(Updated April 30: I continue to post galleries of photos from our recent trip to Iceland on Exit Booted… Check ’em out!)
Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. – John Ruskin
Forget what you may have heard about how Iceland got its name: that a group of xenophobic Vikings put the “ice” in Iceland to chase other settlers from their newfound home’s forests of downy birch “from mountain to shore”, and meadows — according to one contemporary account — dripping with butter. Those stories are kids’ stuff.
The trees are long gone. And, I can’t speak to summertime, but in March if there’s any butter on the grass it’s buried under a subarctic winter’s worth of ice and snow.
Apparently the climate was a little different a thousand-plus years ago. During a period known as the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, when 30% – 40% of Iceland was covered in the aforementioned birch forests so dense it made travel inland difficult. Even so, according to the official telling of Iceland’s settlement in the Landnámabók, Iceland’s first Norse settler Flóki Vilgerðarson gave the island its current name (there were others) after climbing a mountain and seeing with homesick eyes an ice-choked fjord.
Kind of the way I stood atop Grábrók crater, staring (I hoped) Viking-like into an eye-biting wind, and glassed through a tear-smeared telephoto lens for troll-sign in the desolate, wind-whipped, frost-nipped volcanic wasteland of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. The thought occurred to me, as it must have occurred to Flóki, that it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity it’s not the temperature, it’s the wind.
See, the Anomaly was followed by a Little Ice Age, and by volcanic eruptions, and human settlement, and sheep. The forests were cut down by Vikings long since and the land over-gazed. Today where once was forest now there’s tundra — think the colour of an Icelandic pony’s winter coat of honey-coloured hair — and mossy, fog-shrouded lava fields.
Wind really does make all the difference. Sure, as Wikipedia knows, the Gulf Stream moderates air temperatures even this close to the Arctic Circle. Even in March, Reykjavik stays a positively balmy few degrees above zero Celsius – t-shirt weather for a visitor from Canada or, say, northern Japan (though the coldest temperature ever recorded, in the northeastern hinterland, did reach a respectably bone-chilling -38 C in January of 1922). But that wind: on a stormy day it can average 50 meters a second (112 mph) – hurricane strength on the Beaufort scale, and well below the National Weather Service’s wind chill calculator’s upper limit. But the answer is obvious: don’t go there then. Leave it to the trolls.
Never mind. “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change,” the tourist literature brags, and it’s true: on the day we strapped on crampons to hike the Þórisjökull glacier, we left the car park at the head of aptly named Kaldidalur (“Cold Valley”) road under grey skies which unleashed rain and snow showers, then rice-sized hail, followed by blue skies, and finally a second – temperamental, wind-driven – snowstorm which chased us around the off-road bus. All in the space of little more than an hour.
Thing is, the quixotic weather can be part of the fun, if you’ve got warm layers, a rainshell, and the right attitude. And there are other advantages to being in Iceland in March. Daylight, which at the beginning of the month is still a wintery 10 hours, is a respectable 13 ½ hours by the end. And, while Iceland is still off the beaten path, it does get close to 700,000 visitors a year, mostly in the summer months. That’s more than twice the population of the entire country. Come in March, though, and Iceland is still home to the descendants of those original Viking settlers. And the trolls and elvish “hidden folk” who were the island’s first inhabitants.
It’s all about the spirit of place, the genus loci, fuinke, Ultima Thule, the part of the map which reads Here Be Dragons: the undiscovered country.
Hyperbole aside, this really is the land of fire and ice, glaciers capping super-volcanoes which do occasionally erupt: and shut down airports across north and central Europe. Dirt roads and mountain tracks through the uninhabited central highlands – which makes up something crazy like 60% of the landmass. And the aurora…
Reykjavik, “Bay of Smokes”, is the hip, young, artsy capital, with a population of 120,000. As I tell my high school students, where I would go if I wanted to start a band, or an artist of any kind. Or a hipster. Here, or Montreal (just saying). Then again, not everyone is so crazy about life there. Our guide, Christian, tells us (in fluent English and Japanese) that the cost of living is so high most people just work to make ends meet. And Þorsteinn Bachmann, one of the stars of 2014’s Life in a Fishbowl, is quoted as saying “If you imagine a little fishbowl, the fish go round and round and you meet the same fish… that’s life in Iceland.”
This is the place R. and I chose for our Spring Break 2014. It seems kinda crazy to travel, like, 26 hours door-to-door for a four-day bus tour of a barely inhabited island just outside the Arctic Circle (then again, if you know anything about me, you know I’ve always been attracted to wastelands: shopping mall parking lots; rooftops; Toronto’s beaches… in winter). In any case, as you see from the pictures, what Iceland’s famous rhyolite hills and wastelands lack in colour in spring it makes up for in texture and contrast.
Our four-day tour took us from Reykjavik to Reykholt, with some stops along the way. Highlights include Thingvellir, Reykholt itself, Grábrók crater, glacier hiking, the rivers and waterfalls that cut through lava fields and wasteland; the black sand beach outside the town of Vik, and for R. and everyone else in our group, the aurora borealis in – I’ve been assured, many times – full bloom. But we also just enjoyed watching the scenery pass by our tour bus windows, the tundra and hoar-frosted massifs and fjords, and snow-covered volcanoes rising like sugar mounds out of the wasteland.
Wonder what it’s like in summer…
Reykjavik; Gullfoss; Hellisheidi; Þingvellir
The first gallery of pics from our trip to southwest Iceland in March of 2014. More pictures on the way!
If you wanna know, it’s about 26 hours of travel from my home in suburban Tokyo to downtown Reykjavik.
I’m back from a one-week trip to Iceland. I’ll have more to say shortly about the wisdom — or lack thereof — of visiting Iceland in March. For now, all I’ll say is that “the land of ice and snow” is very photogenic – even in winter. I’ve already posted pictures to Twitter — check ’em out at @tokyoaaron.
Inspiration and Resources
“Why do you always research the backstory, never the practical details?” R., my wife and travel companion, asks when I show her my latest finds: a documentary about strongmen in Iceland, say, or a catalogue page from the website of Iceland’s homegrown outdoor gear brand (links to both included below).
How else to appreciate the spirit of place, the Genius loci, “the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of a place; the invisible weave of culture” and “the tangible physical aspects?” I think.