An Icelandic Saga

2 Jul

Hello dear friends,

Well, we can’t believe it but today is our final day in Europe. This morning we find ourselves tucked into a trendy tea house in downtown Reykjavik, sheltered from the wind and rain that dance outside. Our past week in Iceland has been completely out-of-this-world and we are so glad we chose this country as our journey’s final destination. Iceland is a country of extremes and while she presents various challenges, her rewards are unbelievable: fascinating history, stoic people, and absolutely extraordinary nature.

We began our trip on the bicycle, reassembling our bikes at the airport and heading north on the Reykjanes Peninsula to a campground at Iceland’s oldest lighthouse for a summer solstice “party”. There was beautiful live music playing all evening, with many people clad in wool mingling about the area. We were struck by their reserved and respectful personalities, and also impressed how non-commercialized the event was. We spent most of the evening sitting on the coast’s rocky shoreline watching the sun set for hours, and were overjoyed with the magical reality that the soft light never disappeared.

We awoke in this peaceful place and began our cycle west, exploring the peninsula’s flat lava fields and completely bewitched by the otherworldliness of the place. It felt as though we were cycling on the moon, if not for the ocean on our right, colourful splashes of wildflowers, and the tiny towns of simple houses that emerged every so often. A highlight was our visit to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge’s rift valley, where we could walk back and forth between the Eurasian and American continental plates; these plates are drifting apart from each other at the same rate fingernails grow. We lay in the valley’s volcanic ash and were so humbled by the chance to see such an active geological process.

We spent that evening in a grassy field nestled in our first Icelandic mountains, and although the daytime skies had been dull, the evening cleared to showcase beautiful reds and pinks. It was perfect. But the weather changed on us in the morning, bringing winds from the north that raged with such force it nearly blew our tent over and made cycling impossible. Realizing we only had a very short stay in Iceland and that the strength of the wind, combined with upcoming gravel roads and a pulled leg muscle, meant that we would see very little of the country if we stayed on our bikes. Thus, we made the difficult (and expensive) decision to turn around and rent a car for three days. We battled the winds back to the airport (30 kilometres took us almost four hours!) and traded Nootka and Temagami for Eric the Silver, a cute little Ford Fiesta who was a sanctuary for our exhausted bodies.

And so, we headed west, effortlessly cutting through the wind and feeling like we were going incredibly fast; one hour in a car equals one day on the bicycles! That evening, we took the opportunity to thank our muscles for getting us through the wind by visiting our first Icelandic geothermal bath in the town of Hveragerðl. Hveragerðl sits right on top of an active geothermal area, centred around a main steaming hot spring (where you can smell the sulphur). Locals have been using the heat for decades to bake their bread and boil eggs, but we were happy to use the heat to simply warm ourselves. The entrance fee to the community pool was only $3 and we had access to a swimming pool, two outdoor hot tubs (which were both naturally heated to 40 degrees Celsius) and a sauna utilizing the steam directly from the Earth. Wow! We slunk out of the pool feeling relaxed, but disgruntled with the fact that the cold wind was still raging. Unable to find a picnic table out of the wind, we made our pasta dinner in the protection of a bus shelter. A campground warden saw us huddled around our MSR stove and promptly offered us a free place to stay at his site, which had a hedge that acted as a good wind block. Ollie was a good man to meet and we were thankful for his episode of hospitality.

The next three days were an absolute whirlwind… in short, we are in complete awe of Iceland. We travelled 1,000 kilometres with Eric the Silver and he carried us through geothermal hotspots, past massive waterfalls, beside plains of endless purple lupine, into shockingly green mountains, alongside volcanoes covered by glaciers, and near to groups of horses that have remained unchanged since the Viking’s time. Our entire trip felt like a dream, and it was a paradise for Alec-the-photographer (we pulled onto the road’s shoulder about every two minutes). The expression “mind blowing” has never been more appropriate.

We spent our time in the southern section of the islands and this area boasts many specific natural attractions. The tour that almost every tourist to Iceland undertakes is called “The Golden Circle” and this short loop brought us to Kerið, Geysir, Gulfoss and Þingvellir Kerið is a 50 meter deep crater from a volcanic cone that is now filled with water. Geysir is a geothermal area home to the “original” geyser and although this one no longer bubbles and spouts boiling water 70 metres into the air, its (shorter) neighbour Strokkur naturally goes off every ten minutes. Gulfoss is a beautiful two-tiered cascade whose water plunges into a narrow canyon. Þingvellir was impressive for its natural beauty as well as historical reasons, as this is the site of one of the oldest parliaments in the world; Iceland’s parliament was established at Þingvellir in 930, on a more northerly section of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Icelanders gathered here for legal, judicial and social purposes until 1789 and the location continues to be an important national gathering site.

Beyond the Golden Circle, it was a hit parade of natural phenomenon. Our trip took us through three main glaciers: Mýrdalsjökull, Eyjafjallajökull (which sat a top the famed 2010 volcano) and Europe’s largest called Vatnajökull. These incredible masses of ice partially melt away into countless waterfalls which plunge over the green slopes we drove beside. Two especially impressive waterfalls were the gushing Skógafoss and the ribbon-like Seljalandsfoss, which we were able to walk behind.

Our final “attraction” was also a result of glacial action and was probably one of the most impressive things we have ever seen. A lagoon, called Jökulsárlón, has been forming from the Vatnajökull glacier ever since the 1920s (a period of rising temperatures). The Vatnajökull is calving into the lagoon; this deep and clear water body is full of majestic icebergs of all shapes and shades of blue and white. We were in awe. This was an emotion our fellow tourists shared as there was a peacefulness to the place, and people spoke quietly as if to bring ease to the lagoon’s playful seals and to ensure that a berg did not flip over (as they often do) prematurely. The lagoon flowed into the ocean and thus smaller bits of ice lined the beach; the pieces of ice lay on the black beach like glittering jewels on a velvet carpet, and they resonated with the crashing waves.

This place perhaps best highlighted how naturally different Iceland is. It was often hard to make sense of our surroundings, and to remember that we were not walking along a sandy beach looking at snowy mountains, but rather that our feet were atop of ash and our vistas were of glacial capped volcanoes. These volcanoes contribute to the intensity of making a home in this country; eruptions can result in great dynamism and disaster. But this is only one example of the extremities Icelanders of past and present face. The weather is (as we experientially discovered) very windy and it seems to change frequently. Their winters here are long and dark, and the usually tree-less landscape provides little refuge from storms. However, despite being at such a high latitude (62° to 66°) their climate is relatively mild thanks to the Gulf Stream and we enjoyed incredible sunny and warm weather during most of our stay on the island. We’ve had to do a double take at the flowers that can grow in this environment, the farm animals that can live here (cows, sheep and horses), and bewildered to see the vegetables Icelanders grow, although this is largely thanks to geothermal-based greenhouses.

Besides wildflowers and livestock, an incredible amount of birds also make their home here. The coast’s cliffs and mountain’s crooks are filled with nesting and feeding seabirds that peacefully soar with thousands of their comrades. The bird calls were completely different than any we have heard before, and their unique and warbling voices were often the only noise we could hear while sitting at a picnic table beside the quiet main road. We felt connected to these birds, whose lives in many ways embody the beautifully free lifestyle we have been able to live over the past nine months. However, many of these birds have travelled farther than us this year. For example, the arctic tern we frequently saw has the longest migration pattern in the world; terns migrate 70,000 kilometres a year, and it is estimated that in one lifetime a tern will travel 2.5 million kilometres. That would be many days pedalling for us!

And speaking of cycling, we should mention our feelings of travelling by car instead of bike through this incredible place. We realize that the car certainly is more advantageous for a quick visit and we are truly thankful that with Eric the Silver we were able to see so much in such a short period of time. This was especially useful in Iceland as one of the incredible parts of the country is how diverse it is and how quickly the landscapes can change. The car protected us from the weather so that changes in winds or rains wouldn’t slow us down from our sight-seeing. However, although in a sense we “saw more” with our little Ford, we know we did not see things as thoroughly or as richly. We did miss getting to feel, smell and listen to the world around us, and found it unfortunate that in our closed off environment we mainly used our eyes to understand the Icelandic world. Luckily, we still had the “cycle touring mentality” and got out of the car very frequently, wandered around when we could, and still enjoyed camping in open spaces. We were also very glad that with our car we could pick up a young hitchhiking couple, happy to repay the generosity of the
strangers we have gotten rides from on previous adventures.

In general, we definitely made the right decision renting a vehicle, but we really hope one day we could come back when we have many weeks and cycle tour through Iceland. We saw many cycle tourists on the road who were taking the whole summer to travel by bike. What luck they have to exclusively breathe in the island’s fresh air, find special places to tuck into, and understand the weather for what it properly is. We’ll definitely put cycle touring Iceland on the to do list.
And the last part of our Iceland adventure, as well as the very last part of our European tour, is in this quaint capital of Reykjavik. Of the 300,000 people living in Iceland, approximately 200,000 live in this harbour town with a wonderfully high density of cafes, restaurants, shopping and nightlife. There is a very artistic and musical energy to the city, and we were happy to see hundreds of people lounging on the grass enjoying the sun. We have been lucky to finish the trip staying with a lovely friend-of-a-friend named Ása, who lived in a nice home right downtown. We felt very comfortable with Ása (who was also born on June 7th!) and really enjoyed our conversations with her. We were happy that she could provide us greater insight on the Icelandic people. We find them an interesting population and are fascinated by the fact that Icelanders can trace themselves back to the original Viking settlers who arrived in Iceland in the 800s…. In fact, Ása showed us an online genealogy database that displays comprehensive heritage detail on each Icelander!

Another impressive thing about Icelandic culture is how strong their native language is. This language is rather ancient and, thanks to their geographical isolation, is very close to what the Vikings spoke. It continues to be used prolifically despite a widespread comfort with English. There also still seems to be a strong appreciation for their heritage’s tradition and literature, and when we return we hope to learn more of this part of Icelandic life. We also might have to try some of the more outrageous food Icelandic cuisine offers; in Reykjavik you can eat puffin, whale, putrefied (read: rotting!) shark and lamb’s head! Although we haven’t yet indulged in these aforementioned delicacies, we have enjoyed some Icelandic-specific foods including snack bags of harðfiskur (dried fish), pickled things, rye pancake flatbreads, lots of liquorice-flavoured treats, and (our favourite) skyr, which a yogurt-like product very rich with protein. And of course, we had to have pylsa, which is often called “Iceland’s national food”. What is it? A hot dog! With random sauce and fried onions. Hilarious.

Another thing we really appreciate about the Icelandic mentality is the accessibility the locals and tourists alike have to nature. We really respected the fact that we were never charged admission to visit any of these natural wonders, and although Iceland is VERY expensive we don’t mind paying a little more for coffee and bread when all these destinations are free. We think it exemplifies the innate respect the Icelanders must have for nature, as this embodies the idea that nature is not to be exploited or sold.

We are so happy that Iceland was our final destination, and even though we can’t believe our trip is over we couldn’t have asked for a better send off. While our experiences with nature in Iceland were probably some of the most epic, it serves as a fitting end to our European adventures as so many of our special moments were spent within incredible natural beauty. Despite all countries having their own economic, political and social intricacies, our trip exemplified that in each place Mother Earth exceeds imagination, adding unique splendour to every corner, from craggy coastlines, to green mountains, to fields of wildflowers and sparkling fresh water lakes… we give thanks to the bicycle for allowing us to bear witness to the immense pleasure the natural world has to offer.

And we know this is how we will continue to structure our lives, to continue seeking for wild and ecospiritual places. For it is on the path to and through these experiences that we find not only tranquility and motivating people, but also the reminder of what fundamentally makes us human. We vow to ourselves to continue to gaze upon the world with wonder and will remember that the deeper we know Mother Earth the more humbled and inspired we become. How lucky we are to be children of this Earth, with the hearts and the minds to explore it.

What a joy it was that at this bittersweet end, with so much of us wishing that the trip could never be over, we were in a place where time seemed to stand still. In Iceland the sun lingers through all hours so that each day blends into the next and the arrival of “tomorrow” is only vaguely felt. And likewise, this week we have lingered in our vagabond lifestyle, in disbelief of the places we have been and not quite sure where we are going next, but relishing in the ground beneath our feet and the endless summer skies above us. And we know tomorrow will come, and with it new joys and challenges, and into the sun we carry everything we have gained over the past nine months.

We wouldn’t have changed anything on our trip, and will be forever grateful for it. We are so thankful to everyone who followed our blog and shared in these experiences with us, and are looking forward to seeing you all in person sometime soon. We will post a final blog when we return home, but for now we will leave you with our last European update.

With lots of love,

Alec and Caitlin

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2 Responses to “An Icelandic Saga”

  1. nancy walters July 11, 2011 at 11:39 pm #

    Thanks Alec and Caitlin for sharing your trip with me. It was great to follow your adventures and enjoy some beautiful scenery and experience things thru your eyes!!! Its been an amazing journey and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it while sitting at my computer with no sore biker’s muscles!!!!!

    XO,
    Shannon’s Mom , ( Nancy Walters)

  2. Marie Noëlle Lhirondel July 29, 2011 at 7:01 pm #

    HI,
    I didn’t realise island was so beautiful…
    you give us ideas for a next trip.
    So happy that all is fine for you,
    I wish you good stay in London.
    remember you’re always welcome in our home…
    Marie noëlle de Bayeux (France)

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