Bikepacking Iceland Part Two: Finding our Way on Borgarfjörður Eystri with Gravel Bikes

Borgarfjörður eystri is unrecognizable from the Iceland I know. I have this mental image of Iceland: a black canvas of volcanic rock with broad strokes of green Icelandic moss. Yet, as we pedal into Borgarfjörður eystri, these expansive black and green landscapes yield to something entirely different. The color gold reigns king.

Borgarfjörður eystri is the northernmost of the Eastfjords and barely has over 100 inhabitants. It’s a gem shaped by multiple natural forces: green cliffs carved out by Ice Age glaciers that dip into the sea, flanked by golden rhyolite mountains extruded from ancient volcanic activity. Few Iceland tourists make this far northeast, making it a place of true solitude.

We find ourselves here thanks in part to my friend Tyler Wacker, a graduate student in Ísafjörður and also co-owner of Cycling Westfjords, a new bicycle tourism company. He had been tipped off on the route when he was riding in the Eastfjords with Árni Magnusson, who operates the bicycle rental and guiding company Fjord Bikes in Borgarfjörður Eystri.

The route isn’t long but my friends Quinton and Daylen scoff at the elevation profile: over 9k feet of elevation gain over 5 climbs in 55 miles. “C’mon we’re from San Francisco!” I protest, “Hills are the only things our legs know.” They remind me that this time our bikes are loaded with gear, that our tires are 40mm and the terrain is unknown, and that our gravel bike gearing may be sub-optimal for steep grades. “Fair…” After some debate, we commit to the route and brace for just how much hike-a-bike our future might hold.

The Right Place at the Right Time

The dusk September air slaps our faces, our hands vibrate into a tingling numbness, and our half-unzipped puffy jackets catch the wind. My eyes are swimming in the folds of this fjord dreamscape. We haven’t seen a single soul all day. Distracted by the beauty of our final descent on day 1, I do a double-take upon hearing the sputtering of a car motor around a corner. I skid to a halt, kicking up a cloud of dust that hangs in the air on this unusually still evening. The lone occupant of the car—a middle-aged Icelandic woman—waves cheerfully. I turn to watch her muddy white Nissan grumble up the gravel pass and disappear around the bend.

Quinton and I catch up to Daylen, a minute ahead. He explains, “That lady told me 25 people are staying at the hut tonight. She hopes we aren’t planning on getting a bed inside.”

I blink twice. “25 men? No way!” We saw 5 sheep and 1 human today. The hut we passed earlier this morning was deserted.

Daylen shrugs, “Well, I doubt it. Must’ve been a language barrier issue.”

As it turns out, her English was perfectly fine. At blue hour we reach camp for the night, a hut bearing the impressive name Loðmundarfjarðarskáli hut. A kind, chatty man introduces himself as Baldur—Magnús Baldur—from the nearby town of Egilsstaðir. He explains that men from all corners of the Eastfjords are gathering here for réttir, the Icelandic tradition of sheep herding every autumn.

“Are they being herded to be sheared?” Quinton asks.

“No, to … to, uh … what do you call it … ” He puts one hand on his chin thoughtfully and his eyes turn to the sky, searching for the English word. “Ah! Yes. To slaughter.”

We learn that Icelandic landowners are mandated by law to herd sheep every year before the harsh winter hits. The number of men required to volunteer for réttir is proportional to the size of their plot of land. These sheep are then sorted, the majority of which are sent to slaughterhouses. Quinton, Daylen, and I look at one another, excited to be in the right place at the right time to witness a local tradition. Baldur quips, “In the evening we celebrate with smoked lamb!”

Blueberry Water: Icelandic Hydration Fuel

The weather remains fantastic the next day, atypical for temperamental Iceland. Celebrating the sunshine, we take generous breaks to forage wild blueberries from the side of the trail, which we discover thanks to our new friend Baldur. What we can’t fit into our bellies we plop into our bidons, following Quinton’s lead—”It’s like boba!”

Blueberries fuel our next rocky climb at 10% grade. The boys are impressed that I manage to keep pedaling without dismounting to walk. It’s in part thanks to my stubbornness, and in part thanks to my slightly better gearing advantage compared to theirs maxing out at 1:1. Of the 5 climbs on this trip, none appear punishing upfront, but each is a double whammy of steep pitches at 20% grade and sections of chunky rocks. I sweat so much I become a waterfall on two wheels. Admittedly in these moments I can’t help but think of how the ascents and descents could be more enjoyable on a mountain bike. Still, my trusty steed does its job.

Finally at the top, we sunbathe in the grassy slopes overlooking the fjord, popping blueberries into our mouths like Greek gods feasting on grapes. I’m on cloud nine. Sure, Iceland is known for it’s temperamental weather, but when the weather is good, oh boy, does it feels like a proper summer vacation.

Tales From a Local

As magical as the landscapes of fjords and rhyolite mountains are, we agree the highlight of our trip is the time spent with our new friend, Baldur. Together we chat about Iceland in pop culture—Quinton gets kudos for naming Icelandic Crossfit athletes—as well as the history of the region. Through little vignettes, he paints a vivid picture of what life is like growing up in the Eastfjords. Baldur grew up here but moved to a larger town, Egilsstaðir, when he was 16. As a kid, he cross-country skied to school. He shares with us photos on his phone of his latest reindeer hunt.

He tells us about Mjóifjörður, a remote village with a dozen people, where the only road into town completely shuts down during the winter. “You wouldn’t believe it, but the only thing they have in the winter is a boat that goes between Mjóifjörður and Neskaupstadur. If you need supplies in an emergency, you have to wait because this boat only comes every 2 weeks!”

In a perfect circle back to the start of the story, we then learn that the woman who had passed us in her white Nissan is the hut warden of Loðmundarfjarðarskáli. She was also the last person ever born in this region. Baldur gestures to another hut in the distance. “That’s the house where she was born decades ago. But everyone has moved out of this area. It’s now truly the land of sheep.”

That last sentence stuck with me. Gazing out across the fjord to the sea and sunset, it’s hard not to appreciate this country where the locals tread lightly, honoring the land so that it can cycle so easily from being inhabited back to nature once again.