I can admit that I’ve watched far too many dumb sci fi movies, even while knowing they’re stupid, I can’t help watching them either for sheer entertainment value, tearing into them like Cinema Sins does on YouTube, or just for the old MST3K treatment. In anticipation of today, my imagination was rolling weeks ahead of time with visions of scientists in arctic gear stomping around an icy landscape, doing hey-look-we’re-doing-sciencey-movie stuff (and now tempted with comparing the opening scenes from The Day After Tomorrow and anything aired on Discovery or National Geographic about glaciers). I awoke with my thoughts anxiously cranked into high gear about what expect today. It’s moments like this that remind me about why travel is such a great experience – wondering what a new place or experience will be like and ruminating on and/or writing about it later.
Everyone was up bright and early and eating their body weights in breakfast as a “power up” for the hike, as well as some still debating about clothing and gear. Until now, I planned on freezing my ass off since 1) I expected winter-like weather in Iceland, and 2) this was a walk on a giant hunk of ice. But our arrival heralded unusually warm weather, so now the big debate was what clothing is best for this trip? As I mentioned earlier, I packed a few options in preparation for changing circumstances, mainly underarmor and different outwear for layering up. The ski jacket I brought with me on the trip was specifically for the glacier hike since it has a removable and waterproof out shell and high tech thermal layer. Stupidly, I didn’t invest in a pair of rain pants, and the hiking pants I brought along were only “water resistant,” so they had their work cut out for them. One of our group arrived earlier and already did another glacier hike, reporting that no matter what happens, just count on getting soaked.
Le Voyage dans la Lune(1)
We piled onto the bus and got comfortable for the near two-hour drive ending at a tongue of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier. After a foggy ride from the airport, a nighttime jaunt out for the Northern Lights, and remaining in the city proper until now, we finally had a glimpse of Iceland’s rural landscape. The tour guide was chatting the whole way out, so there wasn’t much by way of napping on the bus, which was fine for me because I wanted a look at the scenery.
Iceland has a stark, elemental beauty – almost like being on a different planet (as it turns out, several movies have used Icelandic locales for that very purpose, and NASA even sent astronauts here in the 1960s for moon landing training). We passed large swaths of rolling lava fields and a few rare, sparse grasslands with the wandering herds of lambs, goats and even some cows. Being an East Coaster, I’ve lived most of my life within sight of foothills that eventually turned into the Blue Ridge Mountains. For me, there was a strange fascination with large, imposing, dramatic ridges and peaks sprouting up out of otherwise flat, rolling fields of moss-covered volcanic rock. We drove around and over tall, dark walls of rock, with moss stretching up them as high as it could, and snow reaching as far down as possible. Occasional waterfalls spouted from hidden fissures, ending in waves of mist and faint rainbows. We had a taste of those ridgelines every day in Reykjavik, but out in the country, you felt like you had traveled much further than the North Atlantic and civilization (and this was a few hours outside of the city – I admit I’m more than a little curious about driving the Ring Road someday and seeing the rest of the island).
We made two stops en route, one at a gas station/rest stop for stretching our legs and grabbing drinks and snacks, and then at the entrance of a farm that had been in the news back in 2010 when the volcano under Eyjafjallajökull erupted, causing all kinds of havoc with air travel. The historical markers and pictures posted there leave little to the imagination about how apocalyptic and pants-soiling it must’ve been, seeing a volcano more or less blowing up in your backyard. Considering that I live in a place where the biggest calamities we contend with are garden variety snow storms (often causing accidents hours or days before the first snowflake) and swamp-like heat and humidity (with everyone praying that their AC doesn’t break down), I don’t exactly feel justified in bitching about how bad it is living there anymore. Here, Act of God takes on a much more appropriate and intimidating meaning.
Shortly afterward, we arrived at the rally point for today’s hike, which was little more than a few vans with hiking gear and a café housed in small, ramshackle building, and all at the end of a gravel road that’s absolute murder on your kidneys. Everyone geared up and waited in line as the guides sized and handed over the clamp ons for marching on a giant block of ice. The safety speech the guides gave reinforced the fact that were inherent dangers with this activity, and that the ice axes being handed out were “MOSTLY for use as walking sticks.” Imaginative wonder and enthusiasm were now mixed with a touch of sudden dread.
The particular area we hiked was known for having rainy conditions 300 days out of the year and it felt like it with wind and rain pelting us the whole time. It varied from full on gale-force winds and downpours to gentle breezes and light misting. It was a 40 minute uphill hike ending at the glacier’s edge, resulting in a tough walk with the multiple layers and a ski jacket working against me in the mid-50 temperatures. Marching over rolling and muddy terrain, the view slowly changed from grassy and moss-covered ground to black, wet soil and rock. As we approached the edge of the glacier, the landscape looked more like the Moon – just hard, rocky terrain, nothing green and everything you wore got instantly dirty. The wind and rain intensified, the temps dropped and suddenly I was glad for every piece of clothing I was wearing.
We stopped just short of the glacier, putting on our clamp ons and making sure jackets were zipped up and gloves and hats in place. I was vaguely reminded about accounts from astronauts who walked on the Moon, complaining about what a menace the lunar soil (or regolith for you science types) was – collecting on and spreading everywhere. Some even joked that they wore more of the Moon on them than in the samples they collected and brought back. Getting ready for the glacier hike, I felt the same way – as soon as you knelt or sat down, black soil and gravel smeared and covered everything.
The guides explained the technique for walking on the ice – feet apart and stepping straight down, making us look like a bunch of bundled up Frankenstein monsters stomping about. And as graceless as that looked, climbing down a 15 foot rope and then climbing up onto the glacier was a new lesson in humility. Nearly every one of us either took a tumble down the slope or slipped and fell on the ice.(2) As we started up the glacier, the guides also informed us that the hike wouldn’t be as long as planned – other groups coming back reported much higher than normal wind conditions (which we were prone on believing given the maelstrom we stood in), so trips higher up the glacier were very hazardous.
Standing on the ice, with the guides (one of them is a geologist) giving a summary of basic high school earth science, we fought (and often lost against) howling winds spraying us with near constant waves of rain and mist, whose relentlessness was matched only by the magnificent rainbows they produced. It was another world of ice, with jagged outcroppings of gravel-covered ice (sometimes called Huldufólk, or “trolls”), sharp crevices and a pallet of colors ranging from black and grey to white and pastel blue. All of which surrounded by hard, jagged walls of dark rock. What I didn’t expect was the sheer amount of water covering the ice, cascading around and running downhill through the crevices. It wasn’t just the unseasonably warm weather, as the guides pointed out a distant pond/lagoon on the far side of the glacier, which was where the ice had been as little as a year or two earlier. The hike we made uphill was a result of the receding ice, and the pond marking where they originally began glacier hikes. There’s nothing more eye opening than seeing the dramatic effects of global warming firsthand.
(1) The French silent film A Trip to the Moon.
(2) I went cave repelling a few years ago, and that still ranks as one of the hardest adventure activities I ever tried. Climbing down the rope and up onto the glacier is a very close second place.
Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls(1)
The hike back from the glacier was uneventful and thankfully downhill, as well as feeling relatively more comfortable in the lighter wind and rain. We had just enough time for grabbing some water and a quick snack at the café, then we were back on the bus. Our last stops were checking out the Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls. I got out for a look at and get some pictures of the first waterfall, but decided that the warm bus and comfy seat weren’t worth giving up for the other waterfall (in fact, I slept through that until everyone was getting back on the bus).
(1) Apologies to TLC.
Skunky Beer and Fermented Shark
It was just after 7:00 PM by the time we got back and we were starving for obvious reasons. We spent a few minutes in the lobby debating options for dinner, and it was pretty clear that the consensus was for the famous Café Loki – a small eatery that boasts traditional Icelandic cuisine and has been featured on more than a few food and travel shows. After a long, hot shower and a quiet internal debate about making the trip into town or just going downstairs, I met the others in the lobby and we took off downtown. The restaurant is literally across the street from Hallgrímskirkja, making it easy to find. Inside, the place is small, intimate and just the kind of place you don’t want a group of noisy, obnoxious Americans wandering into – as evident by the looks on the other diners’ faces. Nevertheless, the wait staff were more than polite and patient with us (probably more than we deserved).
I opted for the meat soup (think chicken soup, but made with lamb) with toast and lamb pate, while others tried the mashed fish (a combination of white fish, potatoes and cheese). I took a chance and dared trying another local beer, this time Thule (pronounced “tool-ay”) and wish I hadn’t. It’s a relatively low alcohol content (5%) and had a definite skunky quality, reminding me of an even more unpleasant version of Heineken (which I can’t stand). However, the night’s big accomplishment was most of us attempting Iceland’s infamous contribution to cuisine based on a dare – Hákarl, or fermented shark. The local shark is inedible (i.e., poisonous) until it is processed and aged, leaving behind a meat with the consistency of tofu and smelling like Windex on steroids. Anthony Bourdain (who is a very big and obvious influence on my writing) once described this “delicacy” as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten, which I completely agree (even the minke whale we tried was better than this). Traditionally, one should have a shot of Brennivín with the shark, but we didn’t do that, and as it turns out, I’m kind of glad we didn’t (more on that later). The smell was so bad that once dinner was served, I immediately handed back the bowls the shark came in because of the lingering smell.
A bus ride back to the Hilton Nordica, we were well-fed but exhausted. I made it back to bed with the intent of writing up my notes for the day, but only succeeded in falling asleep with the nightstand lamp on.