This post has been sitting in a draft folder for weeks. Months, even. I apologize for how long it's taken, for how many of my friends have heard the word "glacier" and put up with my non-stop babble about lava rocks and smoked whale and solar storms. I'll be honest, I've had the hardest time trying to write, to explain, to organize my thoughts + photos from my most recent trip to Iceland. True, sitting on five thousand images certainly makes it quite difficult to narrow down a selection, but it's been just as daunting to find the words to properly match. Believe me when I say this has been a serious undertaking, one that is not yet complete; I still owe the fantastic folks at Arctic Adventures the metric ton of photos from all of the activities they sent me out on, I have a fine art show to curate and print for, and now we're overdue for another print giveaway. But enough excuses, enough reasons why - here are my why-nots, my attempt at encouraging you to start stashing away for your own trip to the land of fire and ice. Enjoy the recap!
I firmly believe Iceland will always introduce a version of extremes, unique to each individual experience. Where my trip in January felt like a jarring excursion plunging in to the unknown, my last one was like meeting up with an old friend. The overnight flight crossing the Atlantic Ocean and landing at the space-base desolation of Keflavík Airport didn't instill a single drop of the trepidation or second-guessing in me this time, there was no "Mary Ella, what the hell have you gotten yourself in to!?"
Instead, I felt buoyed by the swirling snow and breezed through customs with freshly transferred Icelandic Kroná in one hand and a six-pack of Viking beer in the other. Exhausted but excited, I tossed all of my gear in to my rental, took a quick glance at the map and made the drive from Keflavik in to Reykjavík as the sky slowly lightened and the snow slowly stopped falling.
The snowstorm had halted by the time I made it in to the city. Reykjavík was quiet and charming in those early morning hours, with the sweet little bonus of fresh powder on everything. I stayed in another rented apartment, quite close to the pad we had in the January trip. My Semi-Useless Superpower, apparently, is the ability to find awesome lodgings for ridiculously good prices - thanks to Einar for giving me the hookup!
In the process of unloading the car and fumbling about to make myself a much-needed cup of coffee, I got in touch with my Arctic Adventures connection, Henry, to let him know I'd made it in to town. The exchange went something like this:
Henry: "Hi, welcome! I'm guiding a tour on Sólheimajökull and we're leaving soon. Wanna come?"
Body: "Yo, you only got about 45 minutes of sleep on the plane and you want to climb a glacier? HA."
Brain: "Shut up body, you're in Iceland. Chug that coffee, it's time for a hike!"
Mary Ella: "I'll be there!"
And so off to the Arctic Adventures HQ, which is basically like a warehouse full of big-kid toys and snowfaring vehicles.
I did my best to be a good little passenger as we sped our way east, limiting my "whoooooooooooooooa"s and attempting to keep my jaw off the floor of the car. If my drive through the lava fields that morning wasn't enough to remind myself that this was *really* happening, than this drive certainly was.
I distinctly recall how disgruntled I was on my first visit to Sólheimajökull that the windows of the bus we'd taken were salt-stained from the roads so that any photo would've come out pretty awful, but I had the express permission of rolling down the windows and shooting whatever I'd like this time. I know it was 'just another commute' to work for these guys, but I don't think it went un-appreciated by anyone in the car.
Also totally appreciated: a pit stop for caffeine and my gas station beloveds, hangikjöt sammies! It's fair to say that I'm mildly obsessed with these smoky, creamy things. I brought four home with me for my friends and family to try, but I won't tell you exactly how many I ate on the trip. (Okay, it was a lot. But in my defense, I was very mobile and didn't have much time for munching on this trip. Whatever, judge away. These things are freakin' delicious!)
To the top, to revel in the scenery, to remind myself (again!) that I was actually here, getting sunburnt on top of a really hunk of compacted snow, and to munch on some glacier candy. I was amazed at how much Sólheimajökull had changed in just over a month - the distinctive shapes in many areas had melted in to totally different sets.
We took the gorgeous ride back to Reykjavík crusing through the fresh snow and setting sun, but I'm sorry to say that I may have dozed off more than once. Once back in the city, I popped in to Bónus, the local grocery store ( the one with a logo that looks like a drunk piggy!) to grab provisions to add to the ridiculous amount of food I'd already packed in my suitcase. When you go to Iceland twice in two months, you're gonna eat a LOT of oatmeal and doctor up many packets of soup brought from home. I basically lived off of salmon/arugula/magical spreadable camembert cream cheese sandwiches, and (of course) beer and skyr, but the sandwiches were very road-trip friendly and I think that at least half my meals consisted of those puppies.
The next morning arrived far too early, as did all the mornings on this trip. I had about 380 km/230 miles of driving ahead of me to get to the Glacier Lagoon around midday, so I set out with plenty of time for photo pitstops. With bad pop music on the radio, heated seats under my tooshie, and my fishy roadtrip sandwiches on standby, I was ready to roll.
It was fantastic to watch the sky slowly change, to meander my way back east again tow----OH MY GOD HORSES!!!
I didn't get a chance to stop and introduce myself to one of Icealndic's most iconic residents on my first visit to the country, so I made certain to get cozy with these oh-so-endearing dudes in the predawn hours. The white one totally bit me, which I guess is what you get when your extremities look like carrots and it's still semi-dark.
I'm told the Ring Road is absolutely packed in the summer season, so I really made time to enjoy the early morning solitude of winter. I could essentially check for traffic and stop to grab photographs for a minute or two before I would hear the sound of a car miles away.
That morning was just...magic. I was so very happy to be cruising along at my own speed, stopping whenever to capture whatever I pleased. A common element of this trip was parking my car at random and hiking in any direction for a few miles. And then, of course, you hop out of the car to take the obligatory self-portrait. I always feel a bit indulgent setting up my tripod for a photo of myself, but they're pretty important. Actually, they're really important. I constantly and quietly remind myself that I was a part of something this big, this beautiful, this important, however short a window of time it was. These are a tangible proof of this wonderful little blip of existence.
I was there? I was there. I was definitely there. I remember the crunch of the icy grass and various sea debris beneath my boots, brought in from a recent high tide. I remember the smell of salt air tinged with manure from the mountainside farm just across the road. I remember the hazy golden morning light to the east, beckoning me to wander farther, to explore more, to absolutely take that random road and see where it'd lead me...
And here it led me, Dyrhoólaey. Serendipity or fate or whatever you'd like to call it that drew me perfectly to this vantage point on the ocean at the most golden of hours to experience the crashing surf, the singing gulls, the breathtaking black beaches.
Every thing about this stop gave me the most delightful goosebumps. The perilous vantage points, the early morning colors, the quality of light, the misty sea spray, and the gulls wheeling overhead...I could have easily spent hours here. But alas, the road beckoned, and I had to make my way still further east.
On past Vik and Hof and a sprinkling of other very tiny towns with no time to spare, except for maybe a shot or two out of the window of the absolutely gorgeous landscapes. I mean, you can see glaciers from the road. How cool is that?! Finally, to Jökulsárlón, the Glacier Lagoon, to load up in to a massive van capable of driving in deep snow, to find a seemingly unsuspecting spot hiding in the powder...
Walking in to an ice cave is like canonballing in to water; the quality of sound becomes muffled and the light turns a vibrant shade of blue.
Iceland does many things to those that experience it, and I think one of the most important things that it does is to present any number of challenges; even the logistics of toting several dozen pounds of camera + processing equipment as well as proper snow gear (first across an ocean and then regularly to and from the car) are not something to be taken lightly. Then you get to driving in walloping snow storms, climbing to the top of glaciers and sea-side cliffs, and wiggling through cramped and exquisitely blue-lit ice caves. All of this is well and good and makes for a laugh at the end of the day when you're safe in your bed, but when you remember you've got a kick of claustrophobia as you're army crawling under thousands of pounds of ice, things get really real, really fast. I'm laughing now at the fact that so many images came out blurry deep in the bowels of this cave from my shaky hands, but that was one heck of midday jaunt. I've talked it over with a multitude of travelers and we all seemed to agree that if Iceland doesn't scare you at least once, you're not doing your trip the right way.
A little soggy from the ice melt, but exhilarated nonetheless, my fellow spelunkers and I headed back with our tour guide "Bubba" (listen, Icelandic names aren't always the easiest to pronounce or remember) to the lagoon and were offered the chance to go rescue some tourists who'd foolishly attempted to go exploring in their minivan. Note to all travelers renting a car in winter in Iceland: unless you're in a Super Jeep, you are not gonna make it off-roading.
No. Just, no. Not happening.
I spent a really, really long time on the beach just across from the Glacier Lagoon. The available light was just incredible and I had a field day shooting. Long, long ago before I'd even thought of becoming a photographer, I'd been blown away by images of ice chunks on black lava sand. And here I was, darting in and out of the surf to illuminate the ice for long exposures, making my own images that bring me great joy. Bonus: there were seals playing around in the surf!!
I stopped at the Lagoon for one more farewell, to see the say goodbye to the seals and this iconic location. I had about an hour and a half drive to my lodging that night, so I sleepily ambled my way along the road, crossing my fingers that a gas station would be open so I could snag at least a sandwich. Things were looking pretty grim, so I pulled in to a well-lit hotel parking lot to consult my phone while my stomach growled in hunger.
I noticed there was a dining area with guests ambling about. Could it be a restaurant still open?! I wearily trudged in, soggy feet and cold hands ready for disappointment. But! BUT! I'd struck gold. Not only was it a restaurant, it was a buffet dinner with soups and salads and fish plates and smoked whale (!) and goulashes and roasted meats and beer and chocolate cake. I'd basically died and gone to heaven, so great was my joy at having a hot meal after another physically exhausting day. I happily continued my journey to the tiny guest house in Hunkubakkar, where I utterly crashed for a few hours of sleep.
Morning always comes too early when there are adventures to take part in. I grabbed a quick sandwich from the inclusive breakfast at the guest houses and headed back east again to meet with the Glacier Guides and Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull.
Remember the whole shaking hands/small space anxiety from yesterday? We were back at it again, proving that Iceland is absolutely capable of not only making you do slightly absurd things before lunchtime, but also of scaring the snot out of you.
We wove in and out of small caves and the face of glacier, eventually making it to the top of this climbable portion. My touring group + guide were another fantastic bunch and totally hammed it up in front of the camera.
Back to the car, and....ohhhhhh shhhhhhiiiiiit. Did that really just happen?!
*panicpanicpanicpanicpanicpanic* The one lens I've ever rented, the piece of glass that would cost more than my entire trip and the some replace, that I'd gotten explicitly for shooting the aurora just snapped right at it's anchor points. Kiddies, this is why you always get rental insurance (which I foolishly didn't, but the rental company took responsibility for sending out damaged goods) and pack a spare lens. Back to my 24-105, and on the long road back to Reykjavík.
With plenty of jams queued up and rain/sleet coming in waves, I didn't expect to stop often on the ride. But then....but then you remember you're in Iceland and the scenery is too wild and gorgeous to simply drive past. I made a multitude of stops to explore the green and white and blue landscape, to check out the lichen and moss, to hike miles off the road in to one of the world's largest and arguably most beautiful lava fields.
I managed to get caught in a total downpour about a mile away from my car about a mile away from my car and ended up looking (and feeling) like a drowned rat. The weather remained really soggy well past Vik, where I stopped for some fish porridge and rye bread before continuing on. The downpour held strong until Hveragerði, a small town with a sizable mountain between it and Reykjavík. As soon as I'd made it to the top of that passage, the snow was unbelievable. Several inches sat on the road while it gusted about in huge swathes, making visibility about fifteen feet. I could either head back down the mountain and wait out the storm for a few hours in my car or fall back in to that balance of fear and respect for what Iceland throws your way. So I cranked my radio up and continued on – safely making it to the city a bit after midnight, which was just enough time to grab two iconic and (delicious!) Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dogs and proudly scope out the bruises I'd acquired crawling through ice the last two days before passing out cold.
Another early start to go....snowmobiling? I'll be completely honest, this was the one adventure that AC had set me up with that I wasn't geeking out stoked for, but when in Rome, pack your road trip sandwiches, brave the morning snow, and go out of your element.
This morning, I was headed up through Þingvellir, in to the Golden Circle towards the grand waterfall, the Gulfoss. There I wa-WAIT LOOK MORE HORSES!! And this time, they're kinky haired and extra playful after the passing snowstorm.
/insert all of the heart-eyed emojis here
I was almost late to meet my guide at the super truck (listen, those horses were really dang cute, okay!?) but I hopped in and got ready to meet Langjökull via snowmobile. We drove for miles through pure white out. Our guide told us that the tire pressure of the truck was at about 3 psi, which enabled us to cruise easily through the foot+ of snow.
Snow suit and helmet on, I was really starting to get excited. I could feel that need for speed sinking in as we were instructed how to use our snowmobiles. Fortunately for me, I have a lot of relatives that live in Northern Minnesota (hi, fam!) that taught me at a young age how to handle these beasts. Though it had been many years since my last snowmobiling experience, I'm happy to say that it was just like riding a bike, only a heck of a lot more badass.
I very explicitly remember being hit with the fact that this was a Monday, and this was my day at the office. Pinch me. Have I mentioned that I love my job? Don't worry, I was hollering my happiness to the wind and enjoying every exhilarating second of it, laughing at my lessened enthusiasm from just an hour or so before.
After the noise of snowmobile engines all afternoon, it was time for sounds of a different caliber. Back to the Gulfoss, to watch the super saturated waters tumble over rocks.
After four straight days of 9+ miles of hiking each day and limited sleep, I gave in to the goodness of doing absolutely nothing. I made a simple dinner at home, and enjoyed falling asleep with the prospect of sleeping in until a whopping 8.30 a.m.
Ahh, Day Five. What was on the agenda for today? Whatever! Absolutely nothing that was set in stone so I had a leisurely breakfast (yes, oatmeal and beer are delicious together) where I researched a few options for day. First up was finally getting to Hallgrímskirkja, or as I'd been so fondly referring to it, the Rocket Church.
The interior was absolutely stunning – the vaulted ceilings looked like something out of a Tolkien story. Climbing to the top gave a great view of the sunny morning, and then back to the bottom to devour a delicious Belgian Waffle before heading to one of the local swimming pools.
The Blue Lagoon is a really fun experience, but when you're doing the budget trip like I was, the thermal-heated pools and outdoor hottubs for about $6 USD absolutely cannot be beat. Besides, this is where the locals go. Just about every single town has a swimming pool and hot tub, and Reykjavík has many. I didn't bring my camera in, for obvious reasons, but this particular pool house was full of beautiful warm sunlight. The water felt incredible on my aching feet, and warmed me to my core. Besides, it's pretty badass to sit on a rooftop hot tub in the middle of winter in that beautiful little city.
Happy hour, happy wanderings, and sketchbooking the rest of the afternoon away, my final evening in Iceland was swiftly arriving. As with my previous trip, this last night held the greatest promises for finding the Northern Lights. You could potential chalk it up to superstition, but I decided to follow in our footsteps from January and have my final dinner at Snaps. Not only did the awesome waiter remember me from my first trip, but I sat next to a very sweet local chickadee named Maria who helped me plan on the best locations to hunt for the lights. The owner of WOW airlines was also in the joint, and the french onion soup and mussels were even better than I'd remembered them – all promising signs for the night ahead.
I'd asked all of my friends to send me luck for that night. With their well wishes, a stomach full of delicious food and a heart full of excitement, I decided to call my sweet mama and update her on the plans for the night. About five miles outside of the city and thirty seconds in the conversation, I not-so-calmly told her I'd have to call her back, that I could seeeeee the liiiiiiiiiggghhhttts! I promptly hung up, pulled over, and started laughing hysterically and dancing out of sheer joy. There they were, these strange green lights, clearly dancing over top of the city. I was the happiest human on the planet, no doubt about it.
I spent about three and a half hours south of the city watching the lights until they started dying down. I drove north towards Hvalfjörður, to see if I could spot the lights in the same spot that I'd seen them first in January. They'd really quieted down and all but disappeared, but standing under the stars at 3 a.m., hearing the soft stirrings of wind in an otherwise silent night was well worth the drive.
It was at this point that was starting to realize that even the rush of a waterfall or the roar of the ocean had a certain ordered calmness to it's chaos. It fit so well in to the surreal dream-state I'd been experiencing this whole trip, and opened floodgates of observation. I had been in a constant state of introspection and extrospection, marveling at the grand scenery while quietly contemplating a thousand different thoughts and feelings and memories and aspirations.
After my return home from this great trip, I worked a few shifts at my local homeless shelter - it's run by a group of churches, but I've always been involved as a non-affiliated volunteer. The other volunteer on the shift with me was an avid Christian, and asked me quite a lot of questions about my personal beliefs and practices. They seemed taken aback that I would volunteer without parish guidance. I told them I don't go to a brick and mortar church, but that I prefer to practice my own self-written dogma whenever and wherever I can. Generally that revolves around two principles:
1 - treat friend, family, and stranger just as you'd like to be treated.
2 - never stop exploring, both the tangible and the intangible. I believe that curiosity and kindness are two of the greatest attributes we can strive to possess, and so I do everything I can to cultivate those things.
I go to church every time I walk outside and look up at the stars, when I lose myself in the creative process, or when I make time to do something for someone else. As unintentional as it began, Iceland became a total spiritual pilgrimage for me. I don't think I'll ever be able to find the words to describe this experience. Even pictures, as good as they are, will never do justice to the feeling of being enveloped completely in a landscape as minimal and quiet as this. It is like walking through a living, breathing meditative contemplation, one that invites you gaze as far inward as outward. I was reminded just how important and vital that introspection is.
Anyways, this is me saying go to church. Whether it's a library, a mosque, a soup kitchen, a temple, an art studio, in the quiet moments with your children, outdoors and off the grid, or behind your own closed eyelids, nurture your inner world so you can make a positive impact on your outside world.
Another early rise with just enough time for a few final, quiet little moments in this city I've grown to love so much, that I can easily navigate by foot. My homebase-away-from-home.
My last, at least for the short-term views of Iceland.
Even now, when I look at these photographs that cannot possibly convey the sights and smells and sounds, I cannot help but to grin from ear to ear. I laugh. I gasp. Sometimes tears even well up in my eyes remembering just how truly awe inspiring this experience was. Maybe this is why I've taken so long to finalize this post, because I'm finally capping off this section of work, because now I can't spend hours on end ruminating on my experiences. There is a finality in this post.
There is a little bit of a farewell, but I think it's of the see-you-later sort, and not the goodbye kind. Thank you and until next time, Ísland! -xoM.Ella