Iceland 2016: Puffin Pictures Prevail

31 07 2016

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Today is our last chance to see puffins, or lundi as they are called in Iceland.  They were not showing themselves on the rainy day when we were at the cliffs at Látrabjarg in the West Fjords, so we are hoping to see a few on our bird-watching tour to Cape Ingólfshöfði.  But our tour is not until 1:30 this afternoon; we have time for other adventures along the way.

And so we stop at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.  Fed by the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier on the southeast coast, it has increased fourfold since the 1970s and is now considered to be the largest lake in all of Iceland. But people don’t come here because it is a lake; they come here to see the icebergs that have calved off the glacier bob down the way to the ocean.

In a word, it is spectacular.

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We opt not to take the boat ride through the lagoon, viewing the entire lagoon from the glacial moraine instead.

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Walking from the beach to the lagoon and back again, we watch enormous chunks of ice roll and bounce down the narrow channel.  Eider ducks float like so many bathtub toys and arctic terns use the larger icebergs to rest up from their constant feeding forays.  A snow bunting poses long enough for me to get a decent shot.

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A fulmar and some terns find a good resting spot

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Snow bunting

Washed up on the beach is a photographer’s playground of icebergs.  Ice chunks that may be 1,000 years old melt slowly into fantastic shapes and I wonder how many of these images will end up as profile pictures on Facebook.  I know mine will!

 

 

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A close-up of 1,000 year old ice, courtesy of Nancy

We cross the one-way suspension bridge and make our way further south toward Cape Ingólfshöfði.

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6-4-16 Skeiðarársandur (1)

We stop at a strange roadside attraction: the twisted remains of a bridge at Skeiðarársandur.  In 1996, a volcanic eruption under the glacier caused massive floodings, wrecking this bridge and completely interrupting road travel on this section of the Ring Road.  Here it is not simply the inconvenience of taking a detour: between the glacier and the sandflats, this is the only road in the area.  And so Icelanders don’t bother making sturdy bridges; they acknowledge the unstoppable power of nature and instead make narrow, easily replaceable bridges that only need last until the next eruption.

Our GPS takes us down a long bumpy gravel road that ends in a small parking lot.  We are here.  Soon a large farm tractor pulling a hay wagon full of tourists splashes across a broad creek.  Our transport has arrived.  Down the road flies a girl on a bicycle.  Our guide.

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Our tour

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Our ride

 

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Our guide

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Our outhouse

She introduces herself with her full unpronounceable name, laughs, and says we can call her Guni.  In my mind, I make the connection: our Goony Bird.  We climb into the wagon for a half-hour ride across the broad, black sand flats to the Cape.

6-4-16 Cape Ingólfshöfði (4)

6-4-16 Cape Ingólfshöfði (10)

Guni stops the tractor at the base of the cliffs, and we trek up the steep and shifting black sands, stopping numerous times to “admire the view.” Annalise, of course, sprints up and waits at the top in sheer boredom.

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David and Nancy labor up the hill

Guni also waits patiently and once the group is all together, gives a brief overview.  This area was first settled in A.D. 874 by the very first Viking in Iceland, Ingólfur Arnarson, who went on to found Reykjavík.  Guni herself can probably trace her lineage back as far; her family has had a farm here for countless generations.  She tells us stories of hitch-hiking up and down the east coast, able to find a family connection in every ride she got.  Guni speaks fluent English, loves being outdoors and active, rides horses all throughout the winter, and is just so darn wholesome I want to bottle her up and spread her throughout the States.

Her tone takes on a precautionary note, however, when she talks of the skua.  Skua.  A skua is a seabird. Remember, a skua is a seabird.  Memories flood back as I recall years of giving standardized IQ tests in which students were given short definitions of words including this one and asked to recall them later.  I’d always wondered what a skua was like.  Now I’m about to find out.

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If a bird can be considered evil, his name would be Skua.

What I learn about skua:

  1. Skua are not cute like puffins.
  2. Skua eat puffins, puffin babies, and even puffin eggs.
  3. When passing a skua, stay together as a group so it won’t attack.
  4. Skuas are not on my list of nice birds.

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Puffins, on the other hand, are cute.  They pose nicely.  They fly like little whirly-gigs.  Nobody’s ever had to be warned of an attack puffin.  Which is why I have thousands of pictures of puffins.  And only a few of skua.6-4-16 Cape Ingólfshöfði (9)

 

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Puffin Perches

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He waits with his mouth full of sand eels for the coast to be clear before going to his burrow to feed his pufflets.

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Iceland 2016: East Fjord Frivolity and Failure

30 07 2016

Friday, June 3, 2016

Lately each morning I’ve awoken with a sense of urgency, and particularly so this morning.  With only five more days left, we are on the down-side of our trip, and I don’t want it to be over.  My “Bucket o’ Adventures” is still not full.

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Good morning, Sunshine!

And so, after loading up the car, we drive over to the camping area and start climbing the hill toward the waterfalls we saw last night.

After a couple of false starts, we finally find a trail, scaring a pair of graylag geese along the way.6-3-16 Faskrudsfjordur hill hike (15)

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Brian, David, and Nancy stop at the first falls and amuse themselves with their cameras, settling in on comfortable rocks as they take in the scenery.

Annalise and I look at each other, look up the hill and take off.

6-3-16 Faskrudsfjordur hill hike (52)She quickly is out of sight and I am thinking hard about turning around as the hill gets steeper and steeper and the trail disappears.

6-3-16 Faskrudsfjordur hill hike (21) But as long as Annalise is up ahead and out of sight, I feel it is my motherly duty to climb onward, if only to save her from disaster (as I did when she climbed a cliff as a two-year-old).  I use nature photography as an excuse to catch my breath.

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Alpine bartsia: a hemi-parasite whose roots tap into other roots for nutrients

 

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Wooly willow

 

And really, it’s not about the speed or distance to me; sometimes the most breath-taking views are the ones up close and underfoot.  But then, in Iceland I rarely look out to see a view that is not spectacular!

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Stopping numerous times to “admire the view” I finally spot a tiny figure on top of the ridge.

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Annalise heads down, thank goodness, so I don’t have to rescue her.  As if.

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Annalise and I stop at a particularly beautiful cascade, and I can think of no more appropriate spot to leave some of Marie, who I just happen to have in my backpack.  (Later I am to find out that Marie was afraid of heights, so maybe this is not the perfect spot I think it is.)  Regardless, I thrust Marie’s ashes out into the rushing water, but just then a gust of wind catches them with Annalise downwind.  Ahh, well, I always thought Annalise had a bit of her Aunt Marie in her.  Now there is no doubt.

6-3-16 Faskrudsfjordur hill hike Marie

Marie’s Spot

We race down the hill just for the sheer joy of it.  The beauty of this place is overwhelming and it occurs to me that Iceland is a place of seasonal manic depression.  I’m not much for the cold and dark winter months, but this season of sunshine, flowers, and sparkling air makes my spirits soar.

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Annalise rolls down the hill, just because.

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High jinks

We meet back up with Brian, David, and Nancy who have been waiting patiently for our return.  What a perfect mix of fellow travelers: always someone up for a little extra adventure while the rest hangs out good-naturedly!

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We are now in the East Fjords, and if I thought the West Fjords had a lock on grandeur, well, I’d be dead wrong.  With the rugged coastline to my left and the jagged mountains on my right, I have a hard time deciding where to look.

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We stop frequently to explore: a lava flow, a lighthouse, and then a place I am sure must be a tourist trap, Petras Stone Collection in Stöðvarfjördur.  With so much else to see and experience, I’m not eager to spend time at a place I assume is like the roadside attraction, South of the Border, in South Carolina.  But we go anyway, and boy am I wrong!

Petra Sveinsdottir was a woman after my own heart.  She was a self-taught naturalist who from a young age scoured the hills around her home for stones, amassing what is now one of the largest privately owned collections in the world.

6-3-16 Petras Stone Collection Stodvarfjordur (8)

 

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Petra herself

 

The gardens around her home are filled with beautiful displays of her rocks and minerals and are lovingly tended by her children who have opened her home to visitors.

6-3-16 Petras Stone Collection Stodvarfjordur Marie

Marie would have absolutely loved this place, so for the second time today I pull her out and quietly fertilize a cluster of flowers with a bit of her.

We eat our lunch at a picnic table across the road from Petra’s house and then take off once again.  After passing through areas where slopes of scree pose the very real threat of landslides, we pull off at another scenic area, a valley and a fjord named Breiðdalur and Breiðdalsvík.

6-3-16 East Fjords Breithdalur (6)

 

Layers of basalt with vertical intrusions fascinate us, as does a wall of fog that is leaping toward us across the fjord.

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We watch for a while, then get back in our cars and take off, with our car in the lead.  We don’t see David and Nancy pull off, but think nothing of it as they usually take a minute or so to settle in.  This will become important.

Another pull-off, this one down a short driveway to a creek and waterfall.  Brian, Annalise and I get out and mess around for a little while.

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Annalise takes off her shoes and quickly wades across the shallow creek.

 

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Me, not so much.  I decide to follow, but the water is deceptively cold, freezingly so, and the rocks are hard to walk on.  With ice cubes for feet, I get stuck in the middle, but Annalise comes to my rescue and helps me back across.  So much for The Adventurer!

We keep an eye out for Dave and Nancy but don’t see them, so we assume they’ve passed us by and we will catch up later.  We go to the top of the falls, take a few pictures of people taking pictures, and then continue on our way.

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Waterfall selfie

Reindeer, a whole herd out in a field!  I don’t have any pictures of reindeer yet, so again I ask Brian to pull over and he complies.  I take off across the field toward the herd, but other people are doing the same and the herd gets spooked.

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6-3-16 reindeer chase

Reindeer tracks and scat

Still, I’m enjoying the feel of being in a field far from civilization when I turn around and see a golf course.  A golf course.  Apparently golf is Iceland’s fastest growing sport, but I am not a fan.

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Of course, I’m teed off.

Still no sign of David and Nancy, and text messages and calls are not going through, so we drive on to our hotel in Hoffell, fully expecting to see their car already in the parking lot.  But it’s not.  The hotel receptionist says, no, they haven’t arrived yet.  She goes on, they called several hours ago and said they would be late due to car trouble.  Uh oh.  I start to worry that they are stuck out on the road somewhere.  But when I turn around, there they are!

It seems that back at the pull-off at Breiðdalur, a sharp rock punctured their tire.  They honked, waved their arms, and tried calling us, to no avail.  Dave was able to put on the spare tire and they stopped at the next small village, where they got the tire fixed in a relatively short time while they relaxed at a café.  Lesson learned:  Stay together!

We dine out on the porch of the hotel restaurant, in view of a glacier.

 

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A glacial reflection

A broad valley surrounds this farm hotel, with horses grazing in the field while snipes make constant winnowing sounds with their tails as they swoop and climb in the air.  We relax, knowing that for only the second time on our trip, we get to stay here two nights.

This hotel boasts five open-air hot pots fed by geothermal waters, so I head down the path through the horse pasture for an evening soak.  The water looks a little murky, and each pot is already inhabited by other soakers like myself, but turning around is not an option, so I overcome my awkwardness and slide into one with only a couple of people from Canada in it.  We are soon joined by a girl from Spain who is smoking a strange-smelling cigarette, and we all exchange stories of our travels around the island.  And while it is interesting to hear from other travelers, I am also slightly weirded out by sharing this murky warm water with strangers.  So when I get back to the hotel, I scrub well in a long hot shower before I feel clean again.  I crawl into bed in our room with a glacial view and dream of the puffins we hope to see on tomorrow’s excursion.

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Iceland 2016: Bump, Crawl, Squeeze, Climb, and Slide

24 07 2016

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Yesterday we were left behind, but this time we are ready.  By 7:30 we are in front of the ranger station, ready for the van to transport us to the Lofthellir lava cave.  Nancy has made the wise decision to sit this one out, as her claustrophobia would not make this a pleasant experience.  The van arrives, and we head out for the drive to the cave.  At first, the ride is smooth, but soon we turn off onto a dirt road that is more holes than whole.  Luckily, this is a four-wheel drive vehicle, and our guide expertly drives in, around, up, and down, through mud holes, across a creek, and over the lava field.  Jouncing like popcorn, we bump our way toward the cave.

After an hour in which I feel that every muscle in my body has been pulverized, we come to a stop and get out.

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Lava flowed through this valley

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Rope lava

We walk another half an hour over a lava field to a trailer where we are given rubber boots and a helmet with a lamp.  Another ten minute walk puts us at a giant hole in the ground, which even in June is still 90% filled with snow and ice.

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With a nod toward civilization, there is a metal staircase to the bottom of the hole, although without a handrail. We all make it to the bottom of the hole without incident and find ourselves standing in about four inches of ice water which is on top of what we are to find out is about a ten-foot layer of ice, a layer of ice that is throughout the cave.

6-2-16 Lofthellir Cave tour (11)Our boots have tiny metal cleats on them, so our footing is secure.  A good thing, too, since our first obstacle is to step over a large, very deep hole immediately in front of the entrance way.  Inside the cave, we come to our next challenge: a hill of ice some six feet high, topped with an opening maybe 18 inches high and a yard wide.  Our guide unrolls a tarp with boards sewn in like steps, and we climb up and slither through the tiny opening on our bellies.  I am starting to wonder if maybe this time I have bitten off more of an adventure than I can chew.  But there’s no going back now, not without some serious loss of face, so I swallow the bile collecting in the back of my throat and go on. The temperature is right at freezing down here but we are warm with exertion and are wearing rain pants and waterproof coats so we stay dry as we slip and slide up and around more ice slopes.

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It’s worth it.  Instead of limestone stalagmites and stalactites, these are made of pure ice.  Our guide places several flashlights behind some stalactites, and the light is reflected through them for a gorgeous light display like no other.  At one point, he has us all turn off our lights and get quiet, and we stand in inky darkness with only the drip drip of water in our ears.  Then we hear Ping! Ping!: bell-like notes of different pitches.  A melody of ice, an icicle symphony!  Our guide is tapping the sides of various sizes of stalactites with a metal object.  An underground concert, played on ice formations, in a lava cave some 3,000 years old!

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Ice crystals sparkle like diamonds

After almost an hour, it is time to turn around.  Getting back is so much more fun: we slide on our backs down the ice hills, holding on to a rope for control.  I’m ten years old again!  (Some would say, still.)

6-2-16 Lofthellir Cave tour (1)Outside, we take off our gear and hike back to the van where we bumpity-bump our way back to civilization.  A mechanic can make a good living in Iceland; these vehicles take a beating.  And a savvy masseuse could make some good pocket change with an office near the drop-off point!

We meet Nancy back at the hotel.  After ten days of almost non-stop travel, Nancy has enjoyed her own style of adventure this morning: a long soak in the tub followed by some re-organizing and catching up with the outside world.  She’s earned it!

Not too far down the road, we stop at, you guessed it, a waterfall.  Not just any waterfall:  this one is Dettifoss, one of the most powerful waterfalls in all of Europe and the largest waterfall in Iceland, as measured by water volume.  Move over, Niagara!6-2-16 Dettifoss (46)

Although there is lots of snow still on the ground, the air is warm and Annalise makes the most of it by changing into her shorts.6-2-16 Dettifoss (38)

6-2-16 Dettifoss (30)The hike to the falls takes about half an hour as we climb over rocks and across snowmelt.

Before going on to Dettifoss, we view Selfoss, the eleven-meter high, horse-shoe shaped falls just upriver.  The volume of water is amazing, as is the columnar basalt on the opposite bank.6-2-16 Dettifoss (34)

 

From there, we head downstream where strong winds blow waterfall spray over us.  At this point, I was glad to not be wearing shorts.  Although a rainbow did make its appearance, Dettifoss is not on my short list of beautiful waterfalls.  It draws its fame from the sheer power of the water.  Mesmerizing!

6-2-16 Dettifoss (39)The rest of our trip today is uneventful.  I am unable to see one of the sights I had marked as a Must See: the boyhood home of Halldór Laxness, my new favorite author.  Laxness wrote the epic Independent People, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.  I’ve read the book twice now, and am completely enthralled with his portrayal of life in a turf house during the early 1900s.  We find the road that leads to his house, but it is a gravel road marked as an “F” road, which means it is off-limits for our sweet little Peugeot.  Our last adventure getting stuck on the side of the road has us even more wary of the dangers of travel, so I reluctantly have to give up on my dream of seeing this author’s house.  Deep sigh.

We enter the fishing village of Faskrudsfjordur, on the east coast of Iceland on a beautiful fjord.

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Fjord Reflections

When we go in the hotel lobby, a sign says go across the street and around the building, so we do and find someone in the hotel restaurant who takes us underground through a tunnel and a museum back across the street to the lobby where we started.  It is idiosyncracies like this that make Iceland so fun!

Dave and Nancy enjoy a dinner in the restaurant, while we snack on the crackers, cheese, peanut butter, and other food we have bought at a grocery store.  And when we are done, Brian and I set off on a walk to get a flavor of the town.  This town of a little more than 600 used to be a main fishing hub for the French, and even now the street signs are in French as well as Icelandic.

6-2-16 Fosshotel Austfirdir (1)

The old hospital, remade into a hotel/museum with a tunnel under the street to the doctor’s house/hotel.  Note the sign showing how many kilometers to France.

 

Our hotel, we discover, used to be the home of the town doctor and site of the French hospital, purported to be haunted.

6-2-16 Fosshotel Austfirdir (4)It is the beauty of this village, though, that enchants us. 6-2-16 Faskrudsfjordur (4) At the end of the town, we find a campground, above which we spot a series of waterfalls.  Adventure enough for tomorrow!

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Iceland 2016: From Calderas to Midges, the Adventure Continues

22 07 2016

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

What a luxury to know that we get to spend two nights in one place!  And according to our excursion voucher, our tour of the Lofthellir lava cave doesn’t start until 9:00, so we eat a leisurely breakfast and then prepare for the trip.

Only thing is, we get a call from the travel agency shortly after 8:00 telling us that our tour was actually at 8:00 and we missed it.  Dang.  It seems the travel agency updated our plans and then did not get us the updated version.  It happens. Fortunately, they are able to book us on a tour for the next day.  And fortunately, there are plenty adventures in this area to keep us active and entertained.

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Say that three times fast!

After a look through the ranger station of the National Park, our first stop is at Grjutagja, a cave with a pool inside where David remembers skinny-dipping when he took a tour through here 40 years ago while stationed in Iceland in the Air Force.  We’ve been warned not to get in the pools as the water temperature changes rapidly and without warning. (Later, we will discover that the Icelanders still use this pool.  Possibly the warning was just their way of keeping it for themselves.)

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We hiked a bit around the area, ending up at a sheepfold built in 1880 as the main sheep sorting fold for the free-range sheep in the Mývatn area.

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What I usually see of Annalise

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We send the guys back down the road to get our cars, and while they are gone, we investigate a more modern sheep shelter.  Lots of snow melt still around—not sure how much of a shelter this would actually provide!

6-1-16 Myvatn sheepfold (5)

We travel down the road to Dimmuborgir, a lava field that translates as “dark castles,” and indeed is the avowed home of Iceland’s Yule Lads, those mischievous elfish creatures descended from trolls who show up around Christmas time.   If I understand the origin of this place correctly, some 2,000 years ago a lava lake pooled over a depression where a small lake was.  The soggy lake bottom under the lava turned to steam, which boiled up through the lava in tubes, the sides of which cooled forming hollow pillars as the lava lake drained toward lower ground.  I’m no geologist; after reading the explanation several times in several different places, I’m not sure I have it right yet.  However, I do know that in this area are some really fantasmic lava structures.

6-1-16 Dimmuburgir church (2)

6-1-16 Dimmuburgir (3)

David and I meander around several of the many paths through this area; Annalise and Brian take off on another path that leads them far astray.  “Follow the yellow trail” is now synonymous with getting lost!

 

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The lost are found

After lunch at a picnic table near the parking lot, we head out to Namafjall Hverir, a geothermal area just off the road that is reminiscent of Yellowstone National Park, minus the boardwalks and constant reminders of danger.

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Note the proximity of the photographer

If I haven’t mentioned it before, I’ll mention it now:  Iceland is heavy into Darwinism.  If the rotten egg smell of sulfur is not warning enough, the steam coming out of boreholes should be.  Not that either dissuade us from getting closer than we should have.

 

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Somehow we survive our stupidity and go on to Krafla, a huge caldera (volcanic crater) that had an active lava fountain as near as 1984.  To get to Krafla, we pass through a geothermal power station, with geodesic domes signifying wells.  Cheap energy, if you don’t mind the uncertainty of eruptions.

 

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The best views are always found up high, so we climb Krafla, and from the windy rim of the crater, we look down on the lake within—still frozen in June, but a beautiful turquoise blue edged in icy whiteness.

6-1-16 Krafla (1)

It’s the middle of the afternoon and we have tickets for the Mývatn Nature Baths so we go back toward town.  We chose to go to these hot baths rather than the more popular Blue Lagoon because, well, I like an underdog.  Also, it is not as tourist-y, it is smaller, and it costs less.  Brian did not bring a suit because he had no intention of repeating his unfortunate experience from our last trip (hot pot + open wound = staph infection), but somehow the receptionist persuades him to rent a suit and go in.  He does.  It’s a Speedo.  He gets in the water and we all enjoy a hot steamy soak.  But magic is performed: none of us sees Brian get in or out of the water.

6-1-16 Myvatn Nature Baths

After dinner, Annalise and I go to the lava field just outside our hotel.  I should mention that Mývatn is a shallow eutrophic lake, which when I looked up the word I found out that means “high biological productivity.”  That would explain why Mývatn translates as “midge lake.”

 

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Dried cow parsnips

Midges, for those fortunate enough never to have encountered them, are small black flies that swarm around you, never biting, but preferring to clog orifices with their bodies, making breathing and talking next to impossible.  I had the foresight to bring two midge nets along, donning mine as soon as I noticed the first nasty little booger.  Annalise swears she will not wear one as it clashes with her ensemble, but within a few yards I could have sold her my extra net for a hefty profit.

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Annalise can even make a midge hat look good!

 

With midge hats on, we are good to go, stopping to watch as our pants changed color as they become laden with midge bodies.

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Sometimes, Icelandic adventure is as big as a caldera, other times as small as a midge.  But adventure is always around the corner, as we are to find out on the morrow.





Iceland 2016: A Whale of a Day

15 07 2016

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Yesterday, horses ruled.  Today it’s all about whales.  But not until 16:00.  So in the morning we head back into Akureyri to play Tourist.

 

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Across the fjord to Akureyri

On the way around the fjord, we stop at an overlook to look at the city across the way and find a patch of beautiful lupines. Lupines are a non-native, invasive species.  They crowd out the native wildflowers and grasses and may be causing the demise of the heath bumblebee, Iceland’s only native bee.  I know that.  I also know they are absolutely gorgeous. They remind me of wisteria, but with longer-lasting flowers. 5-30-16 Akureyri Botanical Garden (43) I decide my sister Marie would love this beautiful spot, so I get her out of my suitcase and leave a bit of her here.  Marie, who died almost a year ago, loved to travel and took special joy in the beauty of nature.  In one of her journals, she wrote about how the wildflowers on the side of the road turned an awful day at work into an Awe Full Day.  She would approve of this spot.

 

5-31-16 Akureyri MarieFinally in Akureyri, we stroll the streets and do some gift shopping.

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We also discover that duct tape is a handy item for car repair, even, or especially, in Iceland.

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Fortunately, not our car

On the way to Húsavík where we are scheduled for a whale-watching boat tour, we stop at one of the most famous of Iceland’s many waterfalls: Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods.

5-31-16 Goðafoss (22)Again, there are no words.  We pose for the requisite photos in front of the falls, then explore downstream where there is a smaller waterfall and a bridge to the other side.5-31-16 Goðafoss (4)

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As we meander around, Dave tells me that there is a tamarind just off the trail that I need to go see.  A tamarind?  My mind searches its files…an orange or maybe a monkey?  No, Dave explains patiently, a bird.  Well, I’m impressed.  Obviously he knows his birds.  I go back and indeed find a beautiful bird.   A ptarmigan.

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This ptarmigan seems unperturbed to have people sharing its personal space.  It allows me to get within six feet, so I am in photography-heaven as I shoot photo after photo of this very photogenic bird.

Even after all these stops, we arrive in Húsavík a couple hours before our tour.

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We walk around the town, furtively looking for the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which houses “a collection of penises and penile part representing all the types of mammals found in the country.” Didn’t find it.  Kind of relieved.  We did find an Exploration Museum, though, with artifacts from the Apollo Astronaut training that took place near here in the mid-60s.  Whodathunk?

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We board the “traditional Icelandic oak boat” for our whaling expedition.  No, I am reprimanded by the cashier.  We are not going whaling.  We are going whale watching.  Big difference.  We don our stylish red overalls to keep us warm and toasty on the open water and head out into Skjálfandi bay for our three hour tour.  Snatches of the theme song from Gilligan’s Island play through my head.5-31-16 Husavik whale watching (16)

It’s not long before we start seeing whales breaching in the distance, and not long after that before I have an enormous collection of photos of the vast bay each with a little black dot in the middle.

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A Tail of a Whale

The guide identifies every black dot: there are white beaked dolphins, minke whales, harbor porpoises, and humpback whales.  Soon enough we are in the middle of a feeding area.  We discover that the best way to find the humpback whale is to look where the seabirds are feeding.

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Flocks of arctic terns, puffins, and fulmars gather where the fish are.  And where the fish are, there soon will be the whales.  And there are.  One even breaches so close to our boat that the captain is taken aback.  I’m sure they have rules about keeping the boats a certain distance away.  I’m also certain that nobody told the whales those rules.

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I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the birds.  In between whale-sightings, I entertain myself by taking photos of the many birds around us.  Soon I have almost as many blurred pictures of birds as I do black dots in the bay.  A few turn out to be quite decent.

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Splash

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Clear the runway! Fulmar take-off!

 

The crew feeds us hot cocoa and cinnamon rolls on the way back, much tastier in my opinion than the krill that the whales are feeding on.  Makes me glad to be a human.

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Back in the car, we head for Lake Mývatn and our home for two nights, Hótel Reynihlíð.  Upon arriving, I find a group of college-aged girls doing yoga in a common area.  My antennae are up.  I ask where they are from.  Berry College, Georgia.  Is Russell Maddrey with them?  Mouths drop.  How do I…?

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Russ grew up in Aiken and went to Aiken Elementary where I taught.  I know his mom and knew he would be traveling the Ring Road at the same time we were as part of a college geology class.  Although it seems like an unusual coincidence, it wasn’t really.  I had been watching out for him, knowing that he was going counter-clockwise while we were going clockwise around the island.  The Ring Road being basically the only way around the island, and knowing that there were certain stops that everyone makes, I am not that surprised to run into him.  Of course, when I call his name when I see him in the parking lot, all his classmates are impressed that he is such a famous person, known world-wide.  Which he will be, or should be, since he is one of the nicest guys on this planet.

A nice ending to an altogether nice day.





Iceland 2016: Horse Play

10 07 2016

Monday, May 30, 2016

5-29-16 Hofsstadir Guesthouse (15)As is not unusual, I awake before everyone else.  I decide a stroll is in order, so I dress and slip out the door.  I head up the long lane in front of the Guesthouse and cross the road to the horse pasture.  Before long, one, then two, then a small herd of horses are gathered by the fence to greet me.  We have a long chat, the horses and I.  5-29-16 Hofsstadir Guesthouse

They don’t ask for anything nor have I anything to give.  We just talk.  I snap a few pictures, wish them happy trails, and head back for breakfast.5-30-16 Hofsstadir Guesthouse (25)

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Ah, breakfast.

In usual Icelandic guesthouse style, a buffet is laid out.  There is a steaming pot of oatmeal and muesli to put on your skyr.  Fresh bread, several homemade jellies (rhubarb is big in Iceland), boiled eggs, small slices of melon, bananas, apples.  And a tray of sliced meats.  Different types.

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Horse, seabird, and lamb

One of the hotel employees is restocking a food tray.  I ask her about the meats.  Lamb. Horse. Seabird.  “Seabird,” said another guest, “It must be puffin.  They eat them here, you know.”  I did know.  I waver, torn between sensitivity and interest.  But I know I never again will get the chance to try these foods, so I take one slice of each.  The lamb tastes like lamb.  The horse tastes of roast beef.  As does the seabird, although smoked and slightly dry.  And I’m curious, so on the way out I ask the receptionist what kind of seabird.  She struggles for the word in English, finally pulling out a guidebook to Icelandic birds.  I love that she has one handy.  It is not puffin.  It is guillemot.  Somehow I am relieved.  Guillemots are not nearly as cute as puffins.  But that doesn’t excuse eating a lamb.  More on the horse later.

Although I communed with the horses before breakfast, and I ate horse meat for breakfast, the best is still ahead:  we have a 10:00 appointment for a two hour horse-riding tour.  We arrive at Hestasport  outside  the little village of Varmahlíð early, but there are dogs to play with.  Soccer dogs.  When I accidentally kick the soccer ball directly into the chest of one of the dogs, they take offense and run off.  I never was much good at soccer.

We head over to the stables, select our helmets, and get on our mounts, Annalise, Nancy, and me.  Dave has decided that this trail-riding stuff is too tame for his liking, and Brian, well, let’s just say that this was the same place that became a real “pain in the butt” for him last time.  (The back story for this is quite funny but not germane to this tale.)

So we set off and as before, our guide lets us experience the half-walk, half-trot gait that Icelandic horses are famed for.  Nancy is in front of me, and I see her horse break into a canter, upsetting Nancy’s balance.  She bounces left, then right, and suddenly I can see the future.  Before I have a chance to do or say anything—and really, what could I do anyway?—I see Nancy bounce high off to the left, landing with a resounding thump on her back on the ground.  Luckily, the ground was relatively soft, grassy and slightly marshy.  And fortunately she landed flat, without any twists that might have spelled disaster.  So, although shaken and stiff, she wasn’t  seriously hurt. But her physical discomfort paled in comparison to her wounded pride: horses and riders alike all looking down at her with wide eyes.

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This lady has spunk.  She pops up (okay, maybe “pops up” is not the best phrase to describe how she got up, but you have to give her credit) and with a little help, manages to get back on her horse, who stands calmly as if wondering why his rider decided to take flight.

We continue our ride, occasionally at a tölt, although Nancy wisely holds to a walk.  Nancy has won the admiration of all: she is one plucky lady and a good sport as well.

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I am gifted with an interesting perspective on this ride: when I mention to the guide my breakfast meat of that morning, he is not at all taken aback.  This man, this horse lover, reminds me that these horses live lives of great freedom, living outdoors in a herd and eating grass and doing what horses love to do, for a long time.  How much more humane is this life than that of cows, cooped up in dirty pens and fed from a trough until they are sufficiently fattened?  So maybe eating horse meat is not the horrid thing we tend to think it is.  Maybe the real cruelty lies in how we treat the cows that we eat.

We continue on to Akureyri, the “capital of North Iceland” and one of its biggest urban areas.  In spite of this status (which is all relative), we enjoy its charm and clean feel.

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A common sight in this uncommon country: babies left outside while mom shops

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Our favorite used bookstore

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We stroll up the street to see the Botanical Garden.  We are too early.  Most of the flowers that we feasted our eyes on last time are still weeks away from blooming.  Still and all, we admire the variety  and interesting form of the foliage, that is until it starts raining in earnest and we have to head back down the hill to our cars.

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rhubarb

We arrive at our lodgings, the Hotel Sveinbjarnargerði, on the other side of the fjord from Akureyri.  It’s a good thing we didn’t have to stop and ask directions: we never would have been able to spit out the strange concretion of consonants and syllables that are so common in the Icelandic language.

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The view from our hotel room

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Green acres, red tractor

5-30-16 Akureyri (25)A special treat awaits us:  hot cocoa and cinnamon buns in the lobby.  Even better, we get to see an gorgeous sunset across the waters, although we have to wait up until midnight for it and we never do get to see the sun sink below the horizon.  5-30-16 Akureyri midnight sunset (2)That isn’t a problem for our eyes, though, which sink before our horizon just as soon as our heads hit the pillows.





Iceland 2016: Prepositions Abound

8 07 2016

Sunday, May 29, 2016

In and out. Up and down.  Under and through.  Around.  This is our day as we head out of the West Fjords and into northern Iceland.

But first, the glove.  Before leaving the hotel, David discovers that his glove is missing, somewhere on the path up to the waterfall from last night’s hike.  So Annalise and I decide to scamper up the hill and rescue it.  She scampers.  I trudge, stopping often to take in the view while surreptitiously taking a breather.  She is not fooled but graciously appears to take no notice.  Although we scan the ground carefully, we fail in our task and head back down.  It was worth a try.  At least we got in one more hike.

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I guess a fox got the glove…

Hólmavík is not far away, but due to our late start, it is almost noon.

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So this is where the Smurfs live!

The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft is open, even on a Sunday morning.  The building looks sketchy, but there is little else to do in this town, so we pay the entrance fee (2850 ISK…about $25 for the three of us) and go in.

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A small museum, but interesting in its history of ancient lore, potions, and runes.  Looking back with our modern-day glasses, it’s laughable to think of the superstitions that people believed in, but understandable only in the context of the isolation, extreme geology and climate, and lack of education that the inhabitants of this area endured, even up through the 19th century.  Before leaving on this trip, I read a book by Halldór Laxness, the only Icelandic Nobel laureate, called Independent People, which gave me insight into life during these times.  Not for the faint of heart, mind, or strength.

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The harbor

 

 

 

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After the museum, we pull out our food bags on a picnic table in a small park by the harbor.  I daresay I will not long remember a meal taken in a fast food restaurant, but I will never forget eating outside by a harbor, sitting on a grassy knoll on a small hill.

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Back in the car, we wind in and out of fjords, hugging the edge of the coast for the most part.  I never bore of the scenery and the road, though gravel at times, seems safe enough.

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Typical driving conditions

We stop in Hvammsstangi to go through the Icelandic Seal Center.  We have some fun by the fish-drying racks outside.5-29-16 Hvammstangi (1)

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Dried fish, anyone?

 

The wool factory we went to three years ago was closed on this Sunday afternoon, so our entertainment options are limited.  We decide to take the long way around the Vatnsnes peninsula to see if we can spot some seals.

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Again, the scenery is spectacular, but the seals do not cooperate.  We round the peninsula without spotting a one.  We do spy a pretty awesome sheep-sorting pen.5-29-16 Vatnsnes peninsula sheep pen (3)

 

And Annalise gets to practice her  pseudo-yoga poses, so it isn’t a total wash.

We travel cautiously through one lane tunnels, watching for on-coming traffic and looking ahead for a pull-out.  Nothing like a one lane tunnel to raise your alertness level.

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We end our day at the Guesthouse Hofsstaðir, where tomorrow’s breakfast will be one to remember.

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This is not our room.  But I wish it was.