Strange Geographies: Beautiful, Alien Iceland

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Iceland is a landscape that's still being born. While much of the world's once-jagged peaks have gradually worn into sloping hills, gushing rivers and mighty waterfalls have slowed to a trickle of their former flow, and remnants of the last Ice Age melted long ago, it's not so in Iceland. This a young land, one that's still being shaped by the same primeval forces that made much of the world -- fire and ice. Its massive Vatnajokull glacier, which dominates about 10% of the country's landmass, is so large that it's technically classified as an ice cap. The European and North American tectonic plates meet in Iceland, and more than 130 volcanoes have sprung forth from the gap between them. Iceland has only been populated since about the middle of the ninth century, but already in that short time there have been dozens of major eruptions and lava flows, many of them devastating to human life. Almost every minute of the day there is an earthquake happening somewhere in Iceland.

It's also one of the least densely populated nations in the world -- only about 320,000 people live there, three-quarters of them in the relatively warm and urbane capital city, Reykjavik. The rest of the country is wild and wooly, and of immense geological variation. It's like the world's most interesting interactive geology textbook. My wife and I spent the last two weeks exploring it -- we rented a 4x4, crossed our fingers that we wouldn't regret declining the extra insurance, and lit out for the countryside.

Click on any picture to open a larger version.

I often say of places I've been that "it was like being on the moon," but for nowhere has that been more true than Iceland. I'm not the only one who thinks so -- in 1965 and 1967, American astronauts trained for moon missions in Iceland's barren, volcanic highlands. Vistas like the one above -- rocky, glacier-carved valleys, touched with subtle shades of green in summer only -- stretch for endless miles. (By the way, those switchback roads can be tricky when the wind's gusting at 60mph, as it was when I took this picture. It was a struggle just to open the car door against the wind.)

Something else you'll find in the unpopulated highlands are these bright-orange huts. A peek inside the window reveals a bunk bed, a wind-up radio and a box of emergency rations. They're emergency shelters for hikers. You'll find them only in the most remote and dangerous parts of the country, and it's illegal to use them in anything other than a life-threatening situation. In Iceland, where the weather can change dramatically with little warning, even the most prepared hikers might suddenly have need of one.

Even the hardy Icelandic sheep -- ubiquitous on restaurant menus and far outstripping Iceland's human population in numbers -- can't survive a winter spent outdoors, and when we were there, herders were roaming the countryside rounding them up, bringing them back down from the mountains to their respective farms. We got caught in one such drive, which was blocking this road (a fairly important one) such that we had to turn around and find another route.

Some sheep get lost in the shuffle, though, or wander so far that the herders never find them. Inevitably, they wind up like this:

Not everything in Iceland is brown and gray -- there's a lot of green to be found, especially if you count the pale, pillowy moss that seems to cover half the country. It's most typical on fields of lava rock, where it can turn an otherwise barren-looking landscape into a magical place -- just the kind of spot where you might expect to run into one of Iceland's famous huldafolk, or hidden people; elves, trolls, fairies and the like.


This mossy rock-scape was dominated by a black-as-night volcanic cinder cone, the unpronounceable name of which I have replaced with my own: MOUNT OMINOUS.

A quick aside -- if anyone from the Icelandic tourism ministry reads this, I have an idea for a new slogan: Iceland: I'm lichen it!

The moss does something else too: it makes places like the ones pictured above absolutely impenetrable. It's more than six inches thick in some spots, and tends to cover over gaping holes between the rocks, turning an otherwise simple hike into a treacherous, ankle-breaking ordeal. In one of Iceland's weirder settlement-age sagas, Eyrbyggja, Vermundur the Slender of Bjarnarhöfn returns from Norway with two beserkers (warriors who fought in a state of frenzy) but can't handle them on his own, so he gives them to his brother, Víga-Styrr (Killer Styrr). (Indeed, the sagas spend a great deal of time cataloging the exploits of early Iceland's many skilled murderers.) One of the berserkers falls in love with Styrr's daughter, so Styrr makes him a deal: if he and his friend can clear a path through the mossy lava field on Styrr's farm, Styrr will give the berserker his daughter's hand in marriage. The berserkers quickly complete this monumental task, but Styrr renegs on the deal, locks them in a sauna, then spears them to death when they try to escape. The path they supposedly made is still there, and the area -- Berserkjahraun -- is named for their famous exploit.

Wait a minute, you might be thinking. He locked them in a sauna? Yep, it might sound odd to modern ears, but sauna culture has existed in Iceland for more than a thousand years, and when heated by untempered, natural geothermal steam, those suckers can get skin-flayingly hot. (I tried one of these traditional saunas -- you can hear the spring water burbling down below the floorboards -- and the only way to keep the temperature tolerable is to open the door.) They say that the gods made up for Iceland's winters being so dark and cold by gifting the country with an abundance of super-heated water. Hot springs are everywhere in Iceland, and they're beautiful, a little smelly, and when treated right, great for bathing and steaming in. All that hot water is great for Iceland's environment, too: 90% of their energy comes from it.

These billows of natural steam, near Lake Myvatn, are a pretty typical site in Iceland's geothermal areas.

Nearby, a steam vent. You can go right up to it if you want -- and burn the hell out of yourself.

In the freezing rain, this geothermal river steams.

We found this stream alongside a hiking trail. Its water is so hot it would take the skin right off your hand if you touched it.

Swimming in geothermal mineral water is practically the national pastime. I spent many an hour immersed in silky blue silica water, including this magical place, in Lake Myvatn. They mix the 100 degree Celsius hot spring water with cold to make it tolerable.

If you don't feel like paying for access to man-made swimmable hot-pools, you can find plenty of free, natural ones -- like this place, an underground cave filled with hot-tub-temperature mineral water.

Another thing Iceland has in spades are waterfalls. So many you almost get tired of them -- almost. This is Dettifoss, the largest waterfall in Europe. It's difficult to feel the scale of it in this picture, because there were no people around to include in the photo for perspective. (That's right -- the largest waterfall in Europe, and I was alone. That said, it's 30km from the highway along some fearsome washboard roads, but still.)

Speaking of roads, this was, as you might have gathered by now, a road trip. We did the classic ring road journey, traveling clockwise around the country on its main highway, the 1, a winding two lanes that are not always paved and can be at turns breathtaking and hair-raising. (That's the 1 pictured at the top of the post, by the way, switchbacking off into a distant fjord.) Here are some shots of the road I took along the way.

On the south coast:

In the mountains of the north:

At Snafelles National Park. That's a glacier behind us -- the same one Jules Verne used as the gateway to the world's bowels in Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Glaciers seem to be everywhere, but even in Iceland, they're melting more each year. I took this on a guided hike up Vatnajokull:

The ice is dirty because ash from recent volcanic eruptions (like three months ago) settled all over it. That haze in the distance is ash that still hasn't settled.

Down at ground level, this glacier calves icebergs into a glorious lagoon which is -- rightfully so -- is the most photographed spot in Iceland.

The bergs are either washed out to sea or deposited along a nearby black sand beach, where they slowly melt (and you can play with them).

All those glaciers are what carved Iceland's amazing fjords -- long, narrow inlets framed by steep cliffs, which line the edges of the country like mountainous fingers reaching out to sea. The roads in Iceland tend to weave through each and every fjord, which makes the going a bit slow, but the views are so beautiful you don't mind slowing down.

This is Ejyafjordur, in the north, an inlet of the Greenland Sea.

Grundarfjordur at dusk:

But the best, most crowning glory of the trip was the night I got to see the northern lights for the first time. It was cold but clear, and they hummed and shifted dimly above the horizon. I walked to the edge of the small town where we were staying, away from lights, to an airfield overlooking a small bay. The night was silent, but for the wind and some nocturnal birds calling in the distance.

I set my tripod up on either side of a wind sock, which stood at attention in the chill breeze. In both shots, notice the tongues of glacier peeking out in the background.


It was an incredible, awe-inspiring trip. Anyone who's a fan of natural beauty and wide-open landscapes should book a ticket before the value of the Icelandic Kroner goes any higher!

You can order high-resolution prints of the photos in this essay here.

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September 20, 2011 - 6:40am
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