Untamed Iceland

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  • View from atop Mt. Helgafell of country church and farm on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland. View from atop Mt. Helgafell of country church and farm on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • This wool ski cap says it all for Iceland: its name and national flag! This wool ski cap says it all for Iceland: its name and national flag! Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Mother and daughter Icelandic horsewomen rest from their riding atop a promontory overlooking famed Gullfoss Falls which drops the glacial whitewater Hvita River a mile and a half into a narrow roaring canyon. (MR) Mother and daughter Icelandic horsewomen rest from their riding atop a promontory overlooking famed Gullfoss Falls which drops the glacial whitewater Hvita River a mile and a half into a narrow roaring canyon. (MR) Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Oars up salute following initial transit of first white water rapids of glacial Hvita River in South Iceland. Photo by: Dave Bartruff Oars up salute following initial transit of first white water rapids of glacial Hvita River in South Iceland. Photo by: Dave Bartruff Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Completion of backflip leap from four-story-high canyon wall by whitewater river guide into glacial waters of Hvita River in South Iceland. Photo by: Dave Bartruff Completion of backflip leap from four-story-high canyon wall by whitewater river guide into glacial waters of Hvita River in South Iceland. Photo by: Dave Bartruff Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Mid-air back flip jump from four-story-high cliff by whitewater raft leader into glacial waters of Iceland's Hvita River during interlude in rafting excursion. Photo by: Dave Bartruff Mid-air back flip jump from four-story-high cliff by whitewater raft leader into glacial waters of Iceland's Hvita River during interlude in rafting excursion. Photo by: Dave Bartruff Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • White-water rafting guide on turbulant Hvita glacial river in south Iceland. Photo by: Dave Bartruff White-water rafting guide on turbulant Hvita glacial river in south Iceland. Photo by: Dave Bartruff Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Bartender at Husavik waterfront restaurant fortifies whalewatchers with local brews on their departure and return from whale spotting sailings that have a documented 98.2 per cent success rate since 1995. (MR) Bartender at Husavik waterfront restaurant fortifies whalewatchers with local brews on their departure and return from whale spotting sailings that have a documented 98.2 per cent success rate since 1995. (MR) Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Bow of whale spotting vessel in Arctic waters off Husavik, Iceland's whale-watching capital. Bow of whale spotting vessel in Arctic waters off Husavik, Iceland's whale-watching capital. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Tour leader Sigurdur Tomasson aboard whale spotting excursion vessel "Nattfari" operating from Husavik in Northern Iceland. (MR) Photo by: Dave Bartruff Tour leader Sigurdur Tomasson aboard whale spotting excursion vessel "Nattfari" operating from Husavik in Northern Iceland. (MR) Photo by: Dave Bartruff Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • The Whale Museum of Husavik, Iceland displays the skeletons of various whale species. Once a whaling port, Husavik is now the whale-watching capital of all of Europe. The Whale Museum of Husavik, Iceland displays the skeletons of various whale species. Once a whaling port, Husavik is now the whale-watching capital of all of Europe. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Photo subject instantly reappears from the steams of a bubbling mud pit in Northeast Iceland's famed Hverarond volcanic landscape. Photo subject instantly reappears from the steams of a bubbling mud pit in Northeast Iceland's famed Hverarond volcanic landscape. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Visitor posing for photo by Northeastern Iceland's famed Hverarond boiling mud pits suddenly disappears in a release of steam from a bubbling vent. Visitor posing for photo by Northeastern Iceland's famed Hverarond boiling mud pits suddenly disappears in a release of steam from a bubbling vent. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Off limits expanse of Northeastern Iceland's Hverarond volcanic clay field with surface crust so thin that one misstep could collapse it and boil alive the unsuspecting trekker. Off limits expanse of Northeastern Iceland's Hverarond volcanic clay field with surface crust so thin that one misstep could collapse it and boil alive the unsuspecting trekker. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Explosion of boiling hot mud from clay pit in the infernal volcanic landscape of Hverarond in Northcentral Iceland. Photo by: Dave Bartruff Explosion of boiling hot mud from clay pit in the infernal volcanic landscape of Hverarond in Northcentral Iceland. Photo by: Dave Bartruff Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Summer clouds reflected on calm waters of a glacial fjord in the north of Iceland not far from the Arctic Circle. Summer clouds reflected on calm waters of a glacial fjord in the north of Iceland not far from the Arctic Circle. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Trekkers venture to the brink of famed Godafoss Falls ("Waterfall of the Gods") where in AD 1000 the leader of the Icelandic Parliament disposed of his statues of Norse gods and adopted Christianity as Iceland's official religion. Trekkers venture to the brink of famed Godafoss Falls ("Waterfall of the Gods") where in AD 1000 the leader of the Icelandic Parliament disposed of his statues of Norse gods and adopted Christianity as Iceland's official religion. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Rainbow formed in the mists of Godafoss Falls ("Falls of the Gods"). Here Christianity was proclaimed the official religion of Iceland in AD 1000 when the leader of parliament threw statues of his Norse gods into the waters below. Photo by: Dave Bartruff Rainbow formed in the mists of Godafoss Falls ("Falls of the Gods"). Here Christianity was proclaimed the official religion of Iceland in AD 1000 when the leader of parliament threw statues of his Norse gods into the waters below. Photo by: Dave Bartruff Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Natural volcanic steam billows from the Svartsengi geothermal power plant located on a lava field ten miles from Iceland's Keflavik International Airport. The plant pumps 470Fdegree water up from 1.5 miles below to generate electricity and to heat fresh water. Runoff water of lower temperatures flows into the Blue Lagoon with its theraputic mineral spa effects. Natural volcanic steam billows from the Svartsengi geothermal power plant located on a lava field ten miles from Iceland's Keflavik International Airport. The plant pumps 470Fdegree water up from 1.5 miles below to generate electricity and to heat fresh water. Runoff water of lower temperatures flows into the Blue Lagoon with its theraputic mineral spa effects. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Couple with self-applied silica mud packs enjoy the natural therapeutic waters of Iceland's famed Blue Lagoon Spa, Iceland's No.1 tourist attraction. (MR) Couple with self-applied silica mud packs enjoy the natural therapeutic waters of Iceland's famed Blue Lagoon Spa, Iceland's No.1 tourist attraction. (MR) Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • "Green Pebble Beach" caused by lichen on coast of Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Western Iceland. Photo by: Dave Bartruff "Green Pebble Beach" caused by lichen on coast of Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Western Iceland. Photo by: Dave Bartruff Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • A mother ocean bird and her young chicks nesting on ledge on the northeast coast of Iceland. A mother ocean bird and her young chicks nesting on ledge on the northeast coast of Iceland. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Volcanic basaltic columns naturally decorate an oceanside black sand beach near Vik, Iceland's southernmost point. Volcanic basaltic columns naturally decorate an oceanside black sand beach near Vik, Iceland's southernmost point. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Steam rises from a natural stream whose temperature reaches 212F in Southeastern Iceland's Deildarttunguhver thermal area. Since 1925 Iceland has been a pioneer in sustainable energy with 85% of its heating coming from geothermal sources. Steam rises from a natural stream whose temperature reaches 212F in Southeastern Iceland's Deildarttunguhver thermal area. Since 1925 Iceland has been a pioneer in sustainable energy with 85% of its heating coming from geothermal sources. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Onlookers witness the seven-story-high eruption of boiling Onlookers witness the seven-story-high eruption of boiling Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Onlookers witness the seven-story-high eruption of boiling Onlookers witness the seven-story-high eruption of boiling Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Published in 1864 by the French science-fiction writer, Jules Verne, his book "Journey to the Center of the Earth" was a "must read." He chose his descent from an extinct Icelandic volcano, named "Snaefellsjokull." The actual volcano is nearby this sign. Published in 1864 by the French science-fiction writer, Jules Verne, his book "Journey to the Center of the Earth" was a "must read." He chose his descent from an extinct Icelandic volcano, named "Snaefellsjokull." The actual volcano is nearby this sign. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • Portrait of Jules Verne, 19th Century French science-fiction writer who chose an actual Icelandic volcano, Snaefellsjokull to begin his novel's descent to the center of the earth. This sign is near the actual dormant volcano. Portrait of Jules Verne, 19th Century French science-fiction writer who chose an actual Icelandic volcano, Snaefellsjokull to begin his novel's descent to the center of the earth. This sign is near the actual dormant volcano. Photo by: Dave Bartruff

When Jules Verne, the French writer and father of modern science fiction plotted his classic adventure novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 1864, he chose the most plausible place on the planet he could: untamed Iceland, a mystical, yet very real island at the Arctic Circle. Covered with an eternal Ice Age blanket of snow and ice atop its infernal, fiery underside, this natural Nordic wonder was legendary even in Verne’s time, known for its explosive volcanoes, steaming red lava fields and towering geysers. 

The word, “geyser” given to waterspouts worldwide, is derived from Iceland’s most prodigious spout named, “Geysir,” which began its first twenty-story-high eruptions in AD 1294.  Recently gone nearly dormant, it has passed its mantle on to its close neighbor Strokkur, now the Icelandic champion with seven-story-tall releases every five minutes around the clock.

What set off Verne’s scholarly characters on their fictional descent into the earth’s subterranean abyss was a mysterious 4th Century Runic parchment they uncovered, translated and deciphered. As an expedition party of only three, they set off to explore the earth’s core from inside the cone of an actual Icelandic volcano, the extinct Snaefelellsjokull (“snow mountain”). 

It was in the shadow of Snaefelellsjokull, where I launched my discovery into Iceland’s legendary “Wild Side.”  It took me initially eastward over rough narrow rural roads built on beds of crushed lava and at times surfaced with the same volcanic material.  My destination was to the Deildartunguhver thermal area.  In a nation with 250 hot spring districts, this spa country is in a class by itself: Europe’s largest.  Its Blue Lagoon health spa is such a mecca of relief for psoriasis and eczema sufferers, it is Iceland’s top tourist attraction.

Across the countryside you see steam rising naturally everywhere: from streams, farmlands, even from shoulders along the road.

Some 200 miles to the northwest, near the end of my adventure, I encountered one of the earth’s most active volcanic regions around Lake Myvatn.  Here Iceland is virtually being torn apart by the relentless stress tectonics of the Mid Atlantic Ridge where the American and European Plates are separating. The good news is the activity crawls at a snail’s pace: just two centimeters a year.  So it didn’t prevent NASA from training its Apollo 11 Astronauts on the barren Myvatn landscape for their historic 1969 moonwalk.

As I trekked the area, I reached infernal Havarond, a smoking clay field of boiling steam vents and mud pits.  Here, with a single misstep, you can be boiled alive if you should break through its pizza thin crust.  Readings taken from a mile below here reach temperatures of more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit.  Via raised walkways and viewing platforms and following within roped corridors, I safely transited through this steaming hell on earth.

Just the same, in the ever-changing vapors and fumes, a companion at your side may appear, disappear and reappear in the blink of an eye.

North from hellish Havarond, just 30 miles or so on the shores of Skjalfandi (“shivering fjord”) I arrived in Iceland’s whale-watching capital. Husavik is a picturesque fishing village and harbor with a Whale Museum housed in a huge old wooden waterfront structure I suspect once served as a whaling station.  Now run as a non-profit, the museum focuses on the 24 species of whales that frequent Icelandic waters.

At the pier I boarded the restored oaken-hulled Nattafri excursion vessel and donned 66-Degree North (Arctic Circle) storm gear for the voyage out to sea on its open deck.  The vintage craft with its 69 foot-long hull and gross weight of 100 tons looked fit enough until I saw the listing in my whale-spotting guide for Icelandic Blues at 90 feet and 200 tons; outweighing the Nattafri two to one!

Only when our spotting guide announced that whales were spotted on 699 out of the last 712 voyages for a 98.2 success rate, did I feel relieved that the Nattafri would return to port unscathed by the breaching Arctic behemoths. 

On the whaling excursions, Humpback, Minke and Northern Bottlenose are most often seen as well as porpoises and white-beaked dolphin closer in to shore. My voyage was a total success in calm seas and mostly fair skies with at least a dozen close up sightings.

Inland again, I found myself donning a helmet and life vest to join an inflatable river-rafting trip on the milk-white glacial Hvita River.  Here you meet the adrenaline-pumping challenge of waves and rapids as well as enjoying a reflective drift through serene canyons with perpendicular black basaltic walls.  As a respite from the first series of rapids, our 25 year-old guide Elvar, beached our raft and took several of us for a climb up a steep rocky path to the top of a canyon wall directly above the river.

Atop the four-story high cliff, he suggested a dive into the calm water below from atop the promontory. Casually he stepped feet first off from the ledge and pierced the water below like an arrow through a bulls-eye. Returning to the top of the promontory, he amazed us with a second dive: this time, a perfect back flip.  That was all the inspiration that Tim, a fellow rafter from Dublin, Ireland needed to greet the Hvita below with his own brand of daring Irish bravado.

Further downstream, the Hvita grows into a torrent fed by tributaries to create Iceland’s greatest natural attraction: Gullfoss Waterfall (“golden falls”) which thunders down in two stages producing a deafening roar heard for miles around.   

“All good things come to an end,” and my visit to the untamed land of “Fire and Ice” did as well.  However, countless fond memories of “Untamed Iceland” discoveries were still fresh in my mind.  One I treasure most happened at Helgafell (“holy mountain”) early on my itinerary on the same peninsula that Jules Verne set his 19th Century science-fiction classic. 

There I ascended, according to local custom, with the promise that on this, my first climb, I may make three wishes that will be granted …if… I not look back or speak on the way up or ever reveal to anyone any of my silent petitions.

With two of my three wishes already granted since returning home, I’m expecting that the third is well on its way, and will top them all!

For Icelandic Explorations by the “Leader in All the Road Less Traveled”

12-days from $3595 including international airfare offered by:

Overseas Adventure Travel

One Mifflin Place Suite 400

Cambridge, MA 02138

1-800-955-1925

www.oattravel.com

 


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Dave Bartruff

California-based Dave Bartruff is an award-winning photojournalist who has traveled to more than ninety countries.

Column Description: “Faraway places with strange-sounding names” is my middle name.  I’d like to introduce myself to you as often as I can.

 

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