Iceland 2016: Over the Ice, Up the Hill, and Across the Flats

5 08 2016

Sunday, June 5, 2016

We leave the peace and quiet of Hoffell for Vatnajökull National Park, where we have a glacier-walking tour lined up on a “tongue” of the largest glacier in all of Europe.   I’ve never thought of it before, but due to plate tectonics, half of Iceland is in North America, and the other half is part of Europe.  We’re on the Europe half.

Vatnajökull National Park , unlike most places in Iceland, is crowded with tourists.  Actually, since we are now in south Iceland not too far from Reykjavik, just about all the attractions will be crowded.  We have been spoiled by the unpopulated areas of the island.  I guess we are easing back into the real world.

6-5-16 Skaftafell Glacial walk (30)

Getting fitted for the crampons

Outfitted with crampons on our shoes and pick-axes in hand, we are ready for anything, but mostly pictures.  The glacier itself is not very pretty—too much volcanic ash—but our guide keeps us entertained with stories and facts about the glacier.

6-5-16 Skaftafell Glacial walk (2)

The ash is both a result of and a cause for the melting.  As the temperature warms over time (he was careful not to say “climate change” or “global warming”) the new snow and ice melts, exposing the ash from a previous eruption.  Then the dark ash causes heat to be absorbed, increasing the melting speed.  Ice cannibal.  Several times during his tour, we hear the thunderous booming of ice calving off a chunk of glacier somewhere off aways.  In spite of the dirty ice, our guide sets us up for some pretty neat photos.

6-5-16 Skaftafell Glacial walk (7)

6-5-16 Skaftafell Glacial walk (29)


I ask our guide which country seems to be sending the most tourists.  China and America.  He adds that he really likes Americans because they are so friendly and good-natured.  A pat on the back for our country, although he may have said that just to get a larger tip!

After our walk on the glacier, we break for lunch.  While Brian, Annalise, and I scavenge food from our diminishing food bag in the car, David and Nancy opt for the hot dog stand, where they pay $35 for a fish and chips basket.  Be warned: the options for food are limited here.  No restaurants or grocery stores for miles around!

Thus nourished, we hike to Svartifoss, a beautiful falls over columnar basalt that reminds me of a pipe organ.  The hike up is fairly strenuous, although we keep getting passed by someone in a wheelchair!

6-5-16 Svartifoss (1)

6-5-16 Svartifoss (3)

6-5-16 Svartifoss (6)Back at the parking lot, I decide I haven’t walked enough, so I enlist Brian and we head on down a trail to a tongue of another glacier.  I am hot from my hike to Svartifoss and tired of lugging my jacket around, so I don’t bring it with me.  However, as we get closer and closer to the glacier, for some reason it gets colder and colder!  By the time we’re there, the temperature has dropped at least 20 degrees, and I am downright chilly.  I’m sure there’s a lesson here somewhere.6-5-16 Vatnajokull National Park (1)

From Vatnajökull  we head on down the coast, through miles and miles of black sand flats and then miles and miles of moss-covered lava fields.  We stop at a pull-off and get out to see this area where the moss covered the lava so thick it looks like sponges.

6-5-16 moss covered lava field (1)

It must have taken centuries for the moss to grow this thick!

A short trail loops through the lava field, and unlike most areas in Iceland, this trail has guide ropes on either side to keep people on the trail and off the lava.  There are even signs written in two languages as well as a picture that clearly says STAY OFF THE LAVA.  And yet, when we walk a little ways on the trail, we come to a group of tourists who are taking pictures, having their teenagers pose ON TOP OF THE MOSS-COVERED LAVA.  It was all I could do to keep my Teacher Mouth shut, although I did shoot them some stink-eyes that should have conveyed the message.  Oh, and to make matters worse they had a drone buzzing overhead.  When I was crossing the parking lot to get back in the car, I got to talking with a man and his wife about what I had seen.  He validated my feelings; he was a retired ranger from Glacier National Park in Montana and told of his frustrations when foreign tourists disregarded signs to walk all over areas that were being replanted.  So, watch out.  Next time I see something like this, my Teacher Voice is going to ring out loud and clear.  And it may not be a pretty sight.