• Leslie

Into the Arctic Circle

Updated: Aug 3, 2019

Iceland's Grímsey Island in the Arctic Circle

When someone asks what's on your bucket list, do you say the Arctic Circle?

I don't. But somehow being in Iceland changed my mind.

I was in northern Iceland with friends and family one recent summer. In Akureyri, to be precise. We somehow decided it was absolutely essential to fly Norlandair to the remote and obscure Grímsey Island, Iceland's only true piece of the Arctic Circle. After all, it's not likely we'd go there the rest of our lives. Seize the day, and all that.

This was one of the more eccentric and extravagant things I've ever done in my life.

the beautiful town of Akureyri in northern Iceland

Grímsey Founded By Grímur

Grímsey Island is definitely off the beaten path. Grímsey is the northernmost island of Iceland, 40 kilometers off the coast of Akureyri. It's 5 square kilometers. It has more birds than people.

Legend holds that Grímsey was settled by a farmer named Grímur, who came to the island from Norway. He was drawn by the seabirds and eggs, as a source of income. When he arrived in the early 900s, he found an island populated by giants and trolls. He slew them all and took the one of their daughters as his bride.

Who wouldn't want to visit an island forged in such a tough pioneering spirit? Maybe it would rub off ... And so the excitement began as we boarded our miniature plane, jauntily decorated with polka dots.

our tiny red plane to fly to Grimsey Island

my teenage daughter Gillian prepping for her Arctic experience

Plane Vistas

The flight to Grímsey is only 30 minutes. The views from our plane were outstanding -- all green, blue, and white. Nature at its most pure.

Then we landed in this other-worldly place.

Grímsey Island Chess Tradition

Grímsey now has a whopping population of around 100, many of whom are chess pros. Without much of anything to do on the island, one turns to cerebral games.

The American writer and linguist Willard Fiske heard tales about the Grímsey Island chess whizzes. Fiske was a chess fanatic himself. He donated an expensive chess set to every family on the speck of an island.

What’s more, Fiske bequeathed $12,000 in his will to establish a library on Grímsey, which is filled with old chess books among other things. The grateful islanders thereafter began naming their children after him.

Arctic Circle Monument, "Orbis," near the airport

The Orbis Monument

If you fly to Grímsey, once you've deplaned, one of the first things to greet you is the sculpture "Orbis et Globus," Latin for circle or sphere. It was created by artist Kristinn E. Hrafnsson and inaugurated in Grímsey Island in 2017.

Orbis is a 3 meter concrete sphere, weighing 9 tons. It almost didn't make it to Grímsey. On its journey to the island, Orbis nearly rolled off the transport truck and into the ocean.

The sphere is intended to mark the line of the Artic Circle. Marking the geographic boundary of the Artic Circle isn't all that easy. It's a constantly moving target, shifting position with the earth's tilting access. Orbis is expected to be moved 69 meters in 2019.

The hole in the center of Orbis is stained with red rust. Image credit: Amy Martin/The World

sign pointing to the path to the Artic Circle

Grímsey Island Fishermen

The island is the only place in Iceland crossed by the Arctic Circle. Yet, it's been inhabited since the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century. Most islanders work in the fishing industry. Others work in agriculture or the tourist industry. 

Grímsey's doughty inhabitants don't depend much on calendars or clocks. Instead of working from 9 to 5, the fishermen work when there’s fish and rest when there's no fish. Nature is the only boss.

the coast of Grímsey Island in the Arctic Circle

the harbor in Grímsey Island

the Grímsey Island 1937 Lighthouse

Puffin & Terns on Grímsey Island

Without the normal predators on the island, Grímsey Island is a veritable bird nursery. Sixty species of birds live in its steep seaside cliffs, flutter and nest in the wildflower meadows, and raft on the cold ocean.

The Dean Puffin

Grímsey cute and photogenic puffins. Here, the puffins are rather afraid of humans, unlike more populated parts of Iceland. If you get too close, though, they might bite you. That actually happened to chef Gordon Ramsay when he caught a puffin with a triangular net, or háfur.

Iceland's puffin is known as the Atlantic Puffin. It's sometimes called the "prófastur" in Icelandic, meaning the dean, because it's quite distinguished looking. The puffin's most distinctive features are its tuxedo like plumage, multicolored beak and bright orange feet. The beak apparently loses its color in the winter when the puffins live out on the ocean.

For centuries, Grímsey Island fisherman have hunted puffins and other birds. But warming trends have changed the marine ecosystem, shrinking food supplies. Puffin numbers have dropped. There are calls for hunting to be suspended until the population rebounds.

a colorful puffin on Grímsey Island, with a colorful honker and almost looking emotional

Attack of the Terns

What no one tells you is that some of Grimsey's other birds are vicious and want to literally kill you. Namely, the aggressive terns.

As I innocently walked across an invisible line in the sand on a wind blown grassy meadow, I was attacked. I do not exaggerate. Terns dive bombed my head, knocking me off balance and scaring the crap out of me with their piercing noises.

I feel like our guide should have warned us about the possibility of an attack. Or offered me an umbrella, a baseball bat, or something to fend them off.

What had I done? I must inadvertently have been near their nests. I ran and ran. They followed relentlessly, until finally I was free of them. And thankfully not bald or covered in white bird shit. As if Hitchcock's film wasn't enough, I now had a healthy fear of birds.

puffins on the high cliffs

Insanely attacking terns on Grímsey Island. Image source: Mark Peck Flickr

the island has wild horses, but they are mostly in hiding and don't attack you

Aside from the thousands of birds, sometimes whales are visible from the cliffs as well.

There's not much to actually do or see on the island, which is actually deeply relaxing. If the inhabitants aren't playing chess, they're apparently making lamps out of the eggshells of the murre bird, who lay their eggs on the high cliffs.

eggshell lamps at the Grimsey Island gift shop, Búðin

You can hike to the church, which was constructed from driftwood in 1867 and renovated in 1932. And visit the distance and direction marker, which we did.

my husband and daughter, freezing on Grímsey Island, at the Arctic Circle distance and direction market

Midnight Sun & The Northern Lights

One interesting fact about Grímsey is that it's the land of the midnight sun. There is no night in the summer. Grímsey is filled with light 24/7.

If you venture to the land of midnight sun, you'll receive a "diploma" stating that you've crossed the Arctic Circle.

Grímsey Island is not unduly cold for a northern locale, warmed by the ocean winds. With no air pollution, it's a great place to watch the Northern Lights from late September until late April during the dark time of the day.

Now that I've received my diploma, I want to return to see Iceland's Northern Lights in winter. One "once in a lifetime" bucket list experience only increases the urge for more. It's quite fantastic. Don't miss it if you're in Iceland.

Practical information for Grímsey Island:

Flight: Though Iceland Air, Norlandair offers scheduled year round flights to Grímsey from Akureyri.  Five times a week during summer (July through August) and three times a week during the rest of the year (Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays). If the wind is bad, be forewarned, your flight may be cancelled.

Ferry: A ferry, Sæfari, connects Grímsey with the mainland town of Dalvik three days a week, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the whole year. More days are offered in summer. The sailing takes about 3 hours. The sea is notoriously unsteady and can be unpleasant. You may need a sick bag.

Buy ferry tickets online here.

Book flights here

Note: Some cruise ships that dock at Akureyri offer tours.

Pro tip: Wear warm clothes. It's cold and windy even in the summer. Bring something to deter the terns.

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