Folaldafoss on the Oxi Pass
We travel north from Hofn and take the Oxi Pass climbing up and around mountain switchbacks with stunning views behind of fjords receding in the distance. Emerald green summer kisses the jagged outcroppings of rocky mountainsides. The dirt road along this section is rutted and rough but worth the stunning views. Near the top, we pass directly across from Folaldafoss, one of several significant falls along the great eastern river Berufjardara. The 54-foot falls plummets to a pool and winds back toward Berufjordur in white calligraphic strokes across the impossible green of summer grasses. Greg sleeps quietly in the passenger side of the car as I stop repeatedly to get increasingly better views of the falls and the atmospheric perspective of receding fjords. The brilliant turquoise of glacier-melt rivers and waterfalls continues to dazzle. We stop at the uppermost vista point and get out to watch colors of water, impossible to capture in still photography, and simply drink in the experience. We are transfixed by zoom lenses that take us closer to cerulean stupor. As the video link promises, it truly is one of the most beautiful routes in Iceland.
Zoom Lens of Cerulean Pools
Land Falls Away Into Water
Day 4 on the road we are on the rollercoaster ride of the Austerlands. Up and down, around and back, weaving through the eastern fjords beneath the shadows and peaks of great volcanic mountains. Sun breaks out sparingly as blue skies appear intermittently through billows of gray and white clouds. We stop constantly, as around every turn, a new view, another waterfall, a mountain with breathtaking height, or peaks lost in the wrinkled sheet of clouds. I am guessing that many pass by the chance to drive the long eastern road because they assume “there is nothing there,” translated as the presence of towns and gifts stores – and they would be right in that paradigm. In fact the eastern shore is teaming with geologic and geographic wonders. We drive the roads in isolation and savor every magnificent view.
Austerlands Fyodurs Wrap Around Mountains
Austerland tributaries & mudflats stretching out beyond Vatnajokull
It’s close to midnight by the time we round the eastern tip and follow the curving bend of peninsula facing the opposite side of Vatnajokull, still obscured by snow and clouds, to our farmstay. We bask in the hallucagenic energy of sun still up, daylight through the night. Our host is not happy about staying up to give us the keys to the guestroom beside the barn. She is familiar with light-drunk Americans straggling in at midnight. She must surely be used to tourists waylaid and delayed by the stunning beauty of nearby Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon. We collapse into bed in Stafafell, across a channel of tidal mudflats facing the national park. It is hard to believe that we are only on day 3 of our trek (day 2 for me, having missed the first farmstay in Akurholt). Greg falls into bed and sleeps in his clothes as I scan the several thousand photos from the first few days in Iceland. I cannot turn my eyes away from this plethora of beauty. I walk outside in the iridescent midnight light and take several photos of the farmstead. Clouds still obscure the view of Vatnajokull’s mighty peaks. Even in morning, as sun clears more of a view the highest peaks are still hidden in mists. While Greg goes in for breakfast, I stroll about the farm composing the colors of light and ice as sunshine reveals more contours of mountains across the mudflats, the grays of frost-flecked stones brushed to the side of the driveway, the textures of Icelandic horses against green grass pastures extending to the water’s edge. We are forgiven by a gracious host who has provisioned a lovely breakfast of eggs, waffles, fruits, with traditional skyr & granola. We are voracious for food as well as for contours of culture; collections of stones and shells along a windowsill, tidy rows of shoes and coats in the foyer, a cross-eyed four-horned goat proudly beheaded and displayed in the dining room. Raised in the Northeast, I am well acquainted with the practicality of foyers as air locks against the cold, as mudrooms to mitigate the rain and slush of incessantly inclement weather. Refreshed from food and sleep we trek along the gravel path back to our room in the light of late morning, so similar to that of past midnight. We unplug our chargers, pack our bags, provision snacks and water for the car, and drive off into Austerland as the Eastern Coast is known. Few tourists travel this coast and we are grateful to have the roads and vistas all to ourselves.
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon in June 2017
We are worn down by the weather after numerous stops in biting cold along the sandur, ready to forge on to our farmstay along the eastern coast. Fortunately other visitors signal the path to the most amazing site in Iceland. As we pass through a whiteout of winds and snow, a few brave souls bundled in winter jackets cut in and out of the looming white ice dunes crowding the edge of the road. We strain to see what the attraction might be and take the left fork at the next turn. We are stunned by beauty: Jokulsarlon, the glacial lagoon, arctic nursery for icebergs calving off Fjallsjokull and Vatnajokull glaciers. There are not enough names for the colors of glacial blue! Shades of turquoise, sapphire, azure and every ultramarine in the cool spectrum are pressed and radiant in layers of ice. This is an experience that will thrill us over and over again throughout Iceland – the unique bevy of blues from glacial melt. The lagoon meanders into Jokulsa to the sea populated by raucous flocks of gulls, skuas, and arctic terns, all haggling for territory. It is the shortest river in Iceland, looking more like a channel. Icebergs may float about the lagoon for up to five years before making the short transit to the ocean. The geography seems ancient, yet the lagoon is merely 80 years old. In the 1930’s Breidamerkurjökull, a tongue of the great Vatnajökull Glacier came right up to the Ring Road. The lagoon is growing at a staggering 500 meters per year due to glacial melt from climate change. Barely visible across the expanse of water are the two large tracks trailing off Breidamerkurjökull. Breidamerkurfjall Mountain is an offshoot of Iceland’s largest mountain, Öræfajökull. This congregation of glaciers and mountains comprise Vatnajokull National Park Iceland’s largest park in the Skaftafell region, where most Icelanders head for vacation. The storm obscures the majestic peaks, but we pull on sweaters, coats, hats, gloves, everything we’ve got and step out into the storm, snow blowing horizontally, to absorb the views. A few tour boats bustle tourists closer to the glacier pack. We prefer the grand view, the vista of calving tracks across the translucent bay, the distance to take in animate melodies of rushing waters and pelagic birds. The colorist in me delights when two figures in shocking red coats step into my composition of blues for complimentary balance. We stay as long as we have feeling in our fingertips. Breathing in beauty, framing it in photographs, capturing it in video. We collapse into the car exhausted from the cocktail of cold and beauty, another 50 kilometers to go to our farmstay. Hours among glaciers is worth the delay.
Colors of blue at Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon in the middle of a snowstorm in June.
Glacial Outwash of Skeiðarársandur in the Southeast
Most tourists travel only the Southshore to Vik and turn back. If you continue east, one of the most fascinating geographies of the planet greets you in a flat expanse of sand, boulders, and bracken that can survive this cold, wet, shifting landscape. Skeiðarársandur is the largest glacial outwash, sandur, in the world. It’s formed from the massive deposits from the grand Skeiðarárjökull glacier and spreads out across the southern plain meandering to the Atlantic coast. Beneath angry grey clouds we traverse the spectacular geology of sandur encompassing 1300 square kilometers that on a map looks like a massive expanse of spider veins tangling toward the sea. The road rambles along for nearly 50 kilometers of flat, rocky, roiling terrain. Windblown with heavy clouds most of the way, we are glad for the comfort of a car, as bicyclists and a motorcyclist huddle against rock outcrops to shelter from the fierce winds and rain. The guidebook describes this section as “a cyclist’s nightmare.” We stop at the Skeiðará Bridge monument of twisted I-beams from the 1996 eruption of Vatnajokull that erupted and melted with massive flash flooding that rolled 100-2000 ton blocks of ice across the vast glacial tributaries that make up the Skeiðará that flows to the sea. It is estimated that the 100-200 ton ice blocks crumpled the highway like matchsticks. The evidence is in the grotesquely twisted girders forming the monument that waffle and twist like paper strips rather than the most durable construction metal on the planet. Sun breaks out and contrasts the deepening grey edges of arctic clouds rimming Skeiðarárjökull. A lone skua lands and considers us as we read the signs from the displays at the washed out bridge. Reference guides to the sandur describe it in unflattering terms: “tormented, soul-destroying, and barren.” In its own history, after a similar volcanic eruption and flooding in 1362, the region was referred to as Öræfi, or Wasteland. We enjoy the luxury of 21st C sheltered tourists appreciating the glorious geology that humbles human pursuits.
Arctic winds scour the sandur with fierce winds amid isolated farmsteads, calving glaciers, bowed tourists, and ruined bridges.
South Shore on the outskirts of Rangarping Eystra
On the road. Such an interesting phrase – Jack Kerouac made it famous. We pantomime it (in a more environmental context) every few miles. Drive. See an amazing geology: waterfall, river, mountain range, rock pile. Stop. Get out – literally get “on the road.” Walk around. Choose vantage points. Greg is a delightful traveling companion. He enjoys the several dozen stops as much as I do and doesn’t complain that we essentially travel at an average speed of 20 mph or less averaging photo stops. What pushes me to ecstasy in Iceland is the shifting blankets of clouds blowing fiercely across the vast sky. We travel in June – prime tourist season – and yet rarely see another car on the road. We keep to the paved pullouts, aware of the egregious destruction by tourists pulling off the road into pristine landscapes. The verdant green expanse is intoxicating. The colors remind me of California in winter, which enjoys a Mediterranean climate. Parched yellow-beige of dead grasses from late spring, summer, and most of autumn erupt into this vermillion shade of green as winter rains influenced by El Nino/La Nina tropical weather patterns inspire the landscape to burst into life for a few short months. Too soon in Caliofornia, drought returns and colors fade. Not so in Iceland, evergreen even in winter as grasses are buried beneath the snow. I think of childhood snowstorms in upstate New York and the delight of digging deep into snowdrifts to uncover the still green landscape, frozen and brittle. Traveling Iceland in summer we bask in the ever present, luminous greens of arctic winds softened by warm ocean currents. Always at hand are insulated jackets, as winds blow clouds through at a ripping rate, rain ever looming from jagged edges of scud clouds. Even the season’s strongest sunshine cannot warm ubiquitous arctic winds.
Dyrhholaey Cliffs West of Vik – Day 3
We head east again along the Ring Road and drive across the narrow peninsula to the nature reserve of Dyrholaey, arcing out from the mainland. We look back directly across to the farmhouses dotting the virulent green of the South Shore. Mounting the cliffs secures a spectacular view of the elemental wonders of a different geology – earth uplifted, after our ice excursion. These cliffs are composed of rock from submarine volcanic eruptions 100,000 years ago made of tuff , volcanic ash ejected from underwater vents during eruption, eventually compacted into solid rock containing bedrock, tephra, and volcanic ash all ground into one impressive cliff. This “haey” or high island consists of tuff while the eastern “lagey” or low island is composed of dolerite, basalt, and labradorite. One landmark feature includes a promontory archway, large enough for boats to pass through, the source of its place name meaning “Door Hole Island.” In his signature navy blue winter coat, Greg treks across the center of this image exploring the surrounding geology. The view across the bay is a Tolkien wonderland. To the north the jagged peaks of the Myrdalsjokull glacier surmount the sky. To the east, the series of black lava seastacks called Reynisdrangar meander across the shoreline, and to the west spreads the black coastline of Reynisfjara Beach. Seabirds including puffins, guillemot, and razor-bill breed at the seastacks and along the headland crags of Dyrholaey. It is simply breathtaking to spend so much time in such a short distance marveling over, and walking across such accessible geology. We chose Iceland for our first bucket list travels because of these elemental features that so fascinate and allure us. Each mile continues to deliver an abundance and variety of fascinating geography.
Solheimajokull, Myrdalshreppur Iceland – Day 3
It’s an oddly intoxicating sensation to be lost in time. I always feel this on vacation, but more so in Iceland in summer when the sun never sets and it’s daylight through the day and into night. For Greg this is Day 3 and for me it’s Day 2. Fortunately it’s all day for the entire trip. We’re prepared with eye masks and farmstays with blackout curtains, but we are not prepared for the hyper-charged energy that comes with 24 hours of daylight. Stopping to photograph and tour along the South Shore from Keflavik to Skogar it takes us about 10 hours to make the 130 km drive. We arrive at Guesthouse Steig at 9:40pm, but it feels like 4pm all day long. Their kitchen is closed but our host recommends the Strondin Bistro in Vik. Luckily they’re open until 11pm, like many restaurants in Iceland, as tourists like us get lost in time and surface closer to midnight, suddenly hungry and ready to savor Icelandic cuisine. The grilled lamb and Arctic charr are exquisitely delicious – not just because we’re hungry, but because the sauces and seasonings are a salivary delight. We fall into an easy pattern for our days starting with a guesthouse breakfast of homemade breads, fruits, and eggs or waffles, followed by skyr and fruit throughout the day, ending with a fabulous meal at a restaurant near our stay. We regret not walking out to the nearby cliffs beyond the bistro to see puffins fly in from the sea and roost for the brightly lit night. Instead we literally fall into bed and sleep as in a coma from midnight until 8am every day. This manic travel and sightseeing followed by late dinners and deep sleep becomes our established pattern. In the morning we’re excited to explore two great geological wonders a few kilometers in either direction. Solheimajokull is an easy access glacial tongue that branches from the vast Myrdalsjokull ice cap, Iceland’s 4th largest glacier. A short 15 minute drive west and then up a dirt track that leads to the exquisite glacial lagoon and the iridescent blue-white of glacier rimmed by the green of summer and azure sky dappled with incessantly raucous gray clouds. Greg runs down the path as I just take in the natural beauty of this place, the gift of this day, savoring panoramic views in every direction. In his signature navy blue L.L. Bean jacket, Greg turns back to watch me then scurries down to touch the tongue of glacier – its name translated as “sun world glacier.” His first time on a glacier, my second experience (first at Mt. Baker National Recreation Area in Washington) at being humbled in geological time, these 10,000 years until now, as we live in the on-going global glaciation. Our very lives are illuminated by the majesty of geological time, on display 24 hours a day in June in Iceland. We culminate our awe with a cappuccino from the current epoch in the quaint bunker of Café Solheimajokull.
Seljalandsfoss on the South Coast of Iceland – Day 2
Greg meets me at the airport terminal with an avocado on pumpernickel toast sandwich from Joe & The Juice. Within minutes we have our car and are cruising the Ring Road on the southern shore. “Tell me everything,” I command, and hang on every word of his last 24 hours, drinking in the lush green of shoreline and moody grays of skyline. A slight sense of panic that I will always be one day behind in the adventure stalks me. I shake it off and simply savor the gift of being here. Our first stop is a grocery store along Hringvegur for bottled water. I leave Greg at the checkout and walk around back to a small store with a large hand-written sign for Icelandic souvenirs. A cinnamon colored, shaggy goatskin and a thermal shirt with an artist print of glacier sandar are my first purchases. Greg hands me a cup of skyr and a spoon as we properly toast our first day of joint Icelandic adventures. The guidebook leads us to our first of hundreds of spectacular waterfalls. Seljalandsfoss in Rangarping eystra crests over the mountainside in a series of pristine falls increasing in size to the main falls nearest the road. We walk around the riverbank and surrounding meadows for over an hour. Greg hikes down beneath the spray at the base of the highest falls as I chase a pair of redshanks calling to each other along the meadow fence-line. The expanse of sky framing mountains fills with a perpetual explosion of clouds, changing on the hour, as the arctic winds scour the countryside. In every direction, each view continues to thrill.
Akurholt Farmhouse Lodge Iceland – Day 1
For half my life I’ve had some version of a recurring travel nightmare. In the dream, I am at an airport, boarding a plane for a spectacular destination, and just as I walk toward the plane, I suddenly realize that I don’t have a passport and cannot go. I’m overwhelmed with shock, regret, angst over how I could have possibly let that happen. Consequently in my waking life, I triple check my passport before any international travel. Sometimes even triple checks cannot change the oracle. I arrive at SFO international check-in at 8pm with Greg, packed and pumped for our Iceland adventure. The agent asks me, “Do you have another passport?” I’m stunned, what an odd question. He informs me that even though my passport is dated valid for another 6 weeks that it has actually expired from use due to international regulations that require a passport expiration date up to a year. The nightmare unfolds. Greg goes on without me, sleeping for the next 9 hours on the flight to Keflavik. I spend the next 4 hours on the phone and Internet to change my flight, his car reservations, research the requirements for same-day passports from the government office in San Francisco. The following morning, my daughter is chauffeur for the day,… to the drugstore for passport photo and copies of flight details, then across town to long lines through security followed by multiple levels of numbers for various queues completing paperwork. Eight hours later I have a new passport in hand. All I can feel is gratitude that a government office even exists to expedite a passport in a day. We head to the nail salon to celebrate and four hours later I check into the airport once again. Throughout the day I read Greg’s posts about the extraordinary farm guesthouse, Icelandic horses, hand-knit sweaters, and cumulus clouds. Throughout the next week we discuss all the interesting Icelandic stories that his history major host imparted in that precious lost day. I sleep soundly on the plane and wake up to spectacular clouds and the crest of ocean against the jagged coastline of Keflavik as the sun rises into a new day.