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Iceland

Westland (Vesturland)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Western Loop

Saelingsdalsvegur, to Brjanslaekur, to Flatey Island, to Stykkisholmur, to Borgames, to Buoardalur, and then back to Saelingsdalsvegur. These were the unpronounceable Icelandic towns that made up our grand circle of the Westland of this land of fire and ice. It was a long day of driving 410 kilometers, 7 hours and 30 minutes, thankfully some of it floating and not driving. It included travel on narrow roads, single lane bridges, very rough gravel roads, and a ferry. But, what we saw along this arduous route was so stunningly beautiful it was worth the effort.

On the ferry to Flatey

Julia and I had a tiny glimpse of the magnificent Westland when we visited Ísafjörður on our trans-Atlantic Ocean cruise in 2013. Ísafjörður is a town in the very northwest of Iceland. It has a population of about 2,600, and is the largest town in the peninsula of Vestfirðir. But, the grand circle we drove today exposed us to many other wonders of the Westland. Tall volcanic scree mountains covered in a bright green carpet of moss, and draped in a thick ominous white cloudy mist. This was our greeting as we entered the fjords of Breioafjorour. There the paved road turned into rough and windy gravel tracks rife with potholes.

On the way to Brjanslaekur

After bumping about the bumpy roads, we eventually came to the ferry at Brjanslaekur. Here we load our car, sailed south to Flatey Island, and disembarked at the lovely little village of Stykkisholmur. From here, avoiding any more gravel roads, we drove back to our comfortable hotel in Saelingsdalsvegur. What a great day.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Warning sign

At the time of human settlement of Iceland almost 1150 years ago, birch forest and woodland covered 25-40% of Iceland. Birch forests in sheltered valleys slowly graded to a mix of birch and willow scrub toward the exposed wetlands near the coast. At high elevations, these lush forests were replaced by low-growing moss, lichen, and shrubs, which eventually gave way to a lifeless rocky landscape.

Maps, you gota love them

As in agrarian societies everywhere in the world, the settlers of Iceland began cutting down the forests to create fields and grazing land. Sheep were important as a source of wool from the outset, but by about 1300 they had become a staple source of food for Icelanders as well. At the same time, the Catholic Church (also the political power at the time) started obtaining woodland remnants, a clear indication that forests had become valuable resources because of their increasing rarity.

Sheep grazing prevented regeneration of the birch-wood forest after they had been felled. And so, the woodland continued to decline. A cooling climate (the little ice age) and volcanic eruptions are cited as possible alternate causes for the decline of the woodlands. But, these events cannot solely explain the overall deforestation that took place. Cooling temperatures might have lowered tree line elevation, but they do not explain deforestation of the lowlands, where temperatures have been sufficient for birch-woods since the deforestation began. Natural volcanic disturbance is sporadic and limited in area and thus cannot account for the permanent destruction of 95% of the original forests. In Iceland as elsewhere, regeneration failure due to livestock grazing is the principal cause of the deforestation.

The intrepid hiker

The modern Icelanders face a similar dilemma to their forefathers, how much should they sacrifice the environment of Iceland to support their population growth. Yesterday it was forests, today it is flooding habitat for hydroelectric energy production. The electricity they sell to global capitalist corporations to produce aluminum. Will they make the same mistake again and sacrifice their environment for their growth?

Capitalist economists have never factored the environment or health and safety into the real cost of production. When will we ever learn?

Westlands

We left Saelingsdalsvegur behind us and drove through the treeless and electricity drenched lands to lake Laugarvatn in the southlands.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Driving today from Sælingsdalsvegur, our home for the last few days, to Laugarvatn in the southlands we encountered the true beauty of Iceland. It is not a soft and fluffy beauty, rather it is a rugged and rough one. It is a beauty that you feel in the chilly wind, see in deep green grass, brown craggy hills, and scree covered volcanic mountains. But, none-the-less it is a beauty that invades your soul.

Along our route we stopped at the cindered remains of the volcanic aftermath at Grábrók. Cinder cones, laver, and devastation fills this place and directly reminds you of what Iceland is.

In Borgarbyggð we stopped for the obligatory latte and exposed ourselves to a very underwhelming Icelandic history museum. The history of Iceland is rich and complicated. It is too bad that this museum did not communicate this richness.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Wild geranium

Thingvellir national park is a flat expanse of land covered by wild geraniums and many other wildflowers and shrubs. This vast flatland is framed by Lake Thingvallavatn, high volcanic mountains, and the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Enormous underground tectonic forces push these two mammoth land masses apart at a rate of two centimeters a year. In a world that is literally pushing itself apart, the Thingvellir national park is serene, peaceful, and unaware of it all.

Lake Thingvallavatn

Drinking beer in a geothermally heated spa, overlooking a deep-blue lake, is the best way to relax after a long day of hiking and touring. This is exactly what Julia and I did to end this great and glorious day.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Strokkur geo-thermal area

Just down the road from our hotel (school in the winter months) at Laugarvatn, is the Strokkur geo-thermal area. This is the Yellowstone of Iceland right down to a rhythmic geyser erupting with expulsions of steam and water every three to six minutes. It's odd, but waiting to see a geyser explode is simply fascinating. Of course, the place was filled with tourists, but we are tourists too, after all.

A little further down the road, known by locals as the golden circle, is the Gullfoss waterfall. This enormous cascade of water is driven by a massive river, which is fed by a gigantic slab of ice and snow the Langjokull glacier. Just like watching geysers, gazing into immense water falls is also hypnotic to tourists, and so this place was inundated by them too.

Geysers

Leaving the throng of sightseeing hungry tourists behind us we drove to the remote little hamlet of Fludir. There's not much there, a campground, some homes, a few shops, but they have great food there. This was an amazing place to have lunch and continued our impressive culinary experiences in Iceland.

Once back at Laugarvatn we hiked through the (extremely rare) stand of trees at the foot of a colossal volcanic ash and frozen lava mountain.

Gullfoss waterfall

During our short hike my faithful and reliable hiking boots, of 20 years, exploded. The sole completely came off one of the trusty boots and left me to hobble back. Well, I did get 20 years of wear out of them and they had been around the world several times. Good bye old friends.

This loop led us through a shaded pine tree forest and eventually back to our relaxing spa and beer ritual.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Fludir in Iceland

The great pin conspiracy continues. In the last two or perhaps three years chip and pin credit cards were introduced in the USA. I thought this a great step forward for the USA, even though the rest of the world has been using this system for years now. But, alas the USA based chip and pin system does not work like the rest of the world and so we continue to require a signature to authorize a purchase when using the USA chip and pin system overseas.

Lunch at Eyrarbakkavegur

A luxury problem you say, well in Iceland remote gas stations have no attendants. Many of them are fully automated and often very remote. Your only option is to use, what Icelanders call the: AutoMat. The AutoMat requires your card has a chip and a pin. And not just the rubbish US pin, but a proper pin. No pin, no gas.

As we moved ever closer to the airport at Keflavik and our imminent departure from the land of fire and ice, black sand beaches of the southern coast of Iceland rolled out before us. We walked the dark sands, ate a delicious lunch, and said farewell to Iceland. We left this afternoon for the Emerald Isles of Ireland.

Eyrarbakkavegur beach

Wow airlines suck beyond sucking. The flight was an hour late to leave, the boarding was disorganized and confusing, and the seats on the aircraft could have been used by the Spanish Inquisition. But, you gets whats, you pays for.

Good bye Iceland.

Many things were lost on this trip. We did not get to see Greenland and we left behind two good friends.


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