Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Whales and Wild Horses

On our way further north, we made a stop at Dettifoss, an amazingly powerful waterfall in Iceland that is capable of transporting 23,000 tons of water and debris a day! The waterfall and the beautiful canyon that its waters have carved evoked memories of America’s Grand Canyon.

After some more driving, we ended up in the middle of nowhere (no town, just farmhouses) to set up “base camp” in Skulgardur, about 45 km east of Husavik. It is here that we made time to finish our On Assignment projects (photographs and scientific results) in preparation for presentations.

Of course, we also took time to have fun our last official 'field day' in Iceland. We drove into Husavik, the 'whale watching capital' of Iceland and took a three hour boat ride in the freezing cold wind and rain to see some humpback whales in the bay. Sea sickness abounded with the rough seas but in the end it was a good experience for all-- especially when we saw a large snout of a humpback whale breach the water’s surface right next to the boat!

After warming up with hot drinks and food at a local restaurant, we headed to Saltvik farm to ride some horses. It was a fantastic experience and the saying 'if you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait 5 minutes' certainly held true! Though it was cold, the rain stopped and the sun peeked out for a while, casting rays on the bay while we galloped on the backs of horses in flower covered fields of Iceland, on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Wow.

As our time in Iceland comes to an end and we reflect on past experiences, we can simply say, 'what a ride!' We have done and seen so much that it is hard to believe we have only been here for 18 days. It seems like a lifetime.

During our time in the wilderness of Iceland, we have left only footprints and taken only photographs, as it should be.

Onwards and upwards!
Joseph and Uly

Bathing, Bands, and Bus Rides

Our ride to the north of the island was dotted with picturesque landscapes of lava formations, waterfalls, and fjords. We passed through Teigarhorn, famous for its cliffs covered in huge crystals (we purchased some!) and ate lunch at Egilsstadir, a town on a lake which supposedly is home to Iceland’s own 'Nessie'. Once at Lake Myvatn (which means 'midges'), we set up camp on the shores and enjoyed a soak in the warm natural baths after the long bus ride. The view over the volcanic landscape was surreal.

The next morning we got an early start (6:30 AM!) so that we could catch a mountain bus ride to Iceland’s interior. After a bone jarring, off-road, three hour journey we finally arrived at Askja volcano. Here, we learned that the Apollo astronauts used the terrain to train in preparation for the Moon missions. After seeing the landscape, desolate as it is, it is not hard to imagine why!

Once at Askja, we got the chance to hike into the caldera of the volcano! To do this, we had to cross multiple snow patches. Imagine, snow in July! Of course, some snowball fights ensued. Not only did we hike into an active volcano, but we also bathed in Viti, an explosion crater that formed during an eruption in the late 1800s. Viti means 'hell'. With a steep ascent and descent, a strong sulfur smell, milky white color, and warm water, it is easy to see how the crater got its name.

Upon return to town, we ate a delicious dinner outside, enjoyed the warm air from the lake, and then ventured over to an old barn to check out a local music festival called “Ulfadi.” We rocked out at the front of the stage, met some of the musicians, and interacted with young Icelanders.

The following day we explored Namafjall Hverir, an alien place, with yellow sulfur crystals in the cliffs and along the ground, steaming fumaroles venting their hot gases, and boiling mud pits. The stench of rotten eggs was quite overpowering!

The sun was blistering in the afternoon, but still we pushed on and explored Krafla, another active volcanic system in Iceland. The black lava from an eruption in the 1970’s marked a stark contrast to the surrounding weathered, grey rock and green vegetated regions. In some places near the volcano, the ground was still steaming-- a reminder to stay on the trail!

While our time in the Ppearl of the North” was short, it was quite enjoyable and full of interesting things to see and do. Now, we venture further north, to the sub-arctic.

Onwards and upwards!
Joseph and Uly

Lobsters and Lagoons

Our time in the southeast continued with a visit to Ingolfshofdi, an isolated headland on the edge of Iceland separated by volcanic black sand beaches and the Atlantic Ocean. To get to the 'island', we took a 20 minute hay wagon ride, forded rivers, and endured the blowing sand until, finally, we saw land rising out of the mist. This beautiful place is home to birds such as the Arctic tern, skua, and puffin. While there, we learned to raise our hands against the great skua, so that they would not dive bomb our heads! The views of puffins nesting in the cliffs and the surf pounding below captured our imaginations and we spent some time shooting photos and enjoying the scenery.

In the afternoon, we made our way up the Ring Road to a gorgeous glacial lagoon called Jokulsarlon, where scenes from two James Bond movies were filmed. Seals popped their heads out of the water to greet us and blue ice formations led to more photo opportunities. After exploring from land, we took a boat out into the water, to see the formations up close. We even got to taste 1,000 year old ice!

That evening we arrived in Hofn (affectionately called “hup!”), a “base camp” for the next two days. Here, we had a chance to expand on our On Assignment projects. While Photography students met and shot photos of locals in this fishing town, Geology students got up close and personal with Hoffelsjokull, an outlet glacier from the Vatnajokull icecap that is undergoing some severe melting. Our guide was Thor from the University Centre in Hofn. He was very knowledgeable and we were grateful for the opportunity to see this less traveled to glacier. We even found some quicksand to play in!

Hofn is known for its amazing seafood, especially lobster. So, of course, we could not leave without trying some of these delicious langoustine tails. To round out our time here, we also visited the 'horn' where we walked along the beach, climbed some rocks, and shot beautiful landscapes of the multi-colored mountains. An abandoned farmhouse, wild horses, and, believe it or not, a Hollywood movie set (for a film called 'The Viking') provided opportunities for more exploration.

We now head to the Lake Myvatn region, the “Pearl of the North.”

Onwards and upwards!

Uly and Joseph

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Glaciers, Geysirs, and Ghosts

After leaving Reykjavik on our personal bus, we picked up our cook, Sola, and hit the Ring Road (Iceland’s only “highway”) towards the east, to check out Thingvellir National Park. Our first stop was Nesjavellir power plant, where we could see how electricity is generated through the harnessing of geothermal power from the Earth’s interior. Onwards, then, we headed for a picnic lunch and a walk through the Mid-Atlantic rift, where on one side of the path is the North American tectonic plate, and on the other side, the European plate! After spending time hiking in the sunshine (it was unusually hot), we descended underwater, in freezing cold temperatures, for some dry suit snorkeling. It is here that we were able to touch the two tectonic plates at the same time! In this region of Iceland, the plates are spreading apart, growing by 2 cm each year!

Our explorations continued as we descended into a lava tube cave. Unlike in America, where many of popular caves are paved with well-lit paths, here in Iceland, we donned helmets and headlamps and scrambled for an hour underground, with no path in sight! When we entered the “cathedral” we experienced total darkness, while our guide told a ghost story that left many of us spooked. In fact, after looking at our photos of the entrance of the cave, we noticed some transparent white orbs. In one picture, the cave looks normal. In another picture, taken moments after the first, the orbs appear. Were we in the presence of ghosts? It is not unheard of in Iceland!

To end the day we set up camp, had a delicious lamb soup dinner prepared by Sola, visited Strokkur geysir, famous for its “blue bubble” before it erupts in a spray of hot water, and celebrated Matthew’s birthday with an Oreo volcano “cake” complete with red hot lava in the form of red licorice. Some of us even slept under the sky, before being driven back to the tents due to high winds and rain at 4 in the morning.

The next day, we completed the famous “Golden Circle” by visiting Gullfoss, an immensely powerful and beautiful 'double decker' waterfall which cascades over volcanic rock, creating mist similar to the scene around Niagara Falls. As we continued our journey east on the Ring Road, we explored Solheimajokull glacier on foot (no crampons!) which is the site of an Extreme Ice Survey camera used to monitor changing glacial conditions. We saw many beautiful waterfalls, towering volcanic cliffs, large boulders from rockfalls, washed out plains from violent glacial floods, small farms dotting the countryside, and glacial 'highways' pouring out from the Vatnajokull icecap. When we finally arrived at our campsite at Skaftafell National Park, it was pouring rain but this didn't bother our group as our students worked together to get the tents up and dinner cooking! Sola kept everyone entertained and cooked up another amazing, carb-loading dinner, in preparation for the next day’s hike.

After the wet night, we awoke to a windy, cold morning, but amazingly spirits were still soaring! In the morning we got geared up with crampons, ice axes, and helmets to set out on Svinasfelljokull, one of many receding (melting) outlet glaciers in Skaftafell National Park. Four mountain guides accompanied us and taught us about safe glacier travel. Up and down we went, traversing the glacial ice, and enjoying spectacular views of the ice cap and of Iceland’s highest mountain (at 7000 ft.). We saw crevasses and caps of black ash sprinkled across the ice, evidence of recent eruptions. Glacial “mice” (volcanic rocks covered in moss) scurried across the ice as the winds picked up speed.

In addition to hiking across the ice, we took up tools and tried some vertical ice climbing. Though most students had never done this before, everyone tried and had a lot of fun! In the late afternoon when the sun began to hit the glacier,
the weather was perfect which created vistas of beautiful, (and blinding) sparkling ice. The golden sunshine hitting the mountain slopes was a welcome change from the recent rains. We ate another delicious dinner, played in the grass, and enjoyed the company of our group.

Now, as our tents are zipped up for the night and we drift off to sleep, we cannot help but feel a strong connection to nature here, in the wilderness of Iceland’s glaciers and volcanoes. And so our journey of exploration and adventure continues…

Onwards and upwards!
Uly and Joseph

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Reykjavik, volcanoes, and Vikings

From Vikings to volcanoes, our time in Reykjavik was well-spent exploring our natural surroundings and immersing ourselves in the history of Iceland. While soaking our bodies in the Blue Lagoon upon arrival to the country, we experienced the relaxing hot water firsthand, a demonstration of how useful geothermal energy can be if it is tapped correctly. As we applied the white silica mud to our faces, we learned that similar materials may exist on faraway planets, such as Mars!

Riding on the backs of horses through 1 million year old lava flows inspired an appreciation for the beautiful Icelandic countryside, awash with brilliant blue and purple wildflowers. As the gentle beasts trotted and galloped proudly, manes in the wind, we held on tight and attempted to shoot a few photos.

In the spirit of exploration, some of us tackled a 3000 ft. mountain, Mt. Esja, which graded from gently sloped, lush landscape to difficult scrambling over barren boulders. When we topped out on a misty and windy summit within the clouds, we were overjoyed at having reached the top but also realized that our journey was only halfway over. On the descent, beautiful sunrays inspired us as they streamed through the clouds, lighting up the waters of the harbor, before casting their twilight glows on the city of Reykjavik. We could not have asked for a more perfect ending to an amazing mountain experience, which really brought our group together.

Our time in the city restaurants was spent trying new delicacies, such as rotten shark, dried haddock (fish), whale, reindeer, and horse, as well as the famous pylsa (hot dogs) and multi-colored ice creams varying in flavor from lime to banana. While most foods got rave reviews, the rotten shark was hard for some to swallow. But, as the students put it, it was about the experience of doing something new and exciting!

Downtown, at the Red Rock cinema, we met a volcano filmmaker and learned about all sorts of eruptions through Iceland’s recent history. A 1996 eruption from beneath Vatnajokull icecap (the third largest icecap in the world, after Greenland and Antarctica), whose ensuing glacial floodwaters moved boulders the size of cars and took out the Ring Road bridge (Iceland’s main road around the country) in a matter of days, effectively creating a sandy wasteland for miles and miles, all the way from the southern end of the icecap to the coastal shoreline!

Our Viking experience began at the Saga Museum, inside the Perlan, which is surrounded by four huge water tanks that hold most of the hot water for Reykjavik, joined by a space-age glass dome. The history of Iceland’s Viking days was revealed in life-like (and sometimes gruesome) figures depicting some aspect of history. The students were even able to try on the heavy chainmail suits, helmets, and swords used by the Vikings. To end our experience in Reykjavik, we enjoyed our time at the Viking village, complete with live entertainment from minstrels, fantastic entrees (fish, lamb, ribs, mussels), and an atmosphere that truly felt like we had stepped back into Viking time.

We now head into the wilderness of Icelandic glaciers and volcanoes.

Onwards and upwards!
Uly and Joseph