Sunday, January 22, 2017


Growing up, I was fairly obsessed with all things whales.  We had a couple National Geographic segments that were recorded from the TV, and the one about the oceans fascinated me.  I would watch the whole thing over and over again, just waiting for them to introduce the Blue Whale near the end of the program.  I wasn't very good at drawing, so I would spend hours tracing photos and diagrams from a little information book I had about whales.  Any jewelry I had featured whale flukes, or waves.  Though I’m not much of a swimmer, being on a boat of any variety fills me with glee. To this day, my favourite place to be is by the ocean . 

With all of this in mind, imagine my excitement and anticipation leading up to this day, the day Daniel and I went whale-watching in the Arctic Ocean.  

We got to the launch point, checked in, and went down to a storage locker where we were given a survival suit.  Keep in mind it was July, a time of year where staying warm isn’t usually a problem. I initially scoffed at the suit, but thought better of it. The crew were wearing little more than jeans and woolen sweaters and the occasional hat - but I was not crew, nor a sailor, nor Icelandic, and I didn’t have to prove how tough I was to anyone.   This was a good decision, and I was cosy as a bug in a rug in my giant suit as the wind whipped across the water.

The day was sunny and windy and bright, and we could see snow-capped mountains in the distance.The ship we boarded was amazing.  An old, refurbished Icelandic Schooner, which used to be used as a whaling boat. There was a battery on board that was charged by the ship's movement.  When the sails were up the battery would charge, and when the sails were down we could keep going with an electric motor. This carbon neutral set-up appealed to me almost as much as the whales themselves. Daniel got roped in to help with the sails a few times as we left the bay.

We kept our eyes out on the water as we sailed out.  We were headed toward a small island that was known for its large puffin colony.  It's called Puffin Island. A very apt name.  You could see thousands of puffins flying around the tall cliffs, flapping their wings madly.  We had brought our binoculars, and with them you could see the puffins nesting all over the island and cliffs.  You could also spot men, with long-handled nets, sitting stock still among the rocks and grasses.  Every once in a while, they would swing out their nets, catch a puffin, take a quick look at it and then either throw it loose, or break its neck and toss it onto a pile of puffins next to them.  One of the crew told us that the hunting of puffins is highly regulated, you have a strict quota, and when the hunters are looking at the birds they are making sure they aren't female or that they don't have fish in their mouths (indicating they are bringing food back to their young). 

Puffin Island.  It's hard to tell how many puffins are in the air - but trust me, there were oodles.
After Puffin Island, sharp eyes and patience were rewarded with our first glimpses of a humpback. At first, you'd see nothing but a brief spout.  But later on we got closer and could see more of them, as well as their tails when they were going down for a deeper dive.  I'm sure I screeched in delight every time I got to see a little glimpse of the giant and graceful creatures.  One of the coolest parts was being close enough to actually hear the spout of air, since we were being propelled by the wind in our sails rather than a loud motor.
I'm  losing my mind with awe/joy at this moment

The markings on the tail are all different between individual whales
Seemingly all too soon, we had to head back to land.  Clouds had replaced the sunshine, and the wind got stronger and colder.  Hot chocolate (with an optional brandy top-up) was brought up, along with a cinnamon bun for each passenger.   A perfect way to warm up at the end the voyage.
No brandy in my cup, but still warmed me right up.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Magma, Movies and Mammoth Mammals

Real-life lava fields!  This was a dream come true for me.
The beauty, power, and danger of volcanoes and lava has always been a fascination of mine.  As much as they frighten, they also impress. We're standing on a tiny shell of rock and dirt that is sitting on a giant orb of hot magma. It's moving and shifting all the time, and sometimes breaks through the surface

You keep to the path, for your own good.
The extreme landscape of Iceland has been caused by the divide between the North American and Eurasian Plate.  We all remember the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull a few years ago, which is on the southern end of the island.  Well, on the north end of the island we were on the opposite end of the same fault line.  Located here was the Krafla Geothermal Power plant, and the nearby Krafla lava field.  While no longer spewing lava, you could still see steam rising from the fissures, and bubbling mud pits all around. We walked around for the better part of 2 hours, and we could have stayed for much longer and gone much further.  The field went on for about 15 km.

The rock was incredibly rough and light.

 Next we hit the road out of Mývatn and started on toward the coastal town of Húsavík.

Dettifoss was the next stop.  It is a popular stop, and we saw more people here than we had anywhere else since the beginning of the trip.  It's an epic waterfall, and is featured in the opening scene of the movie Prometheus.   It is an incredibly powerful waterfall - the crashing sound of the water was incredible.  

The canyon it flows into wasn't actually created over time by this steady stream of water, but was caused by extreme glacial floods, which took place over the course of a few days. The power of water is easy to forget and hard to imagine sometimes. 

The canyon is called Jökulsárgljúfur, and the same flooding that caused the canyon, caused the Asbyrgi canyon further down river.  
The flood waters cut around this magnificent rock
It was kind of enormous.
Asbyrgi canyon is protected all the way around by these tall rock cliffs, and has created a green and protected space for lots of things to grow.  Flowers, trees, grasses, ducks and birds have settled in quite nicely in this little grove.  It is so different than most of this area.  There was a really great interpretive centre at the entrance to the park that explained the natural creation of this unique space.
T-shirt weather, for the first time since arriving in Iceland.
I was surprised at how much warmer it was here, simply by being protected a bit from the wind by the cliffs and the trees.  It was really nice to walk around and see such a lush and different side of the area.  So different from the lava fields just a few kilometers away.

Húsavík was up next.  Husavik used to be a whaling town, and they have a fantastic museum located in a former slaughterhouse.  The Húsavík Whale Museum is all about whales, the history of whaling, and the importance of conservation.  They had a full Blue Whale skeleton on display on the main floor, complete with original balene.  We didn't take any photos because we were too busy learning - but you can take  a look through their website to see what else they had going on.

We had dinner at a pub on the docks.  We sat on the patio wearing sunglasses and slathered in sunscreen, while also wearing coats and hats.  The sun was hot-hot-hot, but the breeze cold-cold-cold.  Sitting by the water had us thinking a lot about what we were going to be doing the next day.  I was so excited, I had a hard time falling asleep, and not just because of the sun streaming through our van's windows.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Rock, Petra, Sheep

The smallest of plants, growing out of a pile of stones on a saltwater beach.

This next day was to be one of our longest drives, but conditions couldn't have been lovelier.  We were lucky to enjoy yet another sunny, cloudless day - not what I pictured Iceland to be like, even in the summer. We had a lot of distance to get through if we were going to make it back to Reykjavik in less than a week.  My stick-shift driving skills were pretty rusty at the beginning of our travels, but thanks to Daniel's patience and nerves of steel on the first day, I got over my jitters and got along okay.

This route equated to about a 5 hour drive, but we took much longer because of all of our stops.

We obviously were driving a lot, and that might seem boring, but it was one of the most incredible parts of the trip.  The roads, especially on this side of the island, were pretty empty.  They weaved along cliffsides and port-towns. There was always something magnificent to look at, whether it was sheep on the roadside or the larger than life sky. 
There were sheep everywhere, and they always seemed to be out on the road, and not in the fenced in areas.
Our first major stop of the day was in Stöðvarfjörður for Petra's Stone & Mineral Collection.  Daniel described it to me from our guidebook as an interesting place to stop. It was along the coast, would add to our drive, and we had to take a long gravel road to get there. I won't deny that I was dubious it would be worth it.  A rock collection museum, in a rock filled country?  How interesting is that?  Well, I was certainly wrong.  It was such a cool stop.

Just a small corner of Petra's Stone & Mineral Collection.

It is an outdoor rock garden, with incredible stones covering every single surface. Throughout her life Petra collected stones from all over the nearby mountains.  Where someone would see a pile of unremarkable rubble, she would be able to pick out a lovely and interesting rock easily.   Even as she was getting on in years, her favourite thing to do would be to climb up a mountain, fill a backpack with rocks and bring them back to her garden.  There were a few geodes that she would roll down the hill, or hide away and come back later with friends and a sledge to help her bring the rock back.

This particular specimen was about the size of a medicine ball, and was Petra's favourite stone.
Now, this was just her own personal garden, with her own collection - and yet people would come over from all over to marvel over it.  For years she never charged anything, because she knew these rocks belonged to the country and not to her personally.  Eventually, the number of tourists, and their use of her washroom, convinced her to start charging a nominal fee.  Since her passing, her family runs the garden so all that pass by can see it. Stop by if you ever get a chance - or read about Petra and her life if you want to smile.  She also collected pens and matchboxes, but they were kept safe indoors.

Also in that little town we found a beautiful wool and craft market, and a yard sale in a warehouse (trust me to find wooly goods shop or a yard sale, wherever we are).  I picked up a few random post cards at the yard sale, and at the craft market, instead of buying a knitted item, I purchased some Lopi yarn for a sweater.

Now, pretty much everything in Iceland is expensive, and for good reason.  It's a remote island and any town that isn't Reykjavik is exponentially more remote. The further away you are from the capital, the more expensive everything is. The only exception to this rule is wool. Istex purchases raw wool from Icelandic farmers, and it is milled and spun in a town called Blönduós. It's about as local as you can get, and I got this sweater quantity of wool for a steal of a deal.  I have a pattern in mind, and once I knit it up, I have no doubt it will be one of the warmest things I'll ever own. 

Back on the road! Onward to Seyðisfjörður!  We had to drive up and over a mountain range to get to the charming town, and it was worth it. 
I forgot to take any pictures of the town itself, which was a shame - but I did remember to take  a picture of the wool in the grocery store.  Also a steal of a deal here.

There was a pond in the middle of the town, likely fed by the waterfalls that flowed down the mountain we drove down.  There was a little island in the middle of the pond that one kid had got to, and there were a group of 4-5 others who were trying to make it there as well.  The water was clearly frigid, and the shrieks and screams of joy and discomfort as others tried to cross to the island were hilarious and endearing.

So. Many. Waterfalls.

Again, we enjoyed our time there so much that we forgot to take any pictures.

Onward again, for a few more hours to our final campsite in Mývatn, Just a half hour away from  our final destination for the night, we  stopped at Hverir to check out some of the amazing geothermal activity in the area.  The smell of sulfur was intense, though it bothered me much more than it did Daniel.  All across this field of red-brown dirt there were large bubbling blue mud-pits, marked off with bits of string.  All across Iceland, even at the most dangerous and precarious stops, you are responsible for your own safety.  If you decide to stand on slippery rocks next to a waterfall, or step over the 4 inch high string boundary keeping you from hot bubbling sulfuric mud - that's on you. There is no one to rescue you from yourself.

Mars-like landscape

While the smell of sulfur did turn my stomach, it was a remarkable sight to see in person.  The landscape did make me think of Mars, with the red-brown rocks and strangely shaped mountains in the background.  This geyser was covered in a small  tower of rocks, and it made the most amazing whooshing and hissing sounds along with quite a bit of heat. I had never seen anything like it.

At this point, the sun was on its way down, which meant it was pretty late.  We'd soon be settled into our bed for the night, bellies full of delicious pizza (served in a small outbuilding next to the campground)  ready for the next day of adventures.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Lupins and Langoustine

As we left Pakgil for a long stretch of driving on our way to Hofn, you could see nothing but fields of Nootka Lupine (I just call them lupins) on either side of the road. It reminded me of the poppy fields in Wizard of Oz.  

Lupins are not native to Iceland, and so obviously some people are really against them because they are an invasive species.  They were introduced in 1945 as a way of fighting erosion and adding nitrogen to the soil.  This has worked, but, as you can imagine, almost too well.  Lupins are flourishing and they are hard to contain, much to the detriment of the low-lying plants, grasses and mosses that are native to the area.  

We followed a trail through the flowers, until all of a sudden the fields of purple and green ended, and there was only black sand and rocks.

Like walking on the moon

Lucky model shot for when the wind was cooperating.
Reality of what most pictures of me look like in the wind
Right in the middle of low-lying grey sand plains is an area that has (to my untrained eye at least) only native plants and species dotted along the landscape.  I was constantly stopping to take pictures of these tiny plants making their way up out of the gravel.  They reminded me of the little succulent plants we have in our windows, and I was obsessed with them.

We continued along the track until it eneded, and the followed some very subtle blazes that guided us through the grey expanse to a small white building partially protected by a bluff.  It was a strange sight to see this little building, with nothing else as far as the eye can see.  We had lots of questions, and fortunately there was a little plaque that explained its purpose.  Years ago, in the winter, that expanse of land was troublesome to travelers and there were many deaths as people traveled from one town to another.  This building was put up as a safe haven.  The inside boards and beams of the tiny building were covered in carved names and dates - a mix of weary travelers from 80 years ago, and more recently, curious tourists like ourselves - a different sort of traveler.
Well worth the investigation

Our next stop was Svartifoss Waterfall.  You've probably seen pictures of the waterfall before, and I'm going to add ours to the fray.  It was an easy and beautiful walk up into the hills, and it was as impressive and as interesting as I thought it would be.  

The same pillared rock that we saw on the beaches of Vik

Back onto the road, and it was straight to Hofn to get a campground spot and find some dinner.   By the time we arrived it was getting pretty dark for that time of year (which is a generous dusk), and we were pleased to check in before they closed up the office.  The gentleman at the desk was super friendly, gave us some recommendations on where to find dinner, and we chatted a little bit about the Montreal Canadians.  He had a Habs windbreaker and a Habs tattoo on his upper arm. I asked how he came to be such an avid fan of a Canadian hockey team, and he said simply "Because they are the best team."  Smart man.

We parked our van, and headed into town.  We were very discerning, and literally stopped at the first place we found, Kaffi Hornið.  It was warm and cozy inside, and we were not disappointed.  We started with  Langoustine Tempura, and I later had Langoustine Pizza while Daniel had the local lamb chops. Like I said, we had frugal and simple meals during the day, but at dinnertime we certainly made up for it.   Langoustine is a smaller relative to a lobster, and is also known as Norway Lobster or Dublin Bay Prawn.  They grow to be about 8 inches long, are a pale orange colour, and are delicious. 

With bellies full,  We went back to our little campervan to plan out the next day's adventures, read our books, and get some much needed sleep.

This day's route, Pakgil to Hofn.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

We Went Chasing Waterfalls

The sun was up when we went to sleep, and it was still up when we woke up the next morning.  The entire time we were in Iceland, the novelty of constant light never wore off.

This was the view that we left as we checked out of our hotel and climbed into our trusty steed of a Campervan, set-up the GPS and the grocery store.

Our home for the next 10 days
The population of Iceland is right around 330,000, with 200,000 of that population living within the city limits of Reykjavík.   That leaves a lot of (beautiful!) empty roads between us and the next destination, so we stocked up on provisions: bread, cheese, jam, vege, apples, skyrr, cereal and instant coffee.  Our wee-van was equipped with camp stove, pots and pans - but we ate very simply throughout the day, with our food stored in a convenient icebox in the back. Almost every night we would treat ourselves to dinner out.  More on the delicious food we ate later.

After the icebox was stocked, we hit the road.

I had plotted out an ambitious route for us, going counter-clockwise around the island, marking all the waterfalls that I wanted to stop at. First one on the list was Seljalandsfoss.  It's a popular stop for tourists because it is such a short distance from  Reykjavík.  While this was a spot where there were certainly lots of tourists (including us of course) it really didn't feel like that many, and I never felt jostled or uncomfortable or bothered.  You can walk behind this waterfall, and though the rocks we walked on looked like they were slick and slippy, they actually had lots of grip.  I still took each step very carefully, and was mildly terrified the entire time.

The view from behind the waterfall.  We were both thoroughly damp from the mist
Our next waterfall stop was Skogafoss.
You could walk right up to the waterfall, and from every angle, you could see rainbows in the mist.  

The scale of this waterfall was incredible. Water crashing, from 200 feet up,  We climbed the stairs to the top and were able to look down on it as well.

I was super excited for the next stop; the black sand beach at Vik captured my imagination when I first saw the video for Bon Iver's song Holoscene.

It is all shot in Iceland,  and it wasn't until we re-watched this video that we realized we had been to all of these places. I didn't believe so many different scenes could all be shot on one small island, but I was mistaken.  The landscape changes so quickly as you travel, it's remarkable.

Cave formed out of the basalt columns.  It was about 50 ft tall.  

Spying our first puffin of the trip. 
Not having started out as early as we would like, it was getting late (though it was still stunningly light out)  and we still had to find some dinner and make our way to our campsite.

We found a restaurant called Sudur Vik, where we squeezed in and had a delicious dinner while watching the final soccer game between Iceland and France. Everyone was very involved in the game - and I heard it said that everyone who lives in Iceland knows at least one of the team members personally.  I wouldn't be surprised it that was true.   Unfortunately, Iceland lost that match, but it was still great to watch it all play out. 

The sun was finally getting a little low on the horizon as we made our way to our first campsite, Pakgil.  The super rocky, twisty, narrow, cliffside road was slow going, and visibility was close to nil as the sun shone right into our eyes most of the drive.  Daniel maneuvered it like a pro, but I am not ashamed to say I was ready to turn back at any moment. 
En route to Pakgil.  Our home for the night was just past the rocky dome in the distance.

So many sheep, everywhere.  Heaven.

When we finally arrived, the sun was still up, but behind the surrounding mountains.  It was dark, but we still explored around a bit.   There was a cave filled with candles for cooking and eating, and a fresh stream that babbled right by our camp spot.  It was beautiful and peaceful, and only 6 other people at the campground.

The next morning, over my morning cup of (instant, but serviceable) coffee, the beauty of the spot really impressed us.
Panorama from our van

If I was to go back, I'd be happy to stay at Pakgil for much longer.  There were lots of hikes that started at this point.  I had a great conversation with an Icelandic woman at the dishwashing station who told me that this is where she vacations for a few weeks every year and just goes hiking from this spot.

The rocks that looked over us as we slept.

Our drive back out to the ring road.  The clouds made the ground look alive.

The rocky ground was alive, after all.

The first few days were already remarkable, and we were only just getting started.