rural area, Mikki says it takes a few years to get to know the ins and outs of dairy farming in the Westfjords. He’s from the south.
Just before nine, Mikki starts the truck. Twice a week, he collects the milk from the farms along the coast of Breiðafjörður and takes them all the way up to Ísafjörður. He starts at the most remote farm in his area, Lambavatn. To get there, he drives two mountain roads, first over Kleifaheiði heath, under the careful watch of Kleifabúinn, a primitive-looking statue created from excess stone by road workers in the 1940s. In the winter, the Kleifaheiði road can be treacherous, even though it’s cleared once a day to make sure traffic can flow to and from Patreksfjörður.
The second road takes you to the remote farming community of Rauðasandur, and it’s more than treacherous. It’s a long and winding gravel road, steep and rough, zigzagging up and down sharp cliffs. In summer, the view over the russet sand that gives the region its name is breathtaking. In winter, with strong winds and ice on the road, it can also take your breath away for all the wrong reasons. The road to Rauðasandur is among the most challenging in the region but there are others that can still be plenty bad when winter sets in. The roads have been slowly improving for the past couple of decades. There are fewer gravel roads. More bridges and shorter routes between towns. But progress is slow. Roads are how kids get to school and how food gets to farms. How products get from factories and tourists get to guesthouses. And how sick people, pregnant people, and people who’ve had accidents get to hospitals.
It’s still dark when Mikki takes off and there aren’t many other cars on the road. A tiny sliver of light comes from the east. It’s mid-November but it’s still 8°C out and not a snowflake in sight, unusual for this time of year.
On the road across Dynjandisheiði (try saying that five times fast while trying to keep a truck on an icy road), Mikki regales me with stories of thick layers of ice on the road making it hopeless to brake, and how they could sometimes drive on the edge of the road to keep safe. He also tells me of piles of snow higher than the top of the truck, and how he once had to put chains on the wheels of the truck four times in one day to pass safely over mountain roads. Putting the chains on takes half an hour out in the cold and he has to get them off again as soon as he gets down. He mentions tourists scared shitless who either won’t budge to make room for the truck on the road or give so much way that they almost drive off the road. He’s seen it all. Despite all his adventures crossing the iconic Westfjord mountains, his least favourite stretch of road is driving through the long tunnel connecting the southern and the northern Westfjords. Driving through the calm dark of the tunnels can make you drowsy.
It takes us less than an hour to get to Rauðasandur but in that time, Mikki’s told me who’s who in every farm along the way and who will greet us when we arrive. As promised, Þorsteinn á Lambavatni meets us in the milkhouse. As Mikki tests the quality of the milk before transferring it to the tank, Þorsteinn explains the watercolour drawing of the milking equipment with directions in English. They have foreign workers at the farm and one of them left the work of art to explain things to the next arrivals. As I admire the picture, Þorsteinn drags me into the cowshed where two further paintings adorn the steel doors keeping the cows away from the winter hay in the barn. Lambavatn may be isolated, at the end of the road, nothing ahead but the north Atlantic, but there’s always people attracted to exactly that. We don’t dawdle too long at Lambavatn. It’s the only dairy farm left in the area so it’s already out of the way. The milk tanker is its lifeline, the biweekly visit from Mikki or his father-in-law a prerequisite for people living there.
In Barðaströnd, the farms are closer. The next stop is Breiðalækur, where Elín and Kristján are outside working on the greenhouse. Kristján is the third generations of farmers at Breiðalækur, a relatively young farm built in the mid-20th century. Despite only being a few decades old, the farm consists of several buildings and Kristján, a carpenter by trade, has done his part adding to it. There’s the old farmhouse, the new farmhouse sporting a two-year-old annex adding a new apartment for Elín and him. Then there’s the new dairy barn and the old dairy barn, currently in the process of being converted into a greenhouse. “The roof needed fixing,” Elín told me. “So we removed it to make a new one that lets the sun in.” Then there’s the workshop, which Elín has used to tan sheepskin, a garage for the farm equipment and their boat in the winter, and the latest addition under construction – a building to house their new ice-cream-making machinery.
Their youngest isn’t old enough for school but their six-year-old takes the bus to Patreksfjörður in the morning to go to school. When Elín moved to the farm ten years ago, there was only one school-aged kid left in the region so they closed the local elementary school. Now, there are 14 children below the age of 16 but the school is yet to reopen.
Hagi is the next farm over and just like Mikki predicted, there’s no one to greet us in the milkhouse. According to Mikki, “the farmers have decided to stop dairy production when they turn 60 but continue to live on the farm. The milk in the tank is just half of what it once was. They’re gradually downsizing.”
Hvammur is next, the largest dairy farm in the area, and Mikki pumps as much milk in his tanker as he did in the first three combined. There’s no one there to greet us.
We drive up to Rauðsdalur again. Mikki’s family and the in-laws produce dairy, gather it from the surrounding farms, transport it to the dairy in Ísafjörður and drive the finished product back to the area. The dogs greet us with a cheerful bark and Mikki enquires about his daughter’s sleep schedule. All is according to plan.
There are three dogs in total. The largest one is an Australian sheepdog who moves like an octogenarian after he broke his leg last fall. It takes a while to get used to but we go by the same name: this is Golíat, aka Golli. Pjakkur is a gregarious mutt, constantly seeking attention and willing to place his head in the lap of a perfect stranger in the hope of a scratch behind the ears. The third is more cautious, the namesake of Sveinn Skotti, the son of Iceland’s most famous serial killer, Axlar-Björn. Sveinn took after his father and was finally hanged in the cliffs jutting out into the sea below the farm. This was centuries ago, but I’m still keeping my eye on the dog.
A quick cup of coffee and we’re off again. This time, we’re taking the milk to Ísafjörður. In Vatnsfjörður, the next town over, we stop and Mikki picks up a Styrofoam box that’s waiting for his arrival. It’s arctic char from the fish farm in Vatnsfjörður to be delivered to the fishmonger in Ísafjörður. Out here, everyone does their part. The tanker carries 5,950 litres of milk on its way to Arna creamery in Bolungarvík. Another milk tanker covers the northern part of the Westfjords bringing in a similar amount twice a week. That’s still not enough and Arna has to buy milk from other parts of the country as well.
“Roads are how kids get to school and how food gets to farms. How products get from factories and tourists get to guesthouses. And how sick people, pregnant people, and people who’ve had accidents get to hospitals.”
A quick cup of
coffee and we’re
We arrive in Ísafjörður. There is ongoing roadwork in Dynjandisheiði, the road has already gotten a lot better but there’s more to come. The tunnel by Dýrafjörður has shortened the drive by a lot and on an unusually warm fall day without snow, we don’t run into any issues. “By now, it’s even better to take this road in snow during the winter rather than on a sunny day in the summer. Ever since the tunnel opened the tourist traffic has increased a lot and there are a lot of people on the road that don’t have any experience driving Icelandic country roads.” Mikki’s working so he can’t pick up hitch hikers. There aren’t that many any way. But last year, he took pity on a cyclist on their way up Dynjandisheiði during a storm and drove them to safety. Everyone does their part.
MS Iceland Dairies has an outpost in Ísafjörður and Mikki stops there for a quality control check on the milk. Everything is as it should be, so we continue out to Bolungarvík where the milk is pumped into Arna’s tankards to become butter, cream, skyr, or cheese. On the way back, we drop the Styrofoam box of char to the fishmonger and Mikki gets a bag of dried fish as a thank you. “I love the stuff, but I can’t eat it at home as the wife has a fish allergy.”
The day is not done yet. The milk tanker has to be thoroughly cleaned in an hour-long process. We get dinner. Mikki is pretty set in his ways but he’s willing to try a kebab in the recently opened kebab shop in an Ísafjörður shopping complex. Before we take off, another truck drives up to the tanker, a delivery from Reykjavík. Pallet after pallet of milk, butter, cheese, yoghurt, skyr and other dairy products is transferred to Mikki’s car for the people back home. He’ll deliver the goods tomorrow. We stop by the grocery.
On the way back, it’s dark again. The floodlights on the top of the car come in handy. I even see a field mouse crossing the road. I didn’t ask why.
It’s half past eight when we get back to Rauðsdalur. We go straight to the barn where Svanhvít is feeding the cows. Ástey is sleeping.