Saturday, December 8, 2012

65 Degrees North: The Magic Continues

"Not all those who wander are lost." J.R.R. Tolkien

On an icy cold Thanksgiving afternoon, this quote comes to mind as I soak in the scenery from my perch on a beautiful Icelandic horse: Stark white snow sprinkled on a moonscape of lava rock, shrubs, and lichen-hugged rocks. The stillness and the light plays tricks on the eyes and could explain why Icelanders believe in elves, trolls, and dwarfs.  It all feels familiar to me, and not just because I have visited here before.  The familiarity embraces me like a cozy fleece. My mind feels free to wander and right at home; perhaps I'm reminded of my childhood passion for the Lord of the Rings. (Tolkien read Icelandic poetry and sagas in Old Norse, the basis for the Icelandic language, and he incorporated into his works the names and places described in contemporary travel memoirs.)  As my horse maneuvered the icy, hilly, trails with [thankfully] spiked shoes, she would skit or glance at "nothing" in the landscape.  "Elves," my guide said matter-of-factly.  I felt a peace like floating, between space and time. Home.

Less than an hour's flight from Reykjavik, at just over 65 degrees North latitude [just at the Arctic Circle] lies the city of Akureyri. Known as the capital of northern Iceland, Akureyri's location on the west inland side of a fjord made this a perfect trading center in the 9th century.  As an official city, it recently celebrated its 150th year. [see additional picture, below] 

Like other places in Iceland, it offers mountain views and geothermal pools, perfect for warming up while outside in the subfreezing temperatures. This year Akureyri had an unseasonably early and plentiful snowfall, with a blizzard in early September and heavy snowfall in the three weeks prior to my arrival. 

Northern Lights
My quest to visit north involved viewing the Aurora Borealis. 
To witness this phenomenon requires timing, patience, clear skies, and a location far from any ambient city light.  For future reference, a giant tour bus parked on the side of the road does not provide the optimal viewing, especially on a night with a nearly full moon. On my particular viewing night, the sky clarity was low--about 2 on a scale with an optimal 5.  When the auroras did appear, though, like slow-motion fireworks, it felt like the scene from Close Encounters when the spaceship arrives.

Lake Myvatn
About 1.5 hours' drive from Akureyri, the area of Lake Myvatn is a Fire & Ice wonderland.  After living in a concrete jungle for over a year and a half, I was mesmerized by the pristine, uninhabited, treeless landscape.  Lake Myvatn, created by a volcanic eruption about 2300 years ago, most likely earned its name-- "lake with way too many flies"--in the summer, a time for hiking, biking and observing birds. In the winter, it just waits for people to take pictures. 

Mudpools, Fissures, Craters, and Pseudocraters

The area around Lake Myvatn has some notable volcanic sites:

Hverfjall Crater

To the east the contrasting white snow, cobalt-blue skies, and pink tufted clouds tempers the Hverfjall crater's dark towering presence.  

Boiling mudpool

Nearby is Krafla, an area with 29 reported eruptions in recorded history, which also sources geothermal energy used by a nearby power station.  The area surrounding Krafla, with boiling mudpools and steaming fumaroles interspersed between snow and ice, made me feel like I was an extra on the set of a Star Trek episode.  

At Skútusstaðir lies a pseudocrater, which is formed by steam explosions when hot lava crosses a wet surface; it resembles a volcanic crater, but is not an actual vent for lava eruptions.  [see picture below]

In a nearby fissure is Grjótagjá, a small lava cave housing a thermal spring, which served as popular bathing site from the 18th century until the mid- 1970s when nearby eruptions elevated the temperatures above 122 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Many farms pepper the landscape, including a lakeside one owned by our tour guide, who introduced his woolly residents. Iceland's famously warm wool has been a trade staple since its earliest settlements. 

Although Iceland converted to Christianity a while ago, animistic beliefs, a Nordic/Gaelic/Viking blend, still exist in today's culture. Some of these beliefs were revealed at a place just near Lake Myvatn called Dimmuborgir, or Dark Castles.  The suitable name describes the lava field formations and volcanic caves resembling the ruins of old castles. These craggy formations, which seemed much more dramatic in the winter landscape, can be explained scientifically due to lava merging with lake after an eruption to the east about 2300 years ago.  However, the formations have more interesting non-scientific explanations that inspire Tolkien-esque stories. In Nordic Christian lore it is the place where Satan landed when he was cast from the heavens and created the apparent "Catacombs of Hell".  In Icelandic folklore, Dimmuborgir is said to connect earth with the infernal regions. Local lore, though, according to our tour guide, explains that the rocks were formed after a bunch of trolls partied all night, and were turned to stone because they did not get home before sunrise. [And Princess Fiona in Shrek thought she had issues at sunrise!] Just like on a summer's day you can "see" figures in the clouds, while walking the trails here, you can imagine the faces of trolls in the rock formations. 

Dimmuborgir also serves as the residences for the Yule Lads [thirteen in total], who awaken from hibernation in the days before Christmas. On the day I visited, two of the lads greeted [or, in the case of a few children, scared], danced, and gifted us each with a candle. I posed for a photo with the [as translated] the lads named 'pot licker' and 'sausage swiper.'

A trip to Iceland must include viewing a waterfall and soaking in geothermal-heated lagoons. The Myvatn region has two waterfalls: Detifoss and Godafoss. Unfortunately, a visit to Detifoss was thwarted by the filming of 'Game of Thrones.'  Godafoss, though, delivered in the awe department.  Godafoss, or "waterfall of the gods," was the place into which the head of Iceland threw the Norse god statues when Iceland converted to Christianity in the year 999 or 1000. Although it must be spectacular in broad daylight, even in wintry conditions at dusk, Godafoss has immense power and beauty.  While standing on an icy platform, my senses tingled from the visual spaciousness, the pure air, the mist, the rumbling, and the feeling of being at the edge of the universe. After a exciting day of romping in the snow and on the ice, a nice soak in the warm, soothing waters of the Myvatn Nature Baths, which contain a unique blend of minerals, silicates and geothermal microorganisms, felt so relaxing. 

At 65 degrees North, I am not lost; I am feeding my wanderlust. The magic continues.

smoking fumaroles

Downtown Akureyri

Skútusstaðir pseudocrater