Shortly after 9 a.m., Bjarni Gylfason cut the throat of his first fish. His brother and identical triplet, Svafar, guided the catch over starboard — shimmering Atlantic cod with foggy-green ombré scales and bulging black eyes. The line of fish, hauled from the sea by an on-deck motor, fed into a pinch point, where the hooks tore from their mouths and freed their bodies to slide down a metal chute and into an on-deck bin. Bjarni stood at its foot, holding the knife. Although morning, the sun hovered directly overhead, typical for late May, rising steadily since their 5 a.m. departure. In the distance, a school of 10 humpback whales rose to the surface and spewed mist into the air, breaking the hard blue line of the horizon.
The boat chugged along north of Grímsey — the brothers’ home — an island of roughly 90 inhabitants that straddles the Arctic Circle, 40 kilometers off the northern coast of Iceland.
The brothers worked quietly, clad in neon-orange, bib-and-brace waterproof overalls and matching jackets. They also wore navy blue stocking caps. The only distinction between the two was their haircuts. Bjarni prefered a close buzz, while Svafar kept small wisps of golden, brown-sugar hair resting on the back of his neck. The air filled with the muffled rumble of the engine; the snap of hooks torn from the mouths of fish; the clap of a gentle, early-summer swell on the boat’s hull; and the splash of freshly sliced cod tossed into a water-filled tub, where they bled out before being stored below deck.
Five years old, he wore a red knit sweater with white, snowflake-like patterns across the chest, a royal-blue baseball cap and dark-washed jeans. His hands rested idly in his lap. His soft face was scrunched and his lips pursed, hinting at an oncoming smile, as if the shutter opened five seconds too soon. The photograph, a copy of which sits on a shelf in their parents’ bedroom, was the last taken before his death just after 3 a.m. on July 1, 1983.
The brothers are the only triplets ever born on Grímsey and are the island’s most well-known residents. In some respects, they are the only people mainlanders can identify as inhabitants of Grímsey. In most cases, though, residents of Reykjavík and other cities in the south or west haven’t even heard of the brothers and, moreover, view Grímsey as a distant, mystical place that lives in conversation only.
The boys were raised on the island, as their mother, grandmother and great-grandmother had been. (Their great-great grandmother, Inga Jóhannesdóttír, born in 1874, moved to Grímsey from the mainland at the turn of the century.)
Raised to be fishermen and first starting to work in the fish factories at the harbor before age 10, they bought their first boat, at 22, in 1999. Six years later, they combined the venture with their father’s company, Sigurbjörn, the cornerstone of the fishing enterprise on the island. Everyone on Grímsey is involved, at one point in his or her life, in the fishing trade. And all of its inhabitants rely on it for survival.
Situated in the southwestern stretch of the Greenland Sea, Grímsey is, appropriately, in the heart of Iceland’s most exceptional cod fishing. First founded by Norwegian Vikings in the late 11th century, Grímsey has grown into a robust, blue-collar community, trudging through an eccentric and sometimes tumultuous history. It has endured under the values of work ethic, familial loyalty and the delicate adherence to a simple life. The ocean encompasses the island, giving residents a steady supply of fish. The people of Grímsey created an isolated but thriving community despite not having a modern infrastructure. It’s a place that has, more or less, kept to itself for hundreds of years, reveling in its bucolic allure, stark remoteness and self sustainability.
By mid-afternoon, after securing the rest of their catch, the brothers had turned the boat back toward Grímsey. The water was unusually calm and the boat dipped gently with the slow rolling of the sea, flashes of light ricocheting off its surface. A gang of birds tailed the boat’s stern, hanging around in hopes of scavenging discarded fish guts and leftover chum. The northern cliffs of the island — enormous columns of basalt thrusting from the water into the sky — grew steadily as the boat pushed along. Thousands of birds circled the west side of the island, moving in dense pools, swooping down and streaking up again like a school of fish, their silhouettes black as ink against the sun-soaked sky. As the boat ran the length of the island, the cliffs made their gentle, downward slope, breaking at the harbor. Two walls of stone marked its entrance, curving in toward each other like a mother’s arms wrapped around her young. The boat carved a slow, bowed curl into the harbor packed with vessels of all sizes, from large trawlers to two-man skiffs.
With the smell of two tons of fishing brewing below deck, the brothers crept the boat closer to the dock. Their father, Gylfi Gunnarsson, came into view. He sat on a crate at the edge of the dock, waiting for his sons. His thick, calloused hands rested on his knees and, as the boys became visible, he stood and adjusted his newsboy cap, tufts of grey hair ruffling out from its edges, just above his ears. The seam of his grey crewneck sweatshirt was frayed under the patchy white scruff of his jowls. The brothers smiled as they inched closer and called out the estimated weight of the catch. Gylfi smiled back and let out a hefty, barrel-chested chuckle, revealing a coffee-brown incisor, which had been slowly dying for the better part of two decades. He put his hands on his hips, nodded, and grabbed his clipboard to record the details of the day’s work. After securing the boat to the dock, Bjarni gripped his father’s hand, lifted himself out and turned back to face the harbor. He took a deep breath through his nose and said, “We’re home.”
Named after the Norwegian Viking who first set foot on the island, Vestifjaroa-Grimur Sigurosson, Grímsey is, at two square miles, barely a dot on the map. Roughly the size of Central Park, the island has no naturally growing trees and is, like much of mainland Iceland, made up of volcanic rock (the island is comprised of densely packed basalt and some clusters of sandstone). It’s a splinter thrust into existence from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which bisects the country vertically. Although it’s the northernmost inhabited territory in Iceland, the weather is surprisingly pleasant. The mainland (especially Reykjavík) is swamped with drizzle and fog in the summer, but Grímsey is clear and mild. A soft breeze pours in from the northeast and sweeps over rolling fields of knotted grass and spongy moss before dropping off the western cliffs. The cliffs start high at over 90 meters at Basavík Bay, a gently curved inlet on the northwest coast perforated with puffin burrows, and gradually descend, past the small commercial airport, to the harbor on the island’s southwest corner. Grímsey’s single patch of residential and civil housing, officially known as Sandvík, stretches from the airport south, past the harbor and along the coast, ending with the church and, at the island’s southernmost tip, a mustard-yellow lighthouse.
By 1254, Norwegian settlers built the first church on Grímsey using turf layered between large, flat stones. Dedicated to St. Olaf, the national saint of Norway, the church stood as a centerpiece of the island for much of the proceeding 600 years. Although a barren place to live at the time, with little framework besides its religious foundation (not to mention a treacherous journey to the mainland), people sustained on the abundance of fish. Besides transitioning from Roman Catholicism to Lutheranism in 1575 (as mandated by the Danish government, which ruled Iceland until 1944), little else is known about the island during these formative years. A combination of isolation and lack of written record makes the first 500 years of Grímsey as an inhabited territory cloudy. Myth surrounds that period. After a period of fishermen drownings, the people of Grímsey went to a witch and asked her to move the island closer to the mainland. She replied: “Only if God asks me will I do it.” He never spoke, and the island remains in its original location along the Arctic Circle.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that a more clear and complete picture of Grímsey began to emerge. In 1702, a fierce smallpox epidemic tackled Iceland, killing a quarter of the country’s population within two years. By 1708, it had reached Grímsey. Thirty-three of its 87 inhabitants died. Although the epidemic fizzled by the spring of 1709, it is said that the disease resurfaced on Grímsey again in 1793, killing all the men on the island except for seven, including the priest, Arní Illugason. The six other men fled for the mainland, leaving the priest to look after the church. But their boat sank with no survivors. With Grímsey on the cusp of extinction, mainlanders were quick to jump at the opportunity to recolonize the island, and the government oversaw repopulation efforts later that year.
The mainlanders who chose to recolonize were as much fleeing as arriving. Famine plagued large parts of the mainland after the Lakagígar volcanic eruption of 1783, which killed half of Iceland’s livestock and, consequently, a quarter of the people.
“People were eager to come to Grímsey because of that,” said Haraldur Jóhansson on a foggy evening in Reykjavík. At 85, he is the oldest living person born on the island. He was also a prolific contributor to Grímsey og Grímseyignur (“The Island and People of Grímsey”), the island’s ancestral and ethnographic encyclopedia, published in 2006 with a single run of 600 copies. “And growing up on Grímsey was magnificent,” he added with a broad smile, flipping through the book, its pages sprinkled with photographs and anecdotes. “There are a lot of peculiar things in this place that you won’t find elsewhere.”
He looked down at a photograph of men collecting bird eggs on the face of a cliff. He smiled again, licked the tip of his wrinkled finger and turned the page.
Sometime around 8 a.m. on June 30, 1983, Konráð Gylfason (pronounced kon-road) woke in his parents’ bed. He lay next to his two triplet brothers; older sister, Hulda Signý; and their 26-year-old mother, Sigrún — a round woman of moderate height with shoulder-length blonde hair and narrow-set, storm-cloud grey eyes. Their father, Gylfi, had been away for about a week, fishing shrimp 80 kilometers to the northeast. During his absence, the children would wake up in the middle of the night to sleep with Sigrún. “We used to do this every single night,” chuckled Hulda Signý. “When you woke up, you did not wake the others because then they could get the closest spot. You would sneak in on your own.”
“We’re hungry,” one of the brothers said once everyone rose from bed. The boys always seemed to do this: One would speak for the group, without consulting the other two.
So, barefoot and in her nightgown, Sigrún made breakfast for the boys. Just something simple: porridge with buttermilk and plain yogurt. By now, she was used to the daily routine. “They were always hungry and always wanted to eat,” recalled Sigrún. And so breakfast always took precedence over other morning duties.
Sigrún was 22 years old and eight months pregnant when she went in for a routine ultrasound. The doctor leaped from his chair in surprise. He heard three hearts. And felt at least two heads. Diving into the task of motherhood, Sigrún thrived in the excitement of starting a family, undeterred by having three newborns entering her life at once, a situation no one she knew was familiar with. “The best part of it all was not knowing too much about having triplets,” she said. “[If we knew in advance], we probably would’ve freaked out. I was easy about it. It was good to be only  when it happened, too … but knowing less is better.” The energy she possessed in her 20s gave her not only the ability to endure triplets, but also a sense of determination — a mindset like that of her mother and grandmother, who were, above anything else, dedicated wholeheartedly to raising their children. Making sure they had everything they needed. Making sure they were happy. Making sure they were safe.
Almost 9 o’clock in the morning, the boys were done with breakfast. The sun, its edges bubbling with heat, burned a hole in the sky. The cliff across the road cut a line into the rich blue chop of the sea. It was clear and quiet with no clouds and an unusually calm breeze.
Although it was Thursday, a party was scheduled for 2 p.m. Sigrún’s niece, on Gylfi’s side, had traveled to the island with her mother earlier that week to celebrate her 13th birthday. Hosted at another relative’s house next door, Sigrún was exempt from cooking duties; in Icelandic custom, the host prepares all the food and drinks. In this case, and to the delight of the triplets, the only dish on the menu was chocolate cake.
The children were meandering the island by noon. By the age of 5, most children have gained enough trust from their parents to roam the island in clusters of their peers. For Sigrún, one of the advantages of having triplets was that they were always together. Always playing the buddy system. Never separated. Never vulnerable. You never saw two without the third right behind them. Especially while Gylfi was out on weeklong fishing trips, having the kids out of the house allowed her ample time to finish daily chores. But, because of the afternoon’s festivities, Sigrún dressed them first thing after breakfast. Matching red and white plaid button-up shirts. Sneakers and blue jeans. Grey knit sweaters with clusters of red diamonds and zigzags. She didn’t want to have to change them again until they went to bed that night.
To this day, 31 years later, Sigrún keeps the sweater Konráð was wearing in a cardboard box on the top shelf of her closet.
On Fisherman’s Day last year, the town gathered at the harbor. Held annually the first weekend of June, they celebrate the Icelandic holiday with a zeal not seen in many other parts of the country. Prepared days in advance, it’s one of the largest communal commemorations on the island. Overcast and brisk, the event started at noon, with residents trickling out from their homes and making their way to the waterfront. It is, aside from a few other local holidays and celebrations during the year, the only time in which all ages of residents gather in the same place, spanning four generations, encompassing all 24 families. A glimpse, within an arm’s reach, of nearly a century of life cultivated by the island.
The first order of business, as with all events held on the island, is food. On Fisherman’s Day, ironically enough, residents eat hot dogs. The same pork hot dogs are sold at every gas station from Reykjavík to Dalvík, a port town on the northern coast, where the ferry leaves for Grímsey. Icelanders sprinkle their hot dogs with fried onions and lather them in a pale-orange, mayonnaise-based sauce — a topping used for just about everything. They pair it with Coca-Cola or Applesin, their brand of orange soda. Many stood around the two grills decked in vinyl parkas tugged over fleece, with jeans and hiking boots, and ate their lunch, taking seconds as the grills turned out more food. A wooden plank stretched between the tail end of two boats. Narrow and slightly warped, it beamed against the pale grey sea. The young men were always the first to take off their jackets and climb aboard.
Participants try to knock each other off the plank with a red fishing buoy. The loser (and usually the winner, too) falls into the harbor’s icy water, which barely reaches 4 degrees Celsius even during the height of summer. The game cycled through clusters of residents, some wearing nothing but a shirt and sweatpants. Others dressed in waterproof suits, the neck wrapped tight at their chins. Midway through, one of the island’s fishermen trucked in a large tub of hot water for competitors. They warmed their limbs before heading home for a fresh change of clothes.
The same week, as a precursor to their celebration, women and children spent an entire day collecting trash on the island, signaling the start of summer and creating a clean, healthy place to live. Lugging around black trash bags, the girls wore sweatpants or jeans, sweatshirts or sweaters, with their hair in ponytails. The crew spread out across town, mainly picking up small bits of paper or plastic, and digging up larger pieces of discarded metal or construction scraps from behind the small gift shop and alongside the fish factories. At the edge of the pond, too, across from the airport, pieces of old furniture lay discarded, soaked in water and covered in mold. Left there as a prank by a few teenage boys, the women grumbled at having to move the slimy recliner and loveseat to a location where a tractor could cart them to the dumpsters by the harbor. After some intense teamwork, and a call to one of the men to bring the tractor over, the unsightly furniture had been hauled off and the women wiped their hands on long clusters of scurvy-grass by the road.
As the tractor carried the furniture toward the harbor, Hulda Signý, who led the charge in removing the trash from the pond, let out a puffed sigh and peered up to the rolling wheels of the machine. “My father’s brother was also named Konráð, you know,” she said. “He was born on Sept. 14, too, just like my brothers. And he also died when he was 5.” She paused, squinting in the sun. “He was run over by a tractor, just like that one.” She continued walking, grabbing the hand of her toddler son, who looked up at her and bit the tip of his finger. “My father is just like his father. He never talks about it. Never.” She looked down and caught eyes with the boy, whose index finger was still perched on his lip. “He hasn’t said a word since the day it happened.”
In 1867, 74 years after the smallpox epidemic, residents rebuilt the church from driftwood collected on Grímsey’s rocky shores. Overseeing the process was Árni Þourkelsson, great-grandfather of Haraldur Jóhannsson, the oldest living person born on the island. Árni had made his way up the ranks of the island’s community and was viewed as a mayor of sorts, credited with spearheading the solidification of community infrastructure in the post-recolonization era. He donated the land the church was built on. But shortly before his death in 1901, the island’s most important patron and advocate, an American scholar named Willard Fiske, sent Grímsey his first gift: two bookcases filled with books, one of which was stored in the church and the other in Árni’s home.
Fiske was the head librarian at Cornell University. Although he never set foot on Grímsey, seeing it only by boat, he was well-versed in Icelandic culture, along with most of northern Europe. He took an immediate liking to the island, where inhabitants were rumored to be superior chess players, in part because there wasn’t much more to do there in the 1800s. He, too, was a chess aficionado: In 1857, Fiske launched the first American Chess Congress, became editor of The Chess Monthly the same year, and even got his scholarly works published (posthumously), titled Chess In Iceland and in Icelandic Literature.
The year after he sent the books, Fiske hired a photographer to take pictures of Grímsey for his personal archive and, presumably, for his academic records. At that time, houses were made of turf and dirt packed between layers of flat stones, the walls of structures jutting into natural hills and curves of the land for added support. Some houses had wooden elements, like a functioning door, a single glass window that faced the harbor, or bed frames and bunk beds stuffed with makeshift mattresses (probably a mixture of sheep’s wool, other animal furs and hay). When the photographer returned and revealed these less-than-ideal living conditions, Fiske decided, entering his final years, that he would donate money to the island.
In 1906, after some sluggish movement stateside, the money finally arrived. The church received the donation and set up a fund for community investment. While it is rumored that most of the money burned up due to inflation, some of it was invested into the community, including for private homes, the harbor and, in 1930, a new church that still stands today. The island’s cemetery surrounds the church. Its 41 graves date back to the late 1800s. A square, black marble headstone, six inches thick, marks the fourth row on the plot’s south side. Decorated with ceramic angels left by his mother, the headstone reveals, in cursive script, the grave’s inhabitant: Konráð Gylfason. And below his name, an epitaph: “Although the shell is broken, the pearl still glows.”
By the start of the birthday party, the triplets had taken off their sweaters. Although a calm breeze drifted across the island from the northern cliffs and over the harbor, wafting fish and salt into the town, it was not brisk enough for heavy layers. And when one brother took off his sweater, the remaining two followed suit. In their toddler years, Sigrún dressed the boys identically. Blue cotton onesies. Red, white and blue striped sweatshirts with blue jeans. Royal blue velour pants with matching bow ties and vests. And, for Christmas, candy-apple-red jumpers with white undershirts. Although the boys eventually started asking for different clothes, they always seemed to complain about which brother had which color, so Sigrún continued dressing them the same. A little finagling was in order, however, to get them all the same outfit, since supplies were scarce in towns on the mainland, where residents went to shop. “Sometimes I had to buy one size bigger for Svafar so they could have the same,” Sigrún explained. Since he was the first out and into the world, “he was a little bit bigger when they were born.” Konráð followed and, lastly, Bjarni. Even after birth, Konráð was always in the middle.
Konráð was the mediator. He acted as a counterweight to his brothers. To his left, Bjarni, who was ill-tempered and brash but quick to regain his composure; and to his right, Svafar, a calm, level-headed but sometimes emotional boy whose bouts of anger or discontent would drag on for hours and even days. Konráð never took sides, but instead tended to the most vulnerable of his two brothers. He came to the side of whomever needed him the most. His voice, lower and a bit more scruffy, oozed an empathetic tenderness and always seemed to calm his brothers. “He was always a bit more quiet and a bit more calm than the other two,” Hulda Signý said. Konráð was, in a way, the cornerstone of the brotherhood.
But together, the boys were mischievous and sometimes troublesome, even from an early age. As toddlers, they all slept in the same crib, but learned quickly to hoist each other up and over the railing. They plopped down onto the floor and tore off portions of the wallpaper and removed their clothes from the closet, strewing them throughout the bedroom. As the years passed and they were able to play outside moderately unsupervised, the triplets would intentionally splash around in a small pond behind their house, on the outskirts of a grazing field, just after Sigrún had dressed them for the day. They’d return home, smirking, and be forced to change. Another instance of blatant destruction, in 1981, stands as a vivid memory for the family and the island alike: The boys had found the bi-weekly supply of the island’s milk, stored temporarily just after being delivered from the mainland, and decided to stomp on the containers, spilling the entire batch. When questioned, they denied the allegations vehemently, but when Sigrún went into her laundry room, a large pool of white liquid coated the floor underneath the boys’ freshly hung clothes. “My dad had to pay for a lot of milk that month,” grinned Hulda Signý.
By that time, they had retired their crib and moved on to real beds, two of which were stacked as bunkbeds. The boys would rotate every few nights sleeping in the bunks or single bed, not because one circumstance was better than the other, but because they never wanted one brother to be alone too long. This was an extension of their days in a carriage. Triple carriages were not available in northern Iceland at the time, so Sigrún would push two, a double and a single, and would rotate the brothers daily, and sometimes hourly, so one would never be alone and, conversely, two would never be without the third.
The boys continued to play outside while Sigrún prepared dinner: pan-fried cod that Gylfi caught before he left to fish shrimp. Dinner time was 7 p.m. sharp, every day, and the boys, ready to eat again after an afternoon snack, were never late. Dinner was a way to wind down the day — an offering, Sigrún hoped, that would slow the boys down a bit and get them ready for bed. During those days, in her 20s, she always felt a sense of ease keeping up with four children, even when her husband was gone. She worked as a teacher throughout both of her pregnancies. But the long days of summer never helped in hampering the energy level of the triplets, who were growing up to be avid outdoorsmen.
And, more importantly, each other to do it with. They slept and woke together, ate together and explored together. They saw the same things and wanted the same things. They talked of being fishermen, like their father. They planned to, one day, own their own boat together. They hadn’t spent more than a few minutes apart since birth. And so, when Sigrún called for them at 9 p.m. to come in and get ready for bed, they couldn’t help but plead for another few minutes outside. Just another few minutes in the shallow valley of green grass across the street — the soft curve that led into a slight dip before toppling over the edge of a cliff. A cliff at the pinch of an inlet with the birds below and the hard surface of the sea running off into the distance. Just another few minutes in the mid-summer sun.
“Just 10 more minutes, boys,” Sigrún replied. The brothers barely allowed her to finish her sentence before they were turned around and running off across the street.
In the entranceway to the school hangs the skin of a polar bear — a visitor, who, in 1969, drifted to Grímsey on a rogue iceberg. Shortly after landing on the island, a child spotted the bear and someone shot it at a distance of just over 15 meters, the first and last time, at least within the span of written record, that Grímsey has been graced with the presence of a four-legged carnivorous mammal. Dogs and cats are not allowed on the island, for fear of the depletion of the bird population, where more than 30 species (and millions of individual birds) come to lay their eggs every spring.
Originally a main source of food, collecting bird eggs has become, for the men of the island, more of an annual tradition than an agricultural necessity. As spring descends each year, the birds migrate to Grímsey to mate, lay their eggs and nurse their young into self-sufficiency. The northern cliffs, which are littered with natural ridges and perching decks from the columnar basalt rock, act as the main nesting grounds for the kittiwake, a large bird with grey wings, white midsection and yellow beak that firmly resembles a seagull. The black guillemot, too, finds perch on the cliffs as their nesting grounds. Black razorbills, which are a bit stockier than the guillemot and have a bright white chest, usually nest further down the cliffs, sometimes among clusters of rocks. Their eggs are small and sometimes teardrop in shape, the result of laying them between two stones rather than on a flat surface.
The only bird that doesn’t nest on the cliffs is also the island’s most aggressive: the Arctic tern, a small, angular bird with off-white feathers and a splayed tail. Nesting in the lumpy fields on the outskirts of the airport, they are extremely territorial and show no mercy to intruders. They are known to swoop and peck at passersby if they come too close to their nests. Annoying as they are, the tern is actually fairly graceful and agile in flight, able to land a dense jab into the head of a tourist and bolt back up into the sky before the unlucky visitor has a chance to wave it off. A large walking stick, held into the air, is customary for anyone meandering in these areas. Despite its agility, the tern isn’t very smart and would just as soon attack the stick than the person holding it, circling triumphantly overhead, cawing out in victory to its clan as the human continues his or her walk past the birds’ field and back into town.
With millions of birds returning to Grímsey each year to mate, it is fairly easy to accumulate a large number of eggs in a single hunting session. A window of only a couple weeks in mid-May (to allow enough time for the birds to lay more eggs in place of the ones taken) makes the process an annual tradition — something everyone on the island anticipates and prepares for throughout the year. “When I was younger, I really loved being on the cliffs and collecting eggs,” said Bjarni Magnusson, who, at 84, is Grímsey’s oldest resident (He is still as vigorous and impatient as a working-class buck. During bingo one night, he publicly scolded the judges for being too slow in announcing the numbers.) He and his father were the first to use a tractor to help retrieve the eggs. Before that, a group of men would travel to the high cliffs of the north side and act as an anchor for the one man designated to repel down the face, usually with a plastic container on his back, who collected as many eggs as he could before being pulled back up. On some occasions, like one memorable run by the brothers Svafar and Bjarni, the duo collected more than 1,500 eggs in one session, which were then distributed throughout the island and sold to merchants on the mainland.
The puffin, however, is hunted for its meat. The island’s most iconic bird, which has been said to travel as far south as Maine, builds its nests underground at the cliffs’ edges, burrowing into the soft dirt and moss. Walking along the cliffs requires special care, as any piece of ground can collapse beneath your feet like a sheet of thin ice. A coy bird, the puffin seems to be extremely observant of humans. In some instances, they allow hikers and sightseers to get as close as five feet before diving off the cliff, swooping toward the water with their beaks pointed down, their small wings flapping frantically before leveling out and gliding just above the sea’s surface. Connecting farther up the torso, their wings make for a much stockier, muscular chest than other birds on the island. Their dense build and corresponding physiology produce a tasty piece of meat, something the locals have made into a delicacy. During the summer months, they serve it in the island’s only restaurant, Kría (owned, for the last 10 years, by Svafar’s wife, Unnur).
“I have been hunting puffin every year since I was 8 years old,” said Bjarni Magnusson. The puffin are not shot, he said, but rather caught in a large net on the end of a metal pole — an enlarged butterfly net. Puffin meat can easily be mistaken for venison in the shape of a bird’s breast. Dark-skinned and a vibrant burgundy when cooked to medium rare, it’s quintessentially gamey with a dense, rich tenderness that requires quite a bit of chewing before being swallowed.
Despite the slim chance of getting caught by the locals (only a few dozen are caught each summer out of hundreds of thousands), the birds migrate back to the same burrow they inhabited the previous year, nuzzling their curved snouts into the soft dirt to spruce up their nests after a long winter. Reuniting with the same female as previous summers, the male accumulates fresh fish every day for his spouse. They are mates for life. True love, it could be called. And every June the couples sit out on the north-facing cliffs of Grímsey and watch the sun’s slow and awkward setting pattern — sliding along the horizon, never truly falling asleep — the sky tumbling through its hazy blues and soft purples before the ball of light rises again, starting a new day. A day commenced by boats, filled with men — the protectors of family — slowly trudging to the fertile fishing grounds just north of the Arctic Circle.
In 1945, Grímsey experienced electricity for the first time. In hopes of accelerating their fishing capabilities, local fisherman Gardar Thorsteinsson led an effort to build an electric freezing plant, powered by a massive diesel motor, to stockpile fish and provide for a more profitable export to the mainland. Salting, the only method of preservation at the time, was extremely laborious and worth less on the market.
Although the island still used melted fish liver as oil for lamps in homes, the people of Grímsey were thrilled at the prospect of boosting their local economy. But Thorsteinsson, who funded the plant, abandoned the project two years later. The fizzling out of the plant prompted the most devastating drop in population (not to mention social morale) since the smallpox epidemic 180 years prior. Roughly 50 out of 90 people left the island.
“Most people thought the island wouldn’t survive,” said Haraldur Jóhannsson, who was 18 at the time. But work ethic never plummeted, and the island bounced back. They continued to salt cod for decades, sustaining the local economy. In the 1950s, residents set up a separate diesel motor for residential electricity.
Aside from this setback, the island’s trajectory into modernization entered a steep incline. In 1953, the airport was finished, and the first commercial flight from the mainland landed on Sept. 14. “The runway was dirt at first, and slightly concave, so it would sometimes fill with water, and planes would get stuck and have to be pushed out,” said Jóhannsson, who was one of the first residents to depart the island by plane. Now, during the summer, flights travel back and forth a few days a week, mainly for tourists who are interested in a quick jaunt past the Arctic Circle, or a photo opportunity of a puffin lounging on the cliffs.
Shortly after, 15 of the island’s women gathered to form the Women’s Club, discussing the island and its social infrastructure over coffee. Still operating today, the women oversee community events such as bingo night, barbeques and communal brunches, and prepare baked goods and snacks, with much of the club’s financial backing coming from the members themselves.
It took the men a bit longer, but Bjarni Magnusson established a men’s club in the late 1970s. His father had been mayor of Grímsey since 1937 and helped out in much of the civil projects on the island, including, in 1954, the painting of the lighthouse, from its original off-white to its current mustard-yellow. His father had been in charge of the lighthouse since it was built during the elder Magnusson’s first year as mayor, and he took over as its chief overseer after his father’s death in 1969. Two years after painting the lighthouse, the church underwent a much-needed renovation and again, in 1968, with an extension of its steeple. Magnusson constructed the extension by hand with Sigrún’s father (the triplets’ grandfather), who also happened to be his cousin. They used the original base, and, climbing up a ladder into its second tier, Magnusson’s name is still scrawled in pencil on one of the walls, dated 1938 — a delicate try, in his eighth year, at his best cursive.
Perhaps the most important advancement, besides the implementation of electricity, was drilling of fresh water. “Those were the two biggest changes,” said Haraldur Jóhanhsson, who was 35 when islanders first started pumping water in 1964. Previously collecting fresh water from natural run-offs and pools on the island, they were now able to drill proper wells. By the late 1960s, every home had been rebuilt with timber and had working electricity and running water. They could now take a shower and flush a toilet, luxuries which, until that point, had been left to more primitive means — a trip to the waterfront and a trot behind the barn.
An event, the first of its kind to occur on the island, that gave Grímsey a face to the rest of the country in a way more personal than a thousand tons of cod and a fleet of ships could ever have been. A way, through family, that gave the island something to be truly proud of. No one could tell them apart, so they just called them “the brothers.” Three rambunctious, dirty-blonde boys from the small green stucco house next to the school. The Grímsey Triplets.
June 31, 1983. 9 p.m. The baby birds had just begun squawking. The chicks, which normally hatch in early June, take about a month to open their eyes and get their bearings before they start audibly calling for food. Although most of the birds claim the northern cliffs as their nesting grounds, some take to the southern part of the island, just below the harbor, where a stretch of 6-meter cliffs stand quiet and untouched. Large round stones and patches of sand line their feet, the ocean’s gentle swell lapping the shore with every breath of the Arctic tide. The three brothers, running across the street from home, were hoping to catch a glimpse of a cluster of baby birds before Sigrún called them back in for bed. The chicks, whose fluffy brown feathers were visible if the mother was off catching fish, were the center of awe for children on the island. You could only see hatchlings once a year.
Sigrún was doing the dishes. A tidy woman, her home has since grown into an archive of trinkets and photographs, her premier collectible a panoply of salt and pepper shakers. A wife’s home, as most Icelandic women see it, is an extension of her personal appearance, and maintaining a well-kept house is as important as being presentable in public. Sigrún was always cleaning up after her children: from seeping up pools of bath water after the brothers jumped in the tub with Hulda Signý, to mud tracked throughout the living room after a jaunt in the pond, or just washing the dishes after dinner in the small wooden nook she called her kitchen.
Gylfi, on the other hand, was mainly concerned with fishing. Jumping from one child to four overnight wasn’t easy for a twentysomething fisherman. Gylfi was born on the mainland and came to Grímsey in 1973 for work. Back then he was a rugged, shaggy-haired man with a stocky build and scruffy mustache. The island wasn’t isolated from clichés of dress and grooming; pictures exist of him in disco-style suits. He took pride in being the father of the fastest-growing family on the island and went to great lengths to provide for his children. In the process, he earned substantial respect from other islanders, especially as the chosen spouse of Sigrún, who was the oldest female in one of the island’s longest-running and most well-known lineages, dating back four generations. And, so, weeklong trips for shrimp weren’t uncommon in those days.
As the boys went to look for baby birds, Gylfi and his crew were probably just getting ready to hunker down below deck while, 80 kilometers to the south, his middle son was inching his way closer to the edge of the cliff across the street from his house, following the chirps of baby birds.
The breeze seemed to pick up, as it normally does around that time of night. The current making its daily curve, perhaps, or just a bitter exhale from the Arctic, easing from its throat and over the island. The sun struggled to stay awake and fell gently northwest, casting dense shadows across parts of the western cliffs. The shadows, which the boys wanted to avoid, threw darkness onto the shelves where the birds nested. With an ear far enough down, they could hear a knot of chirps, faint but noticeable, and if Konráð acted quickly, a glimpse of a hatchling would be in the cards for them that night.
The foot of the cliff was black, but toward its crest there was still hope. He inched closer to the edge, his weight leaned forward, ear pointed down, eyes peering for nests. And it all felt so serene. It smelled faintly of salt and wet rock and the boys were together and everyone was quiet. It was just the three of them and they were all listening together. The island, in its slow, mid-summer descent into perpetual sunset, seemed to emit a vibration that can only be felt at certain times in one’s life in that place. A pulse that can only be sensed, if even for a fleeting moment, during periods of change. The first time, for a young boy, with his father on a fishing boat. Or the first tern egg, caught among their cacophonous chirping and defensive swooping. Or, perhaps, the first sunset alone at the northernmost tip of the island, a place the locals call The Foot — a swooping hook of land that curves down to the water, revealing caves that always seem to be whispering. And as Konráð fell toward the rocks below, head first, the vibration didn’t stop. Its tune, persistent and dense, like a slow pull on a cello, escalated and shook even more vibrantly as the two boys watched their brother sink into the dark shadows at the bottom of the cliff — the catalyst of the biggest change of their lives. The thud of his body on the rocks threw the vibration off its axis and it stopped. All Bjarni and Svafar could do was run.
The pitch cast through the neighborhood lacked that scratchy gruffness of her middle son and, still holding her dishrag, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, she ran to the front door where, before her hand touched the handle, she knew she would only find the oldest and youngest of her triplet sons. The boys pointed behind them at the shallow dip of grass on the far side of the road — a patch of green that gently swung left before disappearing over the edge.
Sigrún turned, threw the dishrag onto the kitchen counter, and ran to the telephone. She began to cry. She picked up the phone, called her parents and, soon after, took Svafar and Bjarni to their house. Hulda Signý, who was playing next door with her cousin, quickly met up with them, running down the street to her grandparents’ house. Siggi, Sigrún’s brother, called Bjarni Magnusson and another man, Óli. The men rushed to the cliff, cutting from the second row of houses to the first through neighbors’ backyards and crossed the dirt road. They came upon the cliff, the shadows at its foot even more dense than when he fell — a staunch blackness that seemed too foreign and sinister for summer in such a beautiful place. Peering over, they saw his body. He lay face down with his small legs pushed slightly to one side, bent at the knees, the speckles of red and patches of grey in his sweater visible against the round rocks.
Bjarni Magnusson doesn’t remember who retrieved Konráð, but two of the men climbed down while the third stood at the cliff’s edge, holding a rope. The two men couldn’t climb back up with the boy in their arms, so they fastened the rope under his armpits and guided him up, his head and arms limp, the tips of his sneakers gently knocking the face of the cliff as he ascended.
The men brought him to Bjarni Magnusson’s house, as his wife was the only midwife on the island. She had prepared a stretcher in the living room — a small space with yellow walls at the front of the home. They tucked the boy beneath the sheet and waited for the plane to come. A thick fog, like milk poured into coffee, swirled in from the north and quickly engulfed the island. The pilot on duty, a man named Jonas, had flown to Grímsey for emergencies before and landed safely at the island’s airport an hour later. The men carried Konráð to the plane, and Sigrún and her father boarded the craft — a small, eight-seat charter, which pointed for Akureyri, the second-largest city behind Reykjavík and Grímsey’s lifeline for many things, including medical help. When they landed and arrived at the hospital, just after 11p.m., the island put out a radio call to Gylfi’s fishing boat. He immediately pointed the vessel for the mainland, starting the grueling three-hour journey to Akureyri from his post, roughly 120 kilometers north, the boat tapped at full steam under the increasingly soft lavenders of the midnight sky.
Konráð was still unconscious when they arrived at the hospital. The doctors who inspected him told Sigrún and her father that he would be fine. “They said he would be running around with his brothers soon,” Sigrún said. In need of further inspection, the doctor sent the three of them to a hospital in Reykjavík. Upon landing a few hours later, that doctor, too, said Konráð would make a full recovery. About two in the morning now, Sigrún sat with her father in the waiting room. Her face damp and hands shaking, she hovered in the space between fear and relief, a gap almost impossible to cross, and, staring down at her hands, realized how horrible her nail polish looked.
A few days before last year’s Fisherman’s Day and the evening before the island’s annual cleanup, the town gathered in the school for graduation. Eleven students, ages 6 to 13 (including five kindergarteners), stood at the front of the single-level auditorium, which doubles as a community center, and recited their finals projects — detailed reports of Scandinavian countries, from Sweden to the Faroe Islands. “We try to follow what they are doing on the mainland because that is where they will be going when they are 14,” said Hulda Signý, who has been the principal of the school since 2009 and studied education in Reykjavík. All children are required to attend high school on the mainland, usually in Akureyri or Dalvík. They spend summers back home and then have the option to focus on a trade of their choice, with the expectation they will come back to Grímsey, contribute to the fishing community and start a family. “You never know in life where you may live,” nodded Mayflor Perez Cajes, a Filipino-Icelandic woman who has lived on the island and has been the kindergarten teacher since 2009. “But the kids, they always come back.”
The children’s dedication to the island, its heritage, infrastructure and fishing trade, locals say, stems from the small size of the community. “One day here is more like 36 hours rather than 24,” Hulda Signý said. “The kids here are so different because … they are with grown-ups all the time and get to talk to them and spend a lot of time with them. They find maturity at an earlier age.” The children get to see the values of their elders in a much more upfront way — a clear, concise outlook that is translated very simply from generation to generation through everyday experiences. Most children start working in the fishing trade around age 10 — fixing hooks, untangling nets, cleaning waste and, within a year or two, start fishing themselves.
The boys are dedicated to becoming seamen. For them, it’s about fulfilling the concept of manhood that has given generations here purpose. The children, especially as they enter puberty, want to complement their physical progress socially and psychologically. They want to work. They want to be a part of the island. They want to have a role in its evolution. The children believe in this place as much as the adults do — in its history, its close-knit inhabitants, its deep-seated pride and its potential for a fulfilling future. It’s just inside them. And it’s true that the only thing the island really has is its children. It’s an unspoken rule that the children are the most important asset to their heritage. More than fish or ships or birds or the church, the children will be the only part of the island that can carry its legacy forward and preserve its culture.
“I think it’s just the beauty, the boats … I just feel so good in my heart here,” said Ægir, a 13-year-old boy, as he finished a piece of pie at a table in the school. He had spent his first few days of summer vacation working in a fish factory, sorting hooks and sweeping up fish guts and other pieces of trash. When I asked about his plans for summer vacation, he smirked and said, “This,” tossing his arms up, as if the answer were obvious. His pie done now, he leaned to the window and peered out at the shore stretching south toward the mainland. He took a deep breath and spoke without looking away. “I hope I’m going to be here all my life,” he said. But something was behind his eyes. Doubt, perhaps. Or fear. They need the island as much as the island needs them.
His eyes didn’t leave the shore. Fishing boats gently bobbed in the harbor, tugging the slack of the lines that hugged them to the docks. A few puffin, who normally stay on the northernmost stretches of the island, perched on the edge of the nearest cliff, launching and swooping toward the water. Children, younger and more energetic than he, kicked a soccer ball in the parking lot outside. A man went out of the building and rested his hand on his son’s head. After staring out the window for another minute, watching a few adults come in and out of the building, he turned to me and said, “There is just one question I wanted to ask you.” We met eyes. “What means ‘dignity’?”
Konráð was still unconscious when Gylfi pulled into the harbor. With his crew steering the vessel, he stood at the boat’s edge, ready to jump onto the dock as soon as it was within reach. He wouldn’t say what he was thinking as he leaped from the boat and ran through the harbor. Was it, perhaps, the last time he saw his son the week prior, sleeping quietly the night before his weeklong fishing trip? Or maybe he pictured him in the hospital, lying there, his frame tiny in a bed made for adults? Or was it a more distant memory? The awkward juggling of three infants in his arms, Konráð perched in the crook of his elbow? Or maybe it was even earlier, when he heard the news of three heartbeats and, a month later, confirmed his premonition that they belonged to three identical boys. His sons. His sons who, one day — together — would become the lead fishermen on the island and the role models for all the younger men with dreams of becoming someone admirable. Becoming men with dignity.
Perhaps, too, he thought of the pride in his heart — that dense vibration in his chest as they would come into view, entering the harbor after their first trip out on their very own boat, him sitting quietly on the dock with his hands resting on his knees. The wave and modest grin, from Konráð, that would say, “See, Dad? We did it,” followed by Gylfi’s smile and barrel-chested chuckle, revealing that coffee-brown incisor as he reached for his clipboard. A local police officer gave him a ride to the hospital in Akureyri. But when they arrived, his family was already in Reykjavík, waiting for the doctors to tell them that their son had woken up and would be ready to go home soon.
Lying in a hospital bed in Reykjavík, 250 kilometers to the southwest, Konráð had a small cut on his forehead. The surrounding area, just below his hairline, had swollen from the fall, but, otherwise, he had no other bumps or bruises that were visible or cause for immediate concern. But internally, as an autopsy revealed, he suffered severe injuries that, for reasons unknown to Sigrún, had been overlooked by doctors at both hospitals. The fractured vertebrae, sure, could’ve been seen as minor compared to what it could have been — a speed bump that had not caused, from what they could tell, any paralysis or loss of motor function. But it was the ruptured spleen, Sigrún was certain, with its constant secretion of blood into his abdomen, just north of the stomach, that stopped his heart around 3 a.m.
It was as if the room filled with a cold mist. Cradled between her father and her father’s sister, who lived in the capital, she wept in disbelief, crouching back down into fear and shock from her short-lived trek into relief and reassurance. The mist in the room engulfed her as she thought about her son, and about her husband, too, and what she would say to him. The hospital personnel would prepare the body to be transported back to Grímsey for the funeral. Sigrún knew it would be best to go call Gylfi and tell him about the turn of events and the news of his middle son — the cornerstone of the triplets.
When they got back to her aunt’s apartment, Sigrún’s father made the call to Akureyri, where Gylfi was waiting. After a long, restless night, Gylfi took the next available flight to Reykjavík. When he arrived, smelling like the sea, they embraced and just stood there, crying together while their son lay limp and cold down the road, a sheet pulled over his soft white face and tucked neatly behind his head of dirty-blonde hair.
But he couldn’t remove him from his mind. He saw the lost brother every time he looked at the remaining two. Hiding all the photographs in the house, storing all of his shirts and pants, would be pointless against the realities that would stare back at him every time he saw the two remaining boys. The boys who, without question, would name their first boat after him. The boys who, he knew, would try their best to lead a life as if he were still there. To try, in any way possible, to balance themselves without him in the middle. Back on Grímsey, Gylfi isn’t a stranger to the cliff. And although he thinks no one is watching, his wife has seen him pace back and forth at the site of the fall, arms swaying at his sides, head dropped forward, brow crinkled, slowly letting out tears.
Sigrún, too, pushed through the loss the only way she knew how: by focusing on her other children, who, every morning, still needed to be dressed and fed. And, over the years, the blow softened. The pictures of Konráð tacked up around her home transitioned from a solemn reminder to a longing remembrance. And although some of the details have faded, she does remember the ride home. The quiet, stuffy plane cabin and the slow walk to her house from the airport. But before going to sleep, she walked over to the cliff where he fell. Just to see. To find out, perhaps, if he was still down there, shaken but unharmed. Even hiding, playing a joke. She went to see if she could get her son back. But all that was left at the cliff, a few feet from the road, were three toy boats floating peacefully in a small puddle. Their bows gently knocked into one another in the soft breeze. Tiny ripples casted out in all directions, uniting, just before crashing into the puddle’s edge, into one single vibration.
About This Story
This story is based on first-hand accounts of Grímsey, as well as interviews with over a dozen of the island’s current inhabitants. In addition, Latterly reviewed the island’s historical records, family photo albums, and other means of documentation of its culture and history. Gylfi Gunnarsson declined to be interviewed for the article. It was written by Ian Frisch, edited by Ben Wolford and copy edited by Jackie Valley. All photographs were taken by Cole Barash, and all videography was filmed by Brandon Kuzma.
Frisch is a freelance journalist currently living in Brooklyn. He has written for: WIRED, VICE Sports, Broadly, Victory Journal, The Daily Beast and Refinery29, among others.
Barash is a fine-art and culture photographer currently splitting his time between Brooklyn and Cape Cod. His photography has been showcased in nearly a dozen galleries around the world, and he has shot for publications including: Rolling Stone, ESPN the Magazine, Monster Children and The Journal, among others. His latest monograph, “Grímsey,” was published by The Silas Finch Foundation.
Kuzma is a director and cinematographer currently living in Brooklyn. He has filmed advertisements for: HUF, Puma, Nixon, Everlast, Nike and Adidas. He has filmed music videos for hip-hop collectives, such as A$AP Mob, and his work has appeared on Hypebeast and Monster Children.
Excerpts of this article were used as supplemental material for Cole Barash’s fine-art photography book “Grímsey,” published by The Silas Finch Foundation.