What does a ranger do, exactly? According to the tan and charmingly scruffy specimen sitting opposite me at a cafe in the city centre, just back from the mountains, the title is self-explanatory. “It’s a job in environment protection. That’s what the Icelandic word for ranger, landvörður, means. We’re protecting the land; we’re its guardians.” Rangers safeguard Iceland’s fragile nature and the people who visit its remote fishing villages, tourist attractions, and mountainous wilderness. While their quotidian duties involve picking up trash, maintaining trails, and having a sharp word or two with travellers who stray off them, a ranger’s work is so much more. They have to be prepared for every eventuality and able to respond to all situations that arise far from the city limits. These are the people who take it upon themselves to ensure Iceland’s virtually untouched nature stays that way.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED: THE WESTFJORDS
Dagur Jónsson drives a white pickup emblazoned with the Environment Agency’s logo. It’s probably the least practical colour for a ranger’s vehicle, but at the end of the day, any colour would end up covered in a thick brown layer of dust and mud from the winding roads of the Westfjords. We climb into the pickup to find out what a ranger does in a day. “I have to stop at Dynjandi first, but afterwards, we can pretty much go where we want,” he says.
Born this way
Even in summer, the roads in the Westfjords require careful driving. Still, you don’t need a 4×4 to get to the region’s most popular attractions, like the layered steps of the Dynjandi waterfall. On the way there, Dagur points out notable trails and rivers. An avid angler and hunter, he appreciates the area’s natural beauty – but also its bounty. “The worst insult the locals can imagine is for me to be an environmentalist from Reykjavík who wants to keep this place frozen in time. But I grew up in The Westman Islands, hunting and fishing.”
A printer by trade, Dagur noticed that there were fewer and fewer jobs in his profession. He started looking for something else to do and settled on studying systems analysis. “I hated it. Still finished the course, though,” he says as the pickup weaves its way up the hill. He’d always been an outdoorsy type: he spent decades with his local search-and-rescue squad besides hiking, biking, fishing, and hunting every summer. Faced with the prospect of looking for a job in a field he actively disliked, it was a major relief when he ran into an old friend who suggested he become a ranger instead. “I applied to work at Látrabjarg, and here I am, four years later.”
Keep off the grass
Rangers’ official duties include taking care of facilities, picking up trash at the most visited destinations, and guiding travellers on scheduled hikes. That’s only a fraction of what they do, however: a lot of their time is spent dealing with whatever situations may arise on location, such as making sure people aren’t endangering themselves or the environment. The picturesque Dynjandi waterfall is a favourite for travel photoshoots, and many visitors cross the ropes intended to protect the delicate flora. When a running team in full costume charges off the path, trampling rocks and moss alike on a quest to capture that perfect press photo, Dagur puts a stop to it. “They all say the same thing,” he laments as he returns, the runners looking suitably chastened. “They say: ‘It’s just so beautiful,’ as if that’s a reason to damage it.”
Not far from Dynjandi, Dagur mentions, there is a ravine filled with fossils and a couple of other waterfalls that all get understandably less attention because of their proximity to the steps of gushing water that make for the perfect photo. (Dynjandi isn’t even really a waterfall, Dagur chimes in. It’s just a stream flowing down a hill.)
When asked if he has a favourite location in his territory, Dagur thinks for a while. “It’s got to be Látrabjarg.” Growing up in the Westman Islands, he learned to descend bird cliffs to collect eggs at a young age. He does so regularly with his searchand-rescue squad on the Reykjanes peninsula but descending the Látrabjarg cliff is a whole other animal. I ask if we could go there, but Dagur rejects the idea. “Maybe if you had mentioned it yesterday. It’s too far to go there today.” My hopes of a trip to the cliff are dashed. Dagur returns to his duties, plucking cigarette butts from the path along the waterfall. “The nicotine pouches are everywhere.”
I wander off for a bit while the photographer documents the waterfall, the din drowning out the shrieks of the seabirds that populate every cliff and fjord of the region. A light breeze stirs up the fresh scent of ling. The pink buds have yet to mature into bilberries, so I reach down to pluck a few leaves of mountain sorrel instead. As I savour their tart freshness, Dagur returns, the path now cleared of all foreign objects. We share the view over Arnarfjörður fjord in comfortable silence. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” Dagur finally says. A short moment later, he glances over at me. “So, you really want to see the cliff?”
People, places, things
A couple of hours and about 125 kilometres later, the white pickup has become a deep shade of brown. The road is not particularly rocky, but it zigzags up and down the sides of the Westfjords’ steep and flat-topped mountains in the most unusual ways. There is limited lowland between the mountains and the sea, and most of it is taken up by pale, yellow beaches, the impossibly clear water lapping at the rocks that hold up the road. Dagur isn’t a local here, but as he spouts anecdotes about the people inhabiting the farms along the way, he could have fooled me. The anecdotes, and the farms, are fewer and fewer as we approach the cliff. We’re almost there when fog starts to settle in. I exchange worried glances with the photographer, both of us silently hoping we haven’t driven all this way only to have the view obscured. Just before we arrive, the air clears, and the immense magnitude of Látrabjarg spreads before our eyes.
“Everyone wants to see the puffins,” Dagur exclaims as we pass a few of the comical, black-and-white birds, calmly perched on the cliff’s edge, not in the least perturbed by us strolling right by them. “These ones are pretty old,” Dagur notes. I ask him how he knows, and he sighs, “Oh, you can tell by the beak.” He rattles off the names of the various seabirds that make their home on the 400-metre-high cliff facing an extraordinary amount of horizon.
Then he halts suddenly, looking up towards land. “Did you hear the fox?” I did not and probably wouldn’t have known if I had. We listen for a while until it starts calling again. “That’s a female fox. You can tell by the way they shriek,” Dagur explains patiently.
At Látrabjarg, one of Dagur’s recurring tasks is talking courage into tourists who’ve managed to drive out to see the cliff but have to be coaxed into driving back up the steep, winding dirt road. A part of a ranger’s duties is keeping the people visiting their territory safe. The Látrabjarg cliff is steep, and the path along the edge has no barriers between visitors and a drop of up to 400 metres. In light of recent news coverage about tourists’ safety in Iceland, I ask about accidents. “There hasn’t been a fatality here since, oh, I don’t know, 2014.”
THE HOT SPOT: THE SOUTH COAST
It’s a few days later, and we’re leaving the city again, this time for the south coast. There’s a little more traffic here: most travellers who venture out of Reykjavík hit the waterfall-dotted south. We’re meeting our next ranger by the lighthouse on Dyrhólaey. Ey means island, but Dyrhólaey is no longer surrounded by water. A lighthouse towers over the surrounding flatness, a bright contrast to the sandy black beaches. The promontory’s cliffs are a lot lower than Látrabjarg, but they are nevertheless home to a plethora of puffins.
“It’s the only bird they want to see,” Guðrún Úlfarsdóttir tells me. The tourists arriving in Dyrhólaey in droves are a different breed to the adventurers and hikers in the Westfjords. “I think the people coming here are the ones who prefer a little more comfort in their travels,” she says delicately. While Dagur racks up the mileage on his pickup, Guðrún’s territory is limited to the hills of Dyrhólaey and the nearby Skógafoss waterfall. It’s a much-visited area, and the rangers on duty must ensure it’s safe and enjoyable.
To the east of Dyrhólaey, a stretch of black beach is cordoned off. “It has the same waves as Reynisfjara, so we make sure no one goes there,” Guðrún tells us. The black beach of Reynisfjara, another popular Instagram spot, has made grim headlines in recent years. While the waves lapping the shore look small, there’s a steep dropoff a few metres out that creates a suction effect that can, and has, claimed lives. There are a plethora of signs at the beach but no rangers. “Reynisfjara isn’t protected. It’s out of our jurisdiction,” Guðrún explains. Rangers can only operate within regions that have been declared nature reserves, and such designations are subject to much bureaucracy and a heavy dose of politics.
A jack of all trades
While most of her work revolves around talking to visitors and getting them interested in some of the other birds that frequent the rocks, Guðrún has her share of unexpected tasks too. “I spent yesterday lugging building materials into the highlands by helicopter,” she tells me. Today’s travels have her going into town to get oil for the car. A chain fencing off the delicate grass on the promontory is an aesthetically pleasing rust colour, blending in with the surroundings as naturally as possible. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Guðrún says. “Only problem with the rust is that it’s not very durable.” She keeps her pockets full of zip ties at all times to mend it.
How far would you go for the perfect picture?
Much of Guðrún’s work revolves around aiding visitors to the area and ensuring they don’t endanger themselves or the region’s birdlife. “During the nesting season in spring, we close off the area at night. It takes a while to make sure no one is up there and divert traffic from here.” Much like Dynjandi or the Látrabjarg cliff, Dyrhólaey is perfect for photography. “We get a lot of bridal shoots here,” Guðrún says. “The issue with that is that they don’t want fences in their pictures, so they often try to climb over them.” On a particularly picturesque spot overlooking the black beach below, however, the fence has been taken down. “We did that on purpose, actually,” Guðrún says. “It’s much safer for people to stand on the edge here than if they try it a little further. The drop here is only two metres or so, not twenty.”
Conditions change over time, making it even more challenging to keep visitors safe. On Dyrhólaey, there is an older path closer to the cliff’s edge. “We’re trying to get the old path grown over,” Guðrún explains. The cliff’s edges are deceptively fragile. It’s only been a few years since a couple died a little further down the beach, the cliff crumbling underneath them as they ventured off the path and one step too close to the edge.
Dyrhólaey is a popular destination all year round, and there’s a ranger here even in winter. This is Guðrún’s summer job: she’s studying geography at the University of Iceland. Before she started the course, she was studying computer science. “I liked the coding part,” she tells me. “The people, the culture, and the prospective jobs were less interesting to me.”
MOUNTAIN MAN: THE HIGHLAND
Guðmundur Björnsson just got back from the Central Highland. He works there for two weeks at a time. The internet is patchy, and the phone signal is weak. Guðmundur spends his days mostly with hikers, hut caretakers, search-and-rescue volunteers, and other rangers. He prefers it that way.
“I used to work as a chef,” Guðmundur tells me. He remembers the exact moment when he had had enough of fine restaurants and exclusive countryside lodges. “I was working as a chef in a fishing lodge when these guides came in. They were ornery and irritated, complaining about the food, the weather, and everything else they could think of. I thought to myself: You get to spend the day out in nature fishing – something people pay astronomical sums to do – and you have the nerve to complain about the weather?’” Two days later, he told his boss he had signed up for a course in adventure guiding and he was quitting. After finishing his studies, Guðmundur realised he wasn’t cut out for working as a guide either. (“Telling the same stories over and over again, repeating the same jokes.”) Finding work as a ranger was a fortuitous coincidence. That was four years ago, and so far, Guðmundur hasn’t looked back.
Protect and serve
Fjallabak is a 42,000-hectare territory with mountain roads, hiking trails, biking paths, and geothermal areas. Most notably, it’s where you set off for Iceland’s most popular hiking trail, Laugavegur. Protecting nature might be in his job title, but much of his time is spent protecting people from the weather and themselves. “Ninety to ninety-five per cent of the work revolves around information. Gathering information and disseminating it to visitors. We follow the weather forecast, monitor the state of the roads and trails in our territory, and evaluate the danger involved in fording rivers each particular day.”
Information is what many prospective hikers lack. “I’ve often had to turn people back. People who didn’t have the right equipment. In these conditions, cotton kills. If I see a person about to set off for the Laugavegur hiking trail in sweatpants and sneakers, I start hearing warning bells immediately. In Iceland’s mountains, the only dangerous predator is the weather.” Unprepared travellers are not just a danger to themselves, as Guðmundur explains. “If you put yourself in danger, it means that others will likely have to endanger themselves to rescue you.”
Doing the work
In the nature reserve, there are no farmers or local inhabitants. It’s just Guðmundur, another ranger or two on shift, the mountain hut caretakers, the people who run the last-stop grocery store, and the search-and-rescue volunteers stationed there for a week at a time. These are the handful of people tasked with keeping visitors safe. “We’re a tight-knit group. We have to be; we have no one else to rely on.”
There is a lot to do and not a lot of people to do it. “We have to hike the trails, mark them, maintain the paths. We hike five kilometres one way just to put up a ‘closed’ sign so other people don’t go there. We need to get that information, that little sign, out into the snow or the patch of ground where it serves its purpose. It’s physical work, but I love it. Each day might start with a list of tasks, but things always come up. Sometimes you work full speed all day without getting to anything on your list,” Guðmundur says.
Much of the work is shaped by the remoteness and the dearth of people. “You often need to improvise with the resources you have on hand. You might find yourself several kilometres from your supplies in desperate need of a hammer. In those situations, you just have to find a rock that does the job.” Mostly, it’s important to be available, know the area, and ensure everyone is safe. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of stepping out into the water and reaching out your hand to someone too scared to ford a river, just to show them that it isn’t dangerous.”
For the love of the land
It feels counter-intuitive, but despite the remoteness and isolation, the largest part of the work is communication. It can be frustrating to deal with people who cross the line. “Rangers tend to care deeply for the territory they’re tasked with guarding. We’re working full time all day to protect the environment. When people misbehave in ways that can damage nature, it can be mentally draining. Especially when you’re repeating the same warnings over and over, just with a different weather forecast.”
Guðmundur appreciates the places he’s gotten to experience during his time as a ranger. “It’s a perk of my job, the closeness to the natural beauty, and experiencing it for yourself. I’m not working as a ranger for the money. I enjoy being there. We live in a magnificent country filled with incomparable natural wonders, completely different to anywhere else on the planet. Fjallabak has wondrous geothermal activity and the largest rhyolite formations in the country, which give it amazing colours. And that’s just one spot; there are so many others, I don’t even know where to begin – Fjaðrárgljúfur, Ásbyrgi, Mývatn – they’re all unique.”