November 6, 2013
I read somewhere while preparing for this trip that Apollo astronauts came to Iceland to train for the moon landing because the terrain here can be so similar. I wonder if they did their sleep deprivation training here, as well. In the morning, while trying not to touch the walls of the tiny shower, I realized that we had only been here for 24 hours. We had done a lot and most of it wasn’t sleep.
In the morning, we had a 45 minute flight across the interior of Iceland to the northern town of Akureyri. Our flight was at 8:30 am, so we rolled out of bed early to hit the breakfast buffet before catching a cab to the airport.
Akureyri was settled by Vikings in the 9th century but was not chartered until 1786. It is not surprising that fishing is the major industry here because it sits on a breathtaking “ice free” fjord Eyjafjörður.
After checking into the Icelandair Hotel, we signed up for another tour and then set out on foot to find the grocery store for some snacks. Akureyri has a similar layout to Port Angeles with mountains (and a ski area) on one side and a gradual hill down to the water. It was cold and there was a lot of snow on the ground. Apparently no one owns a shovel either, because the sidewalks were packed with hard ice. We incorrectly assumed that the store would be down the hill into town. After consulting the tourist information office (at the bottom of the hill), we discovered that the grocery store was on the same block as our hotel. Frustrated and crestfallen, we tramped back up the icy hill and found the market. It was similar to shopping at Uwajimaya because all of the labels were in Icelandic. We took some guesses on snacks (and beer) and headed back to the hotel to check in for our tour.
I guess I should add here that we totally looked like tourists because we had on boots, hats, gloves and winter coats. Afterall, it was about 32º F. No one else did, except the other tourists. By the time we got back to the hotel we were sweating our butts off.
Upon arriving back at the hotel, we loaded into a mini bus with six other couples (two mom/daughter, one lady friends and three married retirees) and our gregarious tour guide, Gísli. The bus was bound for a driving tour adventure around the volcanic Lake Mývatn.
Our first stop was the waterfall Goðafoss meaning “waterfall of the gods.”
It is said that in the year 1000 because of bloody battles with invading Christians and to put an end to the violence, the chieftain Þorgeir, was faced with making the decision of whether Iceland should convert to Christianity. He decided that Iceland should convert and, as a result, threw his statues of the pagan gods into the waterfall giving it it’s name. It was gorgeous. I wasn’t there when he did it. But it was gorgeous when I was there, so I guess it was probably gorgeous in Þorgeir’s day as well. Except for the upset Pagans and invading Christians.
We got back in the mini bus and after a short drive we arrived at the lagoon Stakholstjorn in the area known as Skútustaðir. Stakholstjorn is surrounded by pseudo-craters that were formed by steam explosions that occurred as hot lava flowed over the cool surface of what is now Lake Mývatn. They are unlike true craters in that they have no magma chamber and do not vent lava. At the time that we were visiting the area was buried under a breathtaking blanket of snow.
Continuing on our journey, we came upon Dimmuborgir, an area of unusually shaped lava formations. Dimmuborgir means “dark cities” or “dark fortresses” in Icelandic and is also the name of a Norwegian black metal band. The area was formed by lava flows 2,300 years ago that flowed over wet sod causing the marshlands to boil. Vapor caused by the boiling marsh made steam rise and form lava columns. More importantly, it is said that the Yule Lads of Icelandic Christmas tradition reside here and come out for visits during the month of December. We missed them by a few weeks, but Gísli did seize the setting as an opportunity to tell us some traditional Icelandic tales.
Although it was getting dark, we couldn’t miss the next stop for the “hilarious photo opportunity” that our guide, Gísli, promised at the Námafjall. Just off the side of the road, we found boiling mudpots and irresistible fumaroles emitting massive amounts of retched sulfurous steam. We all captured our farting photos and piled back into the mini bus for the next long awaited destination: dinner.
We had a super fast detour through the parking lot of the Krafla Geothermal Power station.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to be here,” someone said.
“I can go anywhere. Take a look,” Gísli replied.
Krafa Power Station is one of five major geothermal power plants in Iceland. That’s right. They are harnessing the power of VOLCANOS to produce about 25% of the nation’s energy. In addition, according to Wikipedia, (so it must be true) “geothermal heating meets the heating and hot water requirements of approximately 87% of all buildings in Iceland.” That is super fantastically cool! Also according to Wikipedia, another 73% of the nation’s energy is produced by hydropower. That’s right. All of those fabulous waterfalls are creating energy, too. They are the world leader in renewable energy. Less than 0.1% of Iceland’s energy needs are met by fossil fuels. Their goal is to be a fossil-fuel free nation.
Dinner was at a farm restaurant called Vogafjos, “The Cow Shed.” With the Icelandic accent it sounded very similar to “Cow Shit,” but we were assured it was not. It was quite literally a cow shed with the dairy cows on one half and our dining room on the other. Once I got used to the cow smell (I DID go to WSU, afterall), we had a lovely dinner made with local ingredients. I had Arctic char from Lake Mývatn and Jeff had meatballs with gravy (hopefully not from the dairy cows that were watching us eat). Dessert was geyser cooked rye bread ice cream (better than it sounds) and arctic angelica schnapps ice cream (not my favorite). They actually cook the rye bread in the geothermal heat. Icelanders are very much into natural ingredients from the environment like moss, ash, and herbs. Arctic Angelica is an herb that is said to cure almost anything.
After dinner we made a stop at the Mývatn Nature Baths. I loved this place and I didn’t think I would. The nature bath is essentially a natural geothermal soaking pool. We arrived around 9 pm and our group of 14 were the only people there. It was probably 35 degrees outside and the wind was whipping, but the pools were varying degrees of hot and we all had a good time. Gísli had those that were “brave enough” (myself and one other man, Steve) go through some Viking toughness rituals including slithering over the wall of the hot pool into the cold pool beside it and swimming out to a rock and back. I survived because I’m tough. We also ran out of the nature bath, made a snow angel and ran back in. The snow was crusted over with ice but I did it. I’m totally Viking material.
The next thing on the agenda was finding a clear spot to seek out the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and snowing. On the way back to the hotel we did see a small patch through the clouds but it wasn’t really big enough to photograph. I was able to figure out my camera settings in the dark though. So win on that.
It was another fabulous day in Iceland!
Mad props to Gísli.
(Did I mention that he’s also an Opera singer? Check out his webpage here: Gísli)