Black lava, grey sea, grey sky, no trees. The houses are equally stark – a red cube with one window, a brown rectangle with a flat roof. The locals, who all look related to either Bjork or Thor, dress in modern designs without loud colors or flare, and their words, at least as far as I can tell on my taxi ride from the Reykjavik airport, are equally brisk.
I ask if the economy is doing any better since Iceland’s bankruptcy in 2008, a casualty of the housing crisis that made Iceland about half as expensive as it used to be. (A beer at a pub used to cost about $15 US; now it’s more like $8 -$10.)
“Yes,” my driver says calmly, “better.”
“Really, how so?”
He ponders, then says: “Yes, better.”
If you come to Iceland, you should come for more than three days, but that’s all I have. Nova Scotian ripper, Logan Landry, asked me if I could meet him on his quest for empty Nordic waves. I only had three days before I had to be in Central America, but when he told me I could get paid by one of his sponsors and I saw that the forecast was calling for a 20-foot at 14-second swell, a burst of hurricane Irene’s wrath, I got curious.
Of course, the storm changed and the swell has fizzled to 10-feet at 8 seconds when I arrived, and Irene’s vast arms are overhead, meaning rain and onshore winds. “Pretty typical of Iceland,” Ingo Olsen, a stocky local who, yes, also looks related to Thor, tells me when I get to Reykavic. “If you want to get good waves here, you can’t just check in the internet. You need local knowledge. It might look clean online, then you go out and you’re in the middle of gale winds and a snowstorm. Things change fast here.”
It’s good that Logan has linked us up with Ingo and Hreinn Heiðar Halldórsson, two of Iceland’s most knowledgeable surfers (two out of a total of about 30). For one, these guys grew up snow camping and glacier climbing and they could survive just about anywhere so long as they had, say, a reindeer antler. But also, if there is clean surf on the south of this craggy island, they’ll find it.
We pile into Ingo’s raised Toyota Landcruiser with an “Arctic Surfers” sticker on the side. Hreinn is snacking some dried white stuff that smells like dead seal. He’s dipping pieces in a bucket of butter. The packet says Hardfishkur.
“What’s Hardfishkur mean?” I ask.
“Hard fish,” he smiles.
“What’s it taste like?”
Hreinn offers us some hard fish and neither of us is able to keep it down. It tastes, in-fact, like hard fish. The conversation then migrates to the Icelandic delicacy of rotten shark. Because their local basking sharks are poisonous to eat fresh, Icelanders have taken to burying them in a hole for months, letting the flesh rot, then drying them and eating them in cubes with shots of strong liquor. Sometimes they pee on the shark before burying it to help the meat ferment.
“What’s that taste like?” I ask.
“Rotten shark,” Hreinn says, pausing before adding: “Or maybe a little like shit. Or probably worse than shit.”
Fortunately, the waves are a little better than that, although not much. The winds force us to surf a very sheltered cove called Sandvik, a reefy beach break set-up that looks very similar to three other coves we’ve passed, all of which required four-wheeling over lava fields to access. The swell is barely getting in to the cove, making for chest-high surf, but Logan, who grew up surfing in five-mil suits and lobster gloves, is already boosting airs like he’s out at his homebreak. “I like Iceland,” he says. He seems to be catching on to the Nordic conversational style.