Friday, November 30, 2007

Iceland Hotspot

This month my wife, Crystal, is guest writer for my blog. I am using a new format for my photos... the square ones are cropped thumbnails of bigger images. Click on the thumb to see a larger full version of the photo, then use your BACK button to return to this blog. Here's Crystal's take on another of our Iceland adventures.  Enjoy!

Once we rendezvoused with Sue and Jeff, we packed into our Toyota Corolla and headed east to Hveragardi, one of the hottest hot spots in Iceland. Hveragardi's water is too hot and mineralized for heating homes, but somehow it's suitable for heating greenhouses, making this town of 2000 people the farming center for the capital.

Our hotel, Frost and Fire, was our favorite of all the fabulous places we stayed in Iceland. It's intimate and artistic rooms were built on the banks of a cold stream, with steam pouring out of earthen vents throughout the surrounding hills. The proprietors channeled the abundant, free hot water to heat their swimming pool, hot pots and sauna. When we weren't hiking, you know what we were doing.

Hiking in this region was like a walk through a fascinating, heavenly version of hell. Heaven in particular for our geologist, Jeff, who found himself awash in teaching moments. We followed the steam more than the trails, in awe of the Earth's guts oozing up from her steaming, ominous portals.

We climbed a high ridge for expansive views of the mossy hills with Hveragardi off in the distance. Hunkered down happily in the moss, sheltered from the wind, we shared a lunch of Icelandic cheeses and breads. How could we let a little drizzle faze us when we were sitting smack dab atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, with the North American and Eurasian continental plates tugging apart from one another in geologic fast-time right beneath these very hills, making for some mighty rumbly goings-on just under the surface of the deceptively firm ground.

The trail led us past amazing geological features: burbling mud pots . . . .boiling hot pots . . . . . vents of steam . . . . .portals of clear blue water, some warm, some extremely hot, surrounded by gorgeous layers of travertine of various thickness – crystalized minerals in textured shades of orange, blue, green, yellow, and red. David went hog-wild with his camera, spanning the thin travertine to get vertical shots of the vents, he fell in once up to his thigh – it shook him up, but lucky for him, and us, it wasn't a boiling one.

A rainy day in the off-season, the only other people we saw all afternoon were a group of silent horseback riders whose bright orange jump-suits amidst the fog and steam added to the surreal ambience. That, and a few sheep ambling along the hillside trail.

We were intrigued by a wide curtain of steam ascending from a valley across a river. We had no trail map, and the trails were unmarked, but two things were clear: the trails did not cross the river, and, we really wanted to find a hot river in which to soak. We decided to go for it. The off-trail moss was deep and wet, soaking our boots – no matter because the river was impossible to cross without getting wet anyhow. Following the steam, we found our spot, after testing many for just the right temperature. But at that very moment, the rain let loose and the wind picked up, and we hesitated, thinking it might be best to high-tail it back before we really got soaked. Thank goodness we came to our senses. We tucked our damp clothes under our backpacks and slithered in. Aaaaah. Sue and I applied mudpacks for the full, high-end spa experience.

The long trek back in the wind and rain almost got us down. In spite of getting our core temperatures warmed up in the river, we were freezing by the time we reached our car. But the hot tubs awaited us back home, and those delicious beds with real foam mattresses and down comforters. Yeah, we managed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Icelandic Sheep and Barren Land

Tough critters, I can say that positively about the Icelandic sheep. In a harsh land where the only significant native mammal is the Arctic Fox, you have to wonder how a proper domestic European beast could survive the severe weather on this island just outside the Arctic Circle. But survive it did - for 1100 years these stocky short-tailed sheep thrived, eating the once lush greenery nearly into a rock-strewn desert. No kidding.

Coming from North Florida, the first thing we noticed about Iceland was the lack of trees. And of course, without trees, one can see a long way across the landscape, a beautiful openness - across vast moss-cushioned lava fields, rocky rolling hills with sculpted rocks protruding, and dramatic escarpments rising from the coastal flatlands - without so much as seeing a single tree, building, or person... but we saw sheep dotted all about.
Skittish sheep... they all tended to run away at the sight of us.
Maybe they didn’t like tourists, especially tourists with cameras riding in red Corollas?... maybe all humans made them nervous, since they didn’t see too many (except the cowboys - er, sheepboys?, not enough machismo - cowboys who rounded them up once a year). We could go miles and miles without encountering another car... even during a trip to an indoor public swimming pool which Crystal spotted on our map. On that cold rainy day, our first day in Iceland, Crystal was drawn to the map icon like a moth to a flame. With growing doubt, we followed the long and winding road until, to our surprise, we found a big indoor pool complex at the very end... out in the middle of nowhere, no other buildings in sight, and no people anywhere... closed, and seemingly abandoned, except for a nice pair of swim goggles someone had recently dropped...oh, and a few sheep watching us suspiciously from outside the fence.
The sheep seem to wander far and wide just about everywhere, as did the fences. We saw fences crisscrossing the landscape in the strangest places, often fading off into very remote and rugged terrain. These fences are a modern addition and are meant to restrain the sheep to prevent over-grazing and further erosion, but it was difficult to perceive any real containment.
It was Sheep vs. Fences, and the sheep appeared to be the hands-down winners...must be more to it than what we could see. Towns and other habitations all had fences and road grates around them to keep the sheep out, but otherwise sheep appeared to be part of the landscape. We were told that, once a year, the farmers don their orange raincoats and mount their Icelandic horses - another special breed - to collectively gather the sheep from the hinterlands for the worst part of winter. Once gathered, they are sorted out by their eartag IDs.

As for the barren land, one can’t blame the sheep for cutting down the trees (which once covered as much as 60% of the island)... the humans did that for building materials and fuel, but much later people came to realize the heavy grazing of the sheep kept anything from re-growing. Can’t blame them for that either... just being sheep (with especially big appetites in a harsh land). Besides, without them, humans could never have survived in Iceland. By successfully eking out a lifestyle in the wilds of Iceland, these hardy animals, now a unique coveted breed, provided meat, milk, cheese, and warm clothes for the Vikings and all the people who followed. Skyr, an Icelandic food - sort of a cross between yogurt and cottage cheese - was traditionally made from sheep’s milk and instantly became our favorite local treat. We even brought some home to use as a culture to make more. Here’s the recipe: (click here).

So why not plant trees now that the problem is evident? Well, Icelanders have been doing just that for 100 years now. However, this is a slow process at best. The loss of the cover has resulted in extensive erosion of the wind-vulnerable volcanic soil, making it hard for anything to get a foothold. Nearly a third of the island has become a black-sand desert. As the green-wise proprietress of Hotel Hellnar, Gudrun Bergmann, told us, young trees don’t have much of a chance against the winds, sands, and winter storms that literally strip them of their bark.
But ways to improve the survival of plantings have been devised and all Icelanders are working at it. Airplanes are even being used to drop seed and fertilizer in the remote parts of the island. One hundred years ago Iceland established the first-in-the-world Soil Conservation Service to help educate the people about erosion control and planting. Ours was a snapshot view through Florida-colored glasses, and so, to us Iceland looked stark and other-worldly, but in some parts, after 100 years of effort, new forests are beginning to grow... slowly. Reykjavik has a decent showing of trees and we saw occasional stands of trees in towns and farms as well.

Like the isolated swimming pool, churches seemed to fit the middle-of-nowhere description as well. We saw several churches that, upon close inspection, appeared to be clean and well-tended, with sheep-guards and fences intact, but no other sign of human development (and of course, no trees) anywhere near. One had a raven standing guard atop it’s steeple.. He obliged me for a photo, and then flew right toward me for another shot, flying low over my head, chortling in his unique Ravenese of metallic syllables and hollow clicks. An exception to the stand-alone locations was the lovely grass-roofed church in Hof which had both trees and human habitation around it... and plenty of sheep eyeing that luscious grass roof too.

We stayed on a farm in Hof, a village consisting of several farms, one inn that had closed, and the church. The sheep of Hof were “formally” penned into green grassy fields much like they might be on a small American farm. Our lovely little farm guesthouse - Litlahof - was off by itself in the midst of the sheep fields. Seemed the perfect opportunity to photograph some sheep, but try as I might - casually meandering through the field, or sneaking a peek from behind a rock, or shooting from the hip - they were on to me, and headed pronto in the opposite direction. I didn’t have a telephoto lens, but was forced to resort to shooting through the window of our cottage. The wind was blowing so hard that day that it blew the sheep’s wool skirt askew. Jeff and I had trouble staying on our feet when we tried to walk up the road, but those low slung warm-dressed sheep stood firmly chewing their cuds (although their skinny legs looked cold).

The coastal area near Hof was rich farmland. Each farm appeared more idyllic than the last, with it’s own Yosemite-quality waterfall (foss) tumbling from the high scarp, green pastures, surviving trees (protected by the huge stone wall), and, of course, sheep, with their own barn to retreat to when the weather ain’t nice.

Earlier in the trip on the north shore of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, I did encounter one friendly sheep, at least willing to pose regally for a through-the-car-window shot. This roadside ram must have been a “Leadersheep” - because he appeared so cool and self-confident. I didn’t make that up.
A small percentage of the Icelandic sheep make up a sub-breed of smart sheep, called leadersheep. They are aware of danger, weather changes, better pastures, and all manner of things important to sheep survival, and will lead the flock accordingly. In earlier days, the sheep farmers depended on them and there are many stories of leadersheep saving the flock from an approaching (unexpected) winter storm. Anyway, this fellow looked over at us in our muddy red car, gawking out the window, and, correctly, sensed no danger. He simply sat down, posing like the sheep in Jamie Wyeth’s 1975 painting called The Islander. (click here for a look... quite a resemblance... then click back button to return here.)
And in Icelandic, ‘Iceland’ is spelled ‘Island’, so I'm venturing a guess that my leadersheep directly descended from Jamie’s, and struck the same pose in nearly the same place. In keeping with the guidance of their leader, the small flock likewise stayed put. One one-horned gal with beautiful curly wool even smiled at me. Sweet!
For more stories of Iceland, there are and will be more postings, and for better quality images of Iceland, please visit my website at

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Disappearing Ice - Jokulsarlon

Click on any image to enlarge it.
We are living in an exciting, albeit dire (for humans), time on this planet. Global warming, climate change, water wars, sea level rise - now common stories in the news.

This month I had the great fortune to spend some time in Iceland where I could see some of the unfolding drama of our warming earth for myself. It was humbling to try to capture in my photographs the intensity (and perhaps immensity) of the moments we experienced in this land of fire and ice. The explosive rumble of a fracturing glacier crashing into the sea. The whip of cold wind on the face... so strong, it’s hard to stand up. The sting of icy rain... the shroud of fog blanketing the landscape... the numb fingers and wet cameras. These things don’t show their boldness or bluntness in photographs.

Sunshine was precious, though rain, fog or wind didn’t stop us from hiking and exploring. We visited the Snaefelsnes Peninsula, where a massive volcano is roofed by a beautiful glacier and most residents are personally familiar with magical neighbors - elves, trolls, or fairies - who live in the moss-draped lavarock; then the land of fire around Hveragerdi, where geysirs, boiling pools, sulphurous steam vents, mudpots, and hot rivers offer free geothermal energy to those who live there; next on to the south coast, Vik, and the vast sandur, where glaciers have shaped the land, fertile farms nestle beneath graceful waterfalls, and it’s sheep vs. fences in a rugged terrain; and finally to Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajokull, with which we had our personal encounters and saw the Disappearing Ice for ourselves.

Having driven along the south coast past rugged mountains with glaciers pouring through their gaps, past countless waterfalls and sculpted cliffs - all invisible to us under dense cover of fog - our first real encounter with the ice was at Vatnajokull. And it was a REAL encounter! Face to face, hands on, incredibly awesome.

We awakened in our farmhouse cabin in Hof to a clear sky. Hallelujah! I could hardly wait for the other three to get ready to go. Our first stop of the day would be to see the iceberg-filled bay, Jokullsarlon.
Jokull means glacier and sarlon means lagoon. One of the glacier’s tongues called Breidamerkurjokull, licks this deep lagoon that has a narrow channel into the North Atlantic. Every day, chunks of ice the size of houses (or department stores!) calve off the lip of the mighty ice and fall into the lagoon. In 1975, the lake was less than 3 square miles. Due to the melting and receding of the glacier, it has now grown to 7 square miles, and reaches depths of 650 feet. The "glacier calves" then make their way out to sea... either as icebergs or, having melted, as new seawater. This water froze thousands of years ago during the late Pleistocene epoch.. Tasting this ice and drinking its water felt comparable to being graced with the opportunity to taste a priceless vintage wine.

We arrived early in the morning. You didn’t need to see the morning frost on the ground to know that the windchill temperature was well below freezing. But I was so excited by the golden light on the vast bay full of icebergs that I left my gloves and hat in the trunk for the first half hour. We spent 2 hours hiking along the shore, marveling at ice formations, the glacier, and the mountains. Some small delicately carved ice sculptures floated near the shore - tiny remnants of melted mighty bergs. Further out were mini-bergs of odd shapes. And beyond them were the massive icebergs... some white, some black, and some blue. The white ones have had their surfaces scrubbed and melted away by the elements, the black ones are fresher, still carrying the surface soil and gravel that had blown onto the glacier, and the blue ones have freshly rolled, exposing their water-saturated bellies to the sky.

Around 10:30 a small coffee shop opened. We warmed up and bought tickets for the boat ride into the lagoon. The boat was a Vietnam-war-vintage amphibious steel truck-boat with big wheels that we boarded by the parking lot. Our driver then took the road around a few hills before plunging into the bay. What a strange experience driving into and out of the water in one vehicle. Once afloat, we meandered among the large icebergs, awed by their mass and beauty and grateful for the sunlight that made them glisten. We could almost touch the giants. Accompanying us from time to time were harbour seals, who feasted on the bounty of fish in the lagoon. And eider ducks swam beside the icebergs, ducking under ledges or into cracks when threatened.

The icebergs move along with the tide and current, piling up as they run aground. Most never leave the lagoon as ice, shrinking into the small lovely crystals near shore. How long might it take for one of the behemoths to turn into a delicate little ice figurine? Visitors here generally only get a single snapshot view of the process. The larger pieces that make their way through the narrow channel, under the bridge, and into the sea immediately meet with swift currents and ocean waves. We walked alongside their path and out to the beach where several impressive icebergs had washed ashore. Here we could look deeply into their ancient ice, or marvel at their curves and hollows. We could walk right into crevices in them. They felt so old and solid.

The next day was a doozy - fog, wild winds, and driving rain. Our only venture out was a second visit to Jokulsarlon (a second snapshot) ... even that was challenging keeping the car on the road. When we returned to the very same spot on the beach, all that was left were a few beachball-size bits of ice. Were we really at the same spot? Did a high tide carry the icebergs away? As our doubts melted away, we knew as sure as sun rises that the behemoths had turned to water, shockingly, overnight!