From August 6 through 16, 2014 five of us — my parents, Karin, Claire and I — drove the Iceland ring road. Our adventures were numerous and my photos were plentiful. I chronicled our trips in a live-ish blog post summarizing the highlights of our trip, in chronological order… but I often find that after such a mind-blowing adventure, it’s good to step back and reflect on the many things that have left an impression upon your mind, body and spirit. This is the first of four of those Icelandic Reduxtions, reflecting more narrowly…
on Waterfalls, Geysers & Glaciers
When you visit Iceland it’s what you expect to see, but what you never prepared yourself for. At least that’s how I felt.
We live in Canada. We live (relatively) near to our gorgeous national parks. I’ve hiked up beside waterfalls. I’ve smelled sulphur springs. And we’ve been visiting our (little) famous glacier along the Icefields Parkway for as far back as I can remember as a kid.
But in Iceland I saw all these things in one day… and then frequently… and in mind-blowing amazing ways, for days afterwards. And even after knowing, seeing, loving our Canadian parks, in Iceland I routinely needed to prop up my agape jaw and then found myself mumbling, in wonderment, that “we ain’t got nothin’ on this place…”
Part of that, I suspect, is the accessibility of it while travelling there. We were on vacation, I admit, and on a trek to find these things. They were laid out in our path, highlighted on our map as amazing sights to be seen. And we saw them. Gawked at them. Photographed them in such magnitude that I can’t help but wonder if my luggage was a bit heavier for the weight of the extra photons I collected.
In the days and weeks since, I’ve remarked that if someone were to parachute me anywhere in the world and leave me to otherwise drop from the face of society and become permanently lost… I would gladly be dropped onto the South coast of Iceland to spend the rest of my life wandering among the endless mountains, draped in green and drizzling with a hundred magnificent sights… just leave out the “it probably snows at some point” part.
on Eating Fermented Sharks (& Other Crazy Foods)
Chances are if you’ve ever spent any time researching Iceland, you’ve come across stories, tales, videos or something that hints at some of the, uh, unique cuisine of the remote little country. I had. In fact, I went to the specific effort of writing a post detailing a kind of “Eating Bucket List” for our trip.
Some of the items on that list were fairly basic (and plentiful to come by, actually.) Skyr and the various varieties of dried fish were in your face and often one of the few snacks available at a remote gas station, so much so that we kinda got a taste for strawberry Icelandic yogurt with our lunch or nibbling on Harðfiskur as we were driving each day.
Other tastes? Well, they were a little more rare. For example I only encountered puffin on the menu once. It was as an appetizer in a remote hotel restaurant, and even then only a taste on a combination plate of cured and smoked meats. I tried it, of course, but just to say I had.
And then there was the shark: Hákarl. Some folks will tell you that this is a bit of a farce. A story and an Icelandic oddity that they sell to tourists. But whether the case of toxic sharks, fermented in their own ammonia stink for six months and then sliced off as an ancient delicacy dating back to Viking times is actually true or not, the fact remains that yes… they have it… someone eats it… and so did we.
There is a little museum –the Shark Museum– up on the north side of the Snæfellsnes peninsula that lets you wander through –basically a large garage — filled with shark oddities, shark skeletons, and “things we pulled from a sharks stomach” displays. The highlight, at the end of this mini-tour, is a nibble-sized, popcorn-kernel taste of a mild variety of the Hákarl, which they make right there on their farm.
Or, if you are lucky –oh, so fortunately lucky in a bittersweet-kind-of-way– like us, as you are pulling up in your car, the owner of the place is giving a personal sample to some restaurateurs in front of the museum at a picnic table, and as you are snapping photos of the impromptu event he slices off a hunk the size of your pinky finger and extends it in offering to you. Of course, you gulp it down, not wanting to miss the opportunity, and choking-swallow-try-not-to-gag on the ammonia-jello-drain-cleaner-taste with the consistency-of-wet-cheese gob of rotten shark in your mouth.
Just to say you did. Just to cross it off your bucket list of strange foods.
on Farm Animals
Don’t try counting sheep in Iceland… you will either fall asleep or loose track very quickly. White sheep, black sheep, grey sheep, brown sheep… sheep that look like little panda bears standing atop a pile of rocks in a field near the road. Sheep cross the road. Sheep as nothing by distant specks on a mountain of green and grey, but definitely sheep.
Oh, so many sheep.
As we drove it was often difficult to discern to what use the locals were actually putting the land. We’d see mountains, lava fields, rocky plains with ne’er a blade of grass to be munched, or occasionally even yes, lovely lush green pasture land. And we’d have these discussions. Like, I wonder how much this land is worth? What would you use it for? How would you farm it? It’s the Albertan in me, who driving through my own local countryside sees endless fields of blocked-off crop land, lush with sweeping fields of canola or wheat. But in Iceland? Steep cliffs, rocky beaches, or seemingly barren landscapes where you say: gee, is that every lovely, but it can’t be very useful for farming, can it?
But then you’d see a half dozen sheep. Or a small herd of horses on the hill up there. And that would be that.
We rode horses (an hour-long horseback riding adventure through a lava-cracked landscape) and we ate dinner with dairy cows (at a restaurant that let you watch the milking through a glass partition while eating a local burger made with local cheese) and I’m sure we drove past a thousand farms, each individually named with a standard sign out front, and occasionally even marked on our map. But what I will likely remember the most, agriculturally speaking, are the countless sheep, plentiful sheep, and sheep where one may never, ever expect to see a sheep, dotting the Icelandic landscape.
on Fictional Creatures
I don’t know if the suppose’d whimsical belief in the supernatural is something that one would naturally attribute to Icelanders or not, but I’d read prior to travelling there that there is a certain inclination towards a world view that crisscrosses with the mythic.
Or, in how I explained it to Claire, we might run across some elves or fairies or trolls… or at least people who believe in those things and have (a) built houses for them or (b) do things that make one wonder if maybe, just maybe, Iceland is some kind of crypto-zoological paradise.
For example, I informed Claire (and she actually was quite good about it) that throwing rocks in river and lakes was considered rude. Why? Because you never know when you might hit an invisible creature on the head.
And of course we’d planned to see at least one building, an álfhól (elf houses), belonging to a member of the Huldufólk (Icelandic hidden people), a miniature garden house about the size of a milk-crate that have been supplied by a landowner for the dwelling needs of elves and other mythical critters.
We found some. And with it, I played along with my daughter when she would creep up to the same, always at a respectful distance and sure that she’s seen some movement or something fluttering in a shrub nearby.
Couple that with some extra caution around bridges, because well, dad-there-might-be-a-troll-under-it, and I will admit that Iceland had a way of imprinting something of a taste for the mystical in my heart.