Lake Mývatn and its surroundings are the most admired area in Iceland. At least by the Icelanders. This beautiful oasis is riddled with contrasts, cradled between volcanic hills at the threshold to the highlands. It is black and white, and full of colour. While being a fertile farming area, it also has the most beautiful lava formations you'll ever find. Being in the north of the country, it can be harsh and menacing. Still it has the most tranquil atmosphere and possesses the most delicate flora and fauna. The lake itself, with its islets and inlets, well, you can gaze at it for hours amazed by the lights and shadows at play.
Here is where one of Iceland's most prominent investigative journalists, Björn Þorláksson, was born and raised. Though residing in Akureyri at the moment, his birthplace at Vogar by Lake Mývatn, is still home to him.
Music all around
"Growing up on the banks of Lake Mývatn was wonderful," says Björn. "My parents built their house Vogar and raised me and my three sisters there. I was the youngest, and my earliest memories hold a tender ambience. It wasn't just all this beautiful landscape, but the proximity of the lake – mere 20 meters from our house. The lake became my playground. I was a mere toddler when I started fishing for sticklebacks. From quite a young age, I would join the farmers in a rowboat on the lake to tend to the fishing nets. It was off the most importance to learn to live off the land. All around us was this amazing birdlife, with wonderful mating songs in the spring and then during the summer we would listen to their youngsters finding their voice and join the musical.
Magnus Magnusson, the great BBC reporter, once interviewed an old lady from the Mývatn district. She said: Yes, Lake Mývatn is beautiful when the fishing is good. And I was, indeed, raised according to this utilitarianism. There is a direct link between beautiful nature and what it provides. You have this romantic atmosphere with natural iridescence, mountains and birdlife. But, the beauty is not least to be found in what nature provides. We are talking the trout from the lake, the eggs from the islets. We collected thousands of duck eggs each summer. Of course, we would always be very careful to leave enough eggs for the ducks to raise enough ducklings to maintain the stock.”
Energy and serenity
“I loved growing up surrounded by all this beauty and magic. It made me a mélange of a romantic and a realistic utilitarian. When talking to my childhood friends I realize, we were all shaped by this same element.
Then there was the music. It was possibly the single most important factor instilled in us. We were expected to play instruments and sing. There was singing everywhere and, of course, we were required to know all the patriotic songs and folk song by heart. It was part of the romantic flair.
Still, the district surrounding Lake Mývatn was also isolated and tempestuous. In hindsight, one realizes how harsh living conditions were back then. It has changed. The district is not isolated at all. I take my young children to visit my "home" at every possible opportunity. We live about an hours drive from the lake, and I want them to grow up to be part of the magic. Whenever we visit, I love to see their eyes light up the moment they spot the lava cliffs. It is wonderful to listen to their joy over the surrounding mountains, and the lake reflecting the Sun. It is a privilege to have access to this beauty. It unleashes both their energy and serenity.”
Cultural im pact
“Whereas the community is concerned, I have unfortunately noticed a decline during the years. In the 1960s, when I was a child, a decision was made to build a silicon factory near Lake Mývatn. Today, this decision is incomprehensible. Back then, the powers that be didn't know any better. As a result, the district became quite vivacious. Because of this factory and the Krafla power plant we experienced a kind of an economic boom. We had quite many people moving into the area in search of work. To me, the district was a growing and prosperous community, thanks to this questionable development. I can't change the fact that in my mind this was some golden age with positive cultural impact. Hundreds of people moved to the area, and the number of pupils at our school increased significantly. Of course, I loved it. This influx of people is part of the magic I experienced.
Today, the number of pupils at my old school is only about half the number it used to be. It is sad, as each area's viability is to a large point dependent on people raising children. As a result, along with my children, I experience the Mývatn district as a community on the defensive and going through a crisis.
The tremendous increase in tourism has changed the way of life. When I was growing up, I used to go with my father to the Grjótagjá natural spa, each and every night. There we would meet the other inhabitants having a bath. The farmers would discuss anything concerning their work and the community. It was equivalent to the local pub – except, no one was drunk. Today, the inhabitants go the Mývatn Nature Baths where there are hundreds of visitors at any given moment. All the hiking trails and walkways are also awash with tourists.”
Flirting with disaster
“In spite of the increase in tourism, the economic growth the locals were hoping for has not happened. The tourists visit during the summer, which means there is a lot of work for approximately three months. During the winter, there is no work, and the locals have to survive on unemployment benefits.
The Silicon Factory was shut down in 2004. As a result, a lot of other jobs were lost, and people started to move away. Nowadays, those in power are flirting with the idea of building a new power plant. To me, it is a total anachronism, because of the area's sensitive biosphere. I allow myself to hope the magnificent natural wonders around Lake Mývatn will never by sacrificed for economic growth. Even though the community has changed, the lake and the area surrounding it is still the most beautiful and magical place."