A Tale of Two Towns in North Iceland

Widely considered the Capital of the North, Akureyri is only 100 km south of the Arctic Circle, but boasts the warmest climate in Iceland, with temperatures ranging from 75oF during summer months to 30oF during winter. However, Akureyri is also a very cloudy town, averaging just over 1000 hours of sunshine a year, with virtually no sunlight from November to February.

With a population of 19,000, Akureyri is the largest town beyond Iceland’s densely populated southwest corner, and enjoys many of the amenities of any vibrant urban center–with winding side streets and bustling plazas offering coffee shops, boutiques, gourmet dining, art galleries, and an active nightlife–all of which helps the locals get through the dark winter months.

There’s also a geothermal swimming complex that’s the envy of all of Iceland, and it’s conveniently located downtown behind the church.

If the identity and soul of Akureyri is best symbolized by the twin spires adorning the Church of Akureyri, or Akureyrarkirkja as designed by Guðjón Samúelsson (also known for Reykjavik’s Hallgrímskirkja)…

then the heart and soul of Akureyri is in full bloom at Akureyri Botanical Gardens, or Lystigarðurinn

established in 1912 by a society of women enthusiasts who were eager to provide a green space for locals to recreate or relax.

Not only is Lystigarðurinn the first planned park space in Iceland, it’s also one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world, featuring over 7,000 species of plants, and making it a valuable resource for botany research.

An hour’s drive northbound brought us to Siglufjörður, a colorful and historic fishing village atop the mainland, and only 40 km from the Arctic Circle.

But the tale of Siglufjörður lies in stark contrast to Akureyri. In Akureyki, I had to hunt for a weekend parking space. Not so much in Siglufjörður, where its population has been in steady decline. Once a bustling seaport known as the herring fishing capital of the world, only 1200 residents now call Siglufjörður their home since the herring disappeared in 1968 from overfishing.

This cautionary tale is well-documented through the town’s award-winning Herring Era Museum.

Having grown up in a household that enjoyed sardines, kippers and herring, I felt compelled to explore the museum’s interactive exhibits: which illustrates how the fresh catch was hauled to port,

and subsequently processed by an army of “herring girls”…

who could gut and brine enough fish to fill three barrels an hour.

Iceland’s first processing plant was built in 1911, where oil and meal–for pet food–was extracted from the fish. As more fishermen from Scandinavia arrived to fish the fjord’s bounty, the industry prospered.

In 1925, disadvantaged “herring girls” successfully went on strike for equal pay, and formed one of Iceland’s first labor unions.

In its heyday, Siglufjörður had 5 processing factories, and 23 salting stations supported by a hearty population of 3,000.

Today, the town of Siglufjörður hopes to ensure its future and relevance by presenting their history, and Leah’s buddies hope that tourists are listening.

Order of the Blue Nose

Captain Terje Nilsen of the Viking Star personally delivered the unfortunate news over the ship’s PA system during breakfast.

“Because of high winds, we will be cruising past the port of Bodø, and continuing onto Tromsø. I apologize for the inconvenience, but the weather is just not safe for us to make a landing.”

Of course, we were disappointed.

Bodø is a charming alpine village north of the Arctic Circle and home to Saltstraumen, the world’s largest maelstrom. Additionally, Leah and I had booked an excursion to Kjerringøy, and would have enjoyed hiking through this preserved trading post dating back to the 1800s.

But Captain Nilsen wasn’t kidding. If the gusting winds and pounding seas were any indication of what was witnessed as the Hurtigruten ferry attempted docking in Bodø, then I couldn’t imagine the Viking Star following suit–certainly not with so many passengers unable to handle the rough crossing from Tilbury, England.


Nevertheless, passengers were invited to the pool deck following breakfast to celebrate a longtime maritime tradition of crossing the Arctic Circle.

While Paulo serenaded us with folk classics and Beatles covers of Here Comes the Sun, and I’ll Follow the Sun, (ironic, don’t you think),

Here Comes the Sun

the crew assembled to initiate each of us into the Order of the Blue Nose.

Our Cruise Director, Brensley Pope took the microphone to give some background:

Good afternoon Ladies & Gentlemen and welcome! We have entered through the Arctic Circle, and it is time to make our journey official by welcoming you to the Order of the Blue Nose! First, a little history.

The word “arctic” comes from the Greek word arktikos: “near the Bear, northern” The name refers to the constellation Ursa Major, the “Great Bear”, which is prominent in the northern sky.

The region north of the Circle, known as the “Arctic” covers roughly 4% of the Earth’s surface.

The position of the Arctic Circle coincides with the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for a full twenty-four hours; hence the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” This position depends on the tilt of the earth’s axis, and therefore is not a “fixed” latitude. The Arctic circle is moving north at a rate of 15 meters per year, and is currently located at 66 degrees 33 minutes North latitude.

Captain Terje Nilsen interupted, “I believe that’s enough history for now…”

The crowd responded with laughter. And then it became official with his declaration…

Hear ye… hear ye….

Whereas by official consension, our most honorable and well-beloved Guests have completed successful passage through the Arctic Domain. We do hereby declare to all in attendance and that those who possess the courage to take the Aquavit cleanse shall be marked accordingly, with the prestigious Order of the Blue Nose.

(Applause)

Captain Nilsen continued…

This is to certify that you all have been formally and officially initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Chilly Deep, and should wear your blue noses proudly! With the order of myself, the Captain, I command all subjects to Honor and Respect those onboard Viking Star as one of our Trusty Blue Nose family.

We officially welcome you to the Blue Nose Order! Skol!

I got my blue nose and drained my shot glass of chilled Aquavit. Was I now a proud member of a society of alcoholics and sun worshippers?

drinking aquavit (2)

But I wasn’t alone.

Lines formed from both sides of the pool deck for distinguished crew members to efficiently annoint all worthy passangers with a blue-tinted dab of meringue.

closed eyes

What follows is a small sample of inductee’s portraits–some more enthusiastic than others…

red eye

pursed lip

plaid shirt

man wirth glasses

lady with glasses

grinning lady

glassy eyes

Chinese freckles

beard man

United in singular purpose, we now shared a common bond.

To validate our accomplishment, each of us received a certificate of achievement validated by Captain Nilsen.

Certificate

Soon after, while walking about the jogging track in whipping winds after a filling lunch, I caught a glimpse of what made this affair so special.

Arctic Circle marker

Now that’s what I call “Crossing the Line!”