No trip to the north coast of Iceland is complete without seeing the hundreds of ptarmigan on HRÍSEY, a flat, teardrop-shaped island at the mouth of Eyjafjörður, reached by ferry from Árskógssandur, about 10km southeast of Dalvík. At 7.5km long and 2.5km wide, it’s the country’s second-largest island (Heimaey in the Westman Islands is the biggest), but it’s home to barely two hundred people.
As you might expect, Hrísey’s history is tied to fishing. Its population peaked at 340 in the mid-twentieth century, when fishing boats from across the country landed their catches in the tiny harbour, making it the second-largest herring port on the north coast, after Siglufjörður. Since then things have declined: the fish-processing factory down at the harbour was Hrísey’s main source of employment until it closed in 1999, and over thirty people left the island to look for work in Akureyri and Reykjavík. Today, it’s the Icelandic National Quarantine Centre, established here in 1974 so that stocks of Galloway cattle could be imported from Scotland, that keeps many islanders in employment. Reforestation has also begun in a couple of areas, in an attempt to protect the thin layer of soil atop the basalt rock of which Hrísey is formed from further erosion.
Hrísey’s picturesque village is tiny, consisting of two or three parallel streets perched on a small hill above the walled harbour. Brightly painted houses, unfortunately all of them modern and block-like, look out over the fjord and the handful of small boats that bob up and down in the tiny port. Otherwise, there’s a minuscule outdoor swimming pool on the main street, Norðurvegur, at the eastern end of the village; at just 12.5m in length, it’s heated by geothermal water from Hrísey’s very own borehole, on the island’s west coast.
There’s some wonderful walking to be had along tracks that head around the southeastern corner of the island; all three colour-coded paths (green 2.3km; yellow 4.5km; and red 5km) begin just ten minutes’ walk from the village near the island’s southernmost tip, beyond the couple of colourful private summer cottages that look out over the fjord. The green route traces a circular route up to the hills of Háaborð, dropping towards Beinalág and returning to the village; the red path heads further north along the coast, while the yellow track follows essentially the same routing though further inland; both routes turn south again at the Borgarbrík cliffs.
Hrísey is home to more ptarmigan than anywhere else in Iceland – they’re protected by law here and there are no natural predators such as mink or foxes. As a result, the birds are very tame and roam the entire island, and you’ll spot them in the village, laying their eggs in people’s gardens or, particularly in August after the breeding season, strolling down the main street with a string of fluffy chicks in tow.
Unfortunately for visitors, Hrísey also has the largest breeding colony of arctic tern in Europe, and should you come too close to the young birds, adults will readily divebomb you from on high – which means you’ll pretty much need a hard hat if you get too close to their nesting sites. The island is also a good place to spot golden plover and eider ducks, which have a significant breeding colony in the northern part of Hrísey which is out of bounds to visitors.