My recent experiences in Iceland make me wonder about all of the places around the world that continue the practice of transhumance (a word I just learned, referring to the seasonal movement of animals to new grazing areas) and the tradition of rounding up grazing animals before winter. What societies still graze their animals communally; still celebrate the harvest; still have shepherds? Randy and I have taken shelter from the monsoon with nomadic Yak herders in Bhutan. I would love to see the cattle drive in the western United States; the herding of sheep on Sardinia, the cows grazing in the Alps, or a sheep station in Australia. Iceland is not unique in its autumn ritual, but I am sure these customs are endangered everywhere, as animals are raised industrially and human occupation encroaches on open space. Most cultures have replaced horses with motorized vehicles for roundup and transport. Based on what I saw in September, I feel confident that the réttir will continue for many years to come in Iceland, a country that seems to blend so seamlessly the old and new.
We awoke on the second day of the roundup to absolutely abysmal weather: rain, strong wind, and heavy fog. Suddenly we realized how fortunate we had been the day before. We also knew that in addition to the changed atmospheric conditions, the terrain would also be more challenging.
The plan was to set off from the same spot as on Saturday, but to head east up the mountain through the geothermal drilling area, over the plain, and down the mountain into the Hvergerdi valley. It sounded daunting, but Geert assured us that the area to be covered was actually smaller than the vastness we traversed the day before.
We were among the first to arrive and left the horses in the trailer. Sitting in the truck, we debated whether we had enough clothes on. The ubiquitous orange rain pants and slickers were just the beginning: underneath I had woolen long johns and fleece-lined riding pants. On top two base layers beneath a heavy wool sweater and a wind- and rainproof jacket. A woolen gaiter protected my neck and, luckily, my warmest waterproof gloves were dry and ready. Because we would be walking part of the day, good walking/riding boots were essential. Rubber boots, the normal attire for an Icelandic horse trek, do not help when you have to go up and down rocky hillsides.
The heavy fog obscured the geothermal plant, less than 200 yards away. The wind roared ferociously. Icelandic weather is notoriously variable. It can be sunny to the east, rainy and gray to the west. One can set out in the morning with five layers on and return home in the afternoon with two. The conditions can literally change within minutes.
I admit that I approached the day with trepidation. We had driven by the hillsides we would have to get down at the end of the roundup numerous times and I just couldn’t imagine how we could get down safely. Emotions changed quickly as we heard that the entire day’s activities were in jeopardy. Even the Icelanders were concerned that the weather might be too bad to risk it. They would make a decision by 9am. Word soon came that the community authorities had closed the mountain where the drilling takes place. The visibility was nearly zero.
The half hour of waiting turned out to be a highlight of the weekend and a real window into Icelandic culture. There was a small barn, attached to the rett, and some of the farmers had put their horses there. It was one open room with troughs along two sides. We went in seeking shelter from the elements and found about twenty horses wandering in and out. A few farmers were getting ready for the day. The amazing thing to us foreign riders was the ease with which the Icelanders moved among their horses. People leaned against the untethered horses, who happily munched on hay. The horses were calm and their people relaxed. Farmers sang, joked, and laughed.
Conferences with the mountain king in his truck continued. He drove up the mountain and returned with the news that the visibility was much better at the top. If we could get all the horses trailered up, we could begin there. There were never many sheep to be found on the eastern slope of the mountain anyway, they claimed, so perhaps the day was not lost.
And so we drove back to the highway and back toward Hvergerdi, but turned off onto a restricted road at the summit of the mountain. We unloaded the horses and tried in vain to shield ourselves from the wind. My photographs cannot convey the force and sound of the gusts. But look for the blowing manes. To me the intensity rivaled the winds experienced in the recent Tropical Storm Irene, which dumped so much rain on New England two weeks prior. The rain here was intermittent, but cold, and the drops pelted us in the face. Sadly, we would spend the rest of the day heading east, into the wind and rain.
We set off in a large group, another highlight of the day. The gravel road again accented the sound of the horses’ hooves, as we tölted into the storm. The horses seemed particularly spirited and willing. Again, our group took one flank of the plain, peeling off to the right, toward Highway 1, as the majority of Icelanders headed over some hills to the north. We crossed a shallow river and saw only one tired sheep, who was unwilling to move. Had it been near the end of the roundup, Geert would have hoisted that sheep on to the horse, in front of his saddle and carried him down, but the day had just begun. We hoped that the sheep would follow or survive to be found when the cowboys swept through again in a couple of weeks.
I saw few sheep that day, as we headed under more high-tension wires and up a steep hill. I was surprised to find myself on the edge of a vast plateau. Again, we did the waiting game, mounting and dismounting; but in contrast to the day before, we were cold and uncomfortable. We waited for what seemed an eternity for the riders to appear on our left, which would be our signal to head on. We came together to confer on how best to get down – for we knew that the rett was far below in the valley, but the fog and clouds obscured the view much of the time. From the top of an unfamiliar hill, it is nearly impossible to judge how to best get down the steep slope. And although we were to hold our places in line, when we finally did descend, four of us followed one other, leading our horses down the steep grade. The ground was very soft. Scree (small, loose stones) covered the moist soil. Icelandic horses are trained to follow; at home we were all taught to lead our horses standing to their side.
Goliath and I traversed the hill; back and forth, I tried to figure out where I should be, and how far in front. He is large for an Icelandic horse and his steps were much bigger than mine. My knees much prefer hiking uphill to down. I stepped more gingerly, Goliath more confidently. But somehow we managed to get down quickly and safely. He didn’t step on my feet and I didn’t slip and fall underneath him. We reached the tall grass with relief – and he munched happily, while I caught my breath. I confess – it was shorter and less harrowing than I had imagined. We mounted and rode a short distance, dismounted and walked again, looking for a place to get over the next hill. Soon we were nearly all the way down and followed the others through a small but steep-banked stream. They eagerly cantered up a needle-narrow path and around a bend. One more small hillock and there was the pen.
We stopped and formed a line. Sheep seemed to be coming toward us from all points ahead, both north and east, also having just navigated steep Icelandic mountainsides. We did our job well as the other cowboys drove them toward the pen. But some clever sheep coming from the east saw their chance to go up the western slope instead of turning around the corner toward the opening of the pen. We watched in amazement as some of the Icelanders ran up the hillside to get them down. It is hard to beat a sheep uphill, whether on foot or on horseback!
Those sheep were quickly persuaded to turn around toward the pen, but soon after they were corralled, some other wooly friends escaped through the gate, which inexplicably had been left opened. About thirty sheep took off for the same eastern slope and a mad chase ensued – the sheep clearly had the upper hand: three horses returned without their riders. This time it took a bit longer, but the fastest climbing cowboys somehow managed to keep them from going over the hill to freedom.
Today’s roundup was a more difficult one to coordinate, with riders bringing in sheep from three different directions. Apparently those from the east were “supposed” to arrive first before we came down from the west. But the weather was lousy and animals are unpredictable. I was surprised that no one tried to use their cell phones or walkie-talkies. The highest tech tool involved was a whistle. But I like how the Icelanders maintain the roundup in nearly it original form; I think they relish its uncertainty.
We all arrived a little worse for the wear. We were in the valley of Hvergerdi, surrounded by the billowing clouds of steam from Iceland’s most active geothermal springs. The river we would cross to get home is warm – children were playing in it!
We tied the horses to graze for a few minutes while we were treated to the best coffee I have ever had. Normally, I don’t drink coffee. I don’t even like coffee. But I was unable to say no and enjoyed every sip of two cups with milk. The warmth flowed through my body. I was never so happy. The ride home proved exhilarating, as we tölted and galloped for half an hour, the horses as eager as their riders to return home.
We zipped through one of Iceland’s only forests in the blink of an eye. (The government is trying to introduce trees to the coastal portions of the country. Legend holds that the Norse settlers cut down all the trees to build houses and ships; but conventional wisdom says that trees never really reestablished themselves after the last Ice Age. The harsh winds make it very difficult for young trees to grow. That being said, Icelanders would love to have a domestic source for wood.)
The hot pot was never so inviting, and dinner never so warm and delicious. I hadn’t herded many sheep that day, but I felt like I could do anything!
In case you are wondering what happened to the sheep, they were trucked to a circular rett a few miles away, where they spent the night. We would sort them the next afternoon, a Monday, after many of the farmers were finished with their day jobs and the kids were out of school. I included some pictures of the sorting in the slide show. I found it harder to grab the sheep, smaller in number and who had more space to run around than on Saturday. The sheep seemed much more spirited. Or was it that we riders were just more tired?