Glaciers, Steaming Fissures, Volcanoes, and a Humpback Whale – This is Iceland!

Fyrirgefðu! Sorry for not updating in the past few days, I have been off the grid, in the land of very expensive Internet and weekends where everything shuts down. Currently I am sitting in the Vatnajökull National Park Visitor Centre, in the Skaftafell section of this huge park that covers 10% of Iceland. It includes the Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap south of the Arctic and while I have only been here 2 hours, I am excited. Ready to hit the trails. The weather is beautiful – clear blue skies, hot enough I am down to a t-shirt. It has not been this warm and nice since Greenland.

Driving into the park, we took two hours to pass only one side of the ice cap, the highway skimming between the ice cap´s multiple glacial tongues and the sea. The glaciers seem wise and old, dominant high up in their mountain loft, as if above anything us mere mortals are doing. However, they are quickly receding, so drastically that authorities are alarmed at the rate. What once reached almost to the ocean has retreated almost completely up into the high mountain passes.

Not to worry anyone, but this is also the park that is home to Grímsvötn, the volcano that erupted this spring and also possibly triggered the jökulhlaup (massive glacial flood when the dammed up meltwaters escape) that washed out Highway 1 (Ring Road) in July. No worries, the park is open and bustling and the highway was rebuilt astonishingly quickly, so traffic is back to normal.

I am staying in a little farm called Bölti, high up in the hills overlooking one of the glaciers and the broad flood plain of gravel and rock, all debris from the glaciers, far, far below. It is an adorable farm, with an old eclectic farmhouse full of treasures, a friendly family, the comfy bunkhouses with their own bathrooms, and an old-fashioned turf roof building housing the kitchen. I ate my lunch on the bluff and gazed out, entranced.

My hike down here to the Visitor Centre passed three waterfalls in only 20 minutes. I cannot wait for tomorrow’s day hike up into the mountains to even bigger waterfalls and views over the glaciers. The weather report looks perfect. I couldn’t have timed my stay better, as the last two weeks have been overcast and rainy.

Rewinding to some highlights in the past few days. As Internet time is super expensive here, I will bullet point.

  • Husavík and whale watching. A little fishing town and once a major center for commercial whale hunting. Today they are one of the few Icelandic communities that are against commercial whale hunting since tourism is the major force of their economy. Along with my new friend David of New York City, whom I met on the hour bus ride, and a group of about 50 people, we headed out to the open seas of the Arctic Ocean. And it was really open seas! The boat rocked side to side, up and down with the waves, at the mercy of the sea. (Or at least, it could be – must always remember the power behind Mother Nature.) It was a thrill just to be sailing a new ocean – I can now say I’ve been on the Arctic! But my first experience seeing a whale – I am speechless. How can I possibly describe the magic? We came across a humpback whale who surfaced multiple times to breathe, spraying mist three feet into the air and slipping back beneath the waves. When he showed his fluke (tail), you knew he was deep-diving and would not be back up for 5 to 8 minutes. We followed him a while and he swam extremely close to the boat. The size and grace of the humpback is beautiful. Our boat was an awkward teenager, tossing clumsily about. The whale was a dancer, fluid and graceful. I am forever in awe.
  • Two days in Mývatn, one of Iceland’s most geologically active regions. Here you not only find a calm, wide lake full of birdlife (and swarming insects – pull out the bug spray), but mountains, volcanoes, some still active, craters and pseudocraters, strange lava rock formations, steaming fissures and bubbling mud pots, a number of geothermal power plants, caves hiding hot springs, and a soothing nature bath of hot water runoff from the geothermal plants. I could have spent a week or a lifetime there.
  • Stayed in a guesthouse on the grounds of a camping site. The owner of the house, a soft-spoken old soul who seeks solitude and loves the outdoors, actually lives in the house. It is his private home, set right on the lake with stunning views of the sunset over the water. He loves his home so much, he is willing to give up his solitude for two months a year in the summer, allowing people to camp on his lawn and renting out the rooms upstairs. I had a closet of a single room – literally fit no more than a bed and bedside table – but my window overlooked the lake and the big kitchen was just down the hall. Fantastic.
  • Hiked all over. Met some locals so impressed by my bumbling attempts at Icelandic, they showed me the local hot spring bathing spots, in these huge rock caves set into old volcanic fissures in the Earth’s crust that are no longer active but still hot enough to heat the water inside. The temps vary year to year, sometimes too hot or cold to bathe, but this year it’s not too hot. Climbing in was like a sauna, my glasses fogging up. Truly awesome, though the lady mentioned she is never easy when swimming, because she always wonders – what if an earthquake? After all, this is a very active region. In fact, the ground just east of here is swelling, indicating Krafla and its system of fissures may be preparing to erupt again.
  • Biggest accomplishment – hiking up Hverfjall, a huge broad perfect crater of gray and black gravel and rock. Steep ascent, even steeper descent. But the views of the lake, mountains, and pseudocraters worth it.
  • Soaked in the Mývatn Nature Baths, a neon light blue pool of hot water that was formed by runoff from the nearby geothermal plants, billowing huge stacks of steam into the air. This whole area just wallows in steam, coming from vents, streams, pools and even the rock itself. Of the two major touristy baths in Iceland, I prefer this one to the Blue Lagoon. More laidback, subdued and natural. The restaurant is a small cafeteria and the locker rooms and building are wood and glass and fade into the background. I simmered in the water, letting the heat work its wonders on my fibro pain, and watched the sun set over the lake.

So much more to share, but just not enough time! Tomorrow is hiking, then on to Vík and black sand beaches!

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About chronictraveler

Chronic Traveler starts as a dream, one that I thought I had lost, but that has slowly changed into a mission to realize and live that dream every day. In December 2007 I became seriously ill and the doctors did not know what was causing my illness. I had to stop teaching as my life tumbled into a never-ending nightmare of doctors, hospitals and tests. Finally, in May 2008 I was diagnosed with a chronic condition - fibromyalgia. I was only 26 years old at the time. I have had to give up teaching, and now work part-time at a performing arts center as I learn how to manage my condition and improve my quality of life. What helped me through the months of uncertainty and sickness, and continues to inspire me, was a new focus on what truly mattered to me: family, friends, gardening, the arts, and especially travel. I have always fed my soul by traveling, ever since I first stepped off the plane at age 16 in Kathmandu, Nepal to help with an orphanage's building project. Meeting new people and experiencing how they live and how they view the world infuses my life with a richness I was so afraid I would lose when the doctor first said, "You have fibromyalgia". This blog is my story, as I begin to forge a new path. I am embracing my life as it is, with the fibromyalgia pain and fatigue, and learning to do what I love regardless. It may mean I have to go slower and take more naps or breaks! But I am determined to learn how to travel and experience the world, and hopefully what I learn will help others like me who believe their medical condition stands in the way of their travel dreams.
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2 Responses to Glaciers, Steaming Fissures, Volcanoes, and a Humpback Whale – This is Iceland!

  1. inretrospect21 says:

    Hi Karina!
    How did you find the places you had in Iceland to stay? Do you have friends over there? I mentioned in my other comment that I saw the Discovery Channel episode of Waterfront Cities of the World that featured Reykjavik. Is the Blue Lagoon really crowded? I got the impression it was pretty large. I’ve only ever been to Harrison Hot Springs…is the water at the Myvatn Nature Baths comparable?

    In the Discovery Channel episode, they showed the whale watching boats and the whaling boats side by side at the Port of Reykjavik, which I thought was pretty ironic. How was it though? I’ve only been whale watching along BC’s coast thad the San Juan Islands.

    Take care!

    Lilian

    • chronictraveler says:

      I will do my best to answer all your questions – you’ve made me realize I should probably create a FAQ-type of section about the nuts and bolts of how I travel. 🙂

      I started with no contacts in Iceland. My biggest resource for lodging was Iceland’s Hostelling International website. Like most of the Nordic world, Iceland has a strong tradition of sleeping-bag accommodation, so if you bring your own sleeping bag, you can find cheap lodging in hostels and some guesthouses. Iceland also has phenomenal hiking, so those who love camping can get dirt-cheap accommodation – free or small fee campsites if you have a tent, or mountain huts with bunks. In places without hostels, I used the regional tourism websites to find possible places and then did my research. THat’s how I found the fantatstic Bolti Guesthouse in Skaftafell National Park – truly one of my favorite places. SW Greenland is similar – I stayed at hostels and guesthouses on sheep farms. For Greenland, I went through a local tour operator – Blue Ice Explorer – in which Jacky Simoud knows the locals and was able to help me arrange everything. (THis is a region where a tour company can make sense).

      Blue Lagoon is super crowded. I went right at opening time, so for about 20 glorious minutes, it was just a few of us. It is large, but very artificial and touristy – I prefer the Myvatn Nature Baths. Smaller, but more low-key, the building blends in more, less touristy, a little less expensive, and the focus is the baths and the landscape. With awesome sunset views from the baths.

      I went whale-watching in Husavik, in Northern Iceland, which is the best whale-watching in Iceland. Fantastic!!! We really got out onto the Arctic Ocean and got close up to a humpback who kept diving and coming back up right by the boat. It is impossible to describe the grace of these animals – wow!

      Whaling is an interesting issue you come face-to-face with in Iceland (as well as Greenland and Faroe Islands, but I feel a little more ambivelant about it there…). I am against commercial whaling, and Iceland really doesn’t need to practice commercial whaling – they don’t have enough of a market for it to make economic sense. They actually have a huge surplus of whale meat in storage. It’s a sensative issue there – Icelanders are full of pride about their country and many seem to see any criticism of commercial whaling as being anti-Iceland. Which to me is not how I feel. I love Iceland, but I see this practice as mis-guided, especially with the economic reality of the industry. Anyway….when in Iceland, you will see whale meat on the menu in restaurants and many tourists try it, even when they are against whaling.

      Now in Greenland and Faroes, I see it a bit differently and feel rather torn. Greenland the Inuit practice their subsistence hunting of the whales and divide the meat among the entire community, using every part of the animal. Growing up immersed in Portland’s native community has influenced my thinking on this – I am okay with subsistence traditional hunting. In Faroes, they also hunt the pilot whale, but the meat is never sold. The community comes down to the docks where the meat and most of the animal is distributed. I question whether it’s really subsistence hunting for the community anymore, but I do acknowledge how the whales are used. So I am much more torn up over Faroese hunting. I also know that the way the whales are killed is not ideal for the animal. That bothers me. So this is a very long, nuanced answer that I’m still trying to figure out myself.

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