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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.

1_Husavik Set

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.


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.

1_Tungulending set2

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.


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.

1_Myvatn Steampower

high desert & mountain peaks

1_MtPassPanoRing Road through the Ódáðahraun Lava Desert – Northeast High Plateau

We climb higher through mountain roads traversing the land of reindeer in the high plains of the Ódáðahraun lava desert. Winds whip a crystalline arctic snow across the infinite expanse of thin, black highway traversing black lava landscape, punctuated by stunning silhouettes of table and volcanic mountains. This is a geologist’s dream in black and white and bitter cold. This is June when the sun never sets. Imagine the temperatures in winter when the sun never breaks the horizon. I’m amazed as we pass a trotting ewe with lambs pressed alongside at such a cold altitude. She’s headed toward higher ground rather than back to warmer, lower altitude by the sea. I guess that’s what the warm wool is for.


In the distance we see the sentinels of the great peaks of the upper limits of Jökulsárgljúfur National Park along the Flojotsdalsheidi traversing the Highlands. We travel from the Queen of the Elves to the Queen of the Mountains in a single afternoon. Herðubreið rises1677 meters, a tuya formation considered by many Icelanders as the Queen of Icelandic mountains, the grand beauty of the land. We pull to the side of the road where a small cairn of rocks rests beside a small white wooden chair. I am bundled in winter coat, scarf, gloves, and hat as I walk around the fierce landscape as Greg sits in the car with the heat blasting. I compose panos of mountains in profile against the pale white horizon and video winds cascading in a sheer white curtain howling across the landscape. I’m ecstatic in this biting chill and compose my favorite selfie as fierce winds pull my hair and scarf in a horizontal tug-of-war. Shivering, I sit back in the car exhilarated, hungry for the next helping of geological wonder.


heritage along the highway

1_Black ChurchNorthernmost Black Church on Hrdarstunguvegaur

Historic architecture is one of my favorite landmarks to discover while touring. We are rewarded by a back roads shortcut with two very quaint historic churches, as we drive up and over mountains on Route 944, heading west across the Flojotsdalsherad Valley to reconnect with the Ring Road. As we cut across the Hrdarstunguvegaur, Route 925, the stunning silhouette of one of the three Black Churches in Iceland cuts across the northern skyline. Wind sings through the gate as our boots crunch across gravel parking lot, circling the church anchored on this sparse landscape, punctuated frequently by austere beauty; black clapboard of church, severe in cold repose in the barren north. We are the only people for miles.

1_Church Turf4

Then along an adjacent road, we stumble upon Geirsstadakirkja, a reconstructed archeological site of an ancient farm settlement at Litli-Bakki. The remains of an ancient turf wall surrounds a small Viking church and longhouse. The Geirsstadir church was rebuilt in 1999 by expert carpenter, turf-constructor, and curator from the East Iceland Heritage Museum. We walk through the beautifully crafted wooden branch gates framed into the stone and turf wall. Iceland is famous for its turf homes, churches, and barns. Turf angling to the ground, covers the sloped roof of the trim timber structure. Turf, deep cut, dried, and compacted into a bricklike substance, is both an economical and resourceful material in a sparse landscape where trees are scarce, as well as an excellent insulator in freezing temperatures. Spring flowers bloom from the corner pieces framing the doorway that leads to an interior dirt floor, structural tree poles with information sheets clipped in plastic sleeves, and a small wooden altar with carved cross. Outside is an organic slab table and bench with a minimalist stacked stone sculpture of a Viking ship in the front of the walled area. The expanse of green fields belie the function of this rich farmland  owned by the farmer church-guides of this historic plot. Their Icelandic horses circle around a water trough oppposite the gate. Greg walks proudly around the encampment imagining his Norwegian ancestors coming to this very spot in the Settlement Era  that began in the 9th C by Norsemen, then in 1264 Iceland accepted the sovereignty of the King of Norway. For a brief moment Greg wishes he’d packed his Norwegian sweater, but in the days to come he will gladly replace it with a sweater of Icelandic design. It is hard to imagine that we are only on Day 4 of our travels. In Iceland, so much to see, so little time, so we make our time extend into a vast expanse of culture and geography along every turn and roadside vista.


the realm of elves & puffins

Alfaborg RocksmAlfaborg Rock in Borgarfjordur Eystri

What looks like a short drive on the map from Seydisfjordur to the Blabjorg Guesthouse turns into a long, slow zigzag on dirt roads off the Ring Road down to the harbor town of Borgasfjordur Eystri. A fine mist of snow obscures parts of the road with ruts brimming with ice and water that further slow our progress as we wind down the spectacular rhyolite heights of the Dyrfjoll mountains. Signature clusters of ewes with twin lambs huddle along the roadside, a few in the colder altitudes, many more in the lower region as we approach the sea. Our hostess kindly meets us after 11pm to give us the keys to our room in the converted fish factory that overlooks the harbor.


We sit in the lovely kitchen-lounge paging through bird field guides identifying  whooper swans and knots spotted in previous days as we gorge on homemade spiced cake, a brown bread made from oatmeal, wheat and cocoa (perfect with honey). Binoculars on the windowsill proffer sharp views of bobbing eider ducks and scaups in the surf below against a backdrop of colorful houses nestled above cresting waves. Deep sleep flows into the signature Icelandic breakfast of skyr, homemade breads, fruit, sliced meats, and boiled eggs. Clouds gather to obscure the mountains on another summer day of travel.


First stop is Alfaborg Rock, home to a large population of elves. Its name translates to “Palace of the Elves” where the legendary Elf Queen Borghildur resides. Coffee stop in the Alfa Café is more like a museum visit with local lore, portraits, natural history collections of rocks, wildlife, vintage tools, woodworking collections, even a children’s play area with vintage wooden toys. I purchase a bag of local rocks to respect the sign at Alfaborg Rock for tourists, “Please no rock collecting.” Elf respect. Across the street is a charming private grass house museum, Lindarbakki, with a information board in front.

Puffin ViewingPuffin Viewing Platform @ Hafnarholmi Islet

Our next stop is a rare site in Iceland – a puffin colony in the cliffs along Hafnarholmi Islet. Usually the colonies are farther out to sea on seas stacks. The scenic harbor has a magnificent staircase up the cliff and boardwalk out to a panoramic viewing deck. We sit inside for over an hour watching puffins come and go in a soft rain. They traverse from feeding jaunts at sea, their wingbeats comical with butts drooping low from the frantic efforts of stubby wings keeping them aloft, defying the laws of aerodynamics. It is decidedly a birdwatchers paradise of accessible habitat as puffins and kittywakes jostle for cliff edges and tufts of grass all around us. We sit motionless and let them entertain by their mere presence in the backdrop of breathtakingly beautiful Nature.


up and over to the sea

1_SeydisfyodurFromAboveVista Point Above Seydisfyodur

As we head further north on the eastern shore, we’re grateful for the land of midnight sun. Snow darkens the sky in midday as we gain altitude. Paved roads are intermittent with hard packed dirt roads, rutted and jarring, bordered by sheep, always ewes with twin kids, impossibly comfortable huddled in the windbreak of overhangs in the biting winds. Coming over the mountain pass and driving down the winding road to Seydisfjodur, we are greeted by waterfalls like giant icicles dripping from the peaks. The fjord below is a shimmering steel-gray dotted with the compact and colorful buildings of Seydisfjodur. Green slathers the frozen hillsides like frosting as gray clouds gather and white drizzle of snow decorates the peaks. We pull in beside the roaring of a creek cresting over rocks at the highpoint of a Gufufoss waterfall.

1_HighFallsSeydisfyodurGufufoss from Above and Below

There is a vista bridge that spans the river above the falls and Greg crosses to explore up and along the far slope. I stand and breath in cold spray blustering back from the edge of the falls and simply listen to the dichotomy of the roar of water below and stunning quiet of snow above.

1_SeydisfyodurSetColor, Murals, and Landmarks of Seydisfjodur

After dinner at the Aldan Hotel we stroll through town among colored buildings and mosaic stone walkways. I can imagine the delight of walking amid arctic windswept winter winds in darkness softened merely by moonlight, past the undulating black & white graphics of the Gullabuid house, or the barren white in the 24-hours of darkness punctuated by the blazing red of Markadur’s Favorite Things Boutique. Color in your dreams along the streets of Seydisfjodur.


nameless beauty

Djupavogshreppur.jpgRiver and Waterfalls Along Djupavogshreppur

We notice in the distance a few cars pulling off to the left of the road, drivers hopping out in swimsuits in piercing cold, gingerly stepping along graveled paths.  Glacier-melt river meanders along the edge of the Ring Road as we pull over to explore, well zipped up in our insulated coats. Greg walks along the riverbed hiking close to the waterfall where hearty swimmers disappear beyond steep vertical cliffs obscuring the cascading waters. He balances carefully on rounded boulders, as I do the same walking in the opposite direction to get a wider view of the river and turquoise falls peeking out from the precipice. We are unrepentant in our obsession with waterfalls and undeterred by repeated stops to get our fix. I search the guidebooks, and later the Internet, to find images and a name for this beautiful falls and roadside river to no avail. The only information is the GPS tag on my cellphone: Djupavoshreppur. So many waterfalls, so little time, and I realize as I write this post, so few names to encompass this ever present beauty. I think about the joy of being near creeks as a child – I don’t remember their names either. Catching frogs along the creeks feeding Mendon Ponds, then later playing along Irondequoit Creek in Ellison Park. Now I live across from Second Valley Creek. I wince at the lack of imagination for the geology of my current neighborhood. First Valley and Second Valley are the places names of our town. First Valley Creek and Second Valley Creek the names of our lovely waterways on the Tomales Bay watershed. Possibly nameless beauty is a kinder way.