At just about 24 hours into our whirlwind trip to Iceland, we’ve already seen a lot of it. Of course, it helps that the sun never really goes down at this time of year, so you can pretty much see everything at all points of the day or night. In fact, I woke up at 4AM to bright sunshine and almost tried to convince Andy that we should hit the road out of Reykjavik and start seeing the natural wonders. That goal was quickly abandoned. I have to be careful with Andy. He’s not exactly a Nature guy — our marriage nearly ended early thirty years ago when I took him camping out in the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest of Arizona. In fact, I was surprised he agreed to accompany me to Iceland. I’d been asking for years if I could glom on one of his many business trips to England and, while he was working, grab the quick flight to Reykjavik for a few days. Surprisingly, when his latest trip came up, he agreed to go to Iceland with me. Of course, after the holiday was booked, he asked the fateful question:
Andy: So what exactly is there to see in Iceland?
Me: There are glaciers and volcanoes and geysers. It’s basically like Glacier National Park, Yellowstone and Lassen Volcano Park all rolled into one. It’s like the whole country is a National Park.
Andy: I HATE National Parks.
I was reminded that this trip was going to have to be managed very carefully. I could only cram in as many natural wonders as I thought Andy could tolerate. That requirement took hiking out of the equation. If I were going to tick off all of my Icelandic bucket list items, we needed to hit them quickly while still leaving Andy plenty of time for fine dining and shopping.
For our first full day, I had planned for us to see some of the highlights of the scenic route known as the Golden Circle. It promised to take us through lava fields, under permanently snow capped mountains, past cinder cones and geysers, touching down at some key sights in Iceland’s history. The trick was going to be seeing as much of it as we could cram in before Andy reached his limit. The day was mostly a success.
On a side note, any regular reader of this blog will recognize those flowers in the foreground as Lupines, a variety of which is one of our favorite California wildflowers. Here in Iceland, we saw them growing in massive swaths across the landscape, and they really, really did look a little too familiar. Reaching out to my traditional go-to sources of information, on the previous night, I’d quizzed the waiter in our cocktail lounge about them. When I said they were surprisingly similar to the Lupines we have in the Western U.S., our waiter said, “Yes, they’re originally from Canada. My grandfather helped to import them and plant them.” Hmmmm. You know how we feel here at Left Coast Cowboys about the planting of non-native species that might become invasive. As much as I love Lupines — and as beautiful as they looked giving a smokey purple haze to the landscape here — I wasn’t sure I approved. I noted to our waiter that Lupines fix nitrogen into poor soil, making it richer for other plants, but perhaps they were crowding out something indigenous. He assured me that the Lupines were held in check because, once they enriched the soil in an area here, they wouldn’t grow there any more. I’m not sure I’m buying that, but as we drove through, I did notice that the Lupines seemed to be held to very defined swaths, usually where I suspected the soil was better drained. Knowing how at least our California Lupines thrive in our waterless summers, I guess these Canadian Lupines could only take hold in porous soil areas in order to survive the 200 or so days of rain Iceland gets.
Apparently, in Iceland, a huge percentage of the population believes in elves, trolls and ghosts. Or, as on local folklorist puts it: “We don’t necessarily believe, but we adamantly don’t disbelieve.” Trolls, when caught out in daylight, are supposed to turn to stone. So Icelanders helpfully make stone towers to mark areas where trolls congregate. Or maybe this sight really was a particularly large troll gathering that turned to stone with an unexpected sunrise.
When traveling with someone like Andy, you need a lot of bang very quickly with only a modicum of effort. Pingvellir delivers like Dominoes. With an easy wander around of an hour or two, you get fantastic lava formations, pristine waterfalls, bird life, early Icelandic history and some really interesting geology. At a gully in the park called Almannagja, the American tectonic plate is pulling away from the European tectonic plate at a steady pace of one inch a year. Iceland is literally tearing in half. At first we thought just the narrow canyon we were walking through was the rift.
I know this because we tapped into another of our go-to travel sources. Andy and I have become experts at latching on to various guides on tours we aren’t part of. Here’s the secret: like a prophet who isn’t believed in his own country, the best guides aren’t appreciated by their own groups. When we see a guided group and members are splintering off or fiddling with their phones, we know we’ve spotted the guide with the greatest depth of knowledge. Sure enough, we latched on to an enthusiastic and fascinating guide who told us all about the geology and “the Wolcanoes”. He also had a wonderfully gleeful way of recounting the Viking past of the area, which was an early settlement spot and a place of early government and gatherings. Seems this was the place where male criminals were beheaded and female criminals were pushed into the lagoon and drowned. Tough crowd, those Vikings.
Andy as enjoying Pingvellir so much, that I wisely didn’t press him to go into the historic church. We just did the easy 2 mile trails leading from the carpark, but I’m told there are many wonderful hiking trails around the park. Just on that short jaunt we could see Iceland’s largest natural lake, a huge shield volcano and its companion volcanoes, as well as miles of lichen studded meadowland.
By Medieval times or even earlier, the inhabitants had deforested 90% of the island. Today, you can see where the Icelandic Forestry Service is trying to re-establish forests. I may need to give them Ranch Manager Louis’s number. They seem to be planting their trees too close in age and too close together. Louis would also be able to tell them that Nature abhors straight lines and neat rows. Hey Iceland, stagger those trees and mix up the ages a bit, so you’ll eventually have a more natural looking forests. However, I doubt Iceland will be even a quarter back to forestation in my lifetime, so I’ll leave that to the next generation of Icelanders.
Wait, did I say natives? Although the famous Icelandic Ponies and Icelandic Sheep are unchanged in DNA from Viking times, they aren’t natives. In fact, the only indigenous land mammal before the arrival of the Vikings was the elusive Arctic fox. The island was and is alive with birds, including the National Bird, the Puffin, which Icelanders have no qualms about eating or stuffing to display in tourist shops. Otherwise, some pretty wide open and uninhabited places.
So far, the day’s outing was a roaring success. Then we hit the first hitch. Andy doesn’t have the enthusiasm for Nature that I do. (Remember, on my trip along the Lost Highway, I had to pull off the road every few hundred yards to make sure I wasn’t missing a Redwood that was just that much better than all the hundreds of other Redwoods I’d seen.) I’ve seen a lot of impressive geysers; Andy is ambivalent about geysers. But the guidebooks — which I now realize were written by people who had never been to Yellowstone or Lassen Volcano Park or, indeed, to any of the great Western U.S. parks — were making it sound as if Geysir, the place that gave its name to all geysers, was the ne plus ultra, the Platonic Ideal of geysers. It wasn’t. It’s a fairly small area of mudpots and geysers, most of which are pretty unremarkable. In addition, there is really only one geyser that erupts — although it does do that reliably every five minutes.
And by the way, I deserve great praise for getting shots that do not include hordes of tourists, the car parks and the restaurants and snack bars that are mere yards away. But hey, I’m an old hand with geysers. But seriously, if you prefer your geysers in unworldly settings, you’d do better to hike out into Bumpass Hell at Lassen, see any of the geysers that aren’t Old Faithful at Yellowstone, or visit one of the hundreds of less famous but no less beautiful geysers across the West. If you are passing by, see Geysir. Give it about 7 minutes. Otherwise, if you’ve seen American geysers, this is one you can miss.
Andy was getting restless at this point. It had been a long day of nature observation and the last sight was a disappointment. So I hurried him on to Gullfoss, which one might term “The Niagra of Iceland”. It didn’t suffer by comparison. Ironically, when you compare it to Geysir, this was a natural wonder out in the middle of nowhere untainted by T-shirt shops, postcard vendors, and tourists in those cheap plastic rain jackets.
And that was a record day of nature watching for Andy. We figured we couldn’t top this and headed back to Reykjavik for fine dining at an excellent restaurant in a historic old merchant’s building. I highly recommend Fiskfelagid (The Fish Company). Go for the Icelandic tasting menu which is innovative, tasty and, mercifully doesn’t include the poor endangered Minke whale or the National Bird, the Puffin. But it will give you an explosion of taste in every bite and a sudden understanding of the innovative uses for skyr.
Now to sing us out, here are Led Zeppelin. Robert Plant was inspired to write the song while visiting Reykjavik at the opening of a 1970 tour. I’m guessing he didn’t have the tasting menu. If he had, he would have been much mellower.