Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Day 5 - On the Ring Road to Vatnajokull

(This is part of a series of posts about our 2011 trip to Iceland. Here are the first, secondthirdfourth, and fifth posts.)
Campground Vista
Skaftafell National Park campground

We awoke the next day in Vik to the sounds of bird colonies calling from the massive cliffs behind our campsite. A quick stop for groceriesi and gas, and we headed back out toward Dyrholaey to see the Solheimajokull glacier, an offshoot of the Mýrdalsjökull ice capii, that we had missed seeing the day before. It was impressive to stand on the end of such a massive fusion of force and matter, even though the business end of a glacier is not exactly the most picturesque of locationsiii. We got up onto the very edge of the glacier as it terminated in a valley, and watched much better equipped tour groups make their way farther up. It wasn't much, but still, your first glacier is your first glacier.

arm of Mýrdalsjökull Ice cap/glacier
approach (B&W)Melt
poolsGlacial Melt
(B&W)Glacial Ice
Abstract (B&W)
Glacial melt
channel (B&W)
Solheimajokull GlacierEdge, Glacier approach, Melt pools, Glacial melt, Glacial abstract, Glacial melt channel

We headed back west, leaving Vik and heading out toward Skaftafel National Park along the Ring Road. Most of our trip around the Ring had been pretty similar scenery; massive coastal cliffs, verdant farmscapes, dramatic waterfalls, and more Icelandic horses. As we made our way west from Vik, we entered the Sandariv. Technically, it's A sandur, (not THE Sandur) which wikipedia defines as sandur (plural sandar) is a glacial outwash plain formed of sediments deposited by meltwater at the terminus of a glacier.” While that doesn't capture the immensity of the place, it certainly captures its vast otherworldly emptiness. The lush scenery suddenly gave way to a lunar surface. The natural force it took to create such a place is an almost incomprehensible abstract, or would be if we didn’t drive past the ruins of a giant metal bridge that had washed out some time earlier. Its frame was twisted like it was made of fragile twigs, and it had been dislocates several hundreds of feet from the road by the sheer force of the water. There were a few green intermissions as we traversed between the Myrdasjokull and Vatnajokull outwashes, but for the most part it was a seemingly endless array of volcanic landscapes, from graveled outwash to odd lava-bubble fields and pimpled mounds. We stopped for lunch along the road, in which I sampled my first Icelandic beer, “Viking”v.
Odd Road
SignsAbby Road
Destroyed by Glacial Wash
Farm buildings
Viking Beer
product shotStream and
In the
flowsWaterfall and
horses with waterfallOld Farm
Odd Vik road sign- Bacon man?, Odd Vik road sign – Beatle crossing?, Bridge destroyed by glacial wash, Farm buildings, Viking Beer in its natural environment, Stream and Glacier, Sandur landscape, Life and Death in the Sandur, Lava flows, Waterfall and farm, Icelandic horses and waterfall, Old farm buildings.

When we first came around a turn and the vista of Vatnajokul opened up before us, it filled the sky from one side of the arc of our sight to the other. In the open space of the glacial plain, its full extentvi staggered the viewer in its immensity. We made our way into the park headquarters, which was nestled at the base of a great green finger of land reaching from the ice cap down to the coastal plain between massive glacial valleys. We set up camp in a large meadow, and decided to book a glacier hike for the next day from the uber-hip guide company entrenched in a turf-roofed shack near the entrance.
Vatnajokull Ice
signArm of
Vatnajokul Ice Cap from Skaftafel
Southern edge of Vatnajokull, Skaftafell/Vatnajokulthjodgardur Park sign, Arm of Vatnajokull ice cap.

It was later in the day, but we still had time to get in a short hike, so we set out for Svartifoss, a well-known landmark waterfall. The hike up was pleasant; the slow climb up the slope was accented with wildflowers, remarkable views, and waterfalls. Svartifoss is a small waterfall, nothing spectacular in and of itself. It’s fame comes from the array of basaltic columns that flank it on all sides, making it particularly photogenicvii. Sadly, even in this land of endless sun, we reached Svartifoss after its vlley had already fallen into shadow, limiting photographic opportunities. Even so, Seth and I stayed a while while the womenfolk headed back to get dinner goingviii. The evening light was fantastic on our way back, lighting up the ice-covered peaks, and putting the landscape of overlapping ridges and valleys in the distance into a red, glowing haze of silhouettes. I was getting pretty excited for hiking the next day as we walked past ancient stone walls and fields of angelica and bursts of harebell and crane’s bill wildflowers.
landscape (B&W)? waterfall
(cold tone)
vista, last lightSvartifoss
abstractWalls of Stone
and Ice
National Park vista, evening light
Svartifoss landscape, Small waterfall on the way, Svartifoss landscape, Svartifoss, Svartifoss, Sunset vista, Outwash Vista, Skaftafell Vista at last light, Svartifoss abstract, Walls of Stone and Ice, Skaftafell vista

Nina and Kate had a wonderful Indian curry dinner ready for us, and we retired on a full belly in anticipation of the next day.

i When we were in Spain in 2001, we developed a taste, mostly through repetition for the soft drink Fanta Limon (lemon), which is not available in the US. This is not a huge loss, honestly. So I was surprised to find it in the grocery store in a small town in Iceland. Its taste has not improved over time, as it turns out.
iiVik is a quaint-ish little town until you realize that the massive cloud bank that stretches across the horizon is actually afantastically large ice cap. And then even less so, when you realize there is an active, particularly mean volcano directly beneath it. The whole tike we were there, they kept remarking about how long it had been since it had blown its top and how devastating the resulting cataclysmic flood would be. So, drinks on the beach anyone?
iiiGlaciers push a lot of dirt and stone and stone-soon-to-be-ground-into-dirt in front of them. We uninitiated think of glaciers as pristine icy things, but they're pretty dirty, it turns out.
ivIcelandic place names are just inherently epic. I think I mentioned this in a previous post, but one can't help but feel a bit epic (in the traditional/literal Viking sense of the word) when you can casually say, “I am making my way from Vik, under the looming shadow of Myrdalsjokull, across the vast wastes of the Sandarr, up the treacherous Skaftafelshaedi, into the very heart of mighty Vatnajokull). Just discussing trip itineraries almost requires a sweeping Peter Jackson musical score in the background. I half expected every Icelander we met on the way to summon us to carry the One Ring.
vI do not recommend it.
vi And to be honest, we were only seeing the southern extent of the ice cap, as the full thing stretches far to the north, covering an appreciable portion of the island’s land mass.
vii It also has mineral streaking along its side similar to things we’d seen in Zion’s waterfalls.
viii In our defense, we took dish duty after the meal, which involved icy water and sharing space with some truly outstandingly large orb-weaver spider species, so were not completely living off the largesse of our ladies’ efforts. 

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