Iceland's Northern Frontier

Trip Start Jul 11, 2011
Trip End Aug 11, 2011

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Where I stayed
Akureyri campground

Flag of Iceland  , Eyjafjardarsysla,
Friday, September 30, 2011

The sea cliffs were alive in activity. Hundreds of puffins and seagulls crisscrossed the sky, the puffins carrying their fish catch of the day from the sea and delivering their food to their cliffside nests. A comical colorful bird, the puffin has hybrid features, sharing a penguin body, a parrot's face, and bright red web feet that reminded me of the booby birds seen on the Galapagos Island. They're also a delight to watch in their natural habitat. Awkward swimmers, better at flight, and judging from the silvery minnows hanging from their mouths, excellent fishermen.

Here on Grimsey Island, northern Iceland's furthest point north, the birds far outnumbered the people. And I, by arriving on this island, had officially crossed the Arctic Circle. I know because I have the "official" certificate to prove the moment!

The journey to Iceland's northern outpost began with another prompt bus leaving the main Reykjavik depot. Starting from Reykjavik, I chose the more adventurous bus route to Iceland's northern region; crossing the wild highlands. Prior to the highlands region, we stopped at two popular natural attractions; the stokkur geyser basin and the spectacular waterfall Gulfoss. The word geyser originated in Iceland, named for the stokkur geothermal hot water spout. Sitting next to the old geyser were a bunch of old geezers, also venting a little steam. The most impressive geyser rises every six minutes, forming a bright aquamarine bubble caldron, before bursting skyward with a strong vaporous spray, then as quickly receding back to the tectonic depths below.

Gulfoss is this thunderous, massive waterfall, set against a windy barren primeval backdrop. It's multilevel size and power rivals other famous falls I’ve seen around the world including America’s Niagra and Zimbabwe’s Victoria.

After Gulfoss the road turns to gravel and the sky grows darker as we cross the remote highlands. Here in the highlands, the folklore is as bold and brass as the landscape. This is Iceland’s Wild West, legendary tales told of outlaws and highwaymen, banished souls and magical trolls. Separating fact from fiction here is as tricky as deciphering the true story to Billy the Kid and Jesse James, embellishing being a key component to Icelandic popular culture. The most identifiable outlaw dates back to the 18th century to Eyvindur of the Mountains and his wife Halla. They are to have survived living in the highlands for over twenty years, staying one step from the law that sought them. Scanning the barren volcanic landscape it’s understandable that for anyone to survive the highland’s harshness, their immortalized legendary status would be raised.

My bus carried today’s intrepid travelers, mostly German and French travel groups, who with backpack in tow, would periodically be dropped off at a gravel crossroad. The crossroad would lead them to some distance glacier lake or mountain pass in which to hike to and pitch their tent; a cold fierce wind encircling the landscape. Did I mention this was summertime in Iceland? Though tempted to join them I decided to continue on to the northern coast. One such stop offered a great chance to explore the multitude and multihued geothermal hot spots that punctuated the volcanic landscape. The percolating hot pools and fierce cold winds created the perfect melodic pitch to this otherworldly wilderness scene.

By mid-afternoon the highlands gave way to lush valleys and mountains that in conjunction with the numerous icemelt-fed rivers would simultaneously weave their way down to the coast. As I watched the passing countryside, the occasional farm house would come into view, as with the occasional sheep or horses grazing, providing a very serene feeling. By evening’s end,we few remaining passengers arrived at Iceland’s next biggest city Akureyri.

For a touch of urban sophistication in northern Iceland, one needs to look no further than Reykjavik’s budding smaller cousin Akureyri. And, for the steepest hike to a campground from a bus station, Akureyri wins the prize hands down. The stretch from the coastal harbor to the campground is like San Francisco on steroids. Good exercise after a long day on a bus.

Flanked by mountains, Akureyri rests at the end of a long fjord bay. The fjord bay extends northward toward the Arctic Ocean. A prosperous town with a population at barely 20,000, Akureyri offers considerable cultural amenities, as well as a great communal pool. Icelanders do love their communal hot pools. They also love certain other things which explains the near comical continue flow of baby strollers through the main street.
Akureyri serves as a good central hub for northern Iceland exploration, including Lake Myvatn, Husavik, and Grimsley Island. For volatile, spectacular natural geography, the Lake Myvatn region is a perfect destination. Every imaginable volcanic geological feature is on natural display here where the North American and European tectonic plates meet. The landscape is so open for the casual hiker, no restrictions. I’d walk along the volcanic rock and spongy moss when suddenly I’d see steam coming out of the ground! Continue walking a little further then I’d see another bubbly spot, then another. Hope the ground doesn’t suddenly open up, I thought!

Of course, the Lake Myvatn region presented another food challenge for me; finding a breakfast source. Fortunately my morning hike from the Lake Myvatn campsite was only a two and a half mile round trip hike to the Cow Café for breakfast. A working dairy farm, in the family for generations, the café was uniquely constructed such that only a glass partition separated a section of the café from the dairy barn stalls and milk production operation. A very clean, efficient operation as the cows go from stall, to milking machine, to the outdoors for grazing, all while I eat my breakfast and enjoy my morning coffee. Very cool.
To the north lies Husavik, a charming fishing / whalewatching town, with snow-capped mountains across the bay for its view. In the harbor, several beautiful wooden schooner ships are docked alongside fishing boats and trawlers.

In Iceland, as with virtually everywhere I’ve traveled, the locals have a saying "If you don’t like the current weather, wait an hour and it will change."Yeah, yeah, ok you say. Well, in Iceland it’s really true, and in Husavik it’s closer to every 15 minutes!

Fortunately, I spotted a break in the clouds leading toward open water so I immediately bought a ticket for the next whalewatching tour. I figured the whales would be more inclined to surface to enjoy the sunshine and I was correct. We spotted a humpback whale that seemed quite comfortable with our presence. Several days later a blue whale, the largest mammal in the world, was also spotted. Puffins were seen everywhere.

The cold rains arrived as we pulled back into the harbor. I scurried over to food stand for some excellent fish and chips and a hot cup of coffee.

The clouds finally parted by evening’s end so  I spent Saturday night in Husavik at an outdoor patio bar with the seafaring locals. A local musician/singer played 60s / 70s tunes while everyone laughed and drank numerous pints of Viking beer.

Several more days would pass before the dark low rain clouds moved eastward, creating a sunny opportunity for me to venture north, and catch a ferryboat excursion to Grimsley Island.

The voyage to Grimsley Island had two tales; choppy waves in route, calm seas on the return, the latter providing ample time for reflection. Grimsley Island’s prominence as an Arctic Circle crossing destination is so wonderfully low-key; no neon signs, massive gift shops or giant arrows marking the occasion. Only an unobtrusive sign and two nice older ladies who will offer an "official" document to signify the occasion.

Returning to the mainland, the ominous snow-capped jagged mountains along Iceland’s northern coast gradually appear on the horizon. How adventurous and foreboding this horizon must have looked to the first arriving Vikings a thousand plus years ago. Little had changed.

To Be Continued...

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