Reynisfjara, Iceland; February 8, 2016
My visit to Iceland in February was too short to do it real justice, although the two tours I went on were excellent introductions to the natural wonders of this small island. So I didn’t see as much of Reykjavik as I would’ve liked. But I did see a lot of street art, some colorful boats, and a singular kind of church.
The sights of the Golden Circle are so stunning that it doesn’t matter whether you visit in summer or winter, so I booked a seat on a minibus tour when I visited Iceland in early February this year. We left Reykjavik as the sun started to rise and returned as it set over the ocean. In between, we visited Thingvellir National Park, the Strokkur geyser, and Gullfoss waterfall–a circuit that’s a classic for a reason.
Thingvellir is hugely important for historic and geographic reasons. It’s both where the Icelandic Parliament was established way back in the 10th century, and it’s where the North American tectonic plate separates from the Eurasian tectonic plate. Democracy trembling in the earthquakes of the continents drifting apart.
The first assembly met here in 930, and continued to meet even as the Norwegians and then the Danish claimed Iceland for their own, until eventually the Danish king held absolute rule and the assembly was no longer allowed to serve its purpose. Today, the prime minister’s summer home sits in the valley near one of the possible locations of the ‘law rock’ from which the law was read and assembly decisions made.
While continental plates are rubbing up against one another in the Pacific and causing tsunamis, on this side of the world they’re pulling apart and causing earthquakes. Most of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge–the longest mountain range in the world–runs along the ocean floor, and the only place you can walk along it on land is here in Iceland. The Icelandic government have put a path down at the base of the ridge, so as you walk down the path you’re leaving the North American continental plate and entering a rift valley; off in the distance you can see the ridge of the Eurasian plate rising above this volcanic island. Few things in this world are singular, and I cherish those that are.
Iceland quietly has so many original and unusual natural wonders. One of those is the spouting hot spring from which we get the word “geyser” — Geysir, the first such spring Europeans learned about. Geysir hasn’t spouted in many years, but literally yards away lies Strokkur, which makes up for Geysir’s inactivity by going off every 5-10 minutes, nearly as reliably as Old Faithful of Yellowstone in America.
These two springs sit in a valley full of geothermal activity, and every family in the area either has their own natural hot spring as a source of energy, or they rent from their neighbors. Geothermal energy is also what powers the capital city of Reykjavik, although those springs are not in this valley.
By the time we got to Gullfoss, I was starting to creak in the cold wind. It’s colder in the interior of the island than it is out on the coast, so when I’d come back from the South Shore tour the day before and blithely remarked on how the weather wasn’t so bad, I was not prepared for Gullfoss. Both my camera and my phone just shut themselves down (happily, they recovered when I warmed the batteries later). It wasn’t even too terrible, numbers-wise; our guide said it was -14 Celsius, and I know I’ve been in worse in Chicago. The wind wasn’t awful and there was no precipitation. But it was still really, really cold, and I had to do some finger exercises to keep them from losing feeling.
But Gullfoss is a waterfall, so as you can imagine, dearest fellow travelers, I didn’t really care how cold it was. What a waterfall! The Hvítá River spreads wide across the landscape, and rushes down in several stages, before plunging to a much narrower space below. It’s dramatic and magnificent. The blue of the water and the white of the snow shone in the sunlight, and I had one of those moments of being aware that my eyes weren’t quite up to the task of taking in all that they were seeing.
Horses and Faxafoss
One of the reasons I booked the Iceland Horizons tour was I’d read that they made a couple extra stops that other bus tours didn’t: we stopped by the side of the road to meet some horses, and our last stop of the day was Faxafoss waterfall. Even knowing this, I hadn’t planned ahead and didn’t have any snacks to feed the horses, who were unimpressed with my lack of offerings, and who can blame them. They did let me admire them from a slight distance, though.
To end the day with a bonus waterfall, with no one else around but the people from my bus, was a pleasure.
Despite the fact that I grew up in the Midwest and have driven through some white-knuckle weather in my time, it’s been two years since I last grappled with winter driving conditions and I might have lost my edge, so when I went to Iceland in early February I decided to go on tours rather than rent a car. This was absolutely the right choice, given how much I stared out the window and snapped blurry photos during the drive, and also the fact that I saw two cars in a ditch within a mile of each other.
My first tour was to the south shore of the island (Icelanders always refer to it as “the island,” not “Iceland” or “the country” or anything–fair enough, it is half the size of the isle of Great Britain, which is itself the size of the state of Michigan; it’s not big, is what I mean). I went on a Reykjavik Excursions bus with about 50 other tourists, our driver, and our guide, whose name in Icelandic means “Raven Battle,” but we could just call her Raven. Iceland: where your tour guide is definitely descended from Vikings.
Sunrise in Iceland in February is around 10am, which means that we had some great views from the bus as we headed south and east. Our first stop was a quick one, at the entrance to the farm that sits at the bottom of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 and stranded travelers for days because of all the ash it threw into the atmosphere. It was dozing peacefully when I saw it.
Next came the part of the tour that reminded me I was on a guided tour for 50 people. We disembarked in the parking lot of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, and Raven told us to be back in a strict thirty minutes because we had a schedule to keep to. If I hadn’t had my friend’s Yaktrax strapped to my boots, I wouldn’t have made it more than a few hundred yards in that whole time. But with those, I was able to walk on the ice rather than slip-slide along it tentatively. Still, with only a few breaks for photos, I didn’t make it to the viewing point. I got just around the corner so I could see that particular shade of glacial blue, and then I had to rush back. Even so, I was the last one on the bus. Worth it.
As we drove to our next destination, Reynisfjara, Raven warned us at length and in some detail about the extreme dangers of the riptides at this beach. I started to wonder if she was giving us safety tips or just describing our impending doom. But I didn’t touch the water’s edge even once, and I made it through okay. The black sand of the beach here is a dramatic contrast to the whitecapped blue of the ocean, and some stepping stone-type rocks near a cave on the southeastern edge are a big attraction.
After lunch in the town of Vík, we went to the Skógar Museum and listened to an excellent introduction to how Icelanders lived for centuries. In sum: it was really difficult. The only mammal native to the island is the Arctic fox, so the original settlers brought over cows, horses, sheep, etc. Then there was a “little Ice Age” that started in the 14th century, during which time many people and animals died, and the settlers were no longer able to grow most of the crops they’d grown before. All because temperatures had dropped by a couple degrees Celsius. People built turf houses, which are literally blocks of earth cut out of the ground and piled up like bricks to make a small house. Then they’d search the beaches for driftwood to use as roofing material. Seeing as how the original settlers chopped down anything resembling a tree in a very short period of time, there was no wood or other fuel on the island, so they just didn’t have heat. They used the geothermal hot spots when they could for cooking and such, but they didn’t really master that til the 20th century.
The original settlers came from Norway and Ireland; basically Vikings stopped by Ireland and stole a bunch of women for wives on their way to Iceland, a horrible but effective method of diversifying your gene pool. Some think the fact that Iceland has sagas while other Nordic countries aren’t well-known for them is because of the strong storytelling tradition of the Celts.
Unsurprisingly, the Skógafoss waterfall is next to the Skóga Museum. (The suffix “foss” means “falls” so I guess “the Skógafoss waterfall” is redundant in the way of “the ATM machine” but anyway.) Despite the freezing temperatures, the river rushed down the cliff impressively. I was surprised by the grey color of the water as it fell, especially as the snow on the banks of the river was a clean white and the sky was a bright blue. That’s probably due to the sediment that was in the river, I suppose. Whatever color it was, it was a sight to behold, and I liked the fairly unusual angle we got to approach the falls from–I walked along the riverside right up to the base of the falls, with no barriers or anything in the way, and no forest to walk like you usually have to when getting to a waterfall.
Our last stop was another waterfall–Seljalandsfoss. Just as at Skógafoss, you walk along the river right up to the base of the falls. I love waterfalls in any setting, but I really enjoyed the unusual approach of an empty landscape, the magnificence of the snow-covered plains, the craggy cliff, the waterfall rushing down. There’s even another, smaller waterfall a little way down the cliff, so I got a bonus waterfall. I was very happy.
We drove back along the coast, mountains climbing up out of farmland on the right, the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean to my left. Even in dark winter, I don’t usually see sunrise and sunset in the same day, so kudos to the latitudinal position of this lovely island for allowing that.