“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Iceland: Bad Name, Great Country

The charisma level is low; even the name sounds bleak: Iceland? Conjures up visions of cold days, colder nights, frostbitten toes and somber skies. Because of its gloomy image the country doesn’t make many appearances on peoples’ bucket lists. So I was not enthused about visiting but it was my buddy Ed’s turn to pick the destination for our latest adventure trip and Iceland it was. My hesitancy was not eased on our approach to Keflavik airport. The ground below looked stark and barren, devoid of any distinguishing features and, especially, any vegetation. Oh boy, this is gonna suck.

Three hours later I am up to my waist in a lake in Laugervatn, flyfishing for arctic char and marveling at the vast and captivating scenery. The place is beautiful. How could I have been so wrong?

That’s a question I keep asking myself over the next days as we make our way around the island. The Icelandic backcountry’s natural beauty is so unexpected that we find ourselves constantly in awe. Iceland’s volcanoes and geysers and glaciers and waterfalls challenge the writer’s storehouse of adjectives; illusory, otherworldly, fantastic—nothing seems to capture the feel of the country. Everything lies outside the parameters of normality. It’s a raw and powerful beauty, the country throws rugged vistas at you, daring you not to be captivated by the show.

We trekked around the island’s perimeter, roughly following the Ring Road, a two-lane, 900 kilometer pavement-and-gravel-roadway that bumps against the North Atlantic as it circumscribes the coast. Along the way we had a full schedule of whitewater rafting, hiking, glacier climbing, whale watching and snowmobiling .
We modified our plans somewhat to vent our anger at the erupting Eyjafjallaj√∂kull volcano, whose shifting ash plume had delayed our arrival from JFK, costing us a day of partying in Reykjavik. Wanting to get an up close look at the active cauldron, we drove up a narrow back road on the volcano’s north face followed by a short hike to a dead end on the banks of a raging mountain river. A low cloud cover hid the peak but we could hear an ominous low rumbling—an extended thunderous roll—booming out of the gloomy clouds. The water was swift and milky from the volcano ash and blocked our progress—no way we would see the volcano from this approach. Disappointed, we backtracked to the Ring Road and a couple of hours later rounded a curve and there it was—a massive gray plume reaching 20,000 feet into the sky, pumping tons of ash, rocks and fire into the clear blue sky. It was impressive—a powerful display of nature at is angriest. A massive field of steaming rock flow fingered down the mountainside, threatening the postcard-pretty house and barns of a hapless farmer caught in its path.

The impact of the eruption on Europe is highly publicized but the impact within the country is epic—washed out bridges, farm fields layered with ash, silted rivers, blackened skies, respiratory problems for residents caught in its downwind path. We drove the rest of the day and part of the next through the ash plume, headlights blazing, billowing ash obscuring the road behind every oncoming vehicle. Impressive.

The effects of the volcano were still obvious the next day as we hiked up the face of Skaftafell glacier. The crusty white ice was sprinkled with a fine dusting of gray ash, marring its natural beauty at the lower levels. As we climbed further the ash seemed to dissipate and the characteristic glacial blue hue revealed itself. We hiked through ice tunnels and crevasses and blue ice caves, an easy trek on one of Iceland’s many disappearing glaciers. Our guide pointed across a low bouldered plain, stretching some 800 meters to the ocean. The glacier had retreated that distance in little over ten years, a sad tale repeated all over the country.

Near Hofn we impulsively took an unmarked side road into the interior and hiked up into the mountains where we stumbled into the midst of a herd of reindeer. They approached within ten meters as we crouched behind a low knoll, the herd’s large bull silhouetted against the steel gray sky as he sniffed the air sensing our presence. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime poses and we were just in the right place to capture it.

At Husavik on the northern part of the island we cruised out of the harbor to catch glimpses of minke and humpback whales which obligingly surfaced and showed their tails for us as we snapped pictures. It was nature at its finest, their black smooth skin slipping slowly and dramatically into the blue waters of the bay. So it was particularly jarring and upsetting to see minke whale on the menu of the restaurant that night--an unsettling and brutal aspect to an otherwise enlightened country.

After an easy day on the ocean, we were ready for some more strenuous action and so we were mildly disappointed with the whitewater on the Vestari Jokulsa, one of Icleand’s premier rafting rivers. This is primarily a Class II-III river. Ed and I have rafted all over the world and while the scenery was excellent, the action was low. Our guide, Jeff, sensed our frustration and told us we needed to return the next day and do the Austari Jokulsa, one of the best whitewater rivers in the world. A good idea, we took him up on it, with plans to return in the morning. Unfortunately, his second recommendation was not so good. We were staying the night in the tiny village of Holar, a wide spot in the road consisting of a few farmhouses and a University. Jeff told us to be sure to check out the Beer Club, run by a friend of his at the University.

Big mistake. The club is open to faculty, staff and guests only. Since we were staying in a cabin on campus, we qualified as guests. Our bartender, who insisted his name was Gummi Bear, plied us with multiple samples of every brand of beer sold in Iceland, the faculty members joined us in revelry and we staggered back to our cabin in the early morning light. Not a good prep for a day of whitewater.

But our raft awaited and the next morning we pulled on our dry suits (the Jokulsa is glacier fed and COLD) and warily stepped into the river. The Austari Jokulsa lived up to its billing. It is an awesome river with big water, second only to the Colorado through the Grand Canyon in my experience. Huge standing waves provided two plus hours of continuous and intimidating rapids, carving through some of the most rugged and forbidding landscape in Iceland. The paddle was challenging and exhausting and after a full day of rapids, eddies and drops we were exhausted.

We had just enough energy to drive into Reykjavik and grab a couple hours of sleep before hitting the legendary nightlife of the city. Reykjavik rocks all night long. A string of bars in city center is a hive of activity that spins up near midnight and parties on until early morning. Don’t like the scene? Move to the bar next door, there is another party rocking through the night. Reykjavik’s party crowd is young, cool and intent on having fun.

Reykjavik is cosmopolitan and modern with remnants of its origins as a shipping port still evident, a charming, clean and picturesque city with an easy going, vibrant populace. Another surprise, it hums with the energy of a major European city. Just another in a long string of surprises from this country.

Details: We set up our trip through Nordic Visitor, who took care of all guides and arrangements based on our trip desires.


Laugavegur 26

101 Reykjavik, Iceland

Tel: +354 578 20 80

Direct: +354 578 20 86

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