Saturday, September 10, 2016
Someday came. Gail and I took a wonderful two-week trip to Iceland in August and found out first hand why it has become such a popular destination. We decided against doing a bike trip based on weather reports and road conditions we'd read about; the weather turned out to be better than we expected but the roads didn't look inviting to biking for various reasons. Renting bikes is as expensive as taking them on the plane, so we rented a little car and drove the circumference of the island including the West Fjords which is like an appendage sticking off the northwest part.
In Icelandic, the spelling of Iceland is Island, but it was named for ice in a fjord someone encountered long ago, not the fact that it is an island.
We had a pretty good idea of our itinerary, but left some room for modifications and on the first day I purchased a book about the geology which turned out to be a useful guide for many of the places we went. Enjoy the pictures (click on them for full screen views), read the narrative if you are at work, and if you are convinced to go, I recommend not going in June, July or August unless you either like crowds or are OK with skipping some of the amazing sites.
You might have to click "older posts" when you scroll to the bottom to see all the posts about Iceland, and older posts.
Iceland's economy is currently run on tourism, particularly the places within a few hours of Reykjavik. This includes the Snaefellsness Peninsula but is seen most prominently in what's known as the Golden Circle and along the South Coast. We had a ferry to catch our second morning so got away from the worst of the crowds until the end of the trip when we approached Reykjavik again from the east. We skirted the capital city both coming and going, but stopped on the first day for yarn in a shop Gail had read about in a "suburb."
Our first accommodations was an Air B&B that came with a few sheep. Little cottages like this are all over the island to try to house the influx of visitors, we read that they can't keep up. Sheep like this are really all over the island, on beaches, on cliffs of steep mountains, in the roads (especially in the early morning), even occasionally in a pasture.
On the way back we spent the last of our Icelandic Kronas at the airport (built in the least scenic spot of the country, a former US military base) at a place called Joe and the Juice.
Most of our other lunches were peanut butter and jelly or cheese and crackers and a great Icelandic product, Skyr. We thought that was yogurt, it's similar to Greek yogurt, but it's actually cheese. Groceries weren't as expensive as restaurant meals, but then tipping isn't common there, and most places we visited were free so it worked out OK.
We didn't have reservations so we were forced to sit out on the patio at a picnic table with a family from Spain who we got to converse with in Spanish and look at this view. We didn't get a chance to hike up to the cirque but I read it's pretty accessible, just stay away in winter as avalanches are common.
Icelandic is pretty tough to figure out, I was glad the second sign had a graphic image to help the illiterate. By the way, since I don't have a keyboard with Icelandic alphabet I'm making up my own English spelling for places and certain terms, and I'm using feet and miles for measurements even thought they use metric.
I tried the advice in the third one about letting my pants fall, results were unexpected but I'm not going into details as this trip report is going to be long enough. Let's just say there were no charges filed.
Good thing they included using a lupine flower over your head to keep the Arctic Terns away when we went to the nesting cliffs at Skalanes because sticks were few and far between.
It's pretty interesting where snow hangs on all year and where it melts. Sometimes it' s in an unlikely spot such as a south-facing slope, probably due to how it accumulates from winds or how densely it gets packed. We heard a couple times how being near the sea means rain is common during the winter so that would affect the consistency and melting.
We didn't make it. The steep part had so much loose rock that when we wanted to get up it at the same place rock slides would make it tougher going for the person below. The picture on top with Gail admiring the view is where we turned back. We followed the sheep up a less steep path on the other side of the gap where we hung out awhile with some nice views. If you zoom in on the second picture you might be able to pick out where Gail is sitting and drawing. The third picture shows the whole scene, the dark line at the bottom left is the excavation with a rather large excavator at the bottom of the black line, the gap is just before the waterfall on the far right and the steep part is just below and to the left of the dark spot below and to the left of the snow.
When we were headed back down we passed the farmer working on his new hydro system and learned about new laws making it more economically feasible for people to put them in. He also told us about his share in a salmon fishing permit and how that system is going and hopefully improving and being more sustainable for more people (and the salmon). When he asked about the hike I said it got pretty steep so we turned back and he replied, "Well, it is a mountain!"
The next morning I had just enough time to hike solo up to the spot of snow across the road from the farm, both of which can be seen in the bottom photo.
One aspect of Icelandic culture is the lack of litter; it's almost nonexistent. Except in this region it washes up from the ocean along with the driftwood, mostly plastic associated with fishing or boats.
Pools and hot pots are an integral part of the Icelandic culture. Almost every town has a pool with hot pots, mostly outdoors, and people of all ages go and spend part of their day there talking, playing, drinking the free coffee and tea some provide, and swimming or just relaxing in naturally hot water.
One of my favorite memories is visiting the pools in Arkureyri on a hot (for Iceland) Saturday afternoon and being among several hundred people swimming in the two pools or hanging out in the five hot pots or going down the water slides. It featured an indoor pool that connected to the outdoor. Another day we sat in hot pots (OK, Gail swam in the pool too) when it was about 50 degrees and raining.
We did not go to the Blue Lagoon, putting us in company of about 10% of the tourists in Iceland. Most of the pools cost a few bucks and as you can see are generally not crowded. The Blue Lagoon costs about $40 ($10 just to go in to look) and you wait in line to get in. I later read in the geology book of Iceland that we picked up, that it's actually discharged water from a geothermal power plant that has so much silica in it that after several years clogged the porous rock and began pooling.
It was meant to be the last pool we'd visit, but the next day we had a little time and a rainy afternoon persuaded us to go to the town pool where we were staying and enjoyed it with a half a dozen locals, mostly senior citizens as the kids had started school.
That's a joke about going to work in the herring factory, but it's a reality in one town we visited. They are trying to entice tourists to go to their remote small town and doing it by having them tour and get some hands-on experience in the fish processing plants. We didn't fall for it, we just visited the town to try out their pool and hot pots and even though we got there when the place was closed for a midday siesta or something, we found a nice little overlook of the fjord and had our own little siesta. Later at the pool I heard a woman say, "Now that I'm back in Ithaca living with my parents..." Small country indeed.
Icebergs can stay in the bay for five years before moving out to sea, I was able to stay in the water about one minute and smack my arm on the much larger part of the iceberg below the surface you always hear about. Once out to sea the waves can deposit them onto the beach where they either melt or get picked up and taken out again.
By the way, ice takes on the blue color when it is compressed deep in a glacier and oxygen is forced out of it. My head is blue because I figured it might stay warmer if I swam with my hat on.
The middle picture is of a glacier in the south that comes almost down to the Ring Road and the bottom picture is of Drangaljokull Glacier as seen across Isafjardjardjup. We saw a whale breaching in the fjord when we pulled over for a long look at the view here.
The bottom picture is of an Alcoa factory in the Eastfjords. We read a book before going about the efforts in the late 90's and into this century to open up Iceland to smelters with promises of guaranteed cheap, renewable energy. Not as many dams were approved as needed, some areas actually got protected status, so not as many factories were established. As bad as an economy based on tourism is, I think it beats one based on mining, damming rivers and smelting aluminum.
The picture above that is Seydjisfjordjur, both the town and fjord. We went up to a sculpture someone made part way up the mountain that produced cool echoes. I felt it necessary to play banjo inside and take a little hike up the mountain above.
A mountain that sticks up far from the highway in the eastern highlands is Herdjubreidj, its base is around 1200' above sea level and its peak is over a mile high. We got nice views of it while driving for a few hours, and when we pulled over to read an information board about it there were a bunch of motorcyclists gearing up to ride in that direction on an F road.
F roads are back country dirt roads that lack bridges at river crossings among other challenges, it's illegal to drive on them unless you have a high-clearance, 4X4 vehicle. Our little compact car didn't qualify but did get over some pretty rough dirt roads. We passed on a couple that were supposedly not too bad, but the ones to the glaciers on the South Coast were a little too rough so we walked in.
The picture on the bottom is Hoffellsjokull, which like all glaciers in Iceland, is retreating rapidly. What I found really amazing was the moss growing where the glacier had covered the ground just a year or two previously.
The middle one is Dynjandi, the first official falls we encountered. The road over the mountains it starts in was a real eye opener with it's twists and turns, no guardrails, and endless amazing views. Come to think of it, the road up and over the mountain after Dynjandi had more of the same.
Selfoss, on the bottom, believe it or not, is overshadowed by Dettifoss about 500 yards downstream. Because Selfoss is separated into a number of falls it doesn't count as Europe's most powerful waterfall. That goes to Dettifoss where all the water goes over in a single stream. Picky, picky, picky.