It is late November. We are in Iceland. Setting aside for a moment what some might consider the foolishness of choosing such an adventure, Iceland’s wild winter beauty is striking – glaciers and geysers!
Blair planned the trip. He loves to explore, he is a mindful driver and he is curious. We are doing something called the ring road, 1300 kilometers long, which takes us all the way around Iceland. We’ve rented an SUV and it comes with a GPS and studded tires, outlawed in Canada years ago. We’ve packed warm clothing and are ready to test ourselves against the Icelandic elements. Since Blair is driving and has a plan, I can ignore winter road conditions, watch the scenery, day dream, count sheep and chat about anything that comes into my head.
Our first day is a long 500 kilometer drive to Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, anywhere else it’s a small town. Wild and beautiful country, mountains encircle idyllic valleys filled with surprisingly prosperous farms.
We pass hectares dotted with wooly sheep and Iceland ponies; no cows to be seen – the cows are a bit like me, when it turns cold they head for the shed. Icelandic agriculture! – apparently not an oxymoron!
We also drive straight into our first Icelandic weather; driving over a high pass, polite snow flurries become a serious storm quickly morphing into a whiteout. Blair calmly drafts in behind a large lorry; that and the roadside reflectors keep us out of the ditch. I, the perfect passenger, swallow my fear and sit on my hands, refusing to leave my palm print impression in the hard plastic of the dashboard. Minutes later, it clears; we arrive at a Nordic hotel, a three star meal, full wifi and a warm duvet – all at winter rates. The gift of traveling offseason is open roads, vacancies everywhere, bargains and warm, albeit slightly surprised, hospitality.
Next day, clear weather and a long drive over a high pass on a snow packed road open into a valley strewn with dead volcanoes, jumbled lava rock, upheaval and a frozen lake – except where rips in the earth’s skin allow steam to burst through the ice.
Myvard is the epicenter of volcanic activity; dead volcanos, bubbling hot pools and active geysers – no guards, no restrictive barriers, just bubbling mud, sulfur-laced steam – Yellowstone without the fanfare.
In a country riven by two shifting tectonic plates, Icelanders take such exhibitions of earth’s power in stride, harnessing them for geothermal energy, warmth and soothing hot pools.
Our drive to the largest waterfall in Europe is interrupted by a fierce windstorm that cuts visibility to a few hundred yards. We come upon a young Parisian couple who have driven off the road. We stop, try to push their auto out of the snowbank, fail, call emergency and summon a tow truck – all in an hour. The truck arrives, we say good-bye and head on our way. A day in the life…
…..made even better by our evening. We stay at a working dairy, 30 or so cows in a cow barn, half of which has been turned into a restaurant and gift shop – not an ordinary combo but it offered dinner with a view as we watched the evening milking through the plate glass window. The entertainment is not quite Cher at Vegas but, in Iceland, it’s entertaining in its own way.
Blair tried the beef for dinner which I thought was a bit insensitive.
We finish the night at the local hot springs for a soak in a vast open air hot pool of silky, mineral rich, slightly odiferous luxury – some might call it a spa – it was too rustic for that. The only missing element was the northern lights – too cloudy.
The far side of the moon is an apt description for Iceland’s far north in November. After Myvard, we drive to the top of another range with little to see but tufts of grass, volcanic detritus, dull gray accented by the snow covered hill/mountains. Highway one is two lanes, well maintained but subject to powerful winds and ice. All the locals drive a scaled down version of monster trucks – big wheels, big tires – unlike America, it’s not about having big toys, it’s utilitarian safety.
Vast and completely uninhabited in this pleasant moonscape, where the desolate scenes of Game of Thrones Beyond the Wall were filmed and where astronauts are trained for potential moon landings, Blair decides to explore off the main road. I do not react well. Visions of disaster seep into my mind – I convince myself we will be stuck in a cavernous ditch to be discovered the next spring by Icelandic Search and Rescue.
He navigates back onto the highway, squelching my fears; I recover my dignity and we both manage each others actions/reactions, but it’s close.
Be advised, there are places in November in Iceland that feel like the far side of the moon; isolated, inhospitable, frigid, forbidding and eerily foreboding. Minutes later, we are down in the next valley where the grass is still green and the chicken burger tastes better than the A&W back home.
We save our BIG adventures for last – putting the Ice in Iceland – at the largest glacier outside the Arctic Circle. A finger of the huge Vatnajokull Glacier, Jokulsarlon, calves icebergs and pushes them into a lagoon close to Highway #1 allowing us to view – ICEBERGS – real live icebergs in all their stunning blues, azures and aquamarines.
It is a photographer’s dream, huge chunks of ancient compressed ice, laced occasionally with volcanic ash from cataclysmic convulsions of eons past, hypnotize anyone with a camera. Blair shoots photos till dark.
We return the next day for another view – we don crampons (for a moment I become Sir Edmund trudging to the foot of Everest) and noisily crash our way across 500 meters of dirty, gritty ice across the glacier tongue to a cave.
Water roars out – well, okay it doesn’t roar – but there is enough to require a motor-less zodiac. Carefully removing our crampons to ensure our inflatable remains inflated, we pile in and are pulled into the otherworld of our first ice cave.
Surrounded by ancient ice, brilliant shades and hues of blue, we are pulled 500 meters into the glacier. Our translucent canopy, 10-15 meters thick, allows the fading light of the dying sun to permeate our cave. It is surreal, unique, calm and now, forever, iconically Icelandic.
I have a new definition of cool – Iceland cool! With this much winter beauty, I expect Iceland in summer to be glorious. In my mind, Iceland will stay as it is now – frozen, cool as ice.