Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Rounding sheep in Jökulgil

Rounding sheep for the winter months is a quintessential Icelandic tradition that must be experienced. It is an opportunity to see old and new Iceland come together in a very special way. We gathered in Landmannalaugar, the departure point for a caravan of horse riders, sheep dogs, trucks, SUVs, and tractors that moved into Jökulgil, one of the most stunning canyons I have ever seen. Neither vehicle traffic nor camping is allowed in this area except on the day the sheep is rounded. As we moved through the canyon groups of young men and sheep dogs ran far up the hills to herd the sheep to the bottom where horse riders and more sheep dogs would await to collect them and put them into trailers. The sheep herders went so far up the hills that they would become a speck on the hills. As the search parties would climb up the hills, those of us waiting below were treated to the banter among old farmers, whose weathered faces spoke volumes of their lives in the countryside.

Icelanders are very proud of their independence and they bow to no king. There is, however, one king they willingly obey and he is called the King of the Mountain (Fjallköngur). The king is the master and commander of the roundup and in the case of the Jökulgil operation, his name is Kristinn Guðnason. The king rode his horse proudly giving orders, rounding sheep, and supervising the whole operation. He also stopped frequently to greet interlopers like myself and to joke around with his lifelong friends. I needed his approval to join the operation.

The King of the Mountain holds court.
The context of this experience was provided by Ragnar Axelsson (Rax), one of Iceland's top photographers and master narrator of life in the Arctic. Rax has been going to the roundup for the last 23 years and has made it the subject of books and films. His stories about previous roundups and the characters involved provided a level of granularity that made me appreciate the significance of the moment.