Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Iceland - Fire and Ice
Volcanoes, Glaciers, Farms
The power of nature and the magnificence of a land being actively shaped is most visible to me as I circle the island along the ring road, leaving from Reykjavik and driving along the south coast from west to east.
Driving past the moody volcano Hekla, ‘the hooded’, almost always shrouded in clouds and the horse-breeding area of Hella we are headed to Fellsmork. Sigurlaug “Silla” Gudmundsdottir, a friend of Pramod’s has invited us to stay in her summer house. Tucked away in beautiful settings around the island these are popular getaways for all Icelanders. Silla’s summer house is a cozy wooden cabin tucked into a fold on a mountain side. It is off the grid and has no electricity, running water, or telephone. The soft light of Icelandic candles adds to the soothing effect although the artic summer nights don’t need me to light them till close to midnight. Looking out of the bedroom window you can see the giant Myrdalsjokull, Iceland’s fourth largest icecap. Tongues of ice extend down from the glacier and the melt water streams converge into a roaring river to the right of the cabin. From the living room I look out to a vast glacial pain, flat as a pancake, fringed by a black sandy beach deposited by volcanic activity in the past. Just beyond sit the icy cold waters of the North Atlantic ocean with a jelly like constituency. And in the middle of the flat plains is a small mountain shaped like a loaf of bread sitting all by itself. It makes you scratch your head wondering what geological activity could have caused this formation. I conclude that one of the lesser gods must have been hurrying back from the grocery store when he dropped a loaf of bread which fell to the earth and turned to stone.
As we drive into south eastern Iceland the next day the most dominant geographic feature is the Vatnajokull icecap on the left. It is the third largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland. Huge glacier tongues reach menacingly down the steep-sided valleys towards the sea. The road winds its way through a sandur - flat sandy plains of glacial deposits. The most dramatic of these is the Skeidararsandur that stretches some 25 miles between icecap and ocean from Nupustadur to Oraefi. The scene is one of a flat deposit of black volcanic gravel, sand, and silt, fierce winds, and fast flowing glacial rivers the color of beer. Travelers on bicycles pedal furiously across the bleak stretch to getaway before the winds whip up a stinging cloud of talcum powder like sand dust. The Sandurs are a result of Jokulhlaup – glacial floods. The Vatanajokull icecap actually sits on top of an active volcano, Grimsvatn, and acts as a tight lid. Occasionally Grimsvatn erupts in anger as it did in 1996 shooting a six mile column of steam. The ice began to melt creating a massive lake trapped under the icecap. Scientists waited with bated breath. Over a month after the eruption had started, the trapped lake lifted the entire icecap, peered out from below towards the faraway ocean, and drained in a massive Jokulhalup releasing 3000 billion cubic feet of water in just a few hours. A river, five times the volume of the Amazon, flowed towards the Atlantic ocean dragging with it icebergs the size of multi-storey buildings, snapping bridges and roads along the way like matchsticks. It was Iceland’s natural fire and ice show at its best.
Things are a lot mellow now as we approach a bend in the ring road and see luminous blue icebergs floating in a lake right next to the highway in Jokulsarlon (Glacial River Lagoon). The lagoon is a crammed with icebergs with interesting shapes creating an arctic scene. It is a breathtaking scene that has also drawn James Bond to film “Die Another Day” and Angelina Jolie to film, “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”.
Iceland can also present a stark scene with almost no trees anywhere. It is so bereft of trees that when I drive past Hallormsstadur what I see is a small collection of native trees – dwarf birch, mountain ash, and Alaskan poplars - reminding me of the wooded area behind my old house in North Carolina. I am told that this is the Icelandic forest. Icelanders flock here over the weekends, to camp in a quiet forest and throw raucous parties in the night.
The best person to tell me about Iceland’s lack of trees is Haraldour “Hallie” Antonson. Hallie is Pramod’s landlord and neighbor who has invited us to visit his farm house in Lambleikstadir near Hopn. He used to work in a soil conservation and tree planting program for the forestry commission and now spends his retired life during the summer months on the farm raising horses. Hallie walks me through his farm with his sheep dog Loki sniffing my travel worn shoes picking up foreign scents. The horses look at us briefly with a snobbish half-interest before going back to their grazing. The grandkids Karin, Byarki, and Egitl are building a house and campfire under the watchful eye of their German nanny Kathleen who speaks no Icelandic. But that is no hurdle for the kids who communicate naturally and un-selfconsciously as children do and get what they want. Kathleen, herself is a well worn traveler, who although in her 20s tells me tales from Mongolia, the Trans-Siberian express, riding in army trucks across Afghanistan, and biking down the ring road of Iceland.
The Sagas record that when Iceland was discovered it was covered by trees from seas to the mountains. If that were indeed true the early inhabitants did a pretty efficient job cutting down the trees for fuel and allowing their sheep to finish up by devouring young shoots. Hallie explains to me that sheep are super efficient destroyers of vegetation, if grazing is not managed, chewing plants and young shoots down to the roots and leaving the underlying soil vulnerable to erosion by water and fierce winds. Once the top soil is blown away it is almost impossible to restart vegetation. The reforestation program has been quite successful and new clumps of trees are beginning to dot the country. I explain to Hallie proudly that my grandfather was a rice farmer in a village called Chittliencherri in Southern India although his total landholding was the size of a couple of football fields. I ask Hallie about the size of his farm and he waves to the distance towards the Vatanajokull icecap where his farm ends. I had read that the lack of humidity in the Icelandic air makes everything much closer than it is. I realize with a gasp that Hallie’s farm which has four adults and three children is about the size of my home village Chittilencherri itself where 20,000 people live and farm. Standing on a mound we spot a group of sheep grazing in the distance that had strayed over from the neighboring farm. “Woof, woof “ barks Hallie pointing them out to Loki. “Woof, woof” responds Loki excitedly as he spots the sheep. Curling himself into a tight ball, he explodes into a charging, sprint towards the sheep. From a mile away they smell danger and scatter clumsily in different directions towards their farm in a fine demonstration of sheep dog skills. “Yau (yes), Yau”, Hallie,acknowledges proudly.
(Photo credits: Iceland Tourism Board)