Volcanic Vistas

First off, I am obliged to report the more or less total failure of our second attempt at aurora viewing. The skies indeed cleared somewhat late last night, but not enough. We did see an auroral glow on the horizon, but it was nothing to write home about. (So I am writing to 500 strangers about it instead. Oh well.)

Today was a long day of driving today, with a couple of stops along the way. I’m too tired to exude my usual effervescent narrative, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking in this short post.

First stop: the Myvatn thermal baths. You may have heard of Reykjavik’s famous Blue Lagoon, and this is that, minus the “Blue” part and about half the admission fee. It’s a natural thermal spring with a large wading pool architected around it; its temperature varies somewhat from place to place within the pool but averages about 39 C (102 F). Here’s the scene, plus Alice, Tim, Janet, and a complete stranger in the background enjoying it.

Iceland Myvatn 2018-050-Edit

Iceland Myvatn 2018-071

We were still in Geothermal Mode for our next stop, the Hverir mud pots, basically a scale model of Yellowstone. There’s a short walking path around the area, lined with boiling mud, fumaroles, cracked mud fields, brightly colored mud, and, well, mud. It’s a fun place to visit for perhaps a half hour unless you are ambitious enough to hike up to the top of adjacent Namafjall mountain. We weren’t.

Iceland Myvatn 2018-074-Edit

Further down the road — much further — was the Dettifoss waterfall, accessible by a 30 km long unpaved road, which made for some bone-jarring driving. Dettifoss is situated on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, which flows from the Vatnajökull glacier. But of course, you knew that. More interestingly, it is about 45 meters (150′) high and, at about 193 cubic meters per second (over 50,000 gallons per second) is one of the most voluminous falls in Europe. (Tim asked huffily why Europe claimed it, but there’s a real answer: it lives on the east, i.e. European, side of the rift separating the two continental plates.)

Iceland Dettifoss 2018-006-Edit

Iceland Dettifoss 2018-017

What I found even more striking than the falls themselves is the canyon downstream from them, which looks a little like a pint-sized Grand Canyon. See for yourself:

Iceland Dettifoss 2018-004-Edit

See what I mean?

About a mile upstream from Dettifoss is Selfoss, one of the most famous falls in Iceland. But the path to it is rocky and uneven, and by late afternoon we were not feeling that ambitious. Janet and Tim started out for it for turned around about halfway there; Alice and I wimped out altogether. (Anyway, I was busy taking pictures. Pictures, yeah, that’s the ticket.)

We had about a 2 1/2 drive ahead of us after Dettifoss, past remarkable terrain, sometimes an arid volcanic rockscape, sometimes a flowered tundra. There were eroded cinder cones everywhere, rounded by the ages, that made the area oddly resemble the northern parts of the Big Island of Hawaii. That’s not as unlikely a pairing as it sounds: both islands are essentially giant volcanoes, both roughly a million years old. So here’s a panorama of that tectonic terrain:

Iceland Terrain 2018-017-Edit

This particular area has a lot of ground cover; when it is absent the land is a featureless gray desert that goes on for miles, limned by distant mountains. But some areas are wild with ground cover: yellow and orange grasses and tiny wildflowers that give the otherwise bleak terrain an oddly benign prairie-like appearance, like this:

Iceland Terrain 2018-013

Rising above it via drone gives an even more majestic perspective: the color goes on for miles, with nary a car in sight. I’ll post a video of the drone flight later, but for now, to end today’s post, here’s a striking drone’s-eye view from about 100 meters up. You can see that the road is not so great, but the vista makes up for the bumps.

Iceland Terrain Drone 2018-001

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Aurora, Sorta

Big news, kinda! We saw the aurora last night! And I write this with exclamation points in order to obscure the fact that in reality, it kinda sucked!

So, yes, we did in fact see the aurora. However, we saw it through a thick cloud haze that utterly obscured the majesty of the thing. What we actually saw was a vague, ever so slightly green, barely visible and poorly defined curtain of light that waxed and waned and changed shape over the course of a few minutes. It occupied a band covering a good 60° of the sky, though only sections were visible at a time, and barely visible at that. It was thrilling in concept only — box checked! — and did not remotely compare to the jaw-dropping display that I beheld in Alaska over 20 years ago. But we have another shot at it: they (the aurora mavens) are forecasting with near certainty that there will be a display tonight. (Yes, there is such a thing as an aurora forecast.) It has been cloudy and drizzly all day but the weather forecast calls for some clearing around midnight. So we will try again; this may be our last good shot at it because the aurora forecast projects the likelihood of a display to drop off significantly for the remainder of our stay.

Before I relate today’s travels I first want to revisit one of yesterday’s stops: the “pseudocraters” dotting Lake Mývatn. I didn’t have enough battery power in my controller to fly the drone yesterday, but remedied that oversight today. An aerial view conveys a much clearer picture of the collapsed cones and their setting on the lake.

Iceland Myvatn Pseudocraters Drone-02-Edit

Nice, huh? (I love my drone.)

Breakfast this morning was an excellent buffet with an, um, unusual view. Remember that this is a “farm resort”, and if we had somehow had any doubts about this, they were dispelled when we sat down at our table, adjacent to a large picture window looking into the cow pen where the cows were all hooked up to milking machines. I was thinking about this whilst pouring milk over my cereal, as I felt the urge to tap on the window and thank them. It is not a vista that one frequently encounters when eating breakfast in the Washington DC area.

Our original plan was to go whale watching today, but we jettisoned that idea when it became clear that the overcast, intermittently drizzly weather would make that an uncomfortable experience at best. Moreover, we are really past the end of the season; the whales hang out here in summer, so we’d be unlikely to see more than one or two this late in the year. We’ll wait for our return to Hawaii in February if we start jonesing for whales.

The whale tours leave from the town of Húsavík, near the very northern end of the island. Despite having abandoned the idea of whale watching, we decided to head there anyway, in part because it was said to have a somewhat quaint and scenic port, but mostly we wanted to get as far north as we could. Iceland does not quite reach the Arctic Circle, but we wanted to get as far as we could in order to garner some bragging rights. So we actually drove on for about 25 km past Húsavík, until we reached a peninsula that is close to the northernmost point in Iceland. (There is another peninsula that juts a few kilometers farther north, but it was inconveniently distant.) So here we are, intrepid explorers all, at the northernmost point of our journey after finally getting a bit of use out of our four wheel drive:

Iceland Husavik 2018-025-GPS

If you can read the GPS display in the image, you can see that we are at 66° 12.256′ latitude, about 40 km (25 miles) shy of the Arctic Circle. Guess we’re going to have to go to Scandinavia to cross that line, but this’ll do for now. Unsurprisingly, it is not an especially hospitable place, a desolate rocky coast littered with coarse pink and orange seaweed (!) washed by a low surf. This is a pretty representative view.

Iceland Husavik 2018-012-Edit

You will be unsurprised to learn that the wind was pretty strong and the weather conditions raw. We only lingered long enough to high five each other, take a bunch of photos, and clamber down the rocks to the surf so that we could dip our hands into the sea and tell our friends that we had touched the Arctic Ocean. We now consider ourselves to be officially awesome.

That mission accomplished, we headed back into Húsavík to have lunch and nose around. It doesn’t have a whole lot to offer other than the whale tours, a whaling museum (which we did not visit), and this locally well-known church that shows up in every picture of the town.

Iceland Husavik 2018-035

The church was built in 1907 with wood imported from Norway, and the interior sports a nice nautical blue ceiling as befits its locale. The ceiling beams resemble an inverted boat hull.

The harbor was of course occupied almost entirely by the whale watching boats, which ranged from oversized high-powered Zodiacs to this queen of the fleet, designed to resemble a 19th century whaling vessel.

Iceland Husavik 2018-043-Edit

We left Húsavík after a late lunch (and a very expensive one, like just about everything here) and headed back to Mývatn. The weather remained overcast with an on-and-off (mostly off) light drizzle, so we stopped at a couple of the prominent geothermal attractions on the way back to the farm. The first of these was Dimmuborgir, the so-called Dark Castle, which is basically — no, not basically, entirely — a collection of lava slag heaps threaded by a walking trail. If that sounds unromantic, look at this picture and tell me I’m wrong.

Iceland Myvatn 2018-045-Edit

It looked sufficiently unexciting that we contented ourselves with taking some obligatory photos from this viewpoint, using the bathrooms, and moving to our next stop, which was a lot more impressive.

That would be the Hverfjall cinder cone, a truly monumental formation that reminded me of a lava version of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Australia. Black, 150 meters (500 feet) high and a kilometer across, it’s about the most ominous-looking thing you can imagine, and it took a drone flight to do it justice. So here is what it looks like from 300 meters (1000′) in the air and 800 meters (half a mile) away.

Iceland Myvatn Cinder Cone Drone-002-Edit

There’s a trail, walkable in about 15 minutes, that follows the least-steep side from the parking lot up to the crater rim. Janet and Tim made the hike; Alice napped in the car while I flew the drone.

And that was today… so far. We ate sandwiches in our rooms for dinner as we await the predicted improvement in the weather, anticipating a much hoped-for view of the aurora after midnight. I’ve already dialed in my camera settings in a display of faux optimism, or perhaps a dose of sympathetic magic. I’ll let you know tomorrow if we got lucky.

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Another Roadside Waterfall

Driving around in northern Iceland is a head-turning exercise in trying to take in first this volcanic feature, than that unnamed waterfall. The countryside is pretty isolated in the north, where the largest town, Akureyri, has a population of less than 19,000 which, amazingly, makes it the second largest city in Iceland after Reykjavik.

That Alaska-like low population density means that we needed to be mindful of our fuel tank, so we started the day by backtracking into Saudarkrokur for gas. While Tim and Alice coped with the one-pump street corner filling station, Janet and I walked down the block in search of a restroom, ultimately finding ourselves in the local bakery/tea room. It was there that we discovered that Icelanders are really excellent bakers with an inordinate fondness for pink icing. Seriously, everything they sold looked criminally mouth-watering, and half of it had pink icing. Wanting to blend in with the locals, I bought and ate a fresh doughnut with pink icing. It was as light as air and I’m sure contained at most zero calories. That’s how I know that they are excellent bakers.

The landscape in northern Iceland is oddly like Hawaii except for the large temperature difference and presence of sheep. It’s volcanic terrain dotted with cinder cones and the occasional serendipitous waterfall within a few hundred meters of the road. Here’s the first one we encountered, photographed by drone:

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-003

This is a pretty typical sight. In this case, we were still close to a fjord flowing northwestward, which at this time of year and this far inland was at a very low water level, creating this abstract scene as viewed from some 200 meters directly above.

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-008

I’m rather proud of this photo, but if you are having trouble visually parsing the scene, here it is again looking more upward towards the sea.

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-009

Swiveling the drone to look upstream towards the mountains (and the sun), the same river looks like this:

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-011

Such are the rewards of driving in northern Iceland. While I was flying the drone, Alice walked a quarter mile or so up the road, where we had passed a gravel lot packed with cars and trucks. Turns out that it was also packed with sheep: this was the venue where the various livestock owners identified their particular sheep via ear tags. The sheep all graze together, you see, and are herded together en masse and sorted by owner later.

We continued on our way and spotted a gravel spur and small parking lot at the head of a path leading down to a valley. A short walk down the path took us to a precipice overlooking a river with an oxbow bend around a steep basaltic hillside. Here are Alice and I defying death, about 15 meters above the valley floor on a somewhat precarious lookout point. We look a lot cheerier than we felt; the path was loose dirt and rock, slipperier than we’d like, and it was a long way down.

Iceland Alice & Rich Precipice

Our next destination was one of Iceland’s better-known waterfalls, the Goðafoss, which means “Waterfall of the Gods”. Like every stationary object in Iceland, this one has a legend associated with it. As the story goes, in the year 1000 a local chieftain named Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði — his friends called him Bob — was taking a lot of political heat from the Norse, who had recently converted to Christianity from Paganism and wanted Iceland to do the same. Chief Bob had to make the big decision about which way to go, and since I am not typing this by candlelight you probably know the outcome. Deciding that Icelanders should become Christian, he demonstrated his commitment by throwing all of his statues of Pagan gods into this waterfall. Hence the name. (What history conceals from us is that that Bob went home and got an earful from Mrs. Ljósvetningagoði, who went out and bought a new set of idols at Pier One the next day.)

Anyway, here’s Goðafoss. The main cascade (there’s a smaller one a short way downstream) is about 12 meters (40′) high. The river above it is the Skjálfandafljót (pronounced “Snuffleupaguss”), which is the fourth longest river in Iceland.

Iceland Godafoss 2018-036

Our next stop — and our destination for the day — was Lake Mývatn, which means “Midge Lake” due to the ubiquitous dense swarms of the goddamn things. (They even got into our noses and mouths, and I can only imagine what it must be like in the summer. Thank God they don’t bite.) Mývatn is a popular tourist area because of all the geothermal activity: there are natural hot spring baths, nature trails through volcanic formations, and “resort farms” for lodging, including the one we are staying at. The lake itself is dotted with what appear to be mini-volcanoes, and sort of are. Here is the scene:

Iceland Myvatn 2018-023-Edit

What they actually are, are “pseudocraters” (that’s their real name), essentially burst lava bubbles that formed when the original lava flow overran a marshy area. They’re also called “rootless cones” because despite their appearance they are not actually lava vents. Rather, the moisture in the swampy land under the then-hot lava flow boiled away and emitted steam from underneath the lava, swelling it into a bubble that hardened and later collapsed. It’s an odd, unearthly sight. Or at least I think it is, since the midges kept swarming around my head.

We finally came to rest at the Vogafjós Farm Resort. In case you are wondering what that means, it means that we have a very comfortable motel-like room, all wood paneled and with a super-comfy geothermally heated floor (!), and that there are cows outside. There is also an excellent farm-to-table restaurant, in this case the farm-to-table distance being zero. Their specialty is lamb — quite the best I have ever had — and “Geyser Bread”, which is a very moist dark rye bread baked by burying it in the hot ground near a geothermal vent. Yes, really. It’s great!

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Ever Northward

We are now near the town of Sauðárkrókur, which if you’re allergic to the weird typography is written as Saudarkrokur in non-Icelandic. That’s actually a little misleading since the third character, the ð, looks like a d but is actually pronounced th. But the main point is that it is at a latitude of 65.7°, which puts us about 55 miles (90 km) below the Arctic Circle. You wouldn’t know it from the weather, which was mostly sunny and mild today, reaching about 15 C (59 F). The relatively balmy temperatures and the sunshine, combined with much milder winds, made it a fine day to continue our drive to the north and take in the scenery, which at its most idyllic looked like this.

Iceland Grabrok and North Drone 2018-017-EditIceland Grabrok and North 2018-026Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-029

I took the top two via drone; it was a good day for that too. All three shots were taken about halfway into today’s journey, when we stopped for lunch at a turnoff from the road next to the river in the picture. Our company was a team of sheep herders and their dogs and ATV, rounding up an enormous flock on a nearby hillside.

Our first stop of the day had actually been an hour earlier, at the Grábok (the name means “gray rock”) cinder cones, the remnants of a not-completely-ancient volcano. It’s setting is a stark volcanic landscape with close greenish-yellow ground cover, as you can see here.

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-012

This particular environmental motif is typically Icelandic: if you live outside of the city you are morally obliged to build a white farmhouse with a red roof on an otherwise desolate landscape with mountains in the background. If you don’t believe me, compare that last photo to the first one in this post after the lead-in paragraph. See?

Grábok is about 100 meters tall and has a convenient boardwalk leading up its side and around the crater rim. You can see it clearly in this drone view, taken from about 100 meters above the crater rim:

 

Iceland Grabrok and North Drone 2018-016

(I also shot a nice video of the drone flyoner, which I will post at a later date.) You may also notice a few rows of stones, about a quarter of the way up from the bottom of the image and about a quarter of the way in from the right. That is an archaeological site, the remains of a settlement dating from the 10th century, when the Norse first arrived in Iceland. In the century or so after those initial settlements, the locals were building sod houses like these.

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-062

 

The walls and the roof are all made of chunks of sod as advertised, and since plants like to grow upwards, the roofs sprout. These particular guys are found at the  Glaumbaer Folk Museum, a little ways south of Sauðárkrókur. They are surprisingly sophisticated dwellings, extending two stories underground and containing kitchens, storage areas, and dormitory-like bunk bed sleeping quarters. The fronts of the buildings are made of wood as you can see (now reconstructed, of course), which raises the obvious question of how you build with wood when there are no trees around. The terrain is bleak and treeless, with not a lot of promising building materials. But we are very close to the coast, and so the answer is: driftwood! The early inhabitants gathered enough driftwood to build houses, furniture, and (I presume) horse carts.

Speaking of horses, there are a lot of them around. Small in stature but nimble on the rough ground and on ice, Icelandic horses are all the descendants of the initial cargoes of ponies from Norway, brought over in the 10th and 11 centuries. They still look like ponies, and according to my dictionary definition they are ponies, being barely 5 feet  (1.5 meters) high at the shoulder. However, you must not call them ponies here. To Icelanders they are horses, dammit, and if you call the horses “ponies” the locals will throw you into a fjord with your hiking boots tied around your neck.

I should also mention that they all have gorgeous manes; they all look either blow-dried or carefully windblown. You can admire the mane that this not-pony is sporting against a dramatic background.

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-056-Edit

Beautiful, yes, but what are all these horses for? There isn’t a big demand for draft animals in Iceland these days, and a horse this size would hardly do the job anyway. The answer is that most are pets or used for riding, and the ones that aren’t suitable for either of those or for breeding are… eaten. (Do not tell my niece, who is a very avid and experienced horsewoman.)

I mention all this horse stuff because our lodgings this evening are a beautiful 3-bedroom guest house on a working farm about 10 km south of Sauðárkrókur. And by a “working farm” I mean that the owners were out all day gathering sheep into this pen:

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-066

(The horns notwithstanding, these are all ewes. The males are kept separately.) Like most farms it is kind of in the middle of nowhere, so we returned to town for dinner, driving northward along the fjord around sunset as a sharply-defined cloud layer formed a few tens of meters over the water, hovering like a gigantic UFO.  The town itself is very small, with a only a couple thousand inhabitants, and just about the only restaurant was the suspiciously-named “Hard Wok”, whose two-page menus offered cuisine from about five different countries, including Chinese, Italian, and Mexican food. Our meals were surprisingly good.

Tomorrow, we fuel up — with actual diesel this time, thank you very much — and continue eastward and a little farther north.

 

 

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No, NOT the One With the Green Handle

OK, I want to be clear here. In the United States, the petrol pump with the green handle is always diesel. Always! Am I right, or am I right? I thought so. And so my error was not only forgivable, but unavoidable. Unavoidable, I say! But I am getting ahead of myself.

We left Reykjavik at about 10 AM today, en route to the north, to the area around Borganes, a small town on one of the western fjords of the country. Our specific destinations were a lava cave and a couple of well-known waterfalls in the vicinity. But first we needed to fill the tank of our thirsty 4WD behemoth, a double-cab Isuzu pickup truck with an enclosed bed for our luggage.

There was a gas station just around the corner from the flat, a brand called Olío. (Notice the accent over the letter i, which gives it a long i sound.) Our vehicle requires diesel fuel, which I noticed that all the pumps offered. So I drove up to the first pump, inserted my credit card, and engaged the pump with the green handle since that is OBVIOUSLY DIESEL FUEL. I pumped about 40 liters — costing approximately 12 million dollars US — as Tim and I congratulated each other on our manly ability to pump gas in a foreign country. (By the way, for the record, petrol actually costs roughly US $9 per gallon here.) But as I hung the pump back in its cradle, my eye was drawn to an adjacent pump handle — stealthy black in color — with a tag on it that, in ominous Icelandic, read “Díesl”. By virtue of my highly advanced linguistic skills, I immediately realized that, in NASA parlance, I had screwed the proverbial pooch. In particular, I had just put about 40 liters of 95-octane petrol into a diesel vehicle. The only saving grace of the situation was that I had noticed this before we had set out on our drive and inevitably broken down in the middle of some godforsaken windswept glacial tundra, which is where it surely would have happened.

But since we were still at the petrol station, the potential catastrophe had been reduced to what Alice and I refer to in our travels as an “MSP”, which stands for “Money-Solvable Problem.” I went to the counter of the service station, where the friendly attendant called a local guy who handles this sort of thing. Said local guy, a creased, windburnt, businesslike 60-something in coveralls, showed up about 20 minutes later, siphoned out the contaminated fuel, and — because we had called him from home on a weekend — somewhat apologetically charged me an amount of money that was shockingly much even by Icelandic standards. Like I said, an MSP.

We refueled the vehicle — another 18 million dollars of “Díesl” this time — and, this particular misadventure behind us, set out on our away again. Our route to the lava cave first brought us past Borganes and its adjacent fjord, bordering a scrubby green and yellow steppe at the foot of a line of steep volcanic mountains. Despite the bleakness — it was an overcast, windy day with a smattering of rain — there was a certain stark idyllic quality to the setting, as you can see from scenes like this.

Iceland Borganes 2018-004-Edit

The fjord itself is broad and still, and at the time we were there the tide was out, revealing a maze of low muddy shoals. Fortunately both the wind and rain died down for long enough to allow a drone flight, during which I captured these panoramas from the air:

Iceland Borganes Drone 2018-030-EditIceland Borganes Drone 2018-017-Edit

The bridge at lower left leads directly into Borganes. But although we are sleeping there tonight, our lava cave of interest lay about a 45 minute drive beyond it. The cave — actually a lava tube — is called Víðgelmir, which like many Icelandic place names is best pronounced whilst eating a marshmallow. It sits in the middle of a lava field at the foot of the Langjökull  glacier, which you can see here.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-010

The cave is more than 30 meters underground with assorted ledges and overhangs, so we were first equipped with helmets with mounted flashlights. As you can see from this photo we were ready for some volcanic spelunking.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-009

The entrance to the cave is suitably maw-like, and we picked our way along the, um, unadventurous wooden stairs and boardwalk, following our guide and listening to his lecture about the geology of the place.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-019Iceland Lava Cave 2018-023

We are not unfamiliar with lava tubes because of our time in Hawaii, but Víðgelmir is particularly impressive. It’s nearly a mile long and sports a variety of lava formations much more typical of a “conventional” limestone cave, e.g., stalactites and stalagmites, albeit very small ones. But its most (to me) unexpected feature is a consequence of its temperature, which hovers at just about freezing. Consequently there are a large number of crystalline stalagmite-like ice formations like these.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-037

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-033

I found them particularly otherwordly. And indeed, if you get too close they break open and this thing that looks like a horseshoe crab jumps out and grabs your face, and you just know what’s gonna happen after that.

The cave tour lasted about an hour and a half, and we set out to our next destination, the Barnafoss and Hraunfossar waterfalls, adjacent to each other along a short looping walking path. They’re beautiful and would have made a great venue for a drone flight except that by this time the rain had started in earnest.  Hraunfossar — the name means “lava falls” — has an unusual property: its water seems to come out of nowhere. What actually happens is that the glacial melt percolates through the surrounding lava field and emerges as a line of cataracts along the river; indeed, you can actually see the water coming out of the rock. Take a look:

Iceland Barnafoss 2018-006

Barnafoss, only about 200 meters away, means “Child Falls”, named after a rather dreary local legend about them. The story goes that one day two boys, home alone while their parents went to church, got bored and decide to follow.  (The assertion that two young boys spontaneously decided to go to church on their own tells you immediately that this is a myth.)  Anyway, the legend tells that they tried to take a shortcut over a natural stone bridge that crossed the falls, but fell off the bridge and drowned. The mother of the boys then cursed the bridge, and shortly afterward it was destroyed by an earthquake. This is about as cheerful as Icelandic legends get. It must be the weather. In any case, here’s Barnafoss:

Iceland Barnafoss 2018-013

You can tell from the photos how gray the sky had gotten, and in fact it was pretty much pouring by this time. So we gawked until satisfied, then retreated to the car and returned to Borganes. Our lodgings are an AirBnb, a very pleasant two-bedroom cottage overlooking the fjord. Borganes has a population of only about 3,000 but I am happy to report that we were able to satisfy Janet’s craving for pizza: there are at least two pizzerias in town, and the one we chose was excellent.

Tomorrow: further into the frozen north!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cold Water, Hot Water

Yesterday was a watery kind of day, not in the meteorological sense — the weather was surprisingly mild — but in the sense that most of our destinations involved either looking at or being immersed in water. Our first destination was the tourist-heavy Gullfoss waterfall (that “-foss” suffix in fact means “waterfall” in Icelandic), which holds a special place in Icelanders’ hearts because of the repeated failed attempts over the decades to exploit it for hydroelectric power. But, atypically for much of the world, the preservationists have repeatedly prevailed and the site remains pristine if you don’t count the endless stream of tour buses.

The two hour drive to Gullfoss took us pass scenes like these, which in some ways are Iceland as its finest, at least when the weather cooperates.

 

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-001Iceland Silfra 2018-019-Edit

Gullfoss itself is beautiful, large, though not altogether eye-popping in the Niagara or Victoria Falls sense, a pleasing two-tiered cascade through a broad canyon.

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-002Iceland Gullfoss 2018-029-Edit

The wind was ferocious, which seems to be Iceland’s default, and which pretty much buries any ambitions I had of getting any aerial imagery with my drone. (The signs forbidding drones didn’t help either.)

Our next stop was a geyser, and not just any old geyser, but the ur-geyser, the geyser after which all geysers are named. Ever wonder where the word “geyser” comes from?Wonder no more, because here it is:

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-054

This particular site was first noticed (and named) by a local traveler in the year 1249, then lapsed into obscurity for 400 years before being rediscovered as a must-visit destination in the 17th century. Now, if you look carefully at the above photo you may notice a certain lack of geothermal activity, in that, well, there doesn’t actually seem to be a geyser there. That is because in the early 20th century its activity started to diminish. Frustrated tourists — this is a true story — started throwing rocks and garbage into the mouth of the geyser, causing its throat to collapse and thus transmogrifying it into a non-geyser, nearly 700 years after its eponymous discovery. Bottom line: the world’s first named geyser….isn’t one anymore.

Fortunately for the tourism industry, one need only walk about 100 meters from this disappointment to the site of the Stokkur geyser, which erupts satisfyingly every 5-10 minutes.

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-047

After watching a couple of eruptions (“Was it good for you too?”) we ate lunch in the form of a private tailgate party — having visited a supermarket for lunch fixings the previous day — and headed to our final destination of the day, the Solfra volcanic fissure in Thingvellir National Park. Thinkvellir is distinguished by one very important geological feature: the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates runs through it. It is literally the boundary between continents. Here is the basaltic wall that marks the edge of the North American plate:

Iceland Silfra 2018-002-Edit

It’s tall, ominously brownish-gray, and imposing, probably 20 meters tall and looking for all it’s worth like either the entrance to Mordor or the Wall from Game of Thrones. There were no White Walkers in the vicinity (discounting Icelanders’ natural complexion), but there is a notable location, which you can see marked by the flagpole at the right of the photo. That is the original meeting place of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament that has been meeting since the year 930. The chieftains from all over the island would meet there yearly, traveling from all over the island to do so.

The corresponding wall marking the edge of the Eurasian plate is a few kilometers to the east, and the broad plain in between is a sort of geological no man’s land, belonging to neither continent. (This of course causes me to wonder what’s underneath it. Could we, like, jump up and down really hard, break through the ground, and fall all the way to the center of the Earth? Let’s try!)

There is, however, a narrow fissure running parallel to the wall, only a few meters wide in places and about 20 meters deep, fed by a spring whose source is a melting glacier a few kilometers upstream. That means two things: (1) the spring water is filtered through several kilometers of volcanic rock and is thus spectacularly pure and clear (I mean, like distilled water); and (2) the water is seriously ^%$**ing cold, i.e. just a couple of degrees above freezing.

All of which is the lead-in to our snorkeling trip through said fissure, a remarkable experience. We were clad in enormously cumbersome, airtight drysuits. These are highly constricting and basically constrain you to floating on the surface like a straitjacketed Michelin Man. But they do you keep you dry and reasonably warm: the only part of your body that is exposed is your lips, since you need to bite on the snorkel to breathe. So here I am in the channel:

DCIM101GOPROGOPR0689.JPG

The water has a vertical visibility of its full depth (~20 m) and a horizontal visibility of about 6-8 times that. You read that right: you can see about 150 meters horizontally through the water. It is like swimming through very viscous blue-green air, quite the unearthly sensation.

There is almost no fish life in the channel, but there is quite a lot of exotic multicolored strands and blobs of algae coating many of the rocks. In some places the channel looks like someone went crazy with cans of Silly String.

There is a place where the channel is narrow enough to touch both sides at once, and of course the tour operators exploit this by taking photos of everyone doing so. They advertise this quite incorrectly as touching both continents at once; our enthusiastic and voluble guide Kate explained all this to us and swore us to utter secrecy. So don’t tell anyone!

Kate herself is worth a mention. A Canadian semi-expat, she spends summers as a tour guide in Iceland. Tall, athletic, and enthusiastic, she is thus the archetype of the 20-something outdoor adventure guide. And she’s got the piece of paper to prove it: her college degree is in (wait for it) “Adventure Tourism”. That is definitely the diploma that you want to have.

After de-drysuiting and downing some hot chocolate, we returned to Reykjavik, ate diner, and went out for a final nighttime view of the Harpa. We’re about to leave for our next destination: the town of Borganes.

Iceland Reykjavik 2018-134

 

 

 

 

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Reykjavik: In Search of Icelanders

We arrived in Reykjavik at about 6 AM local time this morning, some 14 hours ago. Since we have attacked the city with our usual touristic compulsion, accompanied by our equally immoderate traveling companions Janet and Tim, I am more or less exhausted and so will for the most part let some photos do the talking. So let’s start with a panorama of Reykjavik Harbor, taken from the tallest point in the city: the spire of Hallsgrimkirkja (which I will explain in a moment):

The city looks more or less to the north across the harbor, and a couple of things stand out as you view it from either street level or from above: (1) the city has a very clean, orderly feel; and (2) the predominant architectural style is Primary Colored Boxes, a very Scandinavian look that might have resulted from the Norse gods having purchased the city in its entirety from Ikea. (It would have had some typical Ikea name like Whølecitii and the assembly instructions would have been 163,000 pages long.) It has a very walkable and compact downtown area; most of the major landmarks and attractions fall within an area about a mile on a side. The dramatic clouds that you see in the photo are pretty typical.

The Hallsgrimkirkja is probably the single most publicized and photographed building in Iceland, a 75 m (244 ft) church named after  Hallgrímur Pétursson, a 17th century Icelandic poet and clergyman. It shows up in every tourist ad and every postcard. You have very likely seen a photo of it at some point. Here it is:

The statue in the front is Leif Erickson, presented to Iceland as a gift from the United States in 1930 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament. Dating from AD 930, the Althing is the oldest parliamentary body in the world, originally presided over by Strom Thurmond. (That last phrase is actually a pretty good joke that only Americans over the age of about 55 will understand. Everyone else, just move on.)

As I mentioned, you have probably seen this picture before…. except that when you saw it, the building looked very white. For some reason, the Icelandic tourism authorities feel compelled to present this church as being heavenly white in color, and that is how it appears in most “official” photos after suitable lighting adjustments and resorting to Photoshop. But it isn’t white: it’s gray, just as you see here. Maybe on a sunny day it would like more iconic.

The interior of the Hallsgrimkirkja is every bit as striking and stark as the exterior. Here is the main sanctuary:

It is white, or nearly so, and very imposing, albeit in a spartan Mormon-Temple-Also-Bought-From-Ikea sort of way. At the back of the hall is a glorious and impressive 5700-pipe organ.

Before moving on I would first like to confirm two of the predictions that I made in my pre-trip blog post about a week ago. First, Reykjavik appears not to contain any actual Icelanders outside of store and restaurant employees. (And not even all of them: the rental agent who gave us our car was Lithuanian.) Pretty much everyone on the street is a tourist, Americans seemingly the most numerous.

Second, the locals love hot dogs, in case you thought I was kidding last time. We counted 5 hot dog stands in a two block stretch downtown. The most famous of all — supposedly the lines can be an hour long in the summer — is an unprepossessing kiosk dating from 1937, called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. (No, I do not know what the translation is.) And by “unprepossessing”, here is what I mean:

That’s it. Happily there was almost no line. The menu consists of exactly two items: hot dogs, and Coca Cola. There are five possible things you can get on your hot dog: mayo, mustard, ketchup, raw onion, or fried onions. Oh, and the Coke can be diet. That’s it. So we did our touristy duty and each had a hot dog and a Coke because really, what else was there to do. Here are Janet and Tim, snapping under the pressure.

In all fairness, I will grant that they were pretty good hot dogs. They were reasonably priced, and a lot less exotic (or at least thought-provoking) then some of the other local restaurant fare. We were looking for places for dinner later in the day and came across a well-reviewed steak restaurant near our flat. It seemed pretty straightforward: the name of the place was “The Steak Restaurant”. Reading the menu in the front window, an entree called “Surf and Turf” caught my eye. Reading one line further down revealed that the “surf” was minke whale and the “turf” was horse. We went elsewhere and got fish and chips for dinner. The fish was cod. All the fish here is cod, except for the halibut and Arctic char. (And whale, which isn’t a fish.)

Anyway, having fueled up on hot dogs to counteract our jet lag, we were ready to tackle some of the major city attractions. Besides the Hallsgrimkirkja, the next most prominent structure in the city is the much more contemporary performing arts house, the Harpa, which is essential the local equivalent of the Sydney Opera House. It is an exceptionally striking edifice, all prismatic glass that creates stunning interior and exterior views, e.g.:

(The bottom image is on the inside, looking upwards and outwards from the atrium.)

The Harpa sits right at the water’s edge, which prompted Janet to relate an anecdote that she had read in a book about how Icelanders view tourism. The complaint from at least one of the locals was, “Why do tourists keep building stupid piles of rocks?” we weren’t sure what that mean until we noticed the beach next to the Harpa, which looks like this:

Apparently these were erected by tourists rather than trolls. (Icelanders love trolls. You see stuffed trolls, troll toys, and books about trolls in pretty much every store. These are apparently not the kind that live under bridges and eat billy goats. Nor do they build pointless piles of rocks.)

A few hundred meters up the road from the Harpa is another of Reykjavik’s signature landmarks: the Sun Voyager sculpture:

It dates from 1990, created by the Icelandic sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason. It is 18 m (60′) long and about half that in height. If you are like every human being on Earth other than Jón Gunnar Árnason (who is now dead and thus not on Earth in the usual sense) you take one look at this thing and say “Viking ship.” I mean, it’s pretty obviously a Viking ship, right? But apparently not. According to Wikipedia:

“It is a common misunderstanding that Sun Voyager is a Viking ship. It is quite understandable that many tourists think like this when travelling in Iceland, the land of the sagas. Jón Gunnar was himself very ill with leukaemia at the time that the full-scale Sun Voyager came to be constructed, and he died in April 1989, a year before it was placed in its present location. Some people have thus suggested that Jón Gunnar conceived the work during this period, at a time when he might have been preoccupied with death, and argued that Sun Voyager should be seen as a vessel that transports souls to the realm of death. Sun Voyager was essentially envisaged as being a dreamboat, an ode to the sun symbolizing light and hope.”

You will note from a careful reading, however, this is all third-party interpretation: it appears that no one ever thought to ask Jón Gunnar whether it was a Viking ship and get “no” for an answer. So I’m sticking with Viking ship.

So jet lag and fatigue withstanding, that was our first day in Iceland. Tomorrow we are driving to Gulffoss Falls and doing our insanely cold snorkeling trip in the Silfra volcanic fissure.

 

 

 

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Iceward, Ho!

In less than a week we embark on an itinerary that one could fairly call “eclectic”, even by our peripatetic standards: 10 days in Iceland, followed by 4 days each in Paris in Prague. Why those choices? We’ve been to Paris many times and love it; it’s been 8 years since we were last there, and we felt it was time to go back. Prague has been on our bucket list for some time; we know many people who have visited and come back raving around it. And Iceland seems to have gotten very trendy in the past few years, with hordes of visitors descending upon the little island, so we figured it was time to do our part. Here’s our route, just south of the Arctic Circle:

2018-08-29 20_06_49-Reykjavík, Iceland to Reykjavík, Iceland - Google Maps To give you an ideal of the scale, the island is roughly 400 km across; our driving route, the aptly-named Ring Road (marked in blue) is about 900 miles (1500 km) long. You’d think that 10 days would be more than enough time to cover that distance, but it’ll be tight: a lot of the route is slow going, and of course there is a lot to see along the way. These include geysers, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanic landscapes, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanic landscapes, glaciers, and waterfalls. And geysers.

Some fun facts about Iceland:

  • The native population is about 350,000, but the island hosts over 2 million visitors a year. In other words, if you say to a random stranger, “Þú ert með fallegt land.” (“You have a beautiful country”), the highest-probability response, spoken ver-r-r-y loudly and slowly, is, “SORRY… I… AM… FROM… OMAHA.”
  • Those entertaining-looking glyphs Þ and ð in the previous paragraph are both pronounced “th”. (Fun sub-fact: English used to have such a letter too. Its name was “thorn” — really — and it looked rather like the letter y. So on those pseudo-Olde-English signs that you see that say things like “Ye Olde Haberdashery”, the “ye” is actually the word “the“. You’re welcome.)
  • Speaking of language, modern Icelandic is essentially identical to Old Norse. This means that present-day Icelanders can easily converse with Eric the Red during seances.
  • Iceland is renowned for its impressive variety of remarkably disgusting foods, which include fermented shark and “sour ram’s testicles”. (Research topic: Are there Chinese restaurants in Iceland, and if so do they serve sweet and sour ram’s testicles?) Supposedly they also make really good ice cream and hot dogs. Guess what we’ll be eating.
  • The famous volcano whose massive eruption disrupted North Atlantic air travel in 2010 is named Eyjafjallajökull. Do not be intimidated by the word, for it is actually surprisingly easy to pronounce: just remember that it rhymes with Þeyjafjallajökull.

At an average latitude of 65° — just a hair south of the Arctic Circle — Iceland is not famed for its clement weather. And of course at that latitude, you are stuck in more or less endless night in midwinter, and get to enjoy 24-hour daylight in midsummer. But we’ll be there in September, not far off the equinox, and so neither the temperatures nor the length of the day will be particularly extreme: sunrise will be at about 6:30 AM and sunset around 8:15 PM. The daytime high temperatures will be  about 50° F (11° C), the nights several degrees cooler.

What will be cold is the water, at a cryonic 36° F (2° C). The reason this matters is that we have booked a snorkeling trip (!) at Silfra, a volcanic fissure that is essentially the boundary between the two tectonic continental plates that Iceland straddles. (Hence all the volcanoes and geysers.) It is known for its stunningly clear water, volcanic rock formations, and hypothermic tourists. I’ll report on this when it happens.

Finally, we are of course hoping to see the aurora borealis. This is definitely a crapshoot; we’re at the early end of the season for it, and as of this moment the weather forecast calls for a lot of clouds and rain, at least for the first half of the trip.. But perhaps we will get lucky.

So wish us luck, watch this space, and remember this traditional greeting: “Þjónn, ég pantaði gerjað hákarl en þetta eru hrútur“, which according to Google means, “Waiter, I ordered fermented shark but these are ram testicles.”

 

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Droning Over OBX

If you’re not from the east coast of the US, you may not be entirely familiar with the Outer Banks, an enormous barrier island beach vacation destination in North Carolina. The term “OBX” to describe them is a relatively recent marketing invention; I don’t recall ever hearing it when I was a kid. In fact, the term “Outer Banks” itself only dates from the 1930’s.

The area is one of the longest pleasure beaches in the world: a 200-mile (320 km) strong of barrier islands more or less waiting to be destroyed by a hurricane. Unlike many barrier islands, OBX is (are?) not anchored by a coral reef, making them particularly vulnerable. Mother Nature likes un-anchored barrier islands to be movable: the oceanward sides of them erode away while the landward sides silt up and eventually merge with the mainland. Wave action then causes the barrier to re-form on the ocean side, and the cycle begins anew.

The problem, of course, is that houses are a lot less mobile than sand, and so the tourism and real estate powers-that-be engage in a constant and ultimately losing battle with the laws of physics.  But until that final capitulation occurs, it’s a great place to vacation, and my family and I have done so regularly. The tradition is to rent one of the gigantic multi-bedroom beach houses and to overeat for a week. Such houses are lined up along the beach, patiently generating tourist revenue and awaiting their destruction.

OBX 2018 Canon-044-Edit

This year was no exception, the new twist being that I now had a drone to fly. So here’s our house from the air (it’s the one in the foreground), followed by two panoramic views of the beach itself. (The lower one is looking northward at sunset.)

OBX 2018-003

OBX 2018-001

OBX sunset drone

That pier on the left side of the middle photo has a name of some historical significance. Here’s a ground-based shot that gives it away:

OBX 2018 Canon-037 In case you’re not viewing this on a big screen, it says “Kitty Hawk Pier”. Here’s a drone’s-eye view of it.

OBX 2018-002

This is the area where the Wright brothers inaugurated the air travel age in 1903, and do not imagine for one moment that the local tourism gurus let you forget it. The actual event took place a mile or two from this pier, in Kill Devil Hills, and there is of course a memorial there. There is also the actual course of the flight marked out, and you can easily walk its length in about 30 seconds as it is only 120′ (36m) long. (For comparison, the wingspan of a 747 is about 60% longer than that.) The flight took 12 seconds, and their luggage showed up three days later.

Another historical name that pops up frequently in the area is Virginia Dare. Roads, restaurants, you name it, she’s everywhere. Which is somewhat remarkable, because her sole claim to fame is being born here, the first child born to English settlers in the New World. That was in August 1587. Three months later her grandfather sailed back to England on a supply run, and when he returned Virginia, her parents, and the entire colony had disappeared altogether, thereby creating one of the enduring mysteries of American history. Ms. Dare — or at least her name — has had quite a good run of it since then, however, as everything from a soft drink to an icon of women’s suffrage, which is not a bad legacy considering that absolutely nothing else is known about her.

I’ll end this note with a non-drone picture, taken at night underneath the pier. I post it here entirely because (a) I like how the shot came out (it’s a 3-second time exposure) and (b) it’s my blog, dammit.

OBX 2018 Canon-024

Our next travel adventure will be in less than 4 weeks, to Iceland, Paris, and Prague. Watch this space!

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Lights, Camera, More Lights

Baltimore is one of those cities that has enjoyed a real renaissance in the past 30-40 years or so, sparked by the arrival of the Tall Ships as part of the 1976 Bicentennial and the development of its renowned Inner Harbor area in the subsequent few years. The city still has a pretty well-deserved reputation for grittiness, part of its blue-collar ethnic character, but it’s a lively place with a lot to offer. City officials have taken full advantage of its gentrified areas, and the Inner Harbor in particular, in addition to hosting two major sports teams, is the frequent site of one multimedia event or another. This past week’s extravaganza was the annual “Light City” festival, a high voltage — literally — celebration of technology and innovation. And lights. Lots of lights. Spinning lights, blinking lights, flying lights, motion-sensitive lights, color-changing lights, and so on.

It is surprisingly difficult to get good photos in a setting like that. The surroundings are dark, which means that there is plenty of time for people in the bustling crowd to walk in front of the camera during, say, a 2-second exposure. And the lights are bright (being lights and all), which means that the scene is all brights and darks with little in between, which is a photographic challenge when it comes to setting the exposure. Nonetheless, here are a few samples from last night.

Baltimore Light Festival 2018-026Baltimore Light Festival 2018-029-EditBaltimore Light Festival 2018-037Baltimore Light Festival 2018-050That’s Alice in the top photo, taking a video of the rotating prisms. (Remember the part about the lights moving?) And the odd-looking blue-lit sculptures in the bottom photo collectively form a drone racing course — the Drone Prix (really) — where guys with much faster reactions than me steer their little high speed racing drones around the course, occasionally crashing into the nylon mesh fence that you can see across the picture. You can see the drone as well, or at least its running lights: it’s that double track of green and yellow that is swirling around the image over the course of its 5-second exposure.

Speaking of which…

I almost lost my own drone last week by making the most stupid rookie mistake possible, i.e. not flying higher than the surrounding trees while making an aerial video of a friend’s house. Fortunately a tree service and a $200 check got it back to me. Here’s the whole drama, boiled down to a one-minute video complete with dramatic soundtrack:

Lesson learned. A subsequent test flight the next day reassured me that despite its misadventure the drone still works properly. But Alice still gleefully imagines what concessions she might extract from me had it been destroyed and I wanted to replace it.

 

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