Just returned from nine days in Iceland – two days of work and seven days of pure exploration. It was winter, so days were short, and it was gray/stormy the whole time, so no Northern Lights for me, but the trip still managed to blow my mind. Misc notes and photos below. For lots more photos, check out my
Flickr Album – Iceland 2017 (full-screen please!)
Iceland driving tip: While it might be tempting to tune in to the Icelandic death metal station while wending your way through miles of snow- and moss-covered lava rock, one notch up on the dial is the “public culture” station, where the only words you can decipher from the lilting Elvish language are “Yoko Ono,” “Steve Reich,” and “John Cage” (and then they play them).
That station works way better with the landscape. No sleep in 36 hours, but made it to the Blue Lagoon, where 464-degree superheated geothermal water from half a mile down in the earth brings up white silica powder which meets cold sea water, creating these gorgeous warm swimming holes; the color of sky refracts off the silica in the water, making it intensely blue in the right conditions (it was more greenish today). Allegedly great for psoriasis sufferers. Exhausted but blissed.
Car rental agency said “Most common form of damage is doors ripped away or broken by wind when you open door with vehicle faced in wrong direction.” They weren’t kidding! Gale-force much of the day today, knocked twice on my ass by invisible forces. Wandered Þingvellir (Thing), home of the formative Icelandic parliament circa 900 AD, where early settlers gathered once a year to hash out the rules of the land and to take a break from “vengeance” though also home of much brutality, including “Drekkingarhylur (The Drowning Pool), where mothers of illegitimate children were drowned.”
Visibility poor and hard to keep camera steady much of the day, but amazing to get out onto gravel roads without purpose, just discover. Icelandic horses with Jon Jon Bovi manes and shocking blue eyes. Fish drying racks at Arkanes. Ancient cairns that can’t be touched (you’re also not allowed to create new cairns, so they’re not confused with the ancient ones!). Geocaches way up in the boulder-strewn hillsides, making friends with moss. Unexpected waterfalls always around the next bend.
The president of Iceland takes his kids to school on a bicycle and fought to refuse his own pay raise.
As much as I like to set my own path and improvise, sometimes the tourist options are just right – hard to substitute the knowledge of an experienced local. Bus tour day. Golden Circle is primarily the magnificent Gullfoss (-foss = falls), Geysir (the English word “geyser” is derived from the Icelandic “Geysir”) and Þingvellir (which I explored solo yesterday, with more time).
Bone-bracingly cold at the mouth of these waterfalls, glad to have motorcycle gloves. The steam vents and bubbling pools around Geysir were even more beautiful than the geysers themselves – minerals create fantastic colors against the ground in the oblique northern light. Late afternoon in downtown Reykjavik, checking out the elegant Harpa concert hall, geocaching the marina and checking out exotic restaurant menus (smoked puffin, Minke whale with cranberry (evil!), grilled reindeer. Food and drink are so expensive, I’m sticking to my groceries and saving the money for adventures.
Clockwise from top left: Mashed haddock and potato on rye flatbread, trout and sour cream on rye flatbread, bean salad, sheep’s head jelly on rye flatbread, mashed turnips. Viking lunch at Loki’s. Sheep’s head jelly is delicious!
40% of Icelanders say they believe in the existence of elves, which is higher than the percentage who believe in God. It’s not uncommon when things go wrong for people to stop and ask the elves for permission, as the president did a few years ago when he wrote the elves a letter asking them to stop making all the plumbing go wrong at Blue Lagoon. Apparently, plumbing issues cleared up immediately! That letter is now framed and on permanent public display. Rained out of adventure today by storm blazing through the Norwegian Sea (foul wind and rain, some main roads closed). Things cleared up early afternoon so I wandered Reykjavik.
Stumbled upon the house where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986, in a meeting credited with precipitating the end of the cold war. Visited the main cathedral, the famous Sun Voyager sculpture, found a bunch of geocaches, then got caught in an icy hail storm with a mile left to walk – those little suckers sting!
Iceland is powered by 100% renewable resources – geothermal, hydro, and wind. And there’s an infinite supply of water. Kind of amazing to be in a place where there is seemingly no sense of conversation of energy or water – people commonly blast the heat and leave windows and doors open, and take showers as long as they like!
Two-day work sprint complete, but planned glacier & ice cave trip canceled today due to “expected gale force winds.” Took off instead for a solo hike of Mount Esja, 30 mins outside of Reykjavik. Weather changes by the moment – one minute you’re peeling off layers, the next you’re wishing you had crampons and hiking poles.
Matted tulle gives way to slick dark ice on top of crushed lava trail bed, then you hit the ridge and temperature plummets, hail kicks in, and you realize you left gloves back in the AirBnB; fingers stinging! Hike was cold and strenuous, but views were epic (these pics don’t do justice).
Later, realized I didn’t have time to make it to Selfoss before dark, so just clicked a mysterious green spot on Google Maps and found myself at Heidmörk lava garden, pock-marked with craters, pools, and bizarre stone formations – you can still see the patterns of the molten rock, cooled. Horseback riders and dirt bikers buzzed through at twilight (wished I’d caught it in better light!). Love this about Iceland – pick a random spot on the map and you’re almost guaranteed that something strange and wonderful is around the corner.
I watched a person die today, and am feeling shaken. Woke early for my first dry suit scuba dive, in Silfra Fissure – the seam of the earth, where the Asian and North American tectonic plates are literally tearing apart from one another, and the gap is filled with glacier water that’s bubbled through rock for 30 years – intensely clear, with 100m visibility. Can’t share photos of that until later (have to process an SD card from a rented UW camera).
But we had this completely surreal experience. Then, as we were emerging from the water, trying to stand up with 75 pounds of gear and stiff dry suits, saw a middle-aged woman receiving CPR on the shore, 20 feet away. Medics were running in, and helicopter circling. They shoo’d us out of the area and it was hard to get info, but pretty sure she had a heart attack while snorkeling. I’m shaken. Such a surreal and dark way to end such an incredible experience. Freaking life. Later, headed for Keriðs Crater. Pea soup fog and drifting rain, I suddenly felt a need to blast Bowie’s “Blackstar,” and cried in the car.
From May to August, there are only three hours of darkness per day in #Iceland; by mid-winter, there is only 5 hours of light per day. During this part of the year, the days are getting longer – each day is seven minutes longer than the last. So over just the past 10 days, we’ve gained more than an hour of daylight. Does a number on your internal clock!
For lots more photos, check out my: