May 26-June 8 2003 / Iceland: Fire with Ice
A Circumnavigation of Iceland, and A Visit to Jan Mayen Island
I spend much of today in my cozy bunk, against the rolling and pitching of the ship. Later in the day I give up and put on one of those seasick prevention patches behind my ear. It helps.
We spend most of the day heading northward to Jan Mayen, a Norwegian outpost which has a weather station and a large and active volcano. At length the island is spotted, and there is brandy for all. We go up to the bridge along with others, and stand around amidst the pale green banks of dials and instruments, and peer through the thick bank of fog at the land to our left. There is a very high mountain, a volcano, on this island, and we have a quick sighting of it—a rare event. It masters the sky and is totally white with snow, all the way up and around its ominous crater summit. What a sight that would be, to see lava and ash spewing from this white mouth and down the slopes to the sea!
In late afternoon we reach the weather station, and the ship anchors nearby, and we pile into the zodiacs to visit. The seas roll and tumble, though, and it’s a wet landing. In fact, I fall in. I make my exit okay, timing it with the large waves crashing the heavy zodiac and the engine in and out of water. But then a wave comes in as I am staggering up the sand; I get through its inward rush upright, but the pulling withdrawal brings me down flat. I am so encased and encumbered in clothing and gear that it is hard to get up. All’s well, my waterproof stuff holds out. I did not see this, but one of the Russian zodiac drivers is laid out by the same wave. There is a sharp edge of fear in all these operations for me.
Once landed, half of us are driven off in jeeps by Norwegians to see the other side of the island. What a forbidding and foreboding place this is! Black rock everywhere, and a gray sea. Sizeable hills or low mountains whose slopes glow with pale or bright green mosses and lichens, those tough, beautiful outpost plants. Weather- and sea-beaten logs cover the black beach. They have come down Russian and Ukrainian rivers, up over the North Pole, and down the sea to here, where they lie in an enormous jackstraws game on the beach. Mixed in are whale bones-- jaws, vertebrae, and other parts. Above the small beach is a low green hill on which stands a cross. I climb up to it but I can’t really read the inscription; I believe it is the resting place of some Hollanders who came, got stranded, overwintered, and died.
The jeeps return us to the dwelling of the 18 Norwegians here, 4 women and 14 men. Their tours of duty are six months. That will take them into the time of dark. Inside the building all is warmth and beauty, lots of plants, comfortable leather chairs, a bar, a tiny gift shop where I buy a patch.
There’s to be a barbecue on the ship tonight, and some of the Norwegians are invited to it, but we leave two of our guides, an Icelandic woman and a Danish man, to party down with the rest of the Norwegians overnight.
The reentry into the zodiac is scary but works okay. The carefully-timed leaping out of the zodiacs onto the gangway of the ship happens uneventfully, but I am feeling a lot of fright within.
For the barbeque we all dress in our warmest things. Tables have been set up in the stern, and the so-called purser, who actually does nearly everything on the ship but make it go, is our genial host. The wine flows, the meats are good, people drink and laugh. One of the Russian women crew brings a boom box, and sings along with it quietly as she dances with one of the zodiac drivers. The Norskies hang out in a group, drinking beer and watching everyone. The foods keep coming, and we all keep eating and drinking, steadily drinking and eating. John sways a bit to the music. I would love to dance! Finally we drift off to our little cabin, but I guess the crew party went on until 3 in the morning!
In the morning we cruise alongside the Eastern flank of Jan Mayen. Here can be seen several glaciers reaching the sea, dark cones of mountains lined with snow, large groups of seabirds gliding economically above the dark gray water. There had been a thought of going in the zodiacs along the front of the glaciers, but the water is too rough for that.
Finally a landing is planned. John and I are all suited up and lined up to enter the zodiac. I feel a lot of fright, and when I finally see the thing pitching and lurching violently against the ship, I make a decision not to go. I really hate doing this—I think except for not going down into the underground city in Turkey, this is the only time I’ve chickened out of doing something on a trip. I come back to the cabin, take a shower and hairbath, and go down to the bar to read. I hate not doing something, but I hate fright worse.
After lunch another landing is made, and this time I go. We land on a black beach that glitters with ebony gravel. I collect some in a film canister, but I know it is only symbolic, for this is the landscape to which it belongs. I can bring it home, and try to explain how it glittered and glistened in the wet, and how it gave way in an almost oily fashion underfoot, but I can never possess this landscape except in memory. My grains of the beach are only a memory aid, like some tangible evidence of a dream.
We pass across a fabulously tortured landscape, sometimes sinking into moss over the foot of my boot, sometimes picking our way over jagged tumbles of new basalt. The mosses and lichens are so lovely. Each square foot a luscious garden. It’s hard not to take pictures of every single organism!
We are to walk down a couple of miles to another beach, where we will be picked up. This beach is also littered with well-traveled logs, scattered amidst a great field of large black boulders. It is quite difficult to pick one’s way along these, but doable. I am furious when two of the guides offer me their hands. Just furious…
The ship rolled and heaved all night. As I lay in my nice little bunk, first the blood rushed to my head, then to my feet, then back to my head. I have a few vaguely fearful images.
Today we are hurrying back to Iceland. I’m looking out my porthole now at a gray lurching sea lined with whitecaps. There has been a talk about Vikings. The Vikings sailed in these waters in their great ships. But they did not have warm, dry bunks to retreat to. Do we, these days, do things as hard as what people did in the past? Would they at all find any of what we do impossibly hard?
Later, we have stayed up until past midnight—not that one could tell it was midnight, as it is as light then as at 6 p. m.—so that we can see a tiny “island,” Kolbeinsey, no more than a few meters across. It seems the Icelanders claim this as part of their territory so that they can have the fishing rights for 200 miles past it. A large group have gathered on the bridge to spot this vanishingly small outpost. At length we see it on the horizon, with binoculars, the waves crashing against it. As we finally pass it, people rush to take pictures, me among them. No doubt the solemn captain and crew find this ridiculous.
We passengers have turned quite a bit to children. We sleep endlessly, wait with urgency for meals, stay up to the middle of the night to look at a small black rock, ask questions endlessly, and generally do as we’re told.
Today a landing is made on Grimsey Island, with a population of something under 150 souls. The small harbor blooms with neatly kept boats of bright colors, and there is a scattering of tidy, snug houses. There is a small church with a blue ceiling and stars across it. There is a school with a little playground including a lovely miniature dory to climb on just like the grownups do. There is a little airstrip and a small plane lands on it while we are there. In the little gift and coffee shop we take on loan a stick to keep the dive-bombing fulmars at bay, though none pay attention to us as we walk.
There is a well-kept gravel road and trios of kids ride bikes up and down it. They greet us with “Hello” as we pass. Pretty kids, and their entertainment is the whole island, I imagine. All 2 ½ by 1 ¼ miles of it… I see a young mother with two children feeding some ducks on an inland pond. There is a large building which houses the swimming pool. I read in my sources that although children go off-island for the last three years of their education, most of them return.
Underfoot is this surprising lushness—thick grass, dotted with flowers here and there, a large amount of horsetail. And you can see as far as your eye can reach, for there are no trees, and no building over two stories high. You could look out to sea, or across the island, and those would be your only sights. You would see birds, and know them, and plants, and know them, and clouds and sky, and read them, and people’s modest structures, and know all about them.
Later on, as we were thinking of bed, the call went out from the bridge that a whale had been spotted. We hustled upstairs. The weather outside is miserable—wind and rain, and it’s good to get into the bridge. Lots of people are gathered there. And dead ahead is indeed a humpback whale. His progress is marked by a large flock of I think fulmars. He seems to be bubble-net feeding. That’s where he blows an exhalation into the water and the resulting net of bubbles encompasses, and, I suppose, disorients, a bunch of fish. He then comes up at the fish from below and slurps them down. The birds take the leftovers.
We all watch this animal with delight; every time he’s spotted or blows, there’s a chorus of shouted approval and cheers from us fellow mammals. He seems to be staying close to the ship, and at one point is seen on the starboard side and then in a minute or two to port—he’s gone under us! This fine sighting is climaxed when he appears directly next to the ship—and John and I are there to see his pleated throat and warty head. Everyone hollers and cheers and I am quite certain that the whale heard us.
So to bed at 11, under a gray and rainy, but light, sky.