In the footsteps of a whale
I have always been fascinated by Icelandic history, sagas and stories. The best thing about them is that they may lead you to the most interesting places. Or how does the second tallest waterfall in Iceland, a lava cave and icy river crossings sound to you?
One of my favorite stories tells about an evil-spirited whale who lives in a fjord. A pastor lures the whale up a waterfall and all the way to a highland lake where the whale dies of exhaustion. The story sounds unbelievable but this particular fjord and its surroundings have been named after it. Jump in your car, take the ring road 1 towards north and before the Hvalfjörður tunnel turn right to the road 47. Now you’ll find yourself in Hvalfjörður, Whale Fjord.
The fjord is breathtakingly beautiful. The water is clear and high mountains rise around it giving shelter to wild roaming sheep. In the middle of the fjord, you can see an island that according to the Harðar saga was once occupied by a large band of outlaws. The calm and quiet but still majestic and oneiric landscape makes one’s imagination run wild. It’s hard to believe this small oasis is situated right next to the busiest road of the whole country.
Steer your car to the parking lot found at the bottom of the fjord and start your adventure. The main attraction here is Iceland’s second tallest waterfall (198 meters, 650 feet). Put on good hiking shoes and get prepared for a steep and high climb (no climbing equipment needed, but you definitely will need your both hands to help you up). I also recommend taking snacks, extra clothing, wading shoes, a camera and some kind of light source (a phone will do) with you. The hike will take about 3-4 hours and it’s not an easy walk in the park.
After a walk across a beautiful field, you’ll come to a lava cave which you have to get through. With the help of a light source, you can safely take a closer look at this amazing cave. Few steps away from the cave is the scariest part of the hike (in my opinion). There’s a wild river you have to cross by balancing on a log and holding onto a cable. Sometimes the water is high and crossing seems dangerous. At a time like this you just have to take a deep breath and with one small step at a time make your way across the river.
At this point you can hear and see glimpses of the waterfall. By hiking, crawling and climbing up the hillside with the help of ropes you will reach a viewpoint where you can see the whole waterfall. The Glymur -waterfall got its name from the thundering sound the whale we spoke about earlier made while swimming upstream in the narrow ravine. If a whale made it all the way up, so can you. Enjoy the amazing view but remember you are here at your own risk. Respect nature and don’t get too close to the crumbling edges – there will be no one to catch you if you fall.
At this point you may choose to get back the same trail you went up or continue and make a loop by getting down the other side of the waterfall. I actually recommend getting down the same way (if the trail is not crowded) because this side is more scenic. If you want to top the waterfall or even continue all the way to the lake (as the whale in the story did), please step further. The view on the top is totally worth the climb and you’ll feel like you're on top of the world here. I haven’t yet taken the hike along the river to Hvalvatn (Whale Lake), but it’s on my bucket list. One of the Icelandic sagas tells about an outlaw who was living in a cave at the northern side of Hvalfell (Whale Mountain) next to Hvalvatn and I’m very enthusiastic to get to see that place. I would also love to see this mystical lake where the whale of the tale is said to have found his final resting place. Did you know actual whale bones have been found on the site?
Well, you’ll probably need to do an overnight hike to get all the way around the lake, so we’ll skip it for now and concentrate on the mission at hand: crossing the river and getting down the other side of the waterfall. Find the shallowest and widest part of the river for crossing (wider part means slower flow). Take off your shoes, roll up your pants and put some wading shoes on. The river is ice cold and the stones at the bottom are sharp. I myself crossed the river barefoot and as the freezing water came half way up my thighs and the rapid flow tried to push me over I thought about one of the toughest women in the Icelandic sagas.
Helga is one of the main figures in the earlier referred Harðar saga. Her outlawed brethren were killed with the help of a cunning plan. Helga is left alone with her two children on the island in the middle of Hvalfjörður but she manages to escape to the mainland and to safety by swimming over the fjord. She does this in the middle of the night – twice. That is because she has to help both of her children, one at a time, to get to the shore as well. And here I am whining about cold feet!
The end of the trail is quite easy. Just take the marked route all the way down to the parking lot. Don’t let the surroundings distract you and get you lost on some small sheep paths. This happened to me – no fun. I managed to get down in one piece, but let us respect nature and make no extra paths or damage to anyone or anything by climbing down dangerous hillsides.
When you get to your car, please, don’t drive away from Hvalfjörður. There’s a very nice gas station on the northern side of the fjord. Here you can stop for food or ice cream and get to know more about the fjord from a small whale exhibition set in the building. I also heard rumors that the few campsites and hotels here are very nice. Hope you will enjoy your adventures in this amazing fjord full of stories and history twined together.
The writer is a Finnish makeup artist, seamstress and translator Anniina Saari. She has traveled Iceland several times and is in love with Icelandic nature, food, culture, art and language. Visit her personal Instagram @_anzkus_ and her unique travelblog on Instagram @unicorns_on_a_trip.