This post is fully reliant on a presentation given at the University Centre of the Westfjords Monday by Dr. Peter Weiss, the director of the Centre. Since this will be my home for the next few weeks I’ll try to update you on some the intricacies that make the carved-up northwestern slice of Iceland so interesting and unique. Currently I’m residing in the town of Ísafjörður, the most populous city in the Westfjords.
Roughly 7,500 people reside in the Westfjords, and Ísafjörður is home to roughly 3,000 of those inhabitants. However, the population has been trending downward for several years. A comprehensive presentation regarding this pattern can be found here, courtesy of the University Centre. Many, many factors interact to produce declining numbers, including remoteness, employment security, health, transportation, and the mother of all behavioral indicators: convenience. Many coastal communities have experienced a similar rural exodus, causing Reykjavík’s population to swell as a result.
The isolation of the “surprisingly cosmopolitan” (really, Lonely Planet??) Ísafjörður is evident from every angle. Last winter, 36% of the flights to and from Reykjavík (most inhabitants’ only chance of leaving due to treacherous seasonal road conditions) were cancelled.
What is shockingly distinct to me in Ísafjörður is the lack of anonymity afforded even temporary residents. Staying here with 30 students in host homes means every time I leave the apartment I stay in I run a very high probability of running into these students, or my boss, or my coworkers, or a woman I saw on the street yesterday, or…you get the picture. It’s jarring! Combined with the ever-present summer brightness, it feels as though every action undertaken outside the home is not only viewed by someone, but someone you know.
This eeriness aside, Ísafjörður is a beautiful, idyllic place. Nature is inescapable. Tourists are drawn in droves on their cruise ships, docking for a day, perusing the shops in their brightly colored jackets. On Hornstrandir you can find the elusive arctic fox, Iceland’s only native land mammal. And yet, people are still leaving, and with every departure it becomes harder to sustain this minute economy. Places like the University Centre, established in 2008, have done wonders in this regard, bringing students from around the world to study coastal management or lean Icelandic, among other things. However, more needs to be done in order to secure and provide for this community. Dr. Weiss described the Westfjords as home to those who “do for themselves” and while this remains true, many have sought to do for themselves elsewhere, leaving the future uncertain.