30 April 2018

2018 ICELAND Jökulsárlón 11 - The "Yoke" Was On Us

We were imagining a quaint little town by the looks of the map. We were going to shop and browse the streets. Take in the feel of little town life in the outbacks of Iceland. Maybe have a coffee or cocoa. Shortly after we crossed the suspension bridge we saw the sign for Jökulsálón.

We turned left and right into a parking lot. This was Jök...basically a meet-up point for various tours and the Glacial Lagoon. Hmmm. So here we were with a two-and-a-half hour wait for our tour to start. The yoke was definitely on us.

There was a small structure housing a gift shop, food concession, and excursion info. We tried there to find our tour company and check arrangements. No luck.

While we were there we took a few minutes (maybe 10!!) to slowly peruse the gift shop and use the restroom. There were puffin hats (only thing I considered buying, but didn't) and the usual schmaltzy stuff. Soup in big kettles smelled good--one was lamb stew and the other a veggie chowder.

Next we walked across the parking lot to see the lagoon. It was beautiful, but folks were saying there were not as many icebergs as usual due to the recent warm and rainy weather.

Another tour we had considered was a Zodiac boat ride around the lagoon. We were glad we passed on that one because you could pretty much see everything from shore, at least on this day. It was mostly open water.

This was our first glance.

This sign displays what it usually looks like. The parking lot and viewing area are not shown, but just to the right.

To recap the sign..."The white cap of Breiöamerkurjökull glacier (an outlay from Vatnajökull) dominates the lagoon and its icebergs. From 1890 to 1998 the lagoon expanded while the glacier retreated. The maximum water depth is 190m (624 feet). Icebergs break free from the glacier's edge, in some areas as far as a 30m (or 98 foot) drop, and are carried by current toward the river mouth (under the bridge we crossed).

Tidal currents move the icebergs back and forth. Winds and tides erode them until they are small enough to float down the river, a short distance to the sea. Seals often sunbath on the bergs (we did not see any today). Shoals of herring, sometimes carried into the lagoon by the tide, make a great feast for local birds."

Besides educational signs, there were lots of warning signs, too.

Here is one of several areas where the glacier feeds into the lagoon. We traipsed up this hill for an even better view.

Other shots.

Another visitor took a gals photo.

These were some of the biggest chunks. Most bergs are milky white, but some have a bright blue color caused by the interplay of light and ice crystals. Only one-tenth of the iceberg's mass is visible above water.

Birds sitting on barely underwater bergs. Looked like they were walking on water.

Icy water here. It was all quite beautiful.

After surveying the area and waiting some time, we again tried to find our guide. Finally found him with the aid of some other guides. He said he had e-mailed early in the morning (we missed it), advising that the trip was cancelled due to "floating." I'm like what was that!?! Trying to picture an ice cave chunked off from the glacier and floating somewhere in the lagoon.

We finally figured out that this was his pronunciation in English of flooding. That made a lot more sense. It had rained steadily the last two weeks and the cave was flooded and unsafe to visit. He had an alternative for us, but we decided to pass. We weren't too unhappy because we were a little cranky from the long wait and we had seen everything we needed to see at the lagoon.

Oh, well. Best laid plans. We hopped back in DBY48 for our last destination of the day, the town of Skógar.

29 April 2018

2018 ICELAND Jökulsárlón 10 - Where is Jök?

We left about 10:15. The skies were clear and blue. Temp was around 1C (34F) all day and 5F degrees warmer than Michigan!! Clouds hung over the far horizon and luckily stayed there most of the day. My sis took over driving duty that day and gave me a break to take photos along the way.

Our first meet-up was not until 13:45 in Jökulsárlón, our most eastern point of travel. There we would view the Glacial Lagoon (not the Blue Lagoon) and take our only formal tour...the Ice Cave. It was maybe an hour drive along the Ring Road away, but we gave ourselves plenty of time to check out the town and the lagoon before our tour.

First we decided to back-track about four miles to the Visitor Center of Vatnajökull (or Skaftafell) National Park. We thought maybe we could quickly walk back and at least touch the glacier (all the white stuff in this photo). Once there, we learned the actual glacier was a bit of a hike away from the Center. We talked it over and decided to double back and proceed to "Jök" (pronounced Yoke), as we called it.

Still experiencing the ever-changing landscape and a waterfall here and there. Just beautiful and fascinating. Don't know the name of this one.
No sighting of billboards or advertisements anywhere, just official basic wood road signs announcing a family name down a particular road. Here and there we saw utility poles and wires, but that was the extent of "damage" to the natural beauty of the land.

Along the way (actually throughout the entire trip), we saw small herds of Icelandic horses grazing and romping the in fields. Usually there would be a busload of tourists checking them out. We stopped at one spot that was not so busy.

The horses came right up to the fence, as curious of us as we were of them. Or maybe it was because of the little vending machine nearby dispensing "horse candy" for a fee. A cheap way to feed your horses; let someone else buy their food.

I was a little nervous of them biting, but no problem.
There were also places along the way storing bales wrapped in colorful plastics. We guessed this was hay for horse feed. Other fodder crops grown are rye, barley, and an exceptionally nutritious grass due to long periods of daylight in the short, cool summers.
We experienced only one detour. They were repairing a bridge and directed us across what looked like a temporary mound of gravel with 20 foot drop-offs on each side. That was a bit scary. Most of the other bridges were still one lane, but we came across a particularly long bridge that had three bump-outs for opposing traffic and a 2-way suspension bridge nearby Jök.

At about the approximated time, we looked everywhere for signs directing us to the town of Jök. Alas, they alluded us. Did we somehow miss it? Were we lost? That seemed pretty impossible.

2018 ICELAND Skaftafell 9 - Starry Night at the Glacier

I have never stayed at a hostel, but I'm thinking Hotel Skaftafell in Freysnes is a step up. Rather than one large shared space with bunk beds, here we found small, private but adequate quarters. We were about 200 miles (about 320 km) east of Reykjavik.

The hotel opened in 1989 with eight units, increasing through time to the current 63. The owner's father was a key influence in establishing the nearby Vatnajökull (or Skaftafell) National Park and was the first park ranger there. The family were farmers and sheepherders. Today the owner's son carries on the tradition of raising sheep.

Facilities here include a welcoming lobby, full bar (photo is view from the bar patio), and dining room in the main building. Across the road, they own a store, diner, and petrol station. Everything one might need for a night time pit stop.
After we registered in the main building, we drove around back to a motel-like structure. Each of the small windows below is the entrance to a room.As you entered the heavy door, there was a vestibule, I'm thinking to leave wet boots and outer wear. To the left of that was a bathroom. Spacious and plenty of hot water. It was the only location we stayed that had actual shampoo, a bit of a luxury in Iceland it seems. Every other lodging had a body-scalp-in-one wash. Wasn't the best for my hair, so I'll pack my own shampoo next time.

Then we passed through a second door into an "efficient" bedroom. There were oversized twin beds with nice quality linens. There was a small desk and chair, but no closet (clothes hooks only) and no luggage rack. We managed our luggage by placing them one at a time on the desk or on the bed.
There was a large picture window with a lovely view of the glacier and mountain peaks (really ancient crater remnants). Later that night we would look out for signs of an Aurora Borealis (AB).
After the hike and happy hour at the bar, we four headed to the dining room for dinner. My mouth was watering for lobster. Because of the cold water here, I imagined huge Maine-style lobster. Instead they serve langoustine (Icelandic "lobster"), reminiscent of large crayfish.

On the menu today was a salad with mango and six fried langoustine halves. Each half was one tasty bite. I yearned for more, but was full by the end of the meal. Because of my allergy, I ate around the mango bits.

The others ordered arctic char (from the salmon family) or chicken cannoli. Lamb (huge in Iceland) and rhubarb (a local product) were also on the menu. For dessert we had skyr (Iceland's excellent version of a thick yogurt) mousse and creme brûlée cake.

Back in our room we read and took blog notes until about 22:00 when we got a phone call alerting us to the AB display outside.

We had seen the AB once before in Iowa at the "world's largest truck stop." (Yes, it is true and you can check it out on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iowa_80.) We took lodging in a corner room that had an arrowhead-shaped window arrangement with two sides. We happen to look out and there was a fabulous display of green and gold zooming lights with flashes of blue. It lasted a very short time, but so romantic and quite memorable.

That is what we expected here, but we had a disappointment. The skies were black with many sparkling stars, beautiful in itself. But, instead of a colorful display, there were "brush strokes" of a whitish fog and a minimal amount of movement. We waited for a while, but no improvement.

Back in our room we readied for bed. At midnight we got a second call. Mike said "forget it," but I re-dressed to take another look. It was much the same with a little more movement. Outside, alone this time, it was eerie and ghost-like. I didn't want to run into any mischievous Icelandic elves, so I didn't linger too long.

The next morning was a surprise though when I looked at my photos. For some reason the foggy phenomenon turned out green and yellow in the pix. This is my best shot.
I was pleased, in spite of the lack of color in the real display. At least I could say I saw the AB in Iceland. And we had five more nights and chances for another viewing.

Back in the dining room, breakfast was mostly cold cuts and cheese, pastries, skyr, fruit, and really good coffee. Not as extravagant as the morning before, but it filled us up.

There was also the opportunity for another shot of cod liver oil. Again, we passed.
We definitely recommend this place for a one-nighter. We were miles from "civilization" and close to nature. It was convenient to the highway, had all the necessaries, and was an ideal spot to explore the glacier. Although quaint and small, it suited the situation and we were happy to have a bar and dining room available on site.
An aside: We would see many elf statues throughout this trip. Elves (álfar in Icelandic) are officially named huldufólk or secret folk. I had heard that elves can be any size from wee to giants. I researched in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huldufólk) and there was a LOT to read. It did not mention elf size in Iceland, but on the nearby Faroe Islands elves are said to be large in build.

Snorri Sturluson (we've mentioned him a few times now, mostly because I love his name) wrote about elves in his historical Saga entries. Former President Grímsson explained that in the olden days Iceland did not have many inhabitants, so in telling stories of elves and fairies, the population doubled.

In a 2006 survey, over 50% of the population felt the existence of elves was either possible, probable, or certain.

Building projects are sometimes altered to prevent damaging rocks where elves are believed to live and one should never throw stones because of the possibility of hitting an elf. To learn even more, the Icelandic Elf School in Reykjavik offers five-hour educational excursions for tourists. Maybe next time!

19 April 2018

2018 ICELAND Skaftafell 8 - By the Glacier

Just before reaching our hotel we caught a glimpse of Vatnajökull (jökull means glacier) or Skaftafell National Park. There are 13 major jöklar in Iceland, which take up over 11% of the island. This one is the largest at 8,300 square kilometers (3,200 square miles). The next largest is 853 square kilometers.

And here's a close-up. Our hotel was located on the edge of this glacier to the right. My goal this afternoon was to hike over to touch that glacier.
We arrived about 16:30 to the Hotel Skaftafell. We chatted with the young fellow (named something like Almaden) while the paperwork was completed.
There were a variety of topics. He said each village had a school and they play futbol events between the towns (European soccer style, not American football). Puffins are not in Iceland during this season. They migrate and hang out in Scotland. Other birds migrate all the way to Africa.

We wondered what the chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights were. He said hard to tell, but the sky was clear at the moment and that seemed promising. We put in a wake up / notification call, if the lights appeared.

We asked how to pronounce "thank you" in Icelandic. He said "Þakka þér fyrir" (keep in mind that unusual "Þ" is pronounced "t"). We tried it a few times unsuccessfully, so he said you can just say "taak." That's what we used for the rest of the trip.

We settled in to our small and basic room. Mike decided to read, but I wanted to explore. I hoped to touch that glacier. A path out back looked like it led right to it. With camera in hand, off I went.

Up the hill was a shiny red pick-up truck (middle right). So I figured there was something interesting up there and was sure it was the glacier. It didn't really seem that far by the looks of it, but I must have walked at least a mile up to the end of the obvious trail. The truck was about half way. No sign of life anywhere nor any proximity to a glacier. 

I could see it beyond wetlands and a valley and kept thinking "okay, after this knoll would be the glacier or side trail to the glacier." Then another knoll and another and another. No obvious trail and I was not prepared to go lava rock climbing, especially all by myself. No glacier touching to be had today.
The glacier was on my left, just beautiful from afar. To my right I could see a group of hikers who had traversed a valley. See tiny red coat in center below snow area.
Here's a close-up. I saw they wore safety gear. That convinced me I should not try forging a new trail to the glacier on my own. I could get hurt or lost and sundown was approaching.
To their right was a natural ice cave. Maybe they had explored it. We would get our turn to do that tomorrow.

I finally gave up and started back down the trail. On the way, I heard this strange sound off in the not too distant wasteland. It sounded like a growling bull frog. I knew for sure there were no frogs here at least at this time of year.

So here I am all alone in a big black fake furry coat feeling a little like prey. We had not seen any wild animals so far, but could it be a hungry arctic wolf, certainly not a polar bear. Turns out polar bears are not native to Iceland, but they have drifted here from Greenland as late as 2010. I put a little giddy-up in my pace. I was happy to meet my sister coming toward me about halfway down from the red pick-up. We enjoyed the rest of the walk together.

Back at the "ranch," we joined Tom in the bar. Our barkeep's name was pronounced "b-yig-yee" but he said "just call me George" and he was from the Czech Republic. He said he has traveled quite a lot, staying in each place a year or so. Last time he was in Venezuela. He was pretty funny and full of facts and figures.
Outside the window he pointed out the tallest spot in Iceland, Hvannadalshnúkur at elevation 6,923 feet (2110 meters). It is actually a pyramidal peak on the northwest rim of the summit crater of the Öraefajökull volcano (last eruption 1728).

I ordered a Northern Lights in hopes of seeing them later that night. George said to have three and you will see them for sure! It had some Blue Curacao mixed in to give it blue streaks floating throughout. Hence the name.

Then we got a taste test of the two specialty liquors of Iceland. One was dark called Tapas. It had a kind of licorice taste similar to Jägermeister. Not my personal favorite.

The other we had heard about before...Brennivin, an Icelandic schnapps. Mike read that its nickname is Black Death. It was clear, 80 proof, and almost odorless. In spite of the proof, it went down pretty darn smooth. We got a generous shot (see George pouring above) and believe me when I say one was enough.

It was happy hour so a few travelers joined the crowd. We met two fellows from Finland. They said Iceland looked much like their country except they had fjords.

We chatted with another group--some from Colorado and some from Oklahoma. Seemed funny hearing their western twang in the middle of Iceland.

One of the guys said he was up the hill and had found his way to the glacier. He thought the noise I heard was cracking ice. I was not particularly convinced of that. I was a bit jealous, however, that he made it. He offered directions, but I was not about to go back and try it again.

Back in our rooms, we prepped for dinner.

17 April 2018

2018 ICELAND Ring Road 7 - Unexpected Sights

Mike and I have traveled to mostly every state in the USA, many of them multiple times. Exceptions are: neither of us has been to Vermont and Mike hasn't been to Alaska. We have driven from Michigan over various routes to the West Coast four plus times. We have circumferenced all the Hawaii islands except little Lanai and "forbidden" Niihau. We drove both coasts from north to south. And we have been to a number of countries around the world. So you would think we have seen a sample of most every landscape.

No way, Jose. Iceland is a place all its own. The Ring Road is 828 miles (1333 km) around and we only traveled about one-third of it. But it felt like every 20 miles or so was a distinct change of topography. Much of it moon-like, with scant inhabitants, although scattered far and wide was a lone abode or small cluster of homes. Makes you wonder what made folks chose that remote spot. Not much else along the way except some basic power lines here and there.

Not only were the fossar (plural for foss) diverse, but the terrain changed often. There were red flora, glaciers and their melting waters, scrub, spiky rock formations, gray rolling lava-scapes, gravelly areas, black sands, brown dusty areas, every size boulder, green "carpeting," mountains, multiple volcanoes (none spewing at this time), golden grasslands, and more.

Here are sample photos just from our first day, but notice all of them as you go along throughout this Iceland blog. So diverse and interesting and unexpected.

Then we saw something REALLY unexpected. Galloping down the Ring Road came a herd of maybe 30 Icelandic horses. Mains and tails were billowing in the breeze. One cowgirl lead the parade and another rounded up the rear. Cars in both directions stopped at the amazing sight. There was hardly time to get out cameras before they were gone in a flash. Whew, what a treat!

Icelandic horses have wide bodies, some with big bellies and sloped backs. They have short legs and heavy coats. They have long hair on their haunches, long tails that often touch the ground, and long mains that cover their eyes. They come in all colors including multi and some even have blue eyes. They may be shorter than horses, but don't ever call them ponies. More at:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_horse.
This hardy breed was introduced by the Norse invaders in the 9th or 10th century. To keep the breed pure, other breeds are not allowed in the country and if these guys are exported, they cannot return. They are used for sheep herding, showing, racing, and leisure riding. We saw a number of riding stables advertised along the way, although we did not have time or inclination for that.

There were two more foss opportunities coming up. We did not learn the name of either. The first was another tall one. It was interesting because it plunged over the cliff like someone pouring a pitcher. It did not cascade or touch the cliff until it hit bottom. How would you like this in your backyard?
The other was shorter, but wider. Top photo shows the "stair steps" of the foss, as well as its width. The next photo shows the main foss area on the right. It was maybe a 20 foot drop. All the fossar, as far as I can tell, come from rivers derived from glacier melt.

By this time we were hungry. The next town was Vik (means bay), Iceland's southernmost village. Its population in 2016 was 316 people. It has a picture perfect church on the hill overlooking the town. Nearby is one of the biggest arctic tern breeding grounds. Puffins nest here, too, but we did not see any today.
As far as we could see there was one choice for food, a roadside diner. It was basic and looked like a place where the locals eat, but as we left a busload of tourists arrived. We made it in and out just before the crowd hit.
I think the guys had burgers, L had melted ham and cheese (one slice of each), and I had a really great veggie burger. All the sandwiches here were about $18 USD each and that was typical for throughout our visit. A bit of a sticker shock, but keep in mind just about everything has to be shipped onto the island...except fish.
Outside the window was a fantastic view. We saw these odd stacks of basalt rock poking out from the sea. This turned out to be Black Sand Beach. We thought this popular site was down the road a bit further and we saw no sign to alert us, so we did not explore further.

Later we learned the cliffs (and caves) here are exceptional. Google "black sand beach Iceland" and then go to images. Unfortunate that we missed this. Oh, and this is also the location for some movie sets and scenes in the TV show "Game of Thrones."

We also browsed the nearby Icewear store. Turns out there was a nicer (but pricier) cafe with just about the same menu, but we were happy with our first choice. The store had "everything Iceland" for sale, but we weren't in a shopping mood. We were anxious to get to our destination for the evening.

Our last stop on this leg was Laufskálavarda farm. We saw people walking around these odd stone structures rising from a mound, so we curiously pulled over, too. The tale is that a large farm on this site was destroyed by the first recorded volcanic eruption (named Katla) in 894.

The blast resulted in these odd shaped structures that appeared on the mound and for miles away on both sides of the road. The smaller ones looked somewhat like crude Chinese coolie hats. These were chunks of hot lava spewed and hardened in place during the eruption.

The legend continues that people traveling by for the first time would add a stone to the lava structures and that would bring them good luck for the rest of their journey. People continue the tradition to this day and, to keep up with the numerous travelers, the road commission brings in truckloads of rock to have on hand. My sis and I dutifully added small pebbles onto one of the piles. From our driving experience so far, we would gladly accept any assistance (real or imaginary) to keep us safe.

Most of the above structures were natural in shape, but those around the mound were enhanced by travelers' rock balancing skills.