27 May – 1 June 2015
The North Atlantic, more specifically the Norwegian Sea, has a reputation for storms and rough seas. Well deserved, I learn. Sea Spirit departs what was, in perspective, relative calm seas around the Faroes on its passage across the open waters of the North Atlantic. Destination: the east coast of Iceland. A gain of time means an additional hour of flopping, swaying and bouncing on very rough seas. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being my experience of the Drake Passage Christmas 2007, tonight’s passage rates a 7. It is about 250 miles of 22′ swells. Our captain has “battened down the hatches” for the night. Rough indeed.
We follow the wakes of the Vikings across the North Atlantic to land at the small town of Djúpivogur on Búlandsnes Bay along Iceland’s east coast. This is my introduction to Iceland’s ‘towns.’ The granite sculptures of bird eggs along the port are more numerous than sightings of its 400 inhabitants.
I board a bus to cruise dry land between the mountains of Búlandstindur and Teigerhorn on one side and the sea and black sand beaches on the other. For 62 miles, geologic features change at every turn. Mountains, some barren some capped with snow and glaciers, seen from sea level, look higher than they are (less than 4000′). Steep cliffs hug a curvy road, herds of ewes with twin lambs munch along road sides and in fields, a myriad of geese and ducks and swans swim in the rivers and bays, and occasional herds of reindeer are seen. Spring is tardy and grass is not abundant.
Glacier tongues of the Vatnajökull Ice Cap, largest glacier outside the Arctic, appear around each turn. Sun occasionally peaks out from behind rain/snow clouds, painting the landscape with brightened colors only to disappear as suddenly, leaving me to ponder life in this gray, wet, cold landscape. All that sheep wool must come in handy for locals.
I arrive at Jökulsárlón, a 330′ deep glacier lagoon filled with bergie bits carved off from the Breiöamerkurjökull ice cap. Sun is temporarily shining and all is good for my 30-minute cruise on the lagoon. I float midst the bergs, large and small, on a retired U.S. Army duck boat. Unfortunately, the boats do not approach the glacier and clouds prevent a clear view.
The Sea Spirt sails further northeast to Seyðisfjörður, founded by a Norwegian fishing company in 1895 and main port to the continent. A stroll of its streets finds few of its 660 inhabitants. In fact, Iceland is the first country I have visited where I spot wildlife more easily than humans. No locals walk streets filled with orange-coated visitors, post office and banks open just a few hours each afternoon, houses and buildings look like people picked up and left when the ship docked. Reminds me of the many science fiction films I watched as a kid.
However, Seyðisfjörður is a pretty town of river, waterfalls, pond and escarpments as backdrops either side of the bay. Colorful dark-blue, white, red and green Norwegian-style wooden houses line deserted streets. Carved wooden trim accentuate windows and doors. Gardens and sculptures dot the streets. Inside, their simple church is sparkling white and bright blue. Pride of community is obvious. But where are the residents?
We sail past spectacular snow-capped mountains, collapsed volcanoes and rugged shoreline of the northern coast. Sometime in the night, night being relative, Sea Spirit tips her bow into the region of the Arctic Circle.
We dock the morning of 28 May in Akureyri, Capital of North Iceland, also the first site I come close to correctly pronouncing. Resting at the end of the long and sheltered Eyjafjördur, Akureyri is the second largest town in Iceland with a population of 18,000. Settled by Vikings in the 9th century, it enjoys an ice-free harbor and a close proximity to spectacular landscape. Its Lake Myvatn is considered the most geologically active area in Iceland.
I visit Námafjall, Iceland’s ‘Yellowstone,’ a geologically active area of steam vents, mud pots, sulphur deposits, boiling springs, and steaming fumaroles. Nearby Námafjall Mountain is dotted with pillars of steam.
In contrast, at Dimmuborgir, just a few minutes drive, I find a maze of lava and rock formations, a lava landscape of columns, holes, and arches formed by water and lava flows. I stood on the divergence of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, inching further apart each year. Iceland is constantly on the move, acquiring new territory centimeter by centimeter.
Meanwhile, Lake Myvatn lies at the crossroads of a large migratory route and is alive with several species of duck, geese, swans and various nesting birds. The Harlequin Duck is very common. The ubiquitous sheep and lambs, Icelandic Horses, and rare cow can also be seen.
Pseudo-craters at Skútustadir are a unique geologic feature of this dramatic volcanic landscape. These craters were formed by explosive volcanic eruptions when lava and cold water came in contact. Instead of peaks, tops collapsed inward forming concave bowls. It is a desolate landscape with snow-capped mountains and cinder cone volcanoes in the near distance. Is that not sleet falling from the sky? Yes, indeed, wait for five minutes and weather will change in Iceland.
Goðafoss may not be as high as Niagara Falls nor as large, but they are beautiful and thundering with water. This horseshoe of falls drops 50-75 feet, it’s volume increasing exponentially as the mountain snows melt. This “Waterfall of the Gods” is said to be the place where an 11th century chieftain threw statues of his pagan gods into the falls once he adopted Christianity.
Returning to Akureyri, we pass a unique mountain range, much like mesas, sheared flat on top by glacier retreat. It is the most wonderful alternating chain of sculpted flat-topped mountains and concave cirques all covered in snow. The short drive through Akureyri is anti-climatic to its surrounding nature.
Leaving protected waters, Sea Spirit continues south along the western coast. A very slow, setting sun dips below the northern horizon at 11:45 pm. By midnight the sun slips below the horizon and within minutes rises again a few degrees to the east. It is hard to adjust to this abundance of sunlight. Scotch purchased in Scotland helps.
On Saturday May 30, Sea Spirit docks in Ísafjörður, another town I can pronounce. Founded in 1859 as a salting station for fish, Ísafjörður is a charming little town of 2500 residents, one grocery store, a bakery, a couple banks, gas station, couple churches, Subway Sandwich, and a couple museums. There are a plethora of people on the streets when compared to other visited towns. But, it being Saturday, official businesses and bars are closed.
I enjoy its colorful houses and quiet streets. The alcohol-free grocery store was less of a treat. Old and new homes are built with simple corrugated iron siding. When asked, it was explained that 100 years ago fishermen had plenty of fish. Others had the corrugated siding, a possible material for fencing. Ísafjörðurites soon discovered it’s more practical use as siding. Most do not paint the siding so it needs less upkeep. I also noted flags flew at half-mast, a tradition of respect whenever someone dies in town.
I like this place. Not only does Iceland provide free Wifi, but the Port Authority has a dedicated building at the foot of the dock. Here in Ísafjörður, the facility includes four laptops for passenger use. How civilized is that? Currently I share the building with 15 staff members who appreciate the Wifi speed. Something definitely NOT found on the ship. Only one I’ve not seen in the last hour is the Captain.
By mid-afternoon, winds increased to comic levels. Tremendous gusts howled through the ship’s rigging and along the pier. I thought it would blow the Port Authority’s building off its foundation. White caps quickly appeared on this deep fjord and the plans for an evening zodiac cruise just as quickly disappeared.
Immediately after dinner, eager zodiac jockeys rode the waves to the Vigur Island cliffs. This small green island, only about one and a half miles long and 1200′ wide, is home to lots of birds, sheep, and Eider ducks. True adventurers and bird lovers head out in the cold and wind for their bird walk, obviously forgetting the rule one should not ride in zodiacs right after eating. As for me, after a couple glasses of wine and dinner, the only thing that would get me interested in a cold two-hour bird walk is fried puffin on a stick.
During the night, Sea Spirit continued down the northwestern side of the island, rounded the westernmost point of Iceland and turned southeasterly. Seas increased as winds came out of the west and across Greenland. We approach the “End of Europe” and the Látrabjarg Cliffs, Europe’s biggest bird cliffs. These brown, barren rock walls are over 1400′ high and 9 miles long and home to over 40% of the world’s nesting population of some bird species, like the razorbill, puffin, gannets and guillemots.
This is prime bird real estate. Do birds intentionally pick the worst environment possible as a form of protection? On every eroded shelf and rock, birds nest and are exposed to blasts of wind far beyond the feeble 50mph I am experiencing. How can a 12 ounce bird not be blown away? Errant eggs have a straight drop to the sea, except those lucky chick eggs, I am told, that are of a more elongated shape and will roll in circles.
The winds are vicious and wail about the ship. With swells of 9′ and over 40 knot/46 mph winds, our planned Zodiac cruise for the Látrabjarg Cliffs is cancelled. All zodiac launches are at the mercy of the weather, of course. And the weather depends on the side of the island we sail, the exposure to open seas and winds, and the shelter afforded in the fjords. The zodiac jockeys are eager to go but it is unsafe for loading passengers in these conditions. Unfortunately, these conditions are prevalent around most of Iceland much of the time.
Late afternoon we arrive into a choppy Breidafjördor, the largest fjord of Iceland. Parts of this bay were created as recently as 10 million years ago. Geothermal activity can still be seen at low tide. Basalt cliffs and odd geologic formations are evidence of recent glacial action. Especially interesting are the carved “chimney” rocks jutting into the sky, wide at the bottom and narrowing into a chimney stack of basalt rock at the top.
In a southeastern corner of Breidafjördor is Flatey Island, home to about 10 very hardy residents. Eric the Red lived here. Winds routinely gust over this small, flat island. I see not one tree. From the ship, I count 8 houses, a large industrial building, a small church and little else. Yet, in spite of what appears to be an inhospitable, windy environment, birds love to nest here. Many birds, like the puffin and tern, nest on the ground so lack of trees means little to them. The zodiacs cross the choppy seas to a small sheltered cove for a bird walk. Having counted the buildings, experienced the force of wind and sea spray, I elect to pass on the birds and have a beer instead.
We are close to our morning destination so Sea Spirit anchors off Flatey for the evening. The water is calm so our last day at sea looks to be a good one. However, Iceland is full of surprises at each fjord corner. Morning finds us approaching Stykkishólmur with its weather station warning us seas are high and winds strong, blowing the spray from the tops of swells. I can feel my bed rock and roll and need no announcement to inform me there will be no zodiac ride this morning.
Sea Spirit sails southwest to Grundarfjörður, our next port. Sun is out, I see blue sky, and I don’t need clunky boots and a zodiac anymore. Life is good.
But life quickly changes and the 872 residents of Grundarfjörður will not be graced with the presence of these orange-coated visitors. I will not have the opportunity to see the Sea Eagles nor the rare-for-Iceland white sand beach at Djúpalónssandur. Jules Verne used the volcanoes of the Búdir area for his inspiration for journeying to the center of the earth but I will have to take a pass seeing its basalt columns. And of course, there are the ubiquitous bird cliffs at Arnarstapi but no Fulmars for me.
Approaching its port, winds are gusting over 65 mph. Conditions are not going to improve and entering the small harbor is dangerous. The Harbor Pilot refuses to come out to lead us in; he’ll send us instructions. Like a hungry horse galloping to its barn, Sea Spirit severely leans to starboard as our captain makes a sharp turn and sets his headings straight for Reykjavik.
Settled by the Vikings in 876, I will continue to follow their wakes of discovery. The village of Reykjavik has changed over the past centuries, but I feel sure the Norse spirit is alive and well. Bet I can even get an Icelandic beer there.