May 26-June 8 2003 / Iceland: Fire with Ice
A Circumnavigation of Iceland, and A Visit to Jan Mayen Island
A leisurely day at home, for once, packing up, doing last–minute things. Then to the airport and a lot of waiting around, and then to IcelandAir. The stewardesses are blond, one in particular quite the dragon. Dour, most of them, few smiles, very business-like.
A strangely short flight, only four and a half hours. I dozed for a minute at a time, uncomfortable but patient.
A short night, and when I took off my sleep mask, it was blinding daylight and we were approaching Reykjavik. The sky seemed filled with pale golden light, a fluffy blanketing of mist with the early golden sun light illuminating it, like golden sheep fleece. Or lamb’s wool.
At the tidy airport, few formalities, no smiles from passport control, and we are met by David, the guide. Nice-looking. Of mid-age, pretty green eyes, a husky voice. Casual to the extreme. Outside to the bus, and the airport grounds, and already I get a sense of the place. Spare, simple, open, a lot of light, easy lines that engage the eye restfully, rather than the vivid, scattered fractured visual impact of home. I am very tired and feel raw, but it seems easy to be here. My social senses don’t need to be at the alert.
The rest of the people gather slowly, coming in from the US on various flights. They seem pretty acceptable, and after all they are all members of The Planetary Society. There are some from other countries: Spain, Israel, Scotland, England, France, New Zealand. Thank you, dear Carl Sagan, for you made all this possible.
The hotel is very small and plain, and we pile into the little breakfast room and eat bread and cheese and meat and preserves and hot chocolate. Then it is out again, for a four-hour drive around the city, for the rooms aren’t ready yet.
What did we see? I can hardly recall. There is an enormous and beautiful new church in front of our hotel, built over a period of 40 years, a modern gothic church, made to resemble the upright six-sided basaltic columns which are a part of the landscape here. Inside it is so beautiful, so plain and light.
We drove around the small city a bit—only about 180,000 people, which is about two-thirds of everyone who lives in this country. The houses are modest, severe in profile but brightly painted. All is neat and clean, and I wonder where some of the people are, as it seems quite empty. School children come eagerly into the modest City Hall, ostensibly to view the large relief map of the country, but really just to be on an end-of-year field trip.
Finally back to the hotel, a nap, then out briefly to shop for Icelandic sweaters. I buy two, one for me and one for our daughter. And, of course, a patch to put on my pack! Then to dinner, all 38 of us, and to bed. Our room is tiny and white. The night is light, and there is silence.
Early in the morning John and I go out to walk around and take pictures. No one much is on the streets. Again I wonder where everyone is. I take pictures of the buildings; I can’t get enough of them, their simple lines and colors.
As we drive to board our ship, we see the wild and fantastical countryside, a brutal landscape of volcanic debris, softened in places by a thick covering of pale green sphagnum moss, four inches thick in some places. There are clumps of green and pink Moss Campion, though, here and there, and something I haven’t seen before, pale lavender flowers on short trembling stems, called Sea Thrift.
We stop to look at hot springs and sinisterly bubbling mud pots. Ugh, it is quite horrible. Steam rises from unseen vents. Shallow clear water boils and bubbles merrily, spitting and dancing. Thick clayey mud burbles and splats. The air reeks of sulfur.
There is bathing at the Blue Lagoon, a big artificial hot springs. Most of the group go in; it’s easy to be friendly when you’re all in your bathing suits and soaking in the water—it’s 98 to 102 degrees depending where you are standing. There’s lots of playful conversation and people are feeling good as we loll in the opaque turquoise water, steam rising all around us, our feet squishing in mud. I feel happy.
But I am ready to get on the ship.
Which turns out to be much more Spartan than I had expected. It’s a converted Russian something or other, the crew are Russian, the expedition leader a hearty and faintly irritating Brit. Our cabin has bunks, and it’s okay, but I am very tired, and need to be alone. We have lifeboat drill, which includes actually having each one to climb down a hole into the submarine-like lifeboat, which proves to be extremely difficult and makes me feel even older than I am. I don’t like it at all. I make conversation at dinner, where we sit uncomfortably at long tables, but I really need to just go to bed, to be in my own small space.
A quite wretched night in which I slept about two and a half hours in two parts. Here, so far north, and at this time of year, it is light all the time. It wasn’t that though. I don’t know, I just didn’t feel—I couldn’t let go.
This morning we zodiacked to the island of Flatey, which used to be home to some fishermen, but has been deserted except for vacation homes for quite a while. But there are some eager and excited dogs, who rush to greet us, tails and bodies ecstatic.
There is a small church. Behind the altar is a large painting of Jesus as a hearty fisherman wearing a white Icelandic sweater, with powerful hands and a sweet smile on his face. The walls are painted with scenes of the life of the fishermen. There is a tiny pump organ in the loft and one of our number plays a bit.
I walk slowly in the place, taking picture after picture of the lovely spare houses, so plain and sturdy. There is a dark red one that glows where it meets the green grass. The sun comes out and it is quite warm. We slowly gather at a bird cliff where there is thick grass, and some people just lie down and rest in the warm soft grass.
My mind is quite empty, really. Everything at home seems very far away, and I feel drained and tired. I think this is the way I am really feeling, but at home I can’t let myself feel that way. I am very aware of how difficult it is for me to move around comfortably and agilely. I don’t like this.
We went a bit further and took the zodiacs out into the water to cruise slowly by a massive cliff, the western-most point of Iceland, upon which nest thousand of sea birds. They are all variations on black and white and are quite elegant. Such an extravagance of elegance, which no human eye might ever see or name.
I slept long and well with no interruptions. It is light all night but that does not bother me. The ship creaks and moves, but that does not bother me either.
This morning a brilliant sun, and snow-marked mountains all around. We are in one of the Western fjords, a fingered landscape—fingers of land reaching out into the water, their knuckles crabbed with mountains. We anchor in a large bay amid these fjords, a small icecap ahead of us.
Into the zodiacs we go for the choppy ride to land. John and I go off with one group on a very brisk hike up a few hills to overlook the glacier; the rest stay behind to look at birds and the shore. The underfoot is gorgeous, so strange. Here must be at least six inches of moss or grass covering large rocks underneath. There are patches of tiny lavender flowers but I do not know what they are and we are in such a rush—well, my choice—that I don’t stop to look closely at them. The way is somewhat treacherous since there are many, many small but deep holes in the thick soft growth, where it has not filled in between the rocks, so one has to be careful.
Along the edges of the shores, here and there are one or two buildings, houses I guess. So lonely! There is apparently a ferry which makes its way here once in a while, but I should not want to depend on it.
The sand on the shoreline is black, all volcanic. The sky is blue and the sun is strong and high.
Tomorrow morning, very early, comes the annular eclipse [an eclipse in which the moon is too close to the sun to cover it exactly, from our earth perspective, and instead leaves a ring of light, an annulus, around the black of the moon]. We are on our way to it, at full speed, pitching and rolling in the sea, to make our appointment with the sun and the moon, who have an appointment with each other. I feel somewhat seasick so I will now go back to my bunk, and wait.
I slept again very little while waiting for the eclipse time. At a few minutes before 3 a. m. we went on board, in all of our winter gear (and I did not bring enough). There is thick cloud cover everywhere. At the horizon, where the sun is (it does not set at this latitude at this time of year) is a very thin and pale pink band. Somewhere slightly above it is the sun. We look for a few minutes on deck, and then go into the bridge, where there are others. Two telescopes with filters have been set up. I have welders’ glass taped over my binoculars. But it seems to be for nothing.
The time of first contact comes. The minutes pass. The Russian crew circulate among the dozen or so passengers on the bridge. They are an unsmiling lot, at least with us.
The time of greatest annularity approaches. Suddenly I decide I don’t want to be here inside, but out under the clouds, just to be where the eclipse is happening, although we cannot see it. I step out on to the deck.
Immediately I see. I see that dreadful light. All color has drained away and it is as if a bowl of gray glass has been placed over us and the sea and the little boat. The sea and all the world is shrouded in flat steel gray. I see the forms of waves but there is no light at their crests. I see John’s face but it is grey. I strain to see clearly through the grey, and I cannot.
I rush back into the bridge, and try to tell people, Come out! Come out! It’s doing it! The light is all strange! A few people follow me. I try to show them what there is to see. One couple stare around themselves and then back at me in puzzlement. Others look in vain at where the sun is hidden, but since they do not see the disk, they are mystified at what I am saying. Only one man, a young fellow, follows me around to the side opposite the sun’s location, looks around the horizon, and the water, and the ship’s deck, and my face, and says yes, yes, he sees.
Moments later, the light returns. The waves gleam at their tips, and John’s face is rosy once more.
Inside, we meet one of the passengers, a strange large man who seems to have a good imagination but is fearful of things. Did he see? I asked. Well, not really. I try to describe the horrible light. Oh, he says. I looked out and I thought it was raining. Yes! Yes! I tell him. That’s it! So I saw it, I was in it! he says excitedly, and I’m happy for him.
We have hot cocoa with rum, and a couple of cookies, peel off our clothes, and go back to bed. I am content. I saw.
When we wake up again, there is a continent of pack ice just off the side of the ship. It has been decided that we will load into the zodiacs and cruise along it for a bit, looking for seals and just looking. It is extremely cold. There is a heavy swell. We and the icy bits and the baby bergs and the pack ice heave and drop, heave and drop. There are no seals to be seen, but the ice is awesome and implacable in its extent. There are piles and crags of it, some that electric blue, some gray, some white, some transparent.
Our Russian zodiac driver is cautious and picks his way slowly among the bergy bits. We slide by some crusty ones and they shushh against the rubber sides of the zodiac. There is talk of seals, and polars that would come for them, but there are none. Only our four dark craft and the ungainly white ship trolling slowly alongside us at a distance, ready to take us on board once more.
Now we are headed even further north, to a Norwegian island called Jan Mayen. It is 5 degrees above the Arctic Circle. We will not be there for another day. It is a long way from any where else. A place far distant on any map.