turf & tack

1_GaumberStone Pathway Leading Through Glaumbaer

We follow the charming hand-drawn map on the back of an advertisement card tucked into the front entry of The Mikligarður Guesthouse. I’m captivated by the stylized sheep and horse inviting us to explore the agrarian regions. Our goal is horseback riding, but marked thoughtfully on the map is Glaumbaer, the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum, a radiant green expanse in the summer sun.

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We are under its spell for several hours exploring the yawning, narrow hallways and specialty rooms of the homesteads built from herringbone pieced turf dug from the ground and framed by earth all around. Rows of turf houses have been built on this site for the last 900 years. We buy tickets at Gilsstofa, the yellow 19th C. timber house and meander the stone path through the series of houses, rooms comprising a wide array of activities from forge, storage, barn, to communal spaces.

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One turf house is the tack and sheltering rooms for the Icelandic horses that made it possible for people to settle this cold, barren landscape. Guides dressed in historic garb greet us at various points of interest and souvenirs opportunities. The community of houses was in disrepair when benefactor Sir Mark Watson first saw them in 1947. He was so fascinated by their originality, he funded the restoration and the site was designated a national landmark to preserve the heritage of turf-making and the lifestyle that it framed.

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Across the road is the actual working farm that operates today. I am drawn to the church adjacent to the village to photograph the iconic paintings of saints that frame the surrounding countryside within its tidy wooden window frames.

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The gray clapboard house, Áshús, houses exhibitions and a lovely Tea Room called Áskaffi which serves traditional Icelandic fare. After our tour we order tea and sandwiches so delicious that we quickly order a second serving. The rooms are decorated with vintage family photographs, antique utensils, and historic documents. Each gives a sweet slice of perspective on the lives and times of Icelandic country life. We savor these sweet slices of Icelandic life along with the pastries and pates served on antique porcelain.

port city tannery

Margo_mountainsCar.JPGMountains along Boreal Forest south of Sauðárkrókur

We head north to the fjords again after a site-intensive day around Myvatn. Each day I ask how could there be more? And always the answer simply is so much more. It’s midnight and we fumble around the town of Sauðárkrókur to find Mikligarður Guesthouse. GPS can be a challenge and names of streets and guesthouses are not always evident as we wander around town and eventually are pointed in the right direction. A sturdy white 3-story clapboard guesthouse is located a block from the main road that is lined with restaurants and a bakery.

MilkaGset2Church and businesses lining Aðalgata

We enjoy a lovely dinner of fish soup, followed by deep sleep at the guesthouse. Morning takes us directly to the local bakery to sample the best of Icelandic pastries as we refuel on many levels. The guesthouse has a brochure of farms to the south and we decide to go south for my first opportunity to ride Icelandic horses. Another handy guesthouse brochure informs us a traditional turf house village along the road to the farms.

MilkaGset3bakerySauðárkróks Bakari – the best in town

On the way out of Sauðárkrókur we look for a pharmacy to pick up throat lozenges and happen upon Sútarinn, the last remaining Icelandic tannery and now econo-museum. We walk through the main room of Icelandic crafts and into the display rooms of skins: goat, sheep, horse, Arctic fox, and fox. The most interesting skins are fish dyed in a rainbow of colors. Exquisite shades and tints highlighting the pattern of scales. This experimentation with fish skins and the development of Atlantic leather in 1989 allowed Sútarinn to stay in business as other tanneries closed their doors. They created a fish leather with the softness of high quality cowhide. They are readily supplied with fish skins processed at a factory nearby in Dalvik. One of my regrets will be that I did not buy a few of those visually delicious fish skins, especially the ones in the subtle and luscious hues of turquoise, mauve, and butterscotch. We wave goodbye to the northern fjords.

MilkaGset1Sauðárkrókur Harbor and the surrounding mountains that carve out the fjord

sapphire goddess

1_GodafossPanoGoðafoss on the Skjálfandafljót

Gray skies layer in deeper lines of darkening clouds until rain swathes the roadways north to Sauðárkrókur on the western fjords. We pull on scarves, gloves, Icelandic hats and zip up our winter coats to ward off the windswept chill. Halfway along the Ring Road we approach the epic Goðafoss, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland that falls 12 meters over a width of 30 meters in a stunning arc on the river Skjálfandafljót. Slightly more than half the height of Niagra Falls, but the same impressive horseshoe arc encompassing viewers astounded along her banks. Both grand horseshoe falls have similar surging river above and below. Lawspeaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði made Christianity the official religion of Iceland by throwing his statues of Nordic gods into the raging waters of Goðafoss in the year 1000.

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The water gods of Iceland live on regardless of mere human pronouncements, and a steady stream of worshipping tourists attest to the fact of her divine beauty. The color of cerulean glacial melt waters never loses its ability to impress with the most magnificent splendor. Rain abates for the short time we walk along the riverside trail and snap selfies and various profiles of this sapphire goddess. The magnificent Sapphire in much of folklore and religion is associated with celestial beauty, considered a stone of wisdom and royalty, of prophecy and divine favor, often held as a sacred artifact and considered the gem of gems. The azure radiance of Goðafoss is indeed a gem of gems.

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myvatn nature baths

1_MyvatnNatureBathsPanoMyvatn Nature Baths outside Reykjalid

Myvatn Nature Baths lives up to its expectations, an exquisitely cerulean blue. The turnout to the parking lot is just outside Reykjalid. Clouds lay an overcast to the day as white steam rises to meet white clouds suspended above. Gray layers of altocumulus allow us to float without fear of sunburn for several hours in this majestic sand-bottomed lagoon with built in benches to simply sit and wallow in comfort. It is the ultimate spa day. The $40 day entry fee includes a towel and locker key. I float in my long-sleeved California style rashguard with my glasses on – UV rays turn my transition lenses to sunglasses quickly. I savor the rippled horizon punctuated by the mountains and craters of the Highland landscape with the snow-capped cape of Queen Herðubreið most notable, situated at center view in the lagoon. There are several water vents in the pool as well as a bathing waterfall with 36-40°C hot water flowing constantly that makes the use of chemicals or chlorine unnecessary due to the chemical composition of minerals that prohibit the growth of bacteria and vegetation.

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When you tire of floating in hot spring bliss, you can sit in the steam baths on the patio with geothermal steam rising from cedar slats. The water in the geothermal vents is 130°C and the steam vents are much higher in temperature than the lagoon. Signs warn not to stay too long in the steam rooms due to this excessive, yet therapeutic heat. One of the best things about traveling in Iceland in June is that most places are open until midnight – Myvatn Nature Baths welcomes bathers from 9am – midnight. We float and sauna about until 6pm, then head north again to Sauðárkrókur on the western fjords. Our day on Myvatn feels like three, with all of the amazing natural wonders of geology, bird migration, and lava landscapes receding now behind us.

lava fields abound

1_Lava Fields_DimmuborgirDimmuborgir Lava Fields on Myvatn

We leave the bird museum, located on a farm in the hollow of a small peninsula on the northwest side of Myvatn, and drive back onto the main road circling Myvatn and head to Reykjalid where our destination of the hot springs baths are located. Myvatn has more surprises for us aside from the main attraction of hot springs. This is one of the most fascinating geological and ecological regions in the country. The otherworldly hot springs fjalls of Hverfjall and Namafjall are both nearby (see post “middle earth @ the surface”) roiling with the power of geology burbling beneath one of the thinnest areas the earth’s crust. The small hamlet of Reykjalid on the eastern shore has a post office for mailing off souvenirs to family and friends, along with several lovely cafes and gift stores with handmade knits, jams, chocolates, and breads. I buy a pair of knit slippers, some smoked fish, and the most delicious bread I have ever tasted in my life. It is a brown bread steamed underground in this area. Later I wish I had purchased a case of that bread. After topping off petrol, post office stop, and gift store purchases, we travel a bit further south to Kafi Borgir, a family owned restaurant and gift store on their farm perched atop one of the most beautiful lava formations on the planet – Dimmuborgir.

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As we approach the meadows, shoreline, fields afar are populated by a surreal array of lava formations from rising columns to flat expanse of crackled gray. Sheep meander amid the giants. Myvatn’s shores (pdf map opens very slowly but is well worth the wait) are rife with gray boulders of lava everywhere. Kafi Borgir has a simple wood architecture not to compete with the showcase of snow-capped mountains on the horizon or the fluid fields of Dimmuborgir below. In the gift store before the restaurant, I purchase a lava necklace crafted locally with matching earrings in addition to several semi-polished lava stones. I invite any local elves to hop aboard these stones destined for our elf garden back home in Inverness.We enjoy a delicious salmon salad and sit outside on the roped off patio overlooking small groups of tourists weaving in and out along the trail of rough, rising and falling, rippling edges of Dimmuborgir that look much like a massive dragon’s back fossilized upon the earth. Game of Thrones fans will recognize several of these geological features as the film backdrop of the darker settings beyond The Wall.

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When Dimmuborgir erupted over 2000 years ago lava flows met the shocking wet of marshlands and this wild, waffling ridgeline of lava was formed. The intersection of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, slowly drifting away from each other, causes intense seismic activity in the region, resulting in features like Dimmuborgir and the nearby crater of Hverfjall, the largest crater on the planet at a diameter of 1 kilometer. We are grateful for guidebooks that take us to most of these travel gems, but it’s not until researching the area for this blog that I realize that we could have driven a few kilometers east and walked up the formidable flanks of Hverfjall. A spectacular sidetrip missed. Next time Greg replies when I mention this to him. There will definitely be a next time to Iceland. My idea is to teach for a year in Iceland when I retire, and possibly plan a year in a different countries – a retirement of teaching abroad. Seismic shift in thinking about work and travel.

a day for the birds

1_Myvatn_MuseumFuglasafn Sigurgeirs Entry on the Shores of Myvatn

The next morning as we plan our day, we discover that Myvatn, the mineral spring lake in the Golden Circle, is also one of the finest bird-watching spots in the world, especially in summer. The local listings at Guesthouse Stong recommend a visit to Fuglasafn Sigurgeirs, a famous bird museum on the shores of Myvatn. We GPS our way to the bird museum, thrilled to suddenly see the other side of the Queen of the Mountains, Herðubreið, and her court of various table mountains viewed from the south this time. She is a beauty even from the warm side of the region, but I must admit that travelling across the arctic expanse of fierce weather in the Highlands, seeing Herðubreið from the north in her frigid glory, was a highpoint of the tour so far.

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It was the finest moment of Iceland feeling like the Land of Ice. Then, as with California and the High Sierras where winter temperatures are ever-present, we drive to lower altitudes and spring temperatures. I often tell friends that California has “optional winter,” with the ability to shift from winter to summer temperatures within a few hours up or down the Sierras. The snow-capped peaks of the North Central Highlands delight us all around Myvatn with stunning vistas in every direction. Billowing layers of clouds overlay what begins as a sunny morning in true Icelandic style.

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The museum is a wonder of modern architecture and a vast collection of species packed into a small and elegant space. Visitors walk across a glass bridge with an active creek flowing beneath, emphasizing the importance of ecological balance in this fragile environment, assaulted with an explosion of tourism. We spend easily two hours talking with the docent about birds, environment, the challenges facing Iceland, and migrating birds. We are drawn to cases of raptors, swans, and puffins.

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Several outbuildings house a series of museum collections of local history, agricultural artifacts, regional folklore, and a sweet collection of handmade dories, used for ferrying locals across Myvatn back in the day before roads were carved everywhere. We stop along the roadside and photograph migrating birds feeding in the estuary pools. It’s easy to see the overlay of habitat for the natural world in Iceland, water for migrating birds. We must come to re-cognize that every inch of this planet, whether urban mall or Icelandic plain, is shared habitat for all the living things relying on earth, air, wind,  water. We’re the ones with the responsibility to keep it clean, to respect equity of access for all. It’s good to live in California where the awareness of land impact is becoming a norm in planning for development. Today, more than ever, we need an expanding Environmental Protection  agency as well as mindset. It is the protection of us all.

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Icelandic design

1_Stong FarmstayGuesthouse Stong above Myvatn

After whale-watching in Husavik we drive south toward the Myvatn region. Guidebooks recommended skipping the Blue Lagoon because of crowds advocating hot springs further from Reykjavik like the Myvatn Baths as a better travel experience if you have the travel time. We have time. This next farmstay was chosen to be near Myvatn and spend an entire day around the famous hot spring. We drive through a mild rain along the dirt road leading to Guesthouse Stong. Along one section near the farmhouse we spot a lamb in a gully, separated from its twin and mum, trying desperately to get back over the fence to them. As we walk in to the reception area, I mention it to the woman at the counter and she makes a quick call on the phone and thanks me, as a farmhand is dispatched for rescue. We check into our room on the third floor of the old house, built in 1929, then put on our suits to take a dip in the outdoor hot tubs. Like most buildings in Iceland, wells drilled for hot water at 60-degrees Celsius provide an underground heating system for house & cottages as well as lovely mineral water for the hot tubs.

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Before dinner, on the recommendation of the receptionist, we drive up across the gravel track to the vista point on highlands overlooking the mountains that loom above Myvatn. These upper pastures are covered with the grazing lands for the many sheep, horses, and a few cattle that are the staple of Icelandic farms. Myvatn below is breathtakingly beautiful punctuated by the rise of volcanic deposits and mountains all around.

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Dinner at Stong Guesthouse is truly an Icelandic delight. On the farm they make their own skyr, cheeses, meats, and pastries. I never tire of the amazing range of delicious when ordering my usual in Iceland, rack of lamb. Each restaurant or farmhouse kitchen has their own version of combination rubs & sauces that are epicurean ecstasy. Breakfast the next morning will be another dream meal with the leftover sliced meats, smoked fish, and cheeses from the dinner spread with the addition of fresh breads. Dinner is followed by a sweater selection from the dining room gift shop. A small corner holds a rack of beautifully handknit Icelandic sweaters. I pick out an ivory sweater with grey-black yarns woven in traditional lopapeysa pattern that matches my lucky Icelandic cap, bought in a bookstore in Husavik. Since my birthday is approaching, I select a second sweater in deep charcoal with cream-color zig-zag patterned yarns in a floral motif, thigh-length and a zip-up cardigan. The hostess squeals with delight, explaining that it was knit by her grandmother, Audur, and her boyfriend, Hermann, just this past winter. I’m honored to have it, thinking of the time my mother spent knitting sweaters and scarves for all eight of us children year in and year out, new ones as we grew or passed on, outgrown by siblings. I appreciate how important it is to buy souvenirs from local residents like this rather than from larger outlet stores. From the moment I walked through Keflavik Airport, surrounded by luscious patterns and wools of Icelandic designs, I’ve been yearning for the perfect traditional sweater. The shops and sweaters at the airport were very tempting, and I did check prices for comparison. I’m so glad that I waited to find authentic sweaters, knit by local farmers who depend on tourist dollars for their income, where 100% of the profits go directly to them to sustain this way of life.

 

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Sustainable tourism supports the best of regional families and environments. It’s a double win because these farms farther away from Reykjavik have substantially reduced prices and better quality knits. We bring our day to a close with another long soak in the outdoor hot tub; brisk cold, steaming with underground hot springs feeding the tank. The stars are spectacular for the brief period when clouds disperse across the landscape, prefacing a sunny day tomorrow to explore Myvatn and finally savor epic hot springs up close and personal. Our spa bags are packed before we go to sleep.

whales and wet suits

1_Whaling PanoView from the Nattfari on Skjálfandi Bay

We’re up early for another sweet guesthouse breakfast then on the road to Husavik, at the door when the whale watching outfit opens with discount coupons from tour guide in hand. Sunshine is punching cheery blue holes in the whitewash of clouds as weather gods defer to whale watching boats and the tourists that support this enterprise. I dutifully take two dramamine tablets before we board out ship and pull on my new Icelandic knit cap for that extra layer of warmth. What an amazing turnabout of human-whale interaction after nearly pushing most whale species to the brink extinction from slaughter (see the movie In The Heart of The Sea). We now “capture” them through the lens of a camera for equally prosperous gains. We board the Nattfari, a classic oak herring boat built in 1965. Rotting at the docks by 1998, the North Sailing whale watching outfit restored it to pristine condition and it boasts the highest crow’s nest for spotting whales in the rich ecosystem of the Skjálfandi Bay.

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On board we suit up into foul weather gear, with full winter jackets beneath, boots, scarf, Icelandic hat and insulated gloves, yet my teeth are chattering with cold within the hour. June in Iceland is stunningly frigid in the Arctic Sea. Waves are choppy and the glint of sun off whitecaps, on both water and landside mountains paralleling our voyage, are breathtakingly beautiful to keep me distracted for the piercing cold. I can’t figure out why I’m so painfully cold while Greg is jaunty and comfortable the entire time. Later I realize, when we are back in port, that the foul weather suit I was given was indeed “foul.” It was actually wet inside from waves breaking over the bow in stormy weather from the day before. The undetected water inside seeps through my pants and stays wet-warm and chilling to the bone the entire time. We eventually see a single medium sized humpback whale and I am unimpressed and relieved to get back to the docks and inside for a warm dinner. Whale watching, that was anticipated to be a highpoint of the trip for us, was for me a low point,…at least in degrees Celsius and comfort. Hot tip for whale watching in Iceland: before you put on your foul weather gear, swipe your hand around the inside to make sure that it is warm and dry. Caution will guarantee the enjoyment of the trip. Our first stop is the restaurant at the dock for a bowl of that famous Icelandic fish soup. Hot soup, warm room, delicious meal. Comfort food and just plain comfort.

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on the edge of the Greenland Sea

1_HusavikIcelandic Horses against the backdrop of Flateyjarskagi

Heavy clouds spin a steely-gray wool covering over land and sea. The epic white-peaked mountains of the Flateyjarskagi Peninsula, across from Husavik on the Skjáfandi Bay, provide a breathtaking backdrop to Icelandic horses galloping across pastures at the edge of the seacliffs on Norðausturvegur 85 into Husavik. We pull into the architecturally lovely town of Husavik with our signature tardiness, netted by fascination with spells of beauty strewn across the upper landscapes of black lava Ódáðahraun to the boiling orange cauldrons of Hverir. Once again getting into town so late, shops are readying for closing time. I have just enough time to pick up an Icelandic knit hat with warm flannel lining and a copy of the Njall Saga at the bookstore across the street from the harbor. A stop at the whale watching docks bodes poor tidings. Boats were cancelled today because of rain and fierce winds. The few boats that did go out early came back early with sea-sickened tourists. We cross our fingers for the next day’s weather for our planned whaling excursion.

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Rain guides us as we follow signs beyond town along Norðausturvegur 85 out to our guest stay in Tungulending, turning into a long farm driveway with a small handmade café sign affixed to a swing gate designating our entry point. I get out of the car to swing the gate open, then close it after Greg drives through, as instructed on the sign. The road drops precariously, carved into the side of sea cliffs, and deposits us at the lovely guesthouse of Tungulending poised pleasantly right on the edge of the Greenland Sea.

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We park near our designated entryway, take off our shoes as is the Icelandic custom, don slippers provided, and drag suitcases up the narrow wooden staircase to our room. The café is closed so we make tea to sit and review bird charts and watch eider ducks float past our window. I read aloud from the children’s book of Njalls, the Settlement Saga, as the sun lingers through the summer sky. At the end of tea and Saga, we climb the narrow staircase and drop into bed.

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middle earth @ the surface

1_MyvatnPanoNamafjall Hverir Venting Across the Myvatn Region Highlands

We don’t have long to wait for the next serving of extraordinary as the road begins to dip toward the Mynvatn region. Translucent clouds of steam preface our arrival at Namafjall, the long low-slung mountain overlooking the Hverir, a geothermal expanse of boiling mudpots and fumeroles at this point where the earth’s surface is very thin and geological activity is the constant magic show. Ropes section off the excessively hot areas or fumeroles prone to bursts of expression – hot enough to cause severe burns. The sulphur smell is pungent. With depths of 1000 meters and temperatures above 200-degrees, a surreal landscape of red-orange wonder rises ghostly from the nadir.

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Hikers seem to float in and out of reality as curtains of steam make them appear and disappear randomly. The bottom of our boots feel uncomfortably hot as air temperature bites our cheeks with chill. This is a land of otherworldly extremes. Burbling mudpots are bleached white and cracked with chemical reaction, as the blue-gray of sky and expectant clouds paint a lovely complementary color palette juxtaposing burnt oranges of Martian-like landscape. Another few hours slip away in the rising steam as we explore this cauldron of beauty. As we head to Husavik, the road gradually falling towards the sea, vents of steam christen the landscape in every direction with power plants meticulously poised to capture this exquisitely endless energy resource. Power on. Infinite beauty providing infinite energy.

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