Baer – Out and about 1

Every Sunday our fabulous host Steinnun organizes a day trip for us to drag our compulsive workaholic butts out of our studios and give us a look at the broader context of where we are. Yesterday we headed up and around the Tröllaskagi Peninsular to our east. Skirting the northernmost point, we could see the low island of Grimsey on the northern horizon which sits on the Arctic Circle – my first sighting of the circle from land. We stopped in the little town of Siglufjörðu for a lunch of delicious pickled herring, rye bread and stout and then a long wander through the great Herring Era Museum. The whole ambience was improved (at least for me) by burping up my herring lunch while wandering the displays.

In its time, Siglufjörðu was like a gold rush capital as tens of thousands of barrels of pickled, salted, and dried herring  and fish oil was processed along the miles of wharves and shipped around the world. The museum does a great job of conjuring that time. There are three separate buildings. ‘The Boathouse’ is a huge shed containing whole fishing boats and assorted wharfside shacks dimly lit as if at night which you can wander around at your leisure. You can climb up onto and into the holds of the boats as if you were sneaking around the wharves at night unnoticed.

Siglufjörðu today

Siglufjörðu in the day! (1907)

Inside the Boathouse

Herring shovel in the hold of a trawler

Useful gear on hooks everywhere

The atmosphere in the Boathouse was excellent. The air was pervaded with a sweet, faint residue of gasoline, oil, bundled hemp ropes, and ground fishmeal – yum!! It is like walking into a very ambitious project by Michael McMillen.

There are two more buildings in the museum. One dedicated to the processing of herring into fish meal and fish oil. Sounds dry I know, but its more like wandering around in an busy factory on a quiet sunday afternoon when its all closed down. It feels transgressive, as if you’ve found yourself behind the scenes and out of bounds in something that’s fascinating but hard to fathom.

The last building is the ‘salting station’ or brakki – an original building dating from 1907. It housed the office and dormitories for the workers.The museum’s website says “The old brakki has largely been left as it was when inhibited by dozens of girls working in the herring in the summer. When walking through their former lodgings on the third floor, one can easily sense the atmosphere of the old times.” Its true! The tiny bunk beds on the third floor have hand embroidered quilts, suitcases stuffed under them and early Life magazines strewn about, depicting the glamorous America life. You can almost hear the gossip and laughter as the girls come off their long, hard  shift salting herring.

Brakki from 1907

Outside of the museum is spectacular too!

There are still some nice traditional wooden boats in service

...and out of service.

… and out of service.

We drove back home up the luscious  Öxnadalur valley and under the brow of the spectacularly jagged Hraundrangi.


In the foreground is the birthplace of Jónas Hallgrímsson – poet, naturalist and one of the fathers of Icelandic nationalism and independence. You could see how all of those characteristics could have arisen in him from interacting with such an amazing environment.

We drove home along the eastern shore of Skagafjöður to Baer with the evening sun sneaking under low scudding clouds.

Skagafjöður at 9.30pm.


  1. I love that little workboat. Wow


    1. Me too. I wanted to steal it!


  2. Michael Hurwitz July 17, 2012 at 8:43 am

    Hey Donald,
    Keep it coming! It’s a beautiful reminder that what we hold as “normal” is relative. I like the effect of compression that the sparseness of the Icelandic landscape provides; all things within view take on extraordinary meaning.

    I can’t help but compare your experience to mine here in Philadelphia–how radically different yet fundamentally the same. I’ve come to love this city in all it’s collapsed glory, streets littered with abandoned crack vials and the associated detritus of struggling lives, the strong smells of food cooking in the ethnically diverse neighborhoods, the history of ancient commerce made possible by the waterways–the instinct to make a home at the waters edge and to settle where natural resources make life possible……They’re both (Philly and Siglufjorou) wildly different expressions of a universal human condition.


    1. Michael. Thanks! It reminds me of my home in the Bayarea too. Remakably similar physical climate – cold and windy when its not warm and sunny. Windswept treeless shorelines. Whales blowing off shore. But that urban grunge aspect seems to be missing here entirely. Even in Reykjavik the idle youths lounging around the parklands at night seem so wholesome. I must admit I’m not missing seamy side of life in Oakland quite yet.


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