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Posts Tagged ‘Northern Lights’

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11 Northern lights over Skaftafell

Determined to make it to Skaftafell, we were riding (our bikes) late at night across the sandar. The great expanse of grey sandar, a thousand square kilometers of volcanic ash and gravel coughed up by the eruption of Öræfi, is eerie and beautiful in the dark, silent and glittery with the numberless rivulets of water finding their way to the sea.  There is no option to camp in the sandar, so once we entered it, we knew we had to make it the whole way.   There was no traffic but the big trucks that haul after dark, and they were few and far between.   My brother was far ahead of us in his truck, and we were riding hypnotically side by side and talking, comfortable knowing we could see traffic in either direction ten miles away.  There are long wooden bridges with grated metal decks crossing the rivers.  Some seemed a half mile long.   The last one was mangled and tossed aside by the water in 1996 when Grímsvötn erupted, and there are some twisted steel beams like modern art on the side of the road there as memorial.

Just as we passed there, the indigo sky opened up in Northern lights, and we overtook my brother, who was parked taking pictures.  He said he could hear us coming by our excited whooping and shrieking at the sky.  Over and over the waves of lights flickered through the sky, brighter than moonlight, gorgeous.  We were cold from riding hot and stopping, but we couldn’t stop watching the lights, and we posed for some pictures with our bikes.  Late in the night, we rode the final miles to Skaftafell, looking forward to the flat camping and hot showers we knew to expect there, and the thunderous cracking of the glacier next to the park.

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12 Invited upstairs for tea at the herring factory museum in Siglufjörður

The town of Siglufjörður was wet and cold when we got there, but when we were looking around the herring factory museum, a man came out, said it was closed for the day and he was tired, but he would open it up in the morning around 8.  Interested, we decided to bed down early and visit the museum in the morning.  It was a good choice.  We soaked at the pool, the hostel was wonderful and we had it to ourselves in the off season.  In the morning we went around to the museum again.  A young woman turned on all the lights for us and left us to our own devices.  An hour or so later, the man from the previous day came downstairs, talked with us and then invited us upstairs for tea.  There were a couple of other men there, directors, or sponsors?, and the young woman. They shared tea and cookies and talked about the administration of the museum,  the history of saving the property, and scrounging up the parts of other abandoned herring factories that were being scrapped to reassemble the museum as it is now, housed in multiple buildings with the multiple functions the factory had.  About three hours passed before we’d seen it all, and I left with a children’s book written and illustrated in exquisite watercolours by the same man who invited us for tea- the museum director and driving force of the whole project.  I wasn’t able to find him again to have my book signed, though.

13 Bowling in Akureyri

There’s a very prominent bowling alley on the strip of museums of all sorts that have sprung up on the road to the airport.  Since we were resting up in Akureyri and enjoying the sundlaug and buffet at Bautinn, we thought we’d try out some bowling.  Nothing prepared us for Friday night at the lanes.  It was crowded with young people, but not just young people.  There were ladies dressed to the nines and eyeballing the boys two lanes over, the booze was flying (literally- glasses of beer smashed on the hardwood), there were catastrophic drunks, we got invited to a party, a scuffle broke out, and there was some majestically abysmal bowling.  Clearly it wasn’t about the bowling skills at all, since it didn’t seem to matter if a ball even made it down the lane it was meant to or any lane at all.  It was pretty typical style for nearly everyone to hurl the ball out and release it at eye level, where it would smash down painfully onto the lane and possibly make it down to the pins.  More than once someone wiped out and hurtled themselves into the gutter.  It was a mesmerizing spectacle.  It was also the first time I’d bowled tenpin, so I thought that was pretty cool.  It was so totally fun we came back with my brother the next night, and that’s how we missed the significant earthquake that knocked plates off of shelves and shook the earth all around us in the north of Iceland.  Everything was shaking and rumbling already in the bowling alley, and we had no idea.  In retrospect though, there was one patch of time where half the lanes malfunctioned at the same time, resetting pins inappropriately or not resetting, and not counting the scores or returning balls.  That was probably the moment of the earthquake.

14 Jolaöl and Jolaskyr

Besides the off season perks of having special attention as the only tourists or else empty hostels to ourselves, the best thing about being in Iceland so late in the year was the Jolaöl, and the hilarity of trying to pronounce it.  Already knocking back the familiar Egil’s Malts like nobody’s business (tall cans of non-alcoholic orange flavoured stout-esque non-beer), one day in Mývatn there were these blue cans that we hadn’t seen before.  Wow!  Jolaöl was the tall blonde version of Egil’s Malt, perfectly sweet and bubbly and orangey-beery.  Technically a soda, although it tastes more like a beer, this blew away every soft drink I’ve ever had (except OOgave is pretty darn good too).  It’s a special holiday beverage, appearing just shortly before Christmas.  We promptly started buying it 12 at a time and freaking out when there were no cans left in the back seat.  Especially incredible had cold with a hot pool. Likewise for specialty Christmas products was Jolaskyr- skyr, which we were eating pounds of daily, packaged with Santa Claus on it, and flavoured with candied apples!

IMGP395415 Vík in the sunshine

Vík, or more specifically the famously recognizable rock formations at Reynisfjara and nearby Dyrhólaey, is notorious for being socked in, grey and overcast and rainy.  In 2010 we passed through a total of four times and had the same weather every time.

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This time, the sun was out in full force, warm on the black rocks and black sand beach, and the stacks were bright and formidable in the sea, haloed with swirling birds.  My brother and I  climbed over the piles of huge black rocks, farther and farther from the main beach in the low tide, finding little coves of pebbled beaches strewn with bones and bird bodies, until I could see Vík and was sure I could get all the way around the point by the beach.  My better sense prevailed – my bike was at the parking lot, and by the time we got back out to it, the weather had changed, surprise, surprise.

IMGP137616 The amazing proprietor of a hotel in the Westfjords

who told me No he couldn’t rent me a room, they were all closed for the year, and the restaurant was closed too.  He called a restaurant in the next town to see if they were open and could feed us, and when they were not, then said Well maybe I could feed you some bread, and salad, and maybe there’s some soup.  He produced a wonderful meal, then told us we could sleep in the gymnasium if we wanted, and by the way there was a ping pong table.  Best night ever!

IMGP363617  Derek learning to drive a gas vehicle.

He’s only ever driven a diesel before, with the ultra-slow accelerator response, so his first time in a gasoline vehicle was like the Formula 500, and it was a pretty large truck.  The first two days were full of peeling away with a screech from green lights (Ooops, sorry.  I hardly pushed it!) and very abrupt halts (Ooops, sorry.  Wow, these brakes really brake).  It was pretty funny, especially when I was coaching him on the drive out of the parking lot from the people we just rented it from:  Okay, just barrrrely touch it.  Errrrk!  Whoa!!  I barely touched it!  Are all gas vehicles like this?  This is what people are driving in all the time?   Uh, yeah, it is!  Watch out for the sidewalk there-  Errrk!   Did they see that?  Ummm, yep.  They’re watching.  I wanted to email a week later- your truck’s still intact!  I just about died laughing.  But he got used to it and no one and nothing got hurt.   I wanted to email a week later- your truck’s still intact!

Also very special was:

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Sleeping in caves.  There was one big enough to set up two tents in, right next to the road, dry and open, and another half full of snow that we threw down sleeping bags in the bottom of.

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The solar powered drink dispenser in the middle of nowhere- wonderful!

Hotel Hellisandur and the fancy buffet of exotic foods and meats.
IMGP3545Walking on the beach by Hvítserker, where 24 seals bobbed in the water watching us and following us along the beach, popping under the water if you made eye contact.  Psst, we’re being watched.

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When I woke up in the light I saw for the first time where I had spent the night.  A beautiful view of sere far off mountains and ash blackened glaciers, a wide empty plain, and the foreground river I had heard through the wind the night before, all misted in the dawn.  What a revelation to open my tent up to.

Interestingly, it only occurred to me now that there was no light source at all the previous night.  No distant houses or towers or streetlights, no headlights, and not even stars, because it was so socked in.  We could truly see nothing beyond what we could light up, and that felt very isolated, but not at all scary.

I looked out and took it all in, registered where I was in the world, and celebrated by falling back to sleep.  When we got on the road again, which was indeed a flat trail plowed into a rocky, ashy wasteland (we hadn’t really gotten off of it, just parked on it), it quickly turned into a whole new landscape.  The grade descended steadily, and turned green.

We stopped at a picturesque river (aren’t they all?), and found a small foss of milky water.  I’m not sure why the water was translucently milky in so many rivers, whether it was ash or some mineral content, but it often occurred.

We carried on to stop at Barnafoss, one of a cluster of waterfalls in the area noted on our Lonely Planet map, and Hraunfossar, a “bonus” series of falls on the opposite side of the river.  It was still virtuously early in the day, misty and cool. Derek took one look at the knot sign and said “Oh, this is the children’s waterfall”, like he recognized it.  According to legend, two children fell from the stone arch crossing the raging river and were drowned.

Again with the absence of guard-rails or inhibitions- we could walk and cling up the black craggy rocks and look straight down the cleft the water had carved out into the foamy rapids.  The water was very interesting here.  A bowl shape was carved out of the rock by an eddy that wrapped right around in a circle, and the water went under a black stone bridge that looked wet and treacherous. Presumably this is not the original arch, as that one was destroyed by the grieving mother of the legend.

It was a very beautiful, unique waterfall, and we puttered around there for a time in the early light while my gear air dried on a shrub at the parking lot, before carrying on to Reykholt.

At Reykholt we thought we had time to kill and walked around the town’s Snorri-related sites waiting for the Snorri Sturluson museum, Snorrastofa, to open.  We saw a two toned cat, one that looked like it had a tail transplant from another coloured cat.  It held its transplanted tail tall and proud.

Snorri’s personal hot tub, Snorrilaug, is preserved from the 12th century in the backyard of the  local high school.  Part of the school looms over the ancient hot tub, a few feet away, and the town dominates the background, yet all the postcards featuring this attraction portray the pool nestled in a pastoral dell.  It was really challenging to get an angle that clipped out the modern surroundings, and even my best shot has a streetlight poking up- haha!

The door in the hill is the reconstructed entrance to the tunnel that connected his hot pot to his house, the ruins of which were discovered when the high school began to build a gymnasium.

The Snorri museum shares space with the local church.  Hence, we drove around it a couple times saying Ok that can’t be it, clearly that’s a church, despite all the clear Snorrastofa banners on the flag poles.  An interesting thing about Iceland: they don’t seem terribly reverent about their churches.  Many of them seem to be more multi-use. I saw a poster for a stage production at another church.

The museum itself was the usual Iceland museum fare- miles of writing, divided into two languages; the walls covered with posters like pages of a book hung up around a room.  Very little “stuff” to see, but a great deal to read.  We made short work of that, taking pictures of all the pages for reading some other time, when we weren’t on the clock in Iceland on a gorgeous sunny day.

In the gift shop, we noticed J.R.R. Tolkien’s oeuvre for sale on the shelf, and cornered a museum worker to ask a burning question.   Had Tolkien ever visited Iceland? Everywhere we’d been so far we’d both been remarking on the landscapes that seemed lifted out of the Lord of the Rings and discussing whether or not he had visited here and based his fiction in this landscape.  We thought we knew something of his personal life but couldn’t remember any references to a formative visit here.  When she said “Yes of course,” without hesitation, we exclaimed a little and queried further- When?  How do you know? which put her on her heels.  “I don’t know,” she said, “I just always assumed so, because obviously, we are living in the places he talks about.”  Our sentiments exactly.  Tolkien was definitely a scholar of Icelandic, and his studies of the oldest Nordic language heavily influenced the structure of the Elvish and Rohirrim languages he invented.

That little question turned into an epic conversation with this adorable and animated student of literature that lasted two hours and bounced all over, from the way Icelandic school children can easily read the most ancient Icelandic texts (on the wall there in the museum), through the psychological difference between Canada and America, to the importance of freedom to Icelanders and the way they eschew guardrails.  In short, literature, society, philosophy, feminism, history, and some sightseeing advice.  It was a rare, luminous conversation, worth staying inside for.

When we tore ourselves away we beelined for Borgarnes, sidetracked only by a steam plant along the way  A little trench of boiling water burbled and spat, just on the other side of a low guard-rail (at least there was one).  Still, you could get bathed in the steam and splashed on by the little eruptions.  It is a typical geothermal generating station using the heat of the Earth’s core, abundantly available close to the surface in Iceland and  the energy most of the country is fuelled by.

Borgarnes is a port city on the bay of Borgarfjörður.  Local delicacies are horse meat and fish, and it’s notable for being the central location of Egil’s Saga and the home of the Settlement Centre.  I’d had it with museums already, but Derek took in the two interactive exhibits about the settlement of Iceland and Egil’s saga, while I did practical things, like shop for food and fuel, tidy up the car, and make sandwiches in the back seat at the warm sunny parking lot.

Before we left Borgarnes we went looking for the puppet museum and the Bjössaróló playground.  The knot signs led us to the same place for both attractions.  The puppet museum looked interesting, but expensive, and, well, I’ve already stated my current perspective on museums.

Instead we followed the sign to check out Bjössaróló, which led us on a path past the puppet museum down to the water.

We strolled along the beachfront backyards of peoples’ homes, up and down a little beachside path, then spotted a new sign and a little trail leading uphill between fenced yards, and we  popped out at the playground, at the top of a slide.

This was a magical place, but a totally human magic.  The whole thing, brightly painted slides, teeter-totters, swings, climbing dome, etc was built by one man, completely out of discarded salvaged materials.  The sign is worth reading in its entirety.  Especially the last part.  He deliberately made the entrance to the playground circuitous, to remind visitors to “take your time in life” (!).

Transformed, we floated out of there and meandered off to Borg á Mýrum.   Borg= rock.  This borg was the historical home of Egill Skallagrimsonn and had a chain wrapped rock cairn at the top of the hill behind it that matched several others we’d seen in Borgarnes.  Chaining up the cairns was never explained, but it did make them look tough.

Since the day hadn’t included any exercise so far, I was keen to climb a mountain, but when we circled Eldborg, farther along, it didn’t seem to be a climbing mountain at all.  Irritated to not be able to climb something, we drove on to the majestic basalt columns at Gerðuberg.  The grassy flat landscape is sheared by a line of basalt cliffs jutting a sudden 90 degrees out of the ground, like a stair step for giants. Yet another breathtaking natural feature brought to you by the tectonic action that Iceland sees so much of.

The landscape all around us now was green, flattened; full of pastures, many sheep and horses.  Snæfellsnes is a long tongue of a peninsula about 40km wide and a couple hundred long.  We were out on the southern edge of the peninsula now, and high hills jutted up rather suddenly from the flat plains that met the sea. It seemed like a good day to look for some horseback riding, and again we turned to the book.  Lysoholl seemed like a good goal.

That was an adventure.  Because we hadn’t booked ahead, we had to wait for a guide to come in from another ride and see if she wanted to go out again with us.  As we waited, we ate some more bananas.  Iceland doesn’t have the biggest selection in produce.  Tomatoes, cucumbers and bananas are everywhere; carrots, apples, lettuce and bell peppers are usually available too. For anything else, you need to find a big, proper supermarket, which are only in the biggest “cities”, and then expect to pay three times as much for pound- truly startling prices.  This doesn’t sound as weird on paper as it is in reality, to go into a midsize supermarket and have a choice of six different fruits and vegetables, total. The average Canadian supermarket has six different varieties of apple.  So we ate a lot of cukes and bananas, and filled in the corners with Hraun and ice cream.

We didn’t catch the names of our horses, but they were short and sturdy.  They were picked out of a small herd waiting by the fence, saddled up, and we were put aboard.  There wasn’t much talking involved, just a single file ride down the road, along the sea, and back up to the farm.  My horse was tailing the lead horse so closely it was unnerving.

Try as I might, I couldn’t convince it that following so close was rude.  When I pulled it back, with great effort and mane tossing, the moment I relaxed it caught up until its nose hung in the swish of the preceding horse’s tail.  Derek’s, on the other hand, lagged behind.

The horses seemed to be doing it all by rote.  Clearly this was the route they always walked, and this was the way they walked.  In this order, with the second horse all up in the first horse’s -ahem- business.  It didn’t feel as much like riding a horse as riding, say, a motorized wheelchair on autopilot. The cadence was so very different from a “normal” horse, however.  It was impossible to post on them, because the rhythm was so fast- a staccato bouncing up and down.  So… motorized wheelchair on a corduroy road! Trotting was very quick and scary.  It has to be because the Icelandics have shorter legs.  Our guide had no idea what posting was, and said “just sit on it”.

It was super windy and cold by the time we got back to the stable.  We  were treated to an impromptu horse-herding demonstration as one spirited little colt tried to escape while they were releasing the horses to grass.  In fact, he escaped repeatedly, and it took a dramatic dance of sprinting and hollering by two tired workers and a dog to corral him again, and again….  The working herd dog was very cute but too busy to receive attention for more than a moment.  He’d wiggle and twist and wag for a couple seconds and then go straight and alert and bound back into action.  He was so clearly saying “love to hang out, y’all, but I’m on the job here!”

We carried on driving west towards Snæfellsjökull.  Relaxed and exploring, we took the turn marked Songhellir, but then blew right past the cave itself.  Before we knew it, we were also driving past the glacier.  It was cloudy and foggy at that altitude, but the climbing, winding dirt road had clearly brought us up high and into the ice.

Rather than turning around, we followed the road and it went downhill again.  Reaching the water, now on the north side of the peninsula, confirmed our suspicions that we had in fact cut across Snæfellsnes and driven right past Snæfellsjökull in the fog.  That had not been the plan.

But, now that we were here, we decided to head back around the tip of Snæfellsnes and visit the glacier the next day, hopefully in better weather.  The most important order of business at hand, though, was to get positioned for sunset pictures.  We chased the sunset through Ólafsvík (a fairly charmless harbourtown) and Rif, taking a side road down to Skardsvík and catching the last of failing light over that beautiful little bay, named for the Viking warrior grave discovered there.

The sunset over the ocean looking west quickly transitioned to the moonrise over Snæfellsjökull.  Spectacular doesn’t begin to cover the beauty of the moon rising over that mountain glacier of legend, with the wisp of cloud blowing like a scarf from the peak.  The pictures sort of capture it, but don’t compare to standing on the mossy lava with the ocean at your back and the sound and smell of salt air surrounding you.  Snæfellsjökull is the portal in Jules Vernes’ Journey to the Center of the Earth, and is considered to be one of the chakras of the Earth.

We decided to camp there.  We drove down to the end of the road, past some renegade cyclist campers by Skarðsvík.  We explored the lighthouse at the point of Öndverðarnes, and set up camp on some grass by the road.  We were out of water but weren’t going to be stopped by something so trivial, so I walked down to the ocean in the dark for a bottle of seawater to cook with.  I’d heard dire warnings about drinking seawater but rationalized that it was going to be boiled, and it would be just like adding salt to the food, right?

There was no path, the ground was pitch black in the shadow over the bank, and the rocks were polished, wet, unstable, and covered with seaweed.  Every step was treacherous, and I minced along in the dark to the edge of the waves, breathing gratitude to the seaweed, rocks, and grass for supporting my feet.  I had to trust that I wouldn’t slip, and I knew that falling or not falling wasn’t just up to me.  I could feel how the rocks and water were aware of me too in some way, how walking on them was an interactive event.  I could feel the magic and consciousness in all things in a deep, true way (as happened so many times in Iceland), and I wondered at how that feeling of “magic”, or the numinous, seemed so readily present in that place.  Perhaps there is still room for magic there, because there aren’t too many people.

I cooked in the shelter of a tiny cave by our tents.   Shortly before midnight, as I waited for the rice to finish and chopped vegetables, I saw the darkness of the sky shimmer out of the corner of my eye.  Might the Northern Lights be starting?

We were hoping to possibly be treated to some Aurora Borealis in Iceland, although we’d been told it wasn’t likely.  It was too early, not cold enough yet, or something.

I’ve been ultra spoiled on Northern Lights from living in the Yukon.  I have never elsewhere seen Northern Lights so dazzling, continuous, and abundantly filling the sky.  But my brother had never seen any, and now I was watching the sky for that telltale shimmer that announces the beginning of the Lights.

It’s less something that you see, than something that you think you might have seen.  Before the Lights really begin, the first hint is as though someone taps on the taut curtain of sky fabric, and the vibration ripples through it so subtly it could be a mistake of your eyes.

When it came again, more pronounced, with a hint of light, I yelled to my brother.  He was rustling around in his tent, and told me, “Ok, call me if they really get going”.  Afraid the little wisps of light now waving in the sky would be all there was going to be, I called him out.  He popped out, looked for a moment, then dove back into his tent with a decisive “I’m getting my camera!”

I’m not sure how long he stayed up that night taking long-exposure shots of the Lights (2am?); I went to bed after a salty supper.  Very salty stuff, ocean water.  But edible; still edible.

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