An arduous drive to see Puffins

The Westfjords of Iceland

I have one rule: The reward must be worth the effort.

All my life I’ve been terrified by what I deem “questionable” drives. When I was ten, my family was visiting Utah and my father wanted to see the Bingham Copper Mine, a big mining pit that just happens to be 30 minutes outside of Salt Lake City. Back in those days we had a van–not a mini van, but a big van because that’s all car manufacturers made back then. It was green and it held all seven of us comfortably. After Dad announced our plan for the day he pulled into a gas station for fuel and asked a local the best way to get a good look of the mine. “He told me of a back way,” I heard him tell my mom. “He said it has fantastic views.” And then off we went.

It was pretty benign at first. I didn’t mind that we were on a narrow gravel road, but as we climbed higher and the road narrowed, I became terrified. There was not room on the road for two cars (or so it seemed to me) and more than twice Dad pulled over as close to the mountain side to allow the other car to inch past us. The other car looked as though it was right on the edge. And when it was our turn to be near the edge I sat on the floor of the van, with my hands over my head as if ready to protect it should we fall. I cried. A lot. At the top I wouldn’t get out of the van to look at the massive mine pit. I was traumatized and wanted this adventure to be over. My family seemed to think I was ridiculous.

I’m not afraid of heights. I can stand at the top of the Empire State Building and look down with no problem. I’ve walked across canopy walks suspended atop a jungle’s crown of trees without fear. But that drive was terrifying and any drive like that since merits the same result in me.

Driving Iceland’s Westfjords

Our first day in Iceland’s Westfjords was cloudy, rainy and a little snowy. It alarmed me a little that our guide said, “I read that there’s a possibility of black ice” just as he started our drive. Like my family’s adventure to the Bingham Copper Mine, our drive into the fjords started easy. We’d go from pavement to gravel then to pavement and the higher up was all gravel. The road was narrow and the wind so strong I thought it would blow us off the mountain. We’d go up and around one mountain then down again only to face another one. There were no guard rails at all on the drive. One slip and you fall to your death.

I sat on the last bench in the van so I could be by myself and wring my hands in private. I could not understand why the others in our van seemed nonplussed by the harrowing drive. The van jostled me as we drove over the gravel and I occasionally checked my heart rate on my watch. It was okay at first, but the higher we got, so did my heart rate. (At one point it was 128.) I don’t know how I was going to survive the next three days in the fjords.

Our objective was to reach the Latrabjarg Cliffs–an eight-mile stretch of cliffs, a little over 1400 feet high, where you can find millions of sea birds, namely Guillemots, Razor-billed Auks, Thick-billed Murres and of course the Atlantic Puffin. These cliffs are special and host the largest colony of sea birds in the North Atlantic. (Also, fun fact: Latrabjarg is not only the most western part of Iceland, but also of Europe.)

Snow Bunting (female) found at the headlands at Latrabjarg Cliffs.

“Be very, very careful” a man at the parking lot warned us. He was there to officially warn anyone who came. On behalf of who or what, I don’t know. But the wind was so strong he could barely hold himself straight. We parked and I didn’t want to get out, remembering that time when I was sitting at the bottom of our family’s green van on the way to the copper mine. But this time it was the wind that frightened me. We all wore thick, heavy-duty rain coats that also protected us from the wind. They also could easily turn into a sail and with gale-force winds, it would blow any of us off that cliff.

“I’ll stay here,” I said to Steve. “It’s too cold.”

Honestly, it was cold and that’s always a problem for me. Here’s where I tell you I have this thing called Reynaud’s Syndrome where my hands and feet turn blue when doing simple things like walking near the freezer section in the grocery store. It’s a vascular disease and occurs due to a connective-tissue disorder I have called Scleroderma (an autoimmune disease), which has its own set of problems. I’d been living with both Reynaud’s and Scleroderma for some time and have learned when to stay out of the cold, which is basically the only way to manage it. I knew we were going to be back the next day and hoped for better weather. Plus, that drive—oof. All that jostling made me feel like I’d just been through a milk shake machine.

Steve, our guide and the other couple who were on our tour slipped out of the warm car and into the blustery headlands. Alone now, I worried as the wind shook and rattled the van, wondering if I should get out in case the wind swept it off the cliff.

Steve and the others were not gone but 3 minutes when I heard the van’s sliding door open. “It was too dangerous,” Steve said. “We’ll try tomorrow.” I was relieved as everyone piled into the van and less relieved as we drove the two-hour journey back to ‎⁨Önundarfjörður, where we were staying for the next couple nights.

‎⁨Önundarfjörður, ⁨Westfjords⁩, ⁨Iceland⁩

The following day we awoke to what felt like a different season with no rain and very little wind. White clouds filled a cerulean sky and I was excited that I might see the Atlantic Puffins. But beautiful weather notwithstanding, I didn’t know if I could take the drive again.

“Bring your headphones,” Steve advised me over our breakfast. “And don’t look at the edge.”

As we headed through the fjords, going up and down the mountains for our two-hour drive back to the Latrabjarg Cliffs, I kept my gaze on the wall of mountain to my left and listened with my headphones to loud rock music to distract me. There were a few times I gasped when I looked at the edge of the road and Steve would motion with his forefinger for me to look the other way, like a stern mother silently scolding her child out of love but mostly for safety. I welcomed the reminders.

Atlantic Puffin

I survived the drive and this time I was eager to climb out of the van. Everything was clear and in technicolor. The bright green grass along the edge of the cliff, and the black, white and orange Atlantic Puffins stood along the cliffs, not at all bothered by our presence. Puffins only produce a single egg each nesting season. We didn’t see any young, but did witness those that returned from their feeding foray out at sea and greeted their partner with their courtship ritual of bill clacking.

Atlantic Puffins greeting.

Razor-billed Auks clung to the rocky edge and they, too, lay only one egg each season, though their eggs are conical, and look kind of pointy when Steve showed me a picture. It makes sense when you realize they place their egg in a cleft, which is an opening in the cliff. Of course, Auks aren’t as colorful and comical-looking as the puffins, at least on the outside. But when they opened their mouths, they revealed a yellow-orange mouth the color of the lichen on the rocks.

Razor-billed Auks pair
This Razor-billed Auk was snoozing on the rock on the cliff’s edge and revealed his all yellow/orange mouth.

Thick-billed Murres posed elegantly, as if waiting for our cameras. They are true pelagic species and only come ashore to nest.

Thick-billed Murre

We spent an hour at Latrabjarg Cliffs, snapping photos of the birds, and then back into the van and on the harrowing two-hour drive back to our accommodations at Önundarfjörður. I placed the headphones back on my head and turned up the music and faced the direction of the mountain. We would do another two-hour drive the next day through the fjords when we’d return to Reykjavik where I would again wring my hands and gasp at hairpin turns on the narrow gravel roads.

I’m not going to say that all this cured my fear of precarious drives, but in this case the reward was certainly worth the effort. Would I do this again? I’m afraid the answer is a solid no. Though maybe if I hadn’t seen the puffins my answer might be different.

Atlantic puffin with nesting material