This summer we returned to Iceland to visit old friends and to take a road trip through the central highlands via 4×4. Halfway through our trip we’d been hearing about an impending winter storm, and all of our friends had been calling and texting us for days to warn us. Racing down from the highcountry to escape the wrath of the storm, we rounded a sweeping bend in Iceland’s ring road south of Öxnadalur and couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Up on the hill to our right, as far as the eye could see (4—5 km at least), stretched a river of sheep. The weather was turning nasty and it had been raining pretty hard for a few hours, but we were so excited that we jumped out of the Land Cruiser anyway and hiked up the hill to see what was going on.
Unwittingly we’d stumbled upon the annual sheep roundup — or réttir — that is one of the oldest traditions in Icelandic culture. For over 1,100 years Icelanders have released their sheep into the highlands for the summer to save the grazing grounds near the coast for winter. The sheep spend the warm season grazing far and wide, often making their way deep into the rugged mountains. In late September or early October they’re tracked and gathered back to their respective farms before the first winter storms strand them in the remote mountains. This can make the roundup especially grueling as stockmen must cross wild, glacial rivers and steep, volcanic terrain in search of the sheep. Jeeps and 4×4’s often aren’t up to the task, so much of the journey is undertaken either on foot or by horse over the course of a week or two. Couple this with the fact that the weather in the Icelandic highlands is notoriously capricious at any time of the year — much less late fall — and it becomes clear why Icelandic stockmen are a hardy bunch.
Historically late September has resulted in the first winter storms in the high country. In 2012 an unexpected storm hit northern Iceland in early September weeks before réttir was scheduled. Tens of thousands of sheep were still in the highlands, and farmers and rescue squads composed of entire communities made huge efforts to retrieve the sheep. Unfortunately thousands couldn’t be saved, and the resulting economic impact and controversy over the weather forecast was in the news for months afterwards. Fast forward to September of this year and the entire country was on high alert in an effort to avoid the disaster of the previous year. So when a massive storm was forecast for the northern part of the country for the first weekend of September, the rural communities in the north leapt into action and started the roundup almost a month early.
Quite an experience!