I was fortunate to be invited to speak at an event in Iceland back in 2010. What wasn’t so fortunate was that the event was scheduled for the month of February. Considering Iceland’s proximity to the North Pole (just south of the Arctic Circle) I knew I was in for a colder travel experience than what I typically experience. And while I live in San Francisco, a place that hasn’t seen snow since the 60’s, I did grow up in Northwest Minnesota, so I figured I could handle it. Turns out that Iceland in winter was and still remains one of the most hauntingly beautiful places you can visit.
I started my trip in Reykjavik, the capital, and the location for 2/3rds of the population of the entire country itself. A cosmopolitan city, it really was a very pleasant place to stay, with hotel prices ridiculously cheap by European standards. Of course, much of that had to do with the devaluing of the local currency during their local financial crisis, an unfortunate sequence of events that was a precursor to the world financial crisis that followed shortly thereafter.
Iceland itself only has around 320,000 residents in the entire country, which is approximately the size of one of the larger suburbs in San Francisco. All of that isolation makes for a very friendly breed of people, however, who were extremely kind and accommodating to me throughout my trip. They are the direct descendants of the Vikings who originally settled here, and they maintained the same effective language and customs of their Viking ancestors. For example, they still used the ‘patronymic’ method of naming, which meant that your last name would reflect the name of your father. So, if your father was Eric, and your name was Leif, you were called ‘Leif Ericson.’
After a great time and a wonderful local dinner with the conference-goers in Reykjavik, I set out on my journey clockwise around the Icelandic Ring Road, a journey of around 1500km total. This was a journey of self-reflection for me. I turned the radio to Icelandic folk music stations and drove through the snow and ice during the little daylight that I had at that time of year. In some of the remote areas, particularly the Northeast side, It would be hours before I’d run into another vehicle.
This place is rugged and remote, and can be dangerous to those not used to driving on icy roads. Indeed, I ran into a few cases of cars that had slid off the road, and one of the other presenters at the event had an unfortunate rollover accident caused by the ice as well (he ended up being all right, but it was still eye-opening.)
I reached my point traveled furthest north on this trip, at approximately 65.5 degrees North at a spot just north of the city of Akureyri, the second largest city in Iceland with a population of just 18,000, and a large fishing port. Indeed, the fishing here is a major industry, and fish is always on the menu and always tasty. I had some unbelievable fish dishes here.
Fortunately for us warm-blooded humans, Iceland is not all about ice. It sits on the border of the North American and European tectonic plates, and is subsequently very volcanic in activity, with a huge number of hot springs, hot vents, and geysers.
In fact, the world’s original named geyser is here, the geyser simply named ‘The Great Geysir,’ from which all other geysers get their name. Geyser is not very active any more, but its twin, named ‘Strokkur’, is. Strokkur goes off every five minutes or so, and is a delight to watch. I took the following fast frame photo sequence with my trusty Nikon D300S, a camera I’ve been using for all of my travels.
By the way, I had Strokkur and the other geysers all to myself that day. I’m sure it’s busier in summer, but in February, the geysers are all yours. And speaking of volcanic activity…little did I know, but one of those very volcanoes I drove right by would decide to wake up exactly two few months later, wreaking havoc on my travel plans in Europe later that summer…but that’s a different blog post.
If you do make it there, and the ring road isn’t shut down due to overactive volcanoes, try to make it out to some of Iceland’s waterfalls. The largest waterfalls in Europe are located here, as well as some other incredibly picturesque ones. The Geysers, Gullfoss, one of the biggest waterfalls, and the ancient Parliament meeting grounds of Þingvellir (the strange character is a remnant of the Viking character for ‘Th’) form what is known as the ‘Golden Circle’, a major tourist attraction closer to Reykjavik.
Not all earthly beauty needs to be in white sand and palm tree form. Snow, Ice, and fire beneath the surface combines in Iceland to form a type of beauty that is further accented by the isolation that you can experience when you are there. I would love to see what it is like here in Summer, with 23 hours of daylight, greenery, and warmer temperatures, but for now Iceland will remain in my memories as a place of hauntingly stark cold beauty.