Iceland Eco-Adventure: A travel journal

Posted on October 31, 2017

The Seacoast Science Center hosted an Eco-Adventure, Iceland: Land of Fire and Ice, September 27-October 5, 2017. This guest blog was written by trip participant, Pat DeGrandpre, from her travel journal.


Pat DeGrandpre | Artist, Eco-Adventure Traveler, SSC Member


Day 1 – Reykjavik

We landed in the dark of early morning after a good flight on Icelandic Air. Lucky me… I had no seat mate which allowed me to crunch into a fetal position and tuck myself onto a double seat managing to sleep most of the 5 hour flight. But the rude awakening was upon debarking to an outside staircase and wind whipping us across the tarmac to a waiting bus that would take us to the arrival gate. Since we had left in seriously hot weather and most of us were dressed accordingly, there were lots of goosebumps on display.

Our early arrival meant our hotel rooms weren’t ready, so we stored our luggage in a holding area and headed out to breakfast. Food is quite expensive here so we chose a deli and had cold sliced hard boiled egg and bacon sandwiches with fresh greens on crunchy grainy rolls we don’t see back home. After, we wound our way up to see the incredible Hallsgrimskirkja Church, made of spartan blanched concrete with no stained glass but with a magnificent organ.

The architecture here is plain, zoning lacks any cohesiveness and the town of Reykjavik is much younger than I thought. 1800’s. Most of the houses are cladded with a corrugated aluminum to protect the wood underneath with windows that stare blankly out. A building boom is happening with cranes everywhere building new hotels. Eric, our guide, walked us through two hours of historic buildings and colorful neighborhoods. Some buildings were adorned with graphic graffiti.


Day 2 – Coach to Thingvellir and Points West

Outside Reykjavik’a environment, the landscape is stark. Originally 40-60% of the indigenous trees were quickly used for building and heat, which quickly depleted the forests. Glacier movement and volcanic eruptions also contributed to the tree’s demise, resulting in barren scenery. Consequently, tree planting ensued. But looking across the vast plains of tundra on the way to Thingvellir from where I sit on the bus makes me skeptical. The Icelandic indigenous trees of poplar or aspen, birch and some kind of evergreen spruce are in short supply. Occasionally we see a farm with a planted wind break.  

Small imported horses from purest blood lines and sheep dot the green pastures.

We are driving to Thingvellir through mountains and plains in the driving rain past Thingvellir lake, the largest lake in Iceland, where the first parliament was installed in 800 and laws were established. We stop in the middle of nowhere on a tundra of green moss and scrub plants framed by craggy lava bluffs and faults where the North American plate and the European plate diverge at about 2 centimeters a year. 

The rift runs under the lake but our stop reveals the cracking faults leading to it. There are fractured squarish rock blocks above ground and solid vertical blocks closer to the earth.  It resembles an amphitheater where the country voted out paganism and agreed to Christianity in 1002. Eventually, Lutheran became the default religion and even today newborns are born members of the Lutheran church. Straddling the continental plate division is why I’ve come to Iceland. Soaking wet, I note the moment with great reverence. 

Heading further west our guide enlightens us with quirky details about geothermally-baked bread and the enviable fact that the entire country runs on geothermal power. 

Miles of cultivated irrigated meadows for grazing, hedgerows of yellow poplar, and curved streams fill huge expanses between farms reminding me of the opening of the American West. A feeling of being at the top of the earth persists.

Weather is a kaleidoscope of everything today… slices of light in the distance with rain shears dropping earthward. Heavy black clouds and rays of sun breaking the boundaries in the distance. It’s stunningly beautiful.

Before leaving USA we were told not to bring umbrellas even though Iceland is rainy. It’s the wind they say will do you in. Today we experienced wind-driven horizontal frozen rain that feels like shards of glass. On our way down the cliff to view water falls, the black clouds opened and shredded us. Stinging and frigid it was, but quickly dissipated.

An afternoon visit to the hot spots with geysers rewarded us with eruptions next to a blue lagoon, and the aroma of hard boiled eggs. 

Last stop of the day was to visit a greenhouse tomato farm where tomatoes are grown in a combo of fortified dirt packets and hydroponics, complete with imported bees which supplies Iceland with tomatoes year-round. It’s a nature defying operation that packs in tourists offering tomato soup and delicious breads served at long tables right in the greenhouse. A bar provides bloody Mary’s and assorted refreshment. Outside, the owners have created a spectator’s shed at the edge of a riding ring where we are entertained and educated about the gaits of the Icelandic horses with live riders on horses. I’ve heard of dog-and-pony acts but never horse-and-tomato shows.


Day 3 – The West Coast

Today, we are caving inside a volcanic lava tube—as close as I’ll ever get to the geological center of the earth!  Claustrophobia stay at bay! Helmets and flashlights are handed out. 

At the mouth of the cave, we descend a circular staircase down into a hollow chamber of lava to listen to the guide who tells us that this particular tube dated back about 8,000 years. We take it on faith that the spirits are done erupting. These lava caves are all over Iceland surreptitiously hiding beneath the surface of lava fields that are coated with rich mosses and dwarf berry bushes. In fact, sometimes grazing sheep are known to disappear into lava holes. There’s not a smooth surface anywhere in the cave. Stalactites, unlike those we know in the states, look more like short craggy nipples attached to the roof. There is no clay in them so they don’t grow long. In the 32 degree dampness we descend further to a level of 35 meters down metal stairs leading to a wet uneven rocky path. 

When in the bowels of the tube, our guide asks us to turn off our flashlights and stand silent for a while. He sings us a folk song in a rich basso and there is no resonance or echo. Then it is quiet, such a deep silence that I think this must be what it’s like to be buried alive. In the pitch blackness there is only one intermittent sound… raindrops, or maybe lava water drops, permeating from high above filtering thru the porous lava, a soothing song from the upper story of the tomb. One of the reasons Iceland’s water is so delicious is its natural lava filtering system.

We are far out on the middle western fjord, a land of mountains with long concave slopes easing out to the mossy green lava fields. The sea on one side and walls on the other.

And then I shift into poetic gear…humming to myself: If I were a giant my wish would be to lie in the curve of a talis slope beneath a glacier at the edge of the sea. 

Lunar landscapes at the end of the fjord are actually lava fields as far as the eye can see. Shards of black basalt poke through the verdant green moss. Around the north side we become true armchair travelers, letting the bus do all the work as we peruse the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

This being so rural an area, there are few amenities. But out near the tip of the fjord, there’s a family who have been curing Greenland shark for eons. The clap trap of those eons have been collected in a barn on the farm that they turned into a Shark Museum that has become a popular destination. In the barn are a melange of artifacts from years of collecting taxidermied birds, animals and sea life, along with rocks, tackle, boats… you name it. But the reason we are really here is to learn how they cure shark meat in open-air sheds and export it. The first thing you notice is the smell… a putrid salty chum odor that wraps itself around in and thru the building. Inside we are shown a film on the method of preservation, and then we witness the 20 pound chunks, hanging from the rafters in an outdoor shed. 

Then the table inside is set for a tasting of cured shark meant to be washed down with a powerfully strong aquavit sort of drink. Cautiously, I picked up a toothpick and stabbed the small whitish square of meat that looked a little like a piece of tofu. Directions were to chew the shark until the flavor released and then drown it with alcohol. Well, I made the mistake of smelling it first and promptly gagged. Ever smell fish gone bad? Pure ammonia!  That was it for me…. no thanks!  

Our next stop is for a two-hour cruise on Breioafjorour, a body of water studded with islands of  many geologic identities where birds cling to the shear cliffs and raise their young. The captain throws trawler net out off the stern where a long table has been laid across. The crew waits with shucking knives for the fresh harvest of Icelandic sushi… scallops, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers spill from the bursting trawler net as everyone stampedes to the tanks.


Day 4-5

Sometimes you read a book before you travel, and sometimes after. I am so glad I read Laxness’s Independent People before coming to Iceland. Today we are in southern Iceland at the Folk Museum where a settlement of buildings have been corralled to create a working reality of the words Laxness wrote in his iconic story of the hard-living Icelanders. As I type, there is a grouping of turf houses before me much like he wrote about. 

Even into the first third of the 20th century, families struggled to live in these primitive structures with leaking pockets of cold air, heated by the cook stove spewing smoke everywhere, with the animals crammed into a rock/dirt cellar in the room below. Even the animals were expected to do their part in contributing to the heat system. Heat rises, you know!  

And even along the byways where we travel there are still small houses (probably used as barns) built into the rocky facades of lava walls topped with turf roofs. Southern Iceland is simply beautiful… thinly populated, flat plains stretching to the sea from tall mountains, several with cascading glaciers, vertical rocky sculptures thrusting out of the sea offshore (humorously called trolls), and black lava beaches. Livestock are everywhere, the sheep scattered in the high pastures and the dairy cows along the roadside. This is the area of major volcanic activity, the last being in 2010 when Eyjallajokull erupted spewing gas and ash that disrupted European air travel for a couple of weeks. A stop at the museum highlighting the tragedy featured a movie commissioned by the farmer who way living down hill from it made us feel like we were experiencing it from ringside seats.  

Later in the day we spent some time at a black beach where the shear wall rising above the sand behind us featured basalt pillars stretching endlessly to the sky. That’s the second item on my bucket list of geological formation sightings on this trip. Looking like a giant church organ I fully expected to hear calliope notes rising on the wind.

Day 6 – Southern Iceland

Glacier country… vast alluvial plains and braided river runoff. Extensive lava fields that take 20 minutes to drive across, bigger than the city of Boston. Covered now with British lava moss, it has taken 200 years to recover. Looking like a vast bed of rounded pillows, it reminds me of gigantic piles of cow flaps on steroids. 

In 1783, all hell broke loose to create a new void in animal and human populations. The Loki volcano, as it is known, decimated 25% of its population and 50% of its livestock. It was a trifecta of peril… 8 months of lava flows, gas-belching sulphuric dioxide, millions of tonnes of flourine gas and seven million tonnes of chlorine. Atmospherically, it polluted Europe for the summer. Sheep hemorrhaged from their insides, cattle succumbed, and meat and milk became unavailable, fish were poisoned in situ, and Iceland’s ability to modernize was set back considerably.

The further east we travel, the more glaciers and volcanic lava flows we pass. Finally, we arrive at a glacial lagoon where we will board amphibious vehicles to float among the the calving glaciers in a blue lagoon. 

The shapes are abstract and remind me of Rockwell Kent paintings I have seen in the Portland Museum of Art. Stepping back on land after this once-in-a-lifetime venture in this surreal place, we picnic on the deck of a café and gift shop at a business that recently added duckboats to attract tourists.

Extreme tourism is available for glacier hikers and kayakers here. Seals abound in the water and bird life is evident. It’s another gorgeous sunny fall day which accentuates the blues and whites of glacier ice. On the boat we sample freshly harvested ice cubes that because of the lack of oxygen in glacier ice, look like glitzy diamonds . A short detour to a lava black beach we spend time among the icebergs that have made it downriver on their way out to sea and collect lava rocks for souvenirs. We have brought ice back w us for happy hour drinks tonite.

Day 6 -7

In southern Iceland and the sun has risen brilliantly yet again. Our guide tells us we are charmed people for our ability to bring so much sunshine to Iceland. So heading west back to Reykjavik the wall of mountains and glaciers steadily accompanies us with seemingly miniature farms tucked up against the basalt walls. 

Waterfalls, like faucets on display at Home Depot, break the dark facades falling to blackened lava-rubbled rivers, braided in blue sky reflections. Roly-poly sheep herds mow the vibrant green flat lands that spread to the sea on our left. I wonder if the horses and cows know the beauty that surrounds them. 

Stacks of pink, blue, green and white plastic-covered hay are stacked in pyramidal shapes and our guide has dubbed them as mint, pistachio, blueberry and white marshmallows. She is one funny lady with encyclopedic knowledge that added so much to our understanding of this beautiful and geologically fascinating country.

I’m sad to leave the south coast but content knowing tomorrow we get to experience the Blue Lagoon.

I mentioned earlier that Iceland exists completely on the magic of geothermal technology. An earlier visit to one of these plants shows us the science behind this phenomenon, making us wish for the same back home. The tourist world has made creative use of one aspect of this geothermal plant, converting its wastewater chemically and redirecting it to a man made series of  lagoons surrounded by walls of lava. The ethereal blue of the water blanketed by clouds of vapor is one of Iceland’s most successful attractions. Daily, lines of international tourists funnel their way into the facility, disappearing into dressing rooms before showering and stepping out onto the surrounds of The Blue Lagoon.

Options abound like the swim-up mud bath bar where you smother your face and shoulders with a gooey white paste. Across the way, a swim-up drink bar provides a menu of alcoholic and refreshing concoctions. Further along, you can step out into a sauna, or hang out in a water cave. Let the party begin! In 100 degrees Fahrenheit waters our cares simply melt away as we all becomes prunes.  

Twenty Eco-Travelers from SSC traveled across the spectacular landscape of Iceland. Beginning and ending in the capital city Reykjavik, we learned and witnessed first-hand, the powerful geologic and cultural forces that have shaped this land of Fire and Ice. A grand time was had by all!  – Henry Burke, Program Director.

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