May 26-June 8 2003 / Iceland: Fire with Ice
A Circumnavigation of Iceland, and A Visit to Jan Mayen Island
We are supposed to make at least one or two landings this morning, now back on the eastern coast of Iceland, but the weather does not cooperate; too many great swells. There are several false alarms, and finally a briefing is given which describes the proposed landing as “much more difficult than any before” in which we are to attempt to hop out of the zodiac not only into the water, but onto a beach of large rocks, “very slippery with kelp.” I’m very very disappointed about this. I really can’t do that. I can’t do that kind of landing. So John goes off, and he’s off now. The expedition leader describes an abandoned farm and so forth, which I would dearly love to see. But I am afraid of falling on the rocks, and so I cannot go.
That is twice now that my fear has mastered my desire. This is all quite new to me. I never dreamed that I would be at this point, to be afraid to do something that others, younger, can do. I need somehow to think about all this, about being incapable or incompetent because of age. I need to come to terms with it somehow, find a way of thinking about myself which incorporates not only what I think I am but what I know I cannot do.
I do not want to complain about things on this trip (we have one person who complains about everything). But I’m wondering why, since apparently this kind of weather is to be expected in these waters, why there are not more fall-back plans. Why, for instance, there are not known some alternative landings, easier ones. In the last few days we have done very little of what’s on the itinerary. Of course there is a disclaimer about weather, and I haven’t got a problem with changes to the itinerary, but I do wonder why it seems that there is rather scanty knowledge of alternatives. I have been thinking that maybe it’s because this ship and these folks have not done this trip very often. Or, of course, maybe there are no alternatives.
We are supposed to land at a village this afternoon. I hope we get to.
Indeed we do land, at the village of Bakkafjordur. First we go to look at a bird cliff, this time from land. There are a couple of nice platforms to stand on to look at the fulmars and puffins. The birds are wonderful in their grace and boldness. They nest on the slenderest of shelves, there on the cliff. The fulmar nests are small stacks of dried plant materials; it’s like a fulmar skyscraper apartment. The darling puffins make burrows in the thick grassy land, burrows a couple of feet deep, very much like the penguins we saw in the Falkland Islands. There are many eider ducks, which when they fly are so like winged black and white torpedoes that it’s comical.
The land side of the cliff is thick with precious jewels: emeralds, diamonds, rubies, pink pearls-- all the marvelous plants. I can’t stop taking pictures of them. When I get home, I will show people the images of this lushness and they will be surprised.
The small harbor is lined with handsome fishing boats in bright colors. We walk through the village, past one little house almost completely shrouded in sod, a good insulator. Up past the houses is a big installment of fish-drying racks, nearly all heads, heads of the fish I mean. It seems these are dried and sold to African countries, especially Nigeria, where they are either ground up and used as meal, or else made into soup. The fish really stink! But to some they smell of food.
I am struck by the primitiveness of these fish racks, this very low-tech business. Some ravens have been killed and hung up on the topmost poles, to serve as scare-ravens I guess. Near the fish racks are half a dozen pretty Icelandic horses, who watch me with interest as I take their picture.
For a brief time we actually see the sun, shining on distant craggy mountains gleaming with snow.
This village is on the other side of the island of Iceland from its capital, and there are fearsome mountains and Europe’s largest ice cap between here and there. I can’t imagine where these folks get their groceries. There is a road not too far from the shore here, but so what? Where would you get groceries and things driving along it? What kind of people might live here? I know I could probably engage in a little conversation with one of the few people we see, but I am shy to, and they don’t exactly encourage conversation. I could wish that in place of one of the lectures on seabirds, we would have a talk (from our young Icelandic guide) about the life here. But she is maybe too young to know much, really.
Too soon we are hustled back on the zodiacs, and it’s another dinner with vast amounts of meat and no vegetables. The very blonde Russian ladies who wait on us, smiling and gracious, are earning their pay in this lurching, rolling evening.
Around midnight we are supposed to pass by a lighthouse on the Eastern-most tip of the island. The previous group landed there. With the high rolling seas we have got, it will not be possible to do this, more’s the pity. Instead, Ian the professional Brit, the expedition leader, says they’ll be waiting for us and can we all line up on deck when he says, to wave to them and we’ll sound our horn. John and I go up on the bridge to wait. But we’re totally shrouded in thick fog, and the lighthouse will never be seen. Ian, relentless optimist that he is/has to be, calls the whole thing “a shambles.” I feel for him. At least I am getting plenty of sleep! A midnight expedition is also canceled.
Another morning of high waves, rain and fog. We had hoped to make a couple of landings, one of them to get a glimpse of the great ice sheet, but it’s simply not possible. The sea is very rough indeed. I am very disappointed. None of the images I had had of the things we were to do have led to the events themselves. It’s turning into an expensive frustration. I am pretty happy with the pictures I have taken, though, and they will help me to remember what we DID do.
It’s decided that we will simply push on down the entire eastern coast, making none of the previously-planned stops, and head straight for the Westmann Islands, and Surtsey and Haimaey, and probably spend the night in a harbor on board.
I hope this plan works.
Later in the evening, after dinner, we are invited to take a zodiac cruise alongside an impressive bird cliff, a tiny rugged tower of rock in the midst of the sea. Our rubber boat lurches and rocks and we admire the thousands of birds and try to take their pictures as best we can. It seems that the tiniest protrusion of rock is a nest site for some large bird. There are gannets and kittiwakes and fulmars I think, and guillemots.
At any rate there are very very many of them, and they wheel about in the sky over our heads, they come in for precision landings on their teeny nests, they cry and squawk and call. Sometimes they come in for a landing and are seemingly waved off, for they just approach and then turn away again over the water. It seems such a terribly difficult life! How is it possible for them to live in this way, endlessly searching for food in the turbulent waters, finding stuff with which to make a nest, find a nest space that is safe, lay eggs, incubate them, feed chicks. Certainly as difficult as the life of humans who live here!
When we wake in the morning we are at anchor just outside of Heimaey. After breakfast we make a quite terrifying zodiac ride into the harbor.
Heimaey is one of the places I wanted to see. In 1973 the volcano above it erupted and ate up much of the far end of the little town. The lava marched along eating houses on the way to the harbor, and since Heimaey is an island, the harbor had somehow to remain open. Fire boats were brought in to spray the flow continuously, and eventually the flow ceased.
John and I and a few others climb nearly to the top of the stark cinder cones behind town. At first the underfoot is all lovely flowers—pink and blue and white and fuchsia and yellow, all amid the lush grass. But the higher we go the less vegetation there is, until at length we are walking, with difficulty in the high wind, first upon deepest black cinders, and then abruptly upon red. The wind is fearsome up there, and now and then I feel the need to crouch down so as not to be blown away.
We look down on the nice little town and its harbor. I don’t see how anyone could feel safe here. It’s like people building their houses on beaches at home, and losing them to storms. Or building alongside the Mississippi River. Only: a volcano may deal in fire and death, and you would have no warning.
The center of town is just as quiet as the others we have visited, only a few people walking around. Where on earth ARE they??
Back on board, there’s lunch, more strange cooking, and then we are approaching Surtsey, the “new” island which was only formed about forty years ago, by a submarine eruption that lasted for five years. The captain takes the ship slowly around it. The intricate layering can easily be seen. There does not seem as yet to be much vegetation on it (though later in a film on board we see that there is, along with birds and insects). It’s so naked! I mean, you can see its structure, its bones, its geometry. Other places we have walked on this trip are doubtless the same, but hidden under soft moss and grass blankets.
Just as we round the final turn of Surtsey, some orca whales are spotted. They seem to bounce through the water in a kind of jolly fashion, sprightly in their handsome black and white coats. Quite unlike the ponderous gray backs of humpbacks.
“There go the ships. And there is that leviathan whom thou hast made to take his pastime therein.”
Later in the evening a call goes out about a notable bird island which we are about to pass. I am undressed and ready for bed but I have the luxury of seeing this place out my little porthole. It’s astonishing! A volcanic plug, the uneroded neck of an ancient volcano, this dark tower lifts from the water. Its top is like a huge black platter, tilted so that I can view its contents: 60,000 pairs of nesting gannets. Above their rock, thousands and thousands of gannets boil upward, wheeling and circling in the sky, “like dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly.” We circle round the gannets’ rock and continue on our way. Then it’s time for one more night in our cozy bunks, and we fall into them in a pleasant stupor.
The ship’s Russian crew get us and our baggage off-loaded expeditiously. Hands are shaken, thanks and tips tendered, goodbyes said. They are back on the ship to get it ready for the next group, and we are off on the bus to Reykjavik.
We make a long tour, called the Golden Circle tour. I am not going to be able to do this justice. At first we drove up and along the high plateau above the city, passing quickly into the mountains. We picked up a road alongside of which runs the pipeline that provides people in the city with their hot water; there are “bore holes” all around the landscape, some steaming near and farther on the horizon, and others covered with a sort of igloo structure, which tells us that they are being tapped.
It is a fantastical landscape, steaming and covered in wicked black lava shards, and, in other places, hillsides of rich green vegetation. We pass along the rift between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Of this I am suspicious. How do They know that’s what these rocks are??
And we visit the Thingvellir, the sacred plain whereon the early Icelanders, in 900 and something, began to meet as a people to sort out their laws and arguments for and against questions of the day. For two weeks, everyone was there, spending days and days just to get to this place.
In order to get to the sacred place, one must pass through a narrow cleft of rock, and there is the plain. Its green is ornamented by flowers and a stream in which live greylag geese and goslings. There’s a small church and a ceremonial cemetery in which are buried three Icelandic Poets Laureate. The Icelandic flag whips in the wind. It’s a fine place. With a bit of imagination I can people it with great crowds of Icelandic men. The most important of them stay at their booths, a sort of camp place to which the important man returns each year.
Next to visit Geysir, the namesake of all other geysers. Geysir itself is erratic in action, but Strokker (Butterchurn) is reliable, and we got to see him go off three times! Strokker’s cauldron looks like some giant animal, twitching and twisting and wiggling. The opaque turquoise water lurches and churns and then suddenly a rather ghastly giant blue bubble appears in the hole, and up shoots the spout, maybe thirty or forty feet. Everybody shrieks and hollers. Steam is everywhere; my camera can’t find anything to focus on. It’s mesmerizing. It’s scary to think of this stuff just not too far under our feet. It seems that the crust here is very thin, perhaps only one to three miles thick. That’s all that separates us from the fire below.
Our last important visit is to the Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall. It’s the biggest one either of us has ever seen. It has many parts and sections, each one a lacework of power. It makes me uneasy, too.
In fact, there is a lot in this country that is scary. The seas, the cold, the glaciers. The fire hissing and gurgling just below, the godlike waterfall. The vast empty places.
It’s raw, like Hawaii. New. People have been trying to make a living here for a long time. They are tough and resilient, and creative, and they won’t be put off. Not by nature, not by loneliness. Not a place for the faint of heart, for the weak, nor for those who are impatient. On our trip here, we all had to learn to be patient, to wait for an opening, and to dart through it when it appeared, or to wait for it when it did not appear. Or to change our plans. “Plans” do not survive long here.