Days gone by but within living memories and tales often recounted, and celebrated, the remote town of Siglufjordur in North Iceland was a powerhouse of the national fishing industry. The town grew and prospered on herring fishing and processing.

Boasting a sheltered harbour near the head of Siglufjordur valley, the town expanded where land meets water along the lower side Slope of a long finger of a mountain ridge, part of northernmost area of the Trollaskagi peninsula. The fjord gives way to tough seas that hold the island speck of Grimsey, on the Arctic Circle and much farther beyond lies Greenland.

The town, though quite isolated by the mountains and their plunging, rocky coastal slopes, was for a time during the first half of the 20th Century the largest herring centre in Iceland and briefly, some say, the world. It had expanded rapidly from being a hamlet to housing 23 salting stations, five reducing factories and more than 3,100 inhabitants. Exports were important to the town, and the country. Good days, indeed.

But, the herring fishing then shifted focus a little as the waters off the east coast proved bountiful to new technology. Then more nations sought the shoals, leading to over-fishing and a collapse in the stocks. Competition and then the fall in herring numbers were a double-hit to Siglufjordur. The population of the town has reduced by more than half since its peak, but there is still fishing activity and also support services are being increasingly developed to support the wider region.

In more recent decades a number of local people in generations coming up have moved to work elsewhere in Iceland, notably Akureyri and Reykjavik, and a few much farther afield, but many returning when possible to the bonds of family and friends. The town, like its neighbours – such as is Olafsfjordur – still offers vibrant community life.

Olasfsfjordur lies to the south east, separated by two mountain ridges and an uninhabited fjord – Hedinsfjordur. In the past, the town also benefited from the herring industry though its population is now less than 1,000.

A proud community in its own right, Olafsfjordur has always has been the smaller of the two towns. Historically, they relied mainly on boats, ships and horses for transport before motor vehicles helped to negotiate the coastal and mountain trails between the towns and other neighbours, and to travel farther beyond.

Tunnels arrive
Efforts to improve access to Siglufjordur resulted in this corner of Iceland claiming the country’s first reasonably long road tunnel, Straka (the actual first road tunnel is only 30m long, at Arnardalshamar). The Straka Tunnel was opened in 1967 and provides an 800m long, single bore link (with emergency bays) out of Siglufjordur to the north.

The second road tunnel in the area was a single tube bored to link to Olafsfjordur to the south. This 3,400m long long tube, Muli, was opened in 1991 and gave rapid and direct access to other towns to the south, such as Dalvik but especially Akureyri, the principal community in North Iceland. The portals were built big enough for the tunnel to be widened in future.

Now, this part of the country can also claim Iceland’s longest road tunnel scheme – Hedinsfjordur Tunnel – which pierces the two mountain ridges between Siglufjordur and Olafsfjordur and is named after the fjord between the natural walls. Hedinsfjordur Tunnel was opened in October 2010 and has two single tubes, one through each mountain ridge.

The latest addition to this cluster of road tunnels was built to help improve links as well as safety, the economy and the social bond between the communities. Four years ago, in anticipation of the coming closer contact and ties from Hedinsfjordur Tunnel, the towns voted to join their municipalities under a new banner, Fjyallabyggd.

Alternative routes for tunnels to help improve road links between the towns were studied, but the scheme selected provides the shortest as well as the lowest altitude – and so least troubled by winter weather.

Direct, all-weather driving is now possible from Akureyri to Siglufjordur, and Hedinsfjordur Tunnel is already proving to be very popular, notes the Icelandic Road Administration, Vegagerdin.

It may not be long until the traffic capacities of the Muli and Straka tunnels need addressing, leading to either expansions or potentially fresh debates on how and where to improve links to the south.

Three alternative routes were studied to link the towns of Olafsfjordur and Siglufjordur. The most direct route, having also the lowest elevation, was chosen Hedinsfjordur Tunnel project will help overcome the restrictions to travel for the towns of Siglufjordur and Olafsfjordur due to the severe winter weather in near-Arctic region of North Iceland Looking north in Hedinsfjordur, the peaceful valley between the tunnels which locked by the two mountain ranges separating the small towns of Siglufjordur and Olafsfjordur Siglufjordur once was a major fisheries town and the new tunnel link will help boost mobility and contact both from and to its remote fjord location