Glacier Walk

Trip Start Jan 18, 2012
Trip End Jan 24, 2012

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Flag of Iceland  , Gullbringusysla,
Friday, January 20, 2012

It is a good thing that the pick-up for the glacier walk wasn't until 11:30.  I was ready.  5 of us were picked up at the Hilton and there were 5 others from the Natura - the other hotel used by Icelanair for its packages.  Everyone was fairly young except for me.  I was dressed for the weather except for forgetting my raincoat.  The weather varied from rain, snow, hail during our trip.  I had on double layer of socks, including a wool pair; my goretex hiking boots and pants; long underwear tops & bottoms - wool; 2 wool sweaters; a wool vest; down jacket; pair of gloves and mittens with a flap over fingerless gloves; my beret and a Peruvian earlapper hat.  I was ready.  And I was warm - the only problem was getting too warm in the van and then cooling down during the walk.

Our guide was Jon, a young father of 2 girls, one of whom is named after an Icelandic Volcano - Catla.  He has been a full-time guide for 3 years and part-time for ten.   Everyone of our group really appreciated all the information and his dedication to showing us as much of Iceland as we could pack into the day - as well as really trying to find the Aurora.

We passed through countryside for quite awhile.  We saw the Icelandic horses (not ponies) that come from Iceland although some have been exported abroad more recently.  The horses are the only animal in Iceland that stays outside in the winter.  We saw cattle but they would go in I guess if the weather was worse but the horses stay out.  Iceland had no animals when the settlers came except for the Arctic fox that they believe came on an ice floe from Greenland.  No mosquitoes either but lots of birds.  Iceland doesn't have many trees either.  There were more trees prior to settlement but they were chopped down to make way for agriculture.  Trees also have a tough time in the climate and the grazing animals did in trees as well.  The early settlers were mainly farmers - raising animals like sheep and cattle.  They did grow some grass and barley but not other grains.  Now, in this area that is Iceland's primary agricultural area - there are greenhouses run on thermal energy.  We saw greenhouses lit up on the way.

Jon gave us history and dates of settlement and geology.  We learned that the glacier that we are visiting--Myrdalsjokull, Iceland's fourth largest glacier--is relatively new because Iceland had a mini ice-age after the last big ice age and then the glaciers receded.  I think I have some dates mixed up.  1910 was the end or start of something.  It must be that it started getting colder then so this glacier grew up until recently when it has retreated rather drastically - faster and faster with each year.  Jon also mentioned that this year there has been record snowfall.

So this has been a significant area for Iceland.  The village where we stopped for coffee and lunch food for later, or snacks, and to fit on the crampons is a special place as well.  Why, exactly, I seem to have forgotten.  Somewhere through here are little churches and we learned that vikings had churches built and they ran them since there was no organized clergy in Iceland at that time.  In the Museum they spoke about the Catholic period where there were convents and monasteries.  One of the kings - Norwegian or Danish - proclaimed a Reformation for Iceland and they were ordered to become Lutheran and the last Catholic priest or bishop was executed at that time.  Churches were a way for the landowners to make money as well as get a few points in the afterworld.

We visited a waterfall called Seljalandsfoss along the way to the glacier:  drove out and then walked toward the waterfall in the snow - mostly on top of the snow but occasionally falling through the crust.  It was pretty.  The landscape on the oceanside was pretty stunning though with the low light and pinkish-orange skies.   I think we were fairly close to the glacier at that point.

We again drove out to the glacier and then walked up to it because it had receded from the parking lot quite a bit.  We waited until we got on it to put on our crampons.  They really do help walking up the snow.  Jon cautioned us to follow in his tracks and not to deviate.  He carefully probed the snow to make sure we didn't fall into any crevasses or caves or other kinds of holes.  Since there was fresh snow, these things were covered.  Actually, just as we started walking, it started to hail.  It didn't last very long.  Oh, one very nice thing about this tour - they provided equipment that the tourist may not have brought - for free - so I borrowed a rainjacket; others borrowed boots, pants, jackets, hats, gloves.  All this, in addition to the c rampons and ice axes.  In Chile, I had to rent boots for extra even though a lot of other stuff came with the price of the volcano climb.  I would say that the Icelandic tourist companies do a fantastic job putting together these excursions.

So we followed Jon and he showed us an ice cave, some tunnels, crevasses, trolls - those were mounds of snow and ice formed on the surface of the glacier.  We saw the dark striations from the sand and dirt and ash from the volcano that erupted a few years ago.  Jon says that this one -Catla is - past due.   He mentioned at one point that we were on a glacier surface 150 meters ddep.  It needs to be at least 70 meters to be a glacier.  He showed us drumlins and moraines left by the glacier previously.  Hmmm, what else?  Can't remember any more now.

Along the way in the van, when he wasn't preoccupied with the driving conditions - since it was snowing - huge big flakes at one time - and the roads must have been slippery since it was around 32 F.  Icelandic vans and buses have tempertures noted in full view for passengers to see -- he told us about the elves=hidden people, and the trolls, the winter holidays, the 13 Santas.  Let me see if I can remember the story about the hidden people.  It goes back to Adam and Eve, Eve loved children and loved to wash them up.  When God was paying a visit, she only presented him with the children that she had cleaned up and the others stayed outside somewhere.  This happened three times and God was not pleased.  So he proclaimed that the children that he did not see, would forever remain hidden.  On New Year's Eve and Epiphany Eve, the hidden people, or is it trolls, or all of them??  Anyway, they move then, so people light bonfires to help them see so they can move.  Today is Husband's day - I am not sure of the derivation of this holiday - but he said that husbands get to have Icelandic delicacies liked rotted shark today.  One of our group wants to try rotted shark before leaving Iceland.

By the time we got off the glacier, it was dusk or past dusk and then we stopped at the second waterfall--probably Skogarfoss--, but that was OK since it is lighted.  We walked quite over snow to get closer to the edge and see it better.  It was beautiful lit up in the dark like that.  Then we drove on to a village by the ocean - the southwest coast I think - where we had lobster soup with bread and various spreads at a famous fish restaurant that I will have to look up.  Yes, the name of it is Fjorubordid Restaurant in Stokkseyri.   In this area there is a lot of lava - 11% of Iceland is covered with lava - or was it 13%?  Some of the lava is in big chunks and you can see it under the snow - it almost looks as if the fields were plowed - only it's not dirt, but chunks of lava. 

Often the glaciers contain rivers or the water the contain flow down existing rivers to create terrible flooding with farms and villages wiped out.  There have been some attempts to control the flooding.  He also told us about E-15, aka Eyjafjallajokull, the big volcanic eruption from a few years back.  Obviously a big part of discussion of Iceland has to do with the geology and natural environment since it is such a huge influence on the population -- which, by the way, is only around 320,000 with around 170,000 living in the greater Reykjavik area.  People live along the coast and the interior in not inhabited.

Let's see, we went to eat sometime around 8 pm and around 10 - or maybe earlier - we started looking for the Aurora.  In consultation with the company, Jon decided to swing back to Reykjavik along the southwestern coast more or less where it would be dark and see if we could see anything.  We got out once and looked at the stars - everyone was excited to see Orion so well and so close to the horizon.  We made one more stop at a hot springs and walked around and tried not to fall on the slippery platform.  After that we headed for Reykjavik.   When we got there, Jon showed us a few places along the bay where people could typically see the Aurora if it was out.  He drove through town and pointed out some other places of tourist interest and then we got dropped off at our hotels.  It was 1 am.  I couldn't believe that a tour guide would go to such extraordinary efforts to give us the tour.  Jon seemed to try really hard to find the Aurora for us and we all appreciated his stories and information.

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