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)

5-30-16 Hofsstadir Guesthouse (20)


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.

5-30-16 Hofsstadir Guesthouse (13)

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.

5-30-16 Hestasport Varmahlíð (4)

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.

5-30-16 Hestasport Varmahlíð (6)

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.

5-30-16 Akureyri (4)

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

5-30-16 Akureyri (22)

Our favorite used bookstore

5-31-16 Akureyri (26)

5-30-16 Akureyri (27)

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.

5-30-16 Akureyri Botanical Garden (20)


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.

5-30-16 Akureyri (32)

The view from our hotel room

5-30-16 Akureyri (29)

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 Saga 2013: Other Fauna and Flora

17 07 2013

There is more to life in Iceland than sheep and birds.  But not much.

 Seals off the coast of Látrabjarg

Seals off the coast of Látrabjarg

The ocean around Iceland is teeming with fish, seals, and whales, but when the Vikings got there in the late 800s, the only other land mammal was the arctic fox.  We were fortunate to have seen three of them, although they disappeared before I could whip out my camera.  The few mammals inhabiting this island today are all imports: reindeer, Icelandic horses, and mink being the main ones.

Icelandic horse

Icelandic horse at HestaSport

It’s easy to fall in love with the Icelandic horse.  They are not so big as to be overwhelming.  They are smart, hardy, and sweet-tempered.  And, like sheep, they are just so dad gum cute.

cute horse

cute horse

Apparently they taste good, too.

Unlike Alaska, in Iceland you don’t have to worry about bears.  I have read where occasionally one will drift over on an ice berg from Greenland, but apparently they don’t like Iceland enough to stick around.  Go figure.  Iceland also has no amphibians or reptiles (other than those kept in cages).  Yet another reason to like Iceland.

The midge is about the only insect of any consequence.  Even it doesn’t bite, although it will drive you to distraction by getting in every available bodily orifice.  Icelandic horses have figured out a way to combat the midge by chewing on each other. 

Although I didn't ask them, I'm pretty sure they are biting flies off each other.  Gotta love symbiosis.

Although I didn’t ask them, I’m pretty sure they are biting flies off each other. Gotta love symbiosis.

I didn’t have that option, so I spent my midge-pestered time praying for a stiff breeze, which fortunately are nearly constant.  Midges were even the inspiration for this

Bad Poetry Composed on Bumpy Gravel Road Somewhere in Iceland


Oh my, there’s a midge in my eye.

Oh dear, there’s a midge in my ear.

It’s cold and sunny and my nose is runny.

Oh gee, Iceland’s for me!


Obviously, Iceland is known for its fishing.  We saw quite a few fly fishers standing in cold rivers trying to look like they were enjoying themselves, but never saw them catching anything. 

Don't know if he caught any flies, but we sure found a bunch.

Don’t know if he caught any flies, but we sure found a bunch.

The fish were probably full from eating so many midges.  The fishing boats on the ocean had better luck and also provided beautiful photo fodder. 

These looked like toy boats out on the water.

These looked like toy boats out on the water.

These looked like toy boats out on the water.

Note the church in the background.  Every village had one.

more boats

more photogenic boats

The little fishing village of Isafjörður had quite a “green” industry going, making use of every part of the fish, including fish heads which were sent to Africa in exchange for luscious fruits.  Pretty smart on the part of the Icelanders, I thought.  Also smart was their practice of drying fish outside during the winter, when midges and all other pests were keeping warm in their own little dens.

The holes wouldn't keep out midges, but would keep hungry birds out.

The chicken wire wouldn’t keep out midges, but would keep hungry birds out.

Just for the tourists...

Just for the tourists…

Not sure what kind this is, but I know I don't want to swim around it.

Not sure what kind this is, but I know I don’t want to swim around it.

I got stung by a ray once, so I didn't have much sympathy for this one.

I got stung by a ray once, so I didn’t have much sympathy for this one.


Like I said, all parts of the fish were used.

Like I said, all parts of the fish were used.

But enough about the fauna.  On to the flora. 


Upon their arrival, the Vikings quickly cut down most of the extensive forests of Iceland, prompting Leif to head to Vinland for wood. (Icelanders are proud to tell you that at least he had the good sense to come back to Iceland and leave America alone.)  Between the Vikings and the volcanic ash, a tree just couldn’t make a decent living in Iceland.  There has been a concerted effort to encourage trees, planting birch and spruce, but they tend to grow slowly.  Consequently, Icelanders have a saying, “If you get lost in a forest in Iceland, just stand up.” 


Grass, on the other hand, grows quite well, especially in areas not covered with rocks or ice.  Farmers try to harvest at least two crops of hay and were busily at work while we were there, making use of all the long daylight hours to bring in their crop.   Hay bales were wrapped in white plastic, making the fields look like they were studded with giant marshmallows.


This was about 9:30 in the evening.

This was about 9:30 in the evening.

hay bales

hay bales or maybe giant marshmallows

Hay there!

Hay there!

Grass is so prolific that it was even used to build houses out of.  And having no ready supply of lumber, this was a really, really good idea.  What we on the American prairies called soddies, they called turf houses. 

The priest's house at Laufás

The priest’s house at Laufás from the late 1800s

Turf was cut and dried until it was hard as a brick, then layered sometimes six feet thick. 

Note the herring bone design

Note the herring bone design

No frigid blast of arctic wind stood a chance against a turf house!  They were, however, dark and smoky inside, but I would take dark and smoky over freezing any day. 

inner hall of a turf house

inner hall of a turf house

At least the view in the summer is lovely.

At least the view in the summer is lovely.

You can still see turf houses around the island today, although they are mainly inhabited by sheep.

sheep shed turf house

sheep shed turf house


You have to admire the attitude of plants in Iceland.  They have to make the best of a bad situation, and really do an admirable job.  Mosses and lichens have it rough.  They grow straight out of the rocks, frosting the lava fields with foot-thick layers of a sponge so soft I was tempted to nap on it.  All they ask is for a little water, and they are happy.

Lava on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Lava on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Moss and lichen going on the basalt lava rocks

Moss and lichen growing on the basalt lava rocks

Rock eaters!

Rock eaters!

Lichens: what's not to like?

Lichens: what’s not to like?

Other plants flourish where no self-respecting American plant would be caught dead.  They grow out of black volcanic sand, rocky cliffs, and between cracks in the lava fields. 

a very determined succulent

a very determined succulent

flower another flower

Although I tried to find their names (it was the least I could do since they were doing the hard work), I only learned a couple: poppies and lupine. 

wild flowers growing by the creek

wild flowers growing by the creek

And lupine, well, lupine is like many things in Iceland, an alien.  It was originally introduced to curb erosion, which it did.  It grew so well that it covered the ground, making it difficult for native plants to get a foothold.  I wonder if it has ever met kudzu?  Regardless, it is beautiful.

lovely lupines

lovely lupines

So there you have the flora and fauna of Iceland.  Just keep those midges away from me.