My favorite photography school, fotoscool, is off to Iceland. They sent out an email blast a couple days ago, and I’ve been writing back and forth a bit with them, lamenting on why I can’t go (again… so soon). But if I were ever to put together the perfect-storm of learning-adventure-travel, going to a place like Iceland with these guys to actually learn more about photos, cameras, and photography with a few experts, that would have been it. They regularly do trips to places like Tofino and Italy, so part of me is hoping the Iceland trip (their first class there) works out as awesome as my own trip did… because maybe… in a couple years… when I get that itch real strong-like to go back. That said, if you haven’t been to Iceland in, oh say, the last month and are looking for a good excuse, you might want to look these guys up. I’ve taken three classes with them, and would jump back on that bandwagon in a minute given the right chance.
Because of Iceland I took so many, but my fav is the one of Claire pinching her nose in the sulphur fields. It is currently the wallpaper on my phone.
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 fourth of four of those Icelandic Reduxtions, reflecting more narrowly…
on Swimming Pools
The definitive Icelandic activity seems to be a soak. Or a swim. Or at the very least, a dip in the pool.
We’d speed through the smallest and remotest of towns, places with populations in the low double-digits whose names barely qualified for a dot on our map save for the fact that they had a gas station. But almost without fail, these little hamlets would have a swimming pool.
In my live-blog on our travels through Iceland I wrote about our pool experiences: showering under strict supervision in the nude, the reek of sulphur, the impressively advanced technology (RFID lockers and LED water slides) and the joy of a hot tub in a cool country.
The Blue Lagoon, that epic-touristy-you-gotta-try-that activity that so often gets associated with Iceland was the last activity on our tour, literally a detour on our way to the airport while we carted our luggage from one shuttle, into storage, and then back onto another. Some purists suggested that the Blue Lagoon was a little too-tourist-trappy, or not as natural as one is led to believe (being more a man-made lake of geothermal power effluent than some magic natural hot spring.) And yeah, while it fit into the which-of-these-is-not-like-the-others category of our multiple swimming experiences in Iceland, a couple hours there was something I wouldn’t have missed in retrospect.
on Vikings, Edda & Culture
In many ways I feel vastly unqualified to even hint at writing on this topic. The most I can offer is sharing the sentiment that we so often expressed as we gazed out the car window of “geeze… this place looks a lot like something from Lord of the Rings!”
It’s funny, though. We so often in the twenty-first century associate our perception of Tolkien’s fictional Middle Earth with New Zealand, if for no other reason than that all the films were recorded there.
But in researching upon our return I was only a little surprised to learn that Tolkien was greatly influenced by Snorri Sturluson, the thirteenth century Icelandic-viking-ish poet and politician and the author of the Prose Edda, who’s descriptions of his home and the tales of his characters who lived there seem to have inspired Tolkien as he developed the setting of Middle Earth. Some sites I’ve since read argue that there is no more Middle-Earth-like setting than Iceland because of this connection.
Of course, we saw that in the landscape, vast stretches of scenery that seemed constructed as if in compliment to Rohan or Mordor. It was also more than once that I walked through the entrance of an old turf house (museum, of course) and the mound of earth covered in scrub grass and built up to be as much a hole-in-the-ground as humanly possible, though to walk through the door into a fully furnished, hard-wood-floored, elegantly victorian-styled dwelling I would turn to Claire and say “You know you’re in a Hobbit hole, right?” Not that she was, but the feeling of it was as close as I ever expect to be, even were I to travel to the New Zealand sets of the movie and step into that fictional recreation.
on Hot Dogs, Bakeries & Orange Soda
Oh, that sounds pretty normal, you say. And while I’ve already written on the mishmash of food topics that are snack food and weird, nearly-inedible delicacies, I thought one more brief excursion into the world of Icelandic cuisine (from the perspective of this tourist Canadian, at least) was due.
Before we’d even got off the shuttle from the airport, our driver had detoured his route through the streets of Reykjavik and past a little silver-toned food court standing lonely in a small parking lot near the harbour. “That’s Bæjarins beztu pylsur.” He told us. “The best hot dog in Iceland.”
A day or so later, as I was munching-down on my own ‘pylsur’ I learned a couple of things about the so-called “The Icelandic National Food” (some of those facts conveniently downloaded on my phone from Wikipedia.) First, Icelandic hot dogs in Reykjavik are just ok. Sorry, guys. I ordered mine with “the works” and while I’m not denying that it was a taste and cost-effective treat, give me a smokie with some kraut and hot sauce from the Fat Franks cart near my office any day. Second, though it may be famous and the food to try when you visit, you may want to wait until your can find a hot dog joint from somewhere else in the country… like say, Akureyri… where I gave the Icelandic hot dog a reluctant second chance and was much more impressed the second time around.
Hot dogs were one of the cheap foods. In a previous instalment I had a little bit of tourist-rage going on for the extreme prices in our hosting country. But relatively speaking, hot dogs were pretty cheap. As were bakeries (which never really served us wrong for quick, cheap snacks) or picking up a bottle of Appelsín (literally, I believe) translating into “orange” soda.
on Tunnels, Narrow Roads & Driving
And finally, on driving. Driving. Driving. That thing which we seemed to do so much of, but of which at the same time I did none. Driving.
Karin and my dad took the two driver slots on our rental car (a third would have added significantly to the already high cost) and we rolled down the Icelandic Ring Road, aka Route 1, aka Þjóðvegur for hours each day, seeking out the next famous or interesting sight to see.
According to Wikipedia (now referenced twice in the same blog post!) the ring road is 1,332 kilometres long. We added onto that by going down an extra fjord (or three) and skipping the shortcut back to Reykjavik (so subtract a little and then add a lot more for detours.) But either way, I think it is fair to say that we travelled a great big chunk of that road on our nine day trip around the island. And for most of it, I sat in the front seat of our Land Rover (LR4 4×4, in white, with heated leather seats!) as navigator and chief map guy… though no one ever called me either of those names. *sigh*
Route One was arguably the best of the roads we travelled, yet in many places was barely a shoulder-less ridge around a cliff on the seaside, narrowed to a single lane (total, not each way) across major bridges, or burrowed through a multi-kilometer tunnel under a mountain. Don’t get me wrong: apart from a few gravel stretches or the occasional sheep on the road, it was a great drive: smooth and scenic, and an epic view of the country. (Some day, perhaps, I’ll post the stop-motion video I made from the front window of our car… or you’ll just need to come over to the house and watch it there.) Unforgettable, in many ways.
So, in the end, and after all my reflections on Iceland, my fumbles and my favorites, would I recommend driving it? Well, yeah… but also I’d recommend just going there. How you get around –by foot, by bike, by hitchhiking, or by the power of a 4×4 luxury vehicle– I don’t suppose really matters. Just bring a camera, your sense of adventure, and a few people to share it all with.
Thanks for having us, Iceland. It was fun.
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 thrid of four of those Icelandic Reduxtions, reflecting more narrowly…
on Lava, Sulphur & Volcanos
Claire admitted that she had a bucket list for Iceland, too; She wanted to ride a horse and she wanted to see a volcano.
Luckily, while a live and active volcano was not in the cards –though had we stayed an extra week we could have been around for the Bardarbunga quakes– the six-year-old volcano hunter was perfectly content to check out some of the volcanic vents.
We found some vents on our trip across that stretch of the interior swinging up after the fjords and heading north and inland. We’d just crossed an expanse of fifty kilometers that left us wondering when exactly we’d arrived on the moon, and swung into a parking lot and stepped out onto the surface of Mars. We’d arrived at the steaming, venting, oozing anus of the world, otherwise known as Hverarondor Hverir… which I think is Icelandic for “this place smells like ass so the tourists will love it.” …or something… my Icelandic is pretty weak.
I’ve alluded to the lovely reek of sulpher that filled many various places in Iceland, but none stunk worse than Hverarondor Hverir. Great steam vents wafted into the air filling the cool Icelandic sky with the demon-spawned decay of a billion rotting eggs.
Claire was sated that her volcanic bucket list criteria had been met –though we did climb a few additional and magnificent crater bowls that fit the bill much more aptly, stood at the base of Eyjafjallajökull (which oh-so-infamously erupted in 2010) and pondered the many and diverse rolling landscapes left behind by the mysterious flows of lava as it boiled across the landscape — but it was the vents that fit the bill in her mind, and having witnessed them and snapped a photo or two, she plopped herself down refusing to breath any more of the local air than absolutely necessary.
A few days later we were driving around the base of the fog-shrouded Snaeffelness, the more famous volcano often linked to the work of Jules Verne because it served as the entry way in his “Journey to the Centre of the Earth.” In fact, we downloaded the audio dramatization and listened to that as we drove through the rain and the mist and thought of the massive volcano hovering in just off to the left of the car. That’s the one that got me.
on Stone Sculptures
In a land with so few trees –really, I think there are more sheep than trees in Iceland– the people express themselves by building things out of rocks. Maybe it was the locals. Maybe ancient vikings. Or maybe it was just those-damn-tourists.
Fences, stacked and piled with tetris-like precision into ancient barriers around turf-built-houses.
Rock cairns. In fact fields of rock cairns, where you would step out of the car and look across a few hundred meters of thousands upon thousands of little neatly-stacked, piles of rocks. Of course, Claire wanted to participate, and would without fail or hesitation start stacking her own and demand we take a photo of her with it. She never quite built one more than maybe a foot tall, but whether at the base of a glacier, or the crest of a volcanic crater or just in a picnic area adjacent to a road-side parking lot, she took some basic joy in stacking up some rocks.
There were also markers of a sort. I recall driving through a stretch of the interior, and for at least twenty-kilometers (probably much further as the road and the path diverged) a path off to the side of the road –and old highway or just a trail through an otherwise barren and dangerous quasi-wasteland– was marked with meter-tall rock piles, stacked as trail markers every fifty to one-hundred meters. It was truly surreal to see what may have easily been an ancient travel route, possibly pre-dating the highway, all carefully built through a rough wilderness with no trees, no plants, and oh-so-many deadly crevasses hiding in the lava rock fields.
on Safety & Personal Responsibility
I realize upon returning to Canada how much of a nanny state we’ve become.
Coincidentally, upon arriving home, the first thing I heard debated on the Monday morning news show was that the City was considering wrapping the pedestrian walkway of the High Level Bridge in an ugly protective fence in an attempt to reduce the number of suicides from the 50-plus meter nearly-kilometer long trestle bridge spanning the North Saskatchewan river. I’m not here to debate that (though I would heartily disagree with it) but the idea was even more contrasted by our tour through Iceland which seems to take a much more European approach to personal safety; In other words, your safety is your problem.
Oh, there are cute little signs telling you when you might be approaching a dangerous cliff, or about to fall into a bottomless chasm that may or may not result in your death by boiling geyser water, lava, or impalement upon rocks below. But where in Canada we put up those signs along with sturdy fences and high tech security systems protecting the apparently doh-dee-doh populous from accidental death by dumb-tourism-blunders, In Iceland there were little pegs… with ropes… right about ankle height.
I don’t want to belabour the point, but in a way it was nice to (a) have a closer (and admittedly more dangerous) unobstructed view of some amazing sights, and (b) not be treated like a six-year-old around things that have the real potential to kill me. I had a six year old, so I know the difference.
on Fish, Chocolate, Licorice & Skyr
In a previous redux I wrote about some of the oddities of Icelandic cuisine, but there were some tasty snacks to be discovered on our driving adventures, too.
But as we discovered in the many service stations, cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, and hotel lobbies we visited, throughout our travels fish –or specifically, little bags of fish-jerky like snacks called harðfiskur– were not only plentiful and relatively cheap, but kinda… sorta… in a got-the-muchies-in-Iceland sorta way, a little bit addictive.
We ate our share of “normal” fish, too, of course. Cod and potatoes were common. But harðfiskur ended up being that little plastic pack that we’d pass around the car between meals. It is “fishy” yes, and does have a very I’m-eating-salty-dried-fish taste… because that’s exactly what it was… but it worked.
When we craved something a little sweeter there was plenty of chocolate, licorice and chocolate-covered-licorice. It’s a thing there. They love their chocolate-covered-licorice. It’s as common as chocolate-and-caramel is in Canada, as in every other candy is exactly that: chocolate-covered-licorice. Claire was not impressed, but I didn’t mind one bit.
And of course, as I alluded to in previous posts, there is skyr. Skyr is a uniquely Icelandic yogurt-but-not-yogurt dairy product dating back to Viking times. But if you happened to get addicted to it while travelling there you could probably find a modest substitute in greek-style yogurt, that thick, protein-heavy, slightly-sour blend that has been trendy lately here at home. I’m not a yogurt expert, but that would have been my best comparison.
I do think there is value in everyone and anyone setting specific life goals. And just like I think every adult should have a list of things to do before they die — a bucket list, some might call it — so too every child should have a parental-supported list of things to do before they leave the age of innocence and become a teenager. I decided to write that list down, and from my daughter’s fifth birthday until the day she turns thirteen we’re going to try and do them all.
45. At least three different oceans.
I’ve been collecting photos –only halfheartedly, admittedly– of my daughter at the water’s edge. Well, specifically, at the edge of (or at the very least in frame with) various oceans.This has been less tricky than it seems. Over the last five or so years, we seem to have visited quite a few (though sadly, I will admit, none actually bordering our own country.)
The North Pacific (from Hawaii, 2011)
A few years ago in 2011 we visited Hawaii, stopping in at Waikiki and Maui. Claire was still only three so free-play on the beach was still a little sketchy. But she had her toes in the water more than once while we were there. I snorkelled.
The Caribbean (while cruising, 2013)
In 2013 we cruised through some Caribbean islands, including St Thomas and St Martin, and at each port went on an excursion to find a sandy beach for some sun, sand and surf. Claire had her share of salt water on these outings and became a little more familiar with why you try to avoid drinking from the ocean.
North Atlantic (from the Dominican Republic, 2010)
We saw the south end of the North Atlantic on a holiday family vacation to the Dominican Republic in late 2010. Grandma and Grandpa were there to play with a just barely three-year old Claire in the choppy waters.
The Greenland Sea (from north coast of Iceland, 2014) and The North Atlantic (from south coast of Iceland, 2014)
Most recently, our trip to Iceland left us a little more beach-less than other ocean-side trips, the water being much to dangerous and cold to attempt anything resembling a swim, but doing a near-full loop of the tiny island nation took us in view of what was probably mostly to be considered the northern end of the North Atlantic, but what my novice cartography skills could fudgingly presume may be classified as the Greenland Sea while we drove along through the northern fjords.
Is there something to be learned from seeing oceans? Touching oceans? Experiencing something bigger, vaster, deeper and more epic than a little lake on the prairies?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Oceans make up more of the surface of our planet than land, and living in a land-locked province, over a thousand klicks from the nearest salt water makes me think it is worth a bit of extra effort to let Claire dip her toe in something bigger than one of our local lakes.
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 second of four of those Icelandic Reduxtions, reflecting more narrowly…
on Wool & Knitting
We bought wool. We all did. Some of it was in the form of clothing. Some of it was in the form of coarse balls of raw yarn intended to be knit when we got home.
I don’t tend to brag it up a lot because our culture has this thing about the masculinity of guys who can do arts-and-crafty things. But taking after my late grandfather, I learned to knit when I was a kid and can purl with the practised adequacy of a thirty-something middle-class dude who learned to knit when he was seven…. In other words, just so-so.
But still, I can knit well enough for me to buy three skeins of orange-hued Icelandic wool, all of which I will be attempting (in the coming months) to craft into a very basic scarf. Very. Basic.
Karin, on the other hand is more ambitious.
See, Icelanders seem to like their wool products. There are sheep everywhere, after all. Once you leave Reykjavik, and find yourself driving through less populated areas you often find yourself counting sheep (taking note not to fall asleep while doing so)… and then not counting sheep (because there are so very, very many of them and you’ve lost track)… and then counting more sheep because you cannot believe that in this random, barren and remote place you find yourself staring at a half dozen sheep have beat you there and are watching you patiently as you snap their photo and climb back into your car.
I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to also state that in every restaurant, every shop, and every location willing to take your money someone was selling knit products. A wool cap or some cozy socks in a coffee shop. Or a whole line of beautiful sweaters (each with a little “Hand-knit by Friðþóra” — or some other local knitter — hanging from the collar.)
It might be that confidence that ‘everybody knits here’ which compelled Karin to –rather than buying a sweater– buy a pattern book and a suitcase full of wool skeins and attempt to knit her own.
on Museums, Churches & Picnic Sites
Otherwise known as a long list of the many places we stopped along our epic adventure…
And stop we did. I suppose, when you visit a place like Iceland you do one of two things: you either go on a capital-A adventure vacation, climbing mountains, white-water rafting, whale-watching, swimming-in-volcanos-type adventure, or you tour. We toured. I like touring, too. It was a slower pace, let me take all those photos, and when the rain and wind were pelting those poor souls on their road bikes –the one’s we zipped by in our Land Rover in what seemed like the middle of nowhere– I could crank up the heated seat another notch, recline back into the soft leather and gaze out the window.
When you tour, however, you stop a lot. We stopped a lot. When we looked at our tour map, we’d see stretches of two or three hundred kilometers between hotels. “Oh, a couple hours driving and we’ll have lots of time to wander!” We thought. But that wasn’t exactly the case.
First, you’re only averaging 80 – 90 km/h on the good roads.
Second, you’re always stopping. And we stopped. We would get out and tour a little museum about the herring fishery in one place, wander through the hobbit-hole-like burrows of numerous turf houses (and yes, hobbit-hole is an apt description, inside and out), or poke our noses into a few of the various little churches that appeared in the strangest and most remote of places imaginable.
We also stopped at picnic sites. Not always for a picnic, of course, but the little blue road sign with the picnic table pictogram became our photography beacon as we drove. Whenever there was a sight worth seeing along the long, long highway –whether a distant peak with a good line of sight, or a panoramic vista over the ocean, or just a cluster of weird shaped rocks along a twisting riverbed– there was a picnic stop. On a road where shoulders are more rare than other vehicles, a picnic site was a safe place to stop, a five minute break after twenty minutes of driving, and a almost always marked by at least a dozen photos of yet-another-awesome sight.
on (Other) Tourists
Iceland has the air of a place that still figuring out that people are coming to visit, like a host who’s still doing the washing up as the doorbell is ringing and the party guests are rumbling through the door and tossing their jackets into a pile. Admittedly we visited largely tourist-drawing locations, but the number of tourists was –other tourists– was higher than I’d imagined in the Iceland of my mind. Buses. Buses. More buses. And then folks like us, bumbling around the country in cars. Oh, and don’t forget the hitchhikers.
I could write an essay on the cultural clashes of tourists who converge on a humble little country …about how yes, talking boisterously and loudly on your phone while sitting in an otherwise quiet hotel lobby is still rude even if I don’t understand your language …about how me pausing to let someone come through the door the other way, at least where I come from, is not an invitation for you to push around me …about how tramping down the ancient moss on a path clearly marked “do not walk here” in four languages and pictograms makes us all look bad …about how being on vacation is supposed to make you happy, and yeah I get that you’ve been stuck on a bus that is full of strangers and is barrelling down roads barely fit for 4×4 vehicles let alone luxury coaches, but c’mon!
I won’t write that essay, but I will not-so-subtly imply that my least favourite part of Iceland was the other tourists. Icelanders are generally lovely people, and all the moreso for having the patience to put up with the people who’ve invaded their countries with cameras slung around their necks.
I tried to be patient, but near the end we’d see a bus load of our fellow tourists and I’d cringe, perhaps even hint to miss a scenic view or two because I was tired of being jostled out of the way by an overly-entitled fellow-foreigner.
It isn’t that I’m (a) cheap, (b) broke, or (c) a big complainer about the price of things… but gee whiz, Iceland, you were expensive.
As a general rule, we save for –and spend our extra cash on– travel. And we’re are fortunate enough that (lately) each of those trips is able to get better and better with less and less stress about how much things cost, the price of souvenirs, or the bills at a countless parade of restaurants.
To be honest, I had heard/read that things would cost more than in Canada when we arrived in Iceland, but I suppose –foolish me– that in my mind “cost more” implied some magic number slightly rounded up from what I was used to paying. Y’know… if something was five bucks here, then the equivalent in Iceland may be seven or eight bucks (but in the local currency, of course.)
The local currency is the Icelandic Kroner, and for simplicity’s sake –for you now and me then– we just called the conversion rate a steady 100:1. One hundred kroners was abooooout a single Canadian buck. So, one Kroner (in my mind) became a penny… move the decimal over two spots, and voila… easy, right?
But let me tell you, the first time a cashier tells you, for example, “that will be eleven thousand blah-blah-blah-uuuuuuuuh…” that’s about exactly what you hear. Which is actually only a hundred and ten bucks but then I will add, not an out of scope number for say (as we quickly learned) filling your car with gas, buying a few souvenirs, or paying dinner.
Now, when we go out to eat in Canada –and admittedly, I do get it, we travel to broaden our minds and experience weird and wonderful things– our meal bill tends to hover somewhere in the thirty to fifty dollar range for dinner, for the three of us. In Iceland, I pretty quickly learned that dinners were going to be, minimum, a hundred bucks a pop. And that’s if we didn’t have a beverage –any beverage– and they had a cheap kids meal for Claire. Throw in something exotic –a bit of lamb roast and a bottle of wine with dinner or that tempting desert to share– and the bill was pushing two hundred bucks.
I don’t write this to complain. I write because it legitimately threw me for a loop for a couple days and the mind needs time to wrap around these simple facts. A cup of coffee for four hundred and fifty kroners. A liter of diesel for two hundred and eighty kroners. A bowl of chicken soup for one thousand eight hundred kroners… at that was on special! An average, basic magazine –like a Time or a Cosmo– that costs the equivalent of twenty bucks, or paperback books for easily double or triple that.
Some stuff was cheap. Your kroner went much further if you were in a bakery, or buying candy. Our mobile pay-as-you-go SIM cards were ridiculously inexpensive in retrospect, full-in for about forty bucks with five gigs of data that worked almost everywhere on the island. And we never once paid for parking. But in general, cheap was not the norm, and we quickly blurred our minds to paying what seemed at least double for prices we were used to back home.
And yet for all that spending, I rarely handled cash. I think, ten days in, I personally used less than two thousand kroners — or twenty bucks– in cash and may have had coins in my pocket once. Icelanders like their plastic. Credit cards were the preferred method of transaction, and our Mastercards worked just nifty wherever we went, usually with PIN-based machines, but occasionally using signatures.
All that said, my point is not to suggest avoiding Iceland because of the cost –go, go GO!– but save your pennies because you’ll need a few extra for when you visit. We sure did.
Driving so much as we did, I wanted a way to capture that part of our adventure. But then, after all, one of the ten commandments of photography is, of course, thou shalt not take photographs from the window of a moving vehicle. I broke that rule, as you might imagine, but in (a) a good way, (b) an automated way and (c) a way that is resulting in quite a lot of work for me now, a couple weeks later. In fact, arguably, the majority of the photos I took were from the front window of our car… which is saying a lot because I collected about eighteen thousand of them. How was this accomplished, you ask? Well, with a GoPro Hero 3, a mounting clip on the dashboard, and the camera quietly recording our drive in stop-motion, one-frame-every-two-seconds mode. I’ve been processing since: the GoPro software neatly merges sets of photos (mine range from 90 to 300 per set) into (I’m using 15 fps) video clips that flutter out after five or so minutes of churning as pats of 6 to 20 second video clips, each a smooth little speed-drive in high def across the Iceland landscape.
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.
So, as near as I can figure, the closest we ever really hotel’d to Bardarbunga, that volcano that is suddenly threatening to explode, was Lake Mytvan, about a hundred or so klicks north.
The hardest part about a two week vacation is getting back out of it upon your return. #HowCliche
Before there was the running thing, there was the feet photos.
Over the last twelve years or so, starting with an innocent shot on the beach in Vancouver, up to and including a (perhaps temporary) reprise while we were in Iceland, I used to collect random feet photos. And… no, not the fetishist kind. The kind where you point the camera down and take a photo of where you are standing.
Like, say you’re standing on a drain cover in an interesting city, or atop a mountain glacier, or in a field of red, Mars-like rock covering a volcanic geyser system with steam vents shooting out of the ground all around you.
Point down. Click. Post.
Of course the whole thing has since been usurped and poser’d-up as a bit of an internet meme. I’ve seen it. But I was snapping those damn things BEFORE it was cool. *cough, cough* Uh…
My morning project was to collect the twenty one new feets photos I gathered in Iceland and add them to my collection. It doesn’t sound very impressive on a micro scale, but after twelve years, and nearly four hundred feets photos, that same collection is starting to get pretty monumental.
And the fact that the new ones are geo-tagged helps, too.
I took almost eighteen thousand photos in Iceland. It’s been about twenty-four hours since our return, and in that time I’ve had time to have a bit of a rest and catch up on my sleep… but also to download the one-hundred plus gigabytes of photos and video that I collected on vacation over the past couple weeks. If you can find the link to my Flickr account or my gallery over in one of the sidebars, you’ll be able to check out a few of the better ones. I spent a long afternoon –while watching some normal television– sifting through and uploading a good portion of the good pics. I still have a few I want to kick up there, but for now the bulk of my vacation photos –over a thousand and some– are online.