Saturday, March 9, 2013

Icelandic saga, part 2

Mýrdalsjökull, South Iceland

On Saturday -- the second day of our Iceland trip -- we went on an organized tour called Glacier Hike and Northern Lights Excursion. Our guide picked us up at the hotel, and we very quickly noted that his English sounded as if he'd lived in the States or Canada. When we asked, he replied: "I grew up in North Carolina." Turns out his parents went to professional school at UNC, so he lived in Chapel Hill during his elementary years. This wouldn't be the only "small world" moment we'd have that day. I'll get to that shortly.

We drove south, past hundreds of steam holes coming out of the ground. Iceland's electricity comes not from coal or nukes but from geothermal energy. We drove past an impressive geothermal power plant and what seemed like miles of orange steam pipes laid out in zigzags. We saw several large greenhouses, and were told that a great deal of the food in Iceland is home-grown. We even saw a strawberry farm. In Iceland!

Get your free steam here!!!

Our journey took us through the city of Selfoss and beyond to the infamous Eyjafjallajökull, which is easier to pronounce than you might think. Often referred to as "E15" when air traffic between North America and Europe was disrupted for a couple of weeks back in 2010 -- maybe you remember -- Eyjafjallajökull isn't a volcano at all, but a glacier (jökull is Icelandic for glacier -- or more specifically, for ice cap) that sits on top of a volcano. 

Our destination was Mýrdalsjökull, the glacier which sits on top of an active volcano called Katla. OK, I'll confess. Had I known we were going to be hiking on top of an active volcano, I might have never gone. Fortunately, I didn't know until the glacier hike was over. So it's true what they say: Ignorance is bliss.

I'm not good on ice. And I'd never worn crampons before, so when I put them over my hiking boots and started walking, it felt weird. Our guide kept saying: "Feet flat and wide! Feet flat and wide!" and that became a mantra that ran through my head, along with "Stand tall! Don't you fall!" (to the tune of that old song from the 70s). In the photo below, you can see the concentration on my face. Oh, and for the record, I was wearing four layers of clothing, including a very thick wool sweater that my Mom made me several years ago. And the Icelandic wool hat I bought on Day 1.

Feet flat and wide!


In case you're wondering, here's what else that was going on in my head: OMGOMGOMG. What if I fall. What if I break something. We're so far out, they'd have to call a helicopter and Medevac me outta here. Wait. I didn't sign a waiver. They didn't ask me to sign a waiver! If this was the States, not only would we all have to sign waivers, we'd also have to watch a 30 minute safety video AND wear helmets! And there'd be guardrails everywhere! And . . .

And on and on.

Fortunately, it didn't take long for me to get the hang of it. Up I went. One step at a time.

The 'blue' ice is kinda special and we were lucky to see it.

The view from the top.

When we got to the top and I looked down, I was nearly overcome with emotion. I had what can only be considered A Religious Experience, a moment when you realize how amazing and beautiful the world is and how it can't just be a bunch of randomness.

And then it hit me that I was going to have to get back down.  Going downhill is ten thousand times scarier than going up. But look at me here, standing tall, walking (not sliding) down the hill.

Focus! There shall be no sliding!

Actually, once I got over my initial shock, I found out that crampons work going downhill, too. Soon we were back where we started. I felt this amazing feeling of accomplishment, and I was ready to do it all over again! But the glacier hike was over and it was time to move on. As we drove away from the site, that's when our guide told us that we'd been walking on a volcano. "One day you're going to hear on the news that Katla has blown and you can say you walked on it. They're expecting Katla to erupt any day now."

And I'm thinking: Dude, thanks for sharing that after the fact.

Our next stop was just down the road at Skógafoss. By the way, foss is Icelandic for waterfall, and Skóga means forest. So Skógafoss is forest waterfall -- which is kind of funny, since apparently there are no trees in Iceland. Regardless of what it means, it's beautiful.

Skógafoss

It started to rain while we were at Skógafoss, and the clouds just kept thickening. Our hopes of seeing the northern lights on the so-called Northern Lights Excursion were fading fast. But there was still dinner at the Hotel Anna to look forward to, so off we went. 

And this is where the other "small world" incident took place. When we sat down to dinner, I looked over at the young woman sitting next to me and asked where she was from. "Northern Ireland," she said with a smile. Turns out, she grew up in Dungiven, which is just down the road from where S lived when she was a kid. During the conversation we learned that the house where S and her family lived (which eventually became a hotel -- we stayed there when we visited in 2005) has since burned and is now derelict. We were shocked at this news and could hardly wait to get back to internet land to confirm it. I'm sorry to say that the story is true.

We did not see the northern lights that evening. It was way too cloudy. We got back to Reykjavik late, and once in our room, we couldn't sleep. So we channel-surfed, landing on an episode of The Walking Dead, which was subtitled in Icelandic. We thought that was a funny way to end our second day in the Land of Fire and Ice.