Braving the elements

Tuesday 7. December 2021 | By: Brack Hale

The wind was howling as it blew snow across the road on Steingrímsfjarðarheiði on our drive to Ísafjörður in late October. Although it was not an unfamiliar sight for me, it was an undeniable sign to my students that we were not in Kansas (ok, in our case, Switzerland) anymore. It also brought back memories of my first trip with students to the Westfjords in 2014, when an imminent blizzard forced us to rearrange all our travel plans last minute to make sure we got to Ísafjörður. That experience taught me the meaning „þetta reddast“, as I was to rearrange things relatively easily, thanks in big part to my partners at the University Center. The nascent collaboration was already bearing its first fruits.

The wind was howling as it blew snow across the road on Steingrímsfjarðarheiði on our drive to Ísafjörður in late October. Although it was not an unfamiliar sight for me, it was an undeniable sign to my students that we were not in Kansas (ok, in our case, Switzerland) anymore. It also brought back memories of my first trip with students to the Westfjords in 2014, when an imminent blizzard forced us to rearrange all our travel plans last minute to make sure we got to Ísafjörður.
The wind was howling as it blew snow across the road on Steingrímsfjarðarheiði on our drive to Ísafjörður in late October. Although it was not an unfamiliar sight for me, it was an undeniable sign to my students that we were not in Kansas (ok, in our case, Switzerland) anymore. It also brought back memories of my first trip with students to the Westfjords in 2014, when an imminent blizzard forced us to rearrange all our travel plans last minute to make sure we got to Ísafjörður.

This trip is part of a regular trip to Iceland and the Westfjords for me and my students. My home institution in Switzerland requires its students to take Academic Travel as part of their studies. Academic Travels, unlike our other courses, have a built-in two-week field component that complements what we do on campus. So, come mid-semester, our students pack their bags and head off on a trip with their professor to engage in their studies out in the field. The travels make the course material come alive and enable a type of experiential learning that is hard to capture in a classroom. The topics of the Academic Travel courses vary with the professor and the destination; this course, braving the temperamental Icelandic weather, was looking at sustainability.

Our collaboration with the University Center dates back to in 2013 when I came to take a summer Icelandic class here. It was my first time in the Westfjords, even though I had been coming to Iceland with students since 2010. Talking with Peter Weiss during that summer, he mentioned that the University Center also hosted field schools, like our academic travels, and we started planning for that stormy first visit in 2014 that, despite the (or because of?) weather, was a huge success.

Six trips later, I have found the University Center of the Westfjords to be an invaluable partner. Not only do we have space (and coffee), but the staff and the University Center’s network and knowledge base have been excellent resources for organizing talks and visits, as well as the trip’s logistics. This year, our group has been able to meet with people working on sustainability issues related to energy, fishing, lifestyle, and tourism in Ísafjörður and around the Westfjords. For example, we got to visit the Mjólkurá hydropower power plant, hike through a wintery landscape to the Fossavatn reservoir, experience the power of the Dynjandi waterfalls, and learn about exciting new initiatives at Blámí and the Gróandi CSA. Learning about the challenges that the Westfjords face and the innovative approaches that are being developed not only helps students understand the complexity and nature of sustainability both in general and in the context of the Westfjords, but also provides insights to innovation and solutions.

A hike through a wintery landscape to the Fossavatn reservoir.
A hike through a wintery landscape to the Fossavatn reservoir.

And it is not only the University Center that makes the trip such a powerful experience.  The hospitality and friendliness of the people around the Westfjords have played a major role in the success of this program.  Students frequently tell me afterwards or report in course evaluations that our time in Ísafjörður was the best part of their experience and many plan to return, be it for their studies or just to see more. Even though all good things have to end and we had to go suður, we are taking an expanded worldview, new ideas and friendships, and a few lopapeysur with us. Við segjum bara takk fyrir okkur og hlökkum til að koma aftur (Thanks to everyone and we look forward to coming back).

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