02 April 2010

Land of Ice and Fire

Iceland, a small island country that, in more ways than one, divides itself between Europe and North America. Its capital lies the closest to America of that of any European country, its people trace their heritage back to the Vikings, and yet the nation proudly boasts its stand-alone identity. Icelanders feel the forces tugging at them from both sides of the Atlantic, but they aren't pulled away from what they know as home. Instead, they work to ensure that their beguiling country can offer an energetic and culture-packed punch of its own. With enough time, money, and open-mindedness, a visitor could indeed by knocked out by this isolated country of the North.

As said, Iceland rises from the North Atlantic several hundred miles northwest of the United Kingdom and east of Greenland. Chances are, if you've flown between Europe and America, you've flown over this rocky island or close to it. Much can be said about the island's geothermal activity, but I'll save that for more appropriate places in the post. Suffice it to say for now that Iceland is one the Earth's most dramatic spots where one can witness the inner-workings of our planet breaking through at the surface. Barren, cold deserts and thick glaciers cover the interior of the country and create an environment where human settlements don't exist. The exterior of the island and its lowlands offer a more hospitable setting. Here, and especially in the southwest portion of country, warm water from the Caribbean meets Iceland courtesy of the Gulf Stream ocean current. This delivery system makes life in Iceland far more possible, warming the air and providing mild winters. Due to this, most of the nation's roughly 300,000 citizens live in this region of the country, and it is also Iceland's only agricultural area of significance. Although the country is not as cold as its name would lead one to believe--the temperatures actually remained above freezing in Reykjavik for the duration of my stay--it was nevertheless a challenging and distant land for the first Icelanders to settle.

Tales exist of solitude-seeking Irish monks being the first ones on Iceland, but the island's history of human habitation mostly starts with the Vikings. The so-called Era of Settlement began for Iceland in the early 10th century AD. Most of what we still know about this time in Iceland's history comes from the Viking sagas, written stories that documented life in the society. While Icelanders will try to tell you that the Vikings were not as bad as their reputation, based off of some the historical accounts I've learned I don't think I can agree with them entirely on that point; however, I do acknowledge that the Vikings were more than mere pillagers and pirates. Some of their other areas of expertise were exploration and settlement.

During their raids on foreign lands the Vikings also kept their eyes open for any suitable land that they could claim as their own. In time this would prove necessary, as coastal towns and villages in the rest of Europe eventually learned to anticipate the Vikings' attacks. Therefore, the Vikings branched out from Scandinavia with permanent settlements in northern Europe and the British Isles. The exact details of their arrival in Iceland remain unknown, but one tale says that a Viking leaving Norway was blown off course and came to Iceland, such a trip would have been no simple wrong turn. However the Vikings first discovered the island, they were fairly well settled into the 10th century. Incidentally, their westward settlement did not end at Iceland. From there the Vikings pushed on to Greenland and, even if only for a relatively short amount of time, North America.

When the first settlers arrived they were pleased to find what looked like a perfect new home. Virgin forests of sturdy trees covered the lowlands and hinted at what was surely fertile soil. Though land animals were few, the ocean provided a bounty of food and dozens of bird species nested on the shores. Best of all, there was not a soul on the island to protest the Vikings' arrival; it was free for the taking. The settlers proceeded to do what one would expect. They cut down trees for wood, and cleared swaths of forest for land to plow and land to graze for the farm animals, like cows, pigs, sheep, and goats, that had joined them on the boat ride over. Unfortunately, nature had tricked the Vikings.

Iceland wasn't quite what it had first seemed. For one thing, in the first decades of Viking settlement, records indicate that the island was experiencing an uncharacteristically warm period. The settlers were unprepared when the climate conditions returned to normal. Additionally, the settlers were fooled by the thick forests. While the volcanic soil of Iceland is suitable for farming, the growing season on the island is short because of its high northerly latitudes. The forests that the Vikings had seen had taken decades to reach those levels of mature growth. As the settlers took wood to use in structures and boats, they cut down the trees at a rate to quickly for the forests to replenish themselves. Furthermore, sheep, goats, and the other farm animals devoured the saplings and shoots of young trees and plants. The final blow, though, was with the soil. Volcanic top soil is unlike the soil of most areas in the world; while rich in minerals, it's also very light. With the vegetation cover mostly removed, either by the settlers themselves or their farm animals, the top soil could easily erode away in the wind and rain water, exposing the rough volcanic rock of Iceland.

The settlers had unknowingly altered Iceland for centuries to come. To this day forests don't exist in the country, mature trees can only be found in the city, where people can best nurture them. A few decades ago Iceland undertook a reforestation program that continues today. Back then the government collected samples of trees from around the globe's Arctic area for transplant in Iceland. Driving through the countryside nowadays one will occasionally pass a few acres of trees clustered together that resemble a Christmas tree farm. According to one Icelandic joke, if you get lost in a local forest, simply stand up. The following photo shows the mostly barren landscape. Surprisingly, it's popular for many city dwellers of Reykjavik to own vacation cabins out on these empty plains.

After only a few generations the environmental damage was irreparable and unavoidable. The early Icelanders realized what mistakes they had made and faced some difficult choices. Leaving Iceland wasn't an option. The mature trees needed for constructing ships capable of oceanic voyage had long been cut down, and the small fishing boats that remained wouldn't survive the journey across the North Atlantic. Trading ships from other Viking settlements closer to the continent came too infrequently to Iceland. In order to survive, the Icelanders decided to sacrifice some elements of their culture and decrease their standard of living. This meant that many of the damaging farm animals, like the goats and the pigs, were killed off or allowed to die out. Diets changed to reflect less traditional Viking foods and more of what Iceland itself could offer. Wood became a more expensive and rationed resource; the trading ships that did come often brought wood from the continent for sale. The top soil would again build up and its fertility increase, but it would take time. Volcanic eruptions would spew mineral-rich ash into the air that would work its way into the soil, but the same eruptions would bring toxic gases lethal to people and their farm animals. The Icelanders managed to persevere through these hardships for the next several centuries.

During the first couple centuries after settlement Icelanders ruled themselves, but the turmoil involved with simple survival, in part, prevented them from developing their own centralized society. After initial political stability, Icelandic civilization devolved into rival fractions led by chieftains. These conditions ultimately resulted in the surrender of Icelandic self-rule to Norway, and later, when the Danes gained control of Norway, to Denmark. Remarkably, significant change in terms of politics and everyday life didn't come to Iceland until the 20th century. After Iceland received its independence in 1944, its economy started to take off, the country developed one of the highest standards of living in the world, and the capital of Reykjavik, pictured below, transformed into a modern city.

The international airport of Reykjavik, where essentially all foreigners arrive to Iceland, is actually almost an hour's drive away from the city. The bus ride to my hostel in Reykjavik's city center offered some first views of Iceland's bizarre landscape, but the capital was not without its own surprises. Because most of the country's economic growth didn't occur until after World War II, Reykjavik resembles many American cities in that it is mostly designed around the automobile. Wide streets, parking lots, and low-density housing characterize most of the city, though not to the extent of a typical American suburb. The city center is the exception to this, but even here I found more two- or three-story houses than mid-rise apartment buildings. Due to Iceland's small size and historical economic conditions there are few monumental buildings in the city, with one exception being the Pilgrim's Church seen in the first picture below. The second photo shows a view of downtown Reykjavik's main shopping street.

Even the building housing Iceland's parliament is a bit understated. When I went looking for it, I first thought I was reading my map wrong. Then I realized that the gray building in front of me, and seen in the following picture, was indeed what I was looking for. The nearby city hall of Reykjavik was larger.

On the day after my arrival, I boarded a bus bound for the famous Blue Lagoon, which is actually not a lagoon at all but a thermal hot spring and spa. Geologically speaking, Iceland is young at 20 million years old. Similar to Hawaii, the island was born through the eruptions of seafloor volcanoes. Over the millennia, further eruptions expanded Iceland. The Blue Lagoon is one place where a visitor can witness the effects of the geothermal activity continuing beneath Iceland. At this unique place seawater mixes with freshwater below ground and bubbles up to the surface at a relaxing average temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Blue Lagoon area sits in the middle of nowhere. The nearest visible sign of civilization is a geothermal power plant harassing the same energy that hundreds of spa visitors take advantage of daily, and actually from where the spa's water is directed. After exiting the bus I first walked on some of the trails around the spa; I may as well have stepped onto another planet. Hardened lava fields with damp, carpet-like moss filling the crags stretched to the horizon. In some directions steam rose in the distance and veiled faraway mountains. The most exquisite quality of this beautiful and empty landscape though was the water of the thermal spring. One look at the second photo below explains how the Blue Lagoon received its name.

The brilliant color of the water is attributed to its rich mineral content, including silica and sulfur. The silica layers the bottom of the lagoon and is used to make silica mud, a cottage cheese-like lotion that supposedly exfoliates and softens the skin. Spa visitors could apply handfuls of the white substance to themselves at not extra cost from buckets set around the lagoon. Small tubes of the same silica mud sold for about 50 euros in the gift shop. The mineral rich and warm waters in general are also allegedly good for your skin and body. I didn't care so much if the lagoon improved my complexion, I only wanted to relax.

After changing into my swim shorts and taking the required shower, I finally stepped into the lagoon. Dozens of other swimmers from Iceland and abroad were enjoying the spa. The air temperature was cold, but as long as I stayed in the water up to my shoulders I felt fine. Though the water alone was worth it, there were also saunas, steam rooms, and a massaging waterfall. Soaking in the milky blue waters under an open sky, the steam drifting off the lagoon's surface all around, the mountains rising in the distance, and an occasional slight drizzle all added up to one dreamlike experience. I let it last until the closing hour. The photo below was taken from the roof of the visitor's center. The spa area of the lagoon is in the foreground, and in the background, partly hidden by the steam, is the geothermal power plant.

The next day I set out on the Golden Circle tour, a circuit concentrating on three natural wonders that several tour providers in Reykjavik offer. To my relief our group was small, only ten people including myself. Beyond the metropolitan area of Reykjavik, where about half of the Icelandic nation lives, pristine nature unrolled in every direction, minus any tall trees of course. The first stop on the tour was a new geothermal power plant. Renewable resources fulfill nearly all of the country's electricity and heating demands. The next quick break was at the caldera of a dormant volcano, seen in the picture below.

We would stop again to see a waterfall, but the next site was one of the tour's top three. The field of geysers and hot springs appeared only after a bend in the two-lane road, but the steam rising over the hills hinted at what was to come from a few minutes away. Off the side of the road stretched an area at least as large as a football field that was pocketed by small craters of boiling water and bubbling mud patches. Numerous signs warned of the water's high temperatures and asked visitors to be careful of where they stepped. An immediate but invisible quality of the landscape was the stench of sulfur, a bit repugnant at first but soon manageable. Fortunately pictures and video let you experience this living environment without capturing the smells.

The highlight of the geyser field, though, are naturally the geysers. The largest and most powerful of these at this field is named Geysir, the similarity to the word geyser is no coincidence. Iceland's Geysir was the first of its kind known to Europeans, and the Icelandic name became the origin of the English word geyser. Much to the dismay of many a visitor, however, Geysir barely erupts anymore. After years of complicating earthquakes and human tampering of its geology to force eruptions, Geysir has been mostly reduced to another steaming pool of water. Fortunately, another geyser, Strokkur, is not only a splash away but also erupts every five to eight minutes. Though not as strong as its brother, this geyser can still shoot water up to 30 meters in the air. A short video clip of Strokkur erupting is below the photo. The geyser field definitely counts as one of the most mesmerizing natural environments I've walked through.

After our lunch break at the geyser field we continued on to the Gulfoss Waterfall, a thundering behemoth of cascading water that tempts one to come as close as possible. A river of mostly glacier meltwater tumbles into a deep gouge that runs parallel to the face of Gulfoss, so that from certain perspectives the water appears to disappear into the Earth. I felt small looking down on the falls and standing on the edge of oblivion.

Next, on the road to our last main sight, we made a pit stop to see some Icelandic horses up close. Our driver simply stopped on the road's shoulder in front of three horses, who looked as curious about us as we were about them. The Icelandic horse is unique in that it is a pure breed species that can trace its legacy back centuries. Slightly taller than an average man, it is also short for a horse. The driver joked that they don't like being called ponies, but that's definitely what they looked like. The reason for their small stature and long hair is another tale from Iceland's history.

After the initial period of reaping the rewards of the land, as said, the Icelanders had to undertake drastic measures to survive the consequences of their actions. Though many of the farm animals died, the early Icelanders sought to protect the helpful horses and cows. As wood became scarcer, building barns large enough to winter both animals was out of the question. The Icelanders decided to bring the cows inside the available space in the winter so that they could continue to make use of the cows' milk during the trying months, while the horses were left in the harsh conditions outside to fend for themselves. Those that could survive, because of longer hair than normal or less body mass, did so, and passed on their genes. The short and hairy Icelandic horse was the result of this natural selection. As we fed the horses with some stale bread that the driver had given us, he explained that as the living standards for Iceland's people has substantially improved in the last half century, so has it for Iceland's horses. With more food to go around, the horses are supposedly starting to grow taller.

The last and perhaps my favorite stop of the tour was the Thingvellir National Park. This expansive valley was bestowed the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site for two main reasons. So that you can appreciate the first, I need to share one more brief lesson of Iceland's geology with you.

The reason that one finds so much geothermal and volcanic activity in Iceland is because the entire island straddles a fault line in the Earth's crust. As you learned in science class, the Earth's surface is split into tectonic plates that are constantly colliding into or pulling apart from one another. The North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian tectonic plate meet each other deep under the Atlantic Ocean, that is, with the one exception of Iceland. The fault line that the island straddles is not any mere fault line, but the geophysical division of North America and Europe. Once more, these two continents are moving away from each other at a rate of two centimeters a year. When I opened the post by saying that Iceland divides itself between North America and Europe and that it's being tugged from both sides of the Atlantic, this wasn't only figurative writing; they are literal statements.

One of the best places to view this meeting line of North America and Europe is at the Thingvellir National Park, where one can truly see both continents at the same time. The valley of this park is the fault line itself, as such, it widens every year by that length of two centimeters. Here one can view the effects of this continental drift in the sheer rock faces that have been ripped apart from each other over millions of years; tears and fissures scar the valley for its whole length. There are few such places in the world where one can stand between continents.

The second reason for Thingvellir's special status is a political one. After settlement, but before the struggles between the chieftains, the early Icelanders needed to decide on a method of government. The so-called Thing, a meeting of community members to decide important issues, had been a Nordic tradition for generations in towns and villages. The Icelanders posed the question, why not have a Thing for all of us? The result was the Althing, one of the world's first (the Icelanders proudly say very first) democratically elected parliaments. When the Althing first met in the early 10th century AD, its members assembled in what is now the Thingvellir National Park. Their specific assembly point was called the Rock of Law, but to me this resembled more of a rocky outcropping than a grand boulder.

In June of 1944, with Denmark under Nazi occupation, Icelanders again gathered at the Rock of Law to declare their independence, and the modern Republic of Iceland was born. The fledgling state's economy was jump started by America and Britain, who both poured money into constructing military harbors and air fields on Iceland during the Second World War. Iceland's parliament is still called the Althing. In the end, perhaps the parliament doesn't need a grander assembly hall in downtown Reykjavik, it can lay claim to an entire rift valley where nature's humbling might is on display for all. For the next photo, which shows a wider view of Thingvellir, I stood on North America and focused the camera on Europe.

The next day I sampled some of Iceland's edible curiosities, and there were some strange ones. The picture below shows the items I tried. On the left side of the plate is a slice of fresh Icelandic flat bread with spread butter and smoked lamb on top. The lamb is popular in the country and has a surprisingly sweet and delicious taste considering that it is smoked using dried sheep dung. The small bowl in the foreground contains strips of dried fish, on which butter is supposed to be spread. I found the texture like rough leather, and only the butter provided any taste. The yellow open-faced sandwich in the bottom right is made from a slice of rye bread and a portion of fish stew, which wasn't really a stew at all, rather more of potato salad with chunks of fish mixed in. This tasted neither good nor bad, simply bland really, which was surprising because the restaurant I dined in supposedly made some of the best fish stew in Iceland. On the contrary, the orange sandwich in the top right was very tasty. Here I had another slice of rye bread topped with butter, smoked trout, and cottage cheese. Something gave this a bit of sweetness as well. The most challenging item, though, was what lay inside the second bowl on my plate.

In the picture below you can see some small chunks of harkal. How this dish was ever first conceived and why is beyond me, but here is the basic preparation process. A certain species of shark is fished from the sea and brought to land. After being beheaded, the shark's body is placed in a hole in the ground, covered, and left to rot for a few months. It is then taken out of the ground and hung in the open air for several more months. After about nine months in total, the putrefied shark is, naturally, ready to eat.

I started this food challenge with a full glass of water and a clear of understanding of where I could find the restroom. To begin, I sniffed the meat. Not surprisingly, it was unpleasant, but not nearly as bad as I would've expected rotten meat to be. The odor was familiar, but I couldn't place it. Then I brought one of the chunks into my mouth and started to chew, slowly. At first there was no taste, and the meat was tough. The more I chewed, however, the more tender it became and the more that strange aroma filled my mouth. The taste spread over my tongue, onto my inner cheeks, and up to my palate, intensifying as it marched on to conquer my mouth. Flashes of biology class and doing the laundry ran through my mind and I realized that the taste was something akin to the pungent smells of bleach and formaldehyde. First there was a tingle, and then a burning sensation on my tongue. As I finally swallowed the meat, the burning feeling traced its way slightly down my throat before being extinguished. And yet I never once gagged or felt the need to vomit.

After I had finished my portion of the harkal, I asked the cook about it and specifically if it was safe to eat. She said the "fermentation" process, as if I had asked about a wine or beer, also kills off the deadly bacteria; however, sometimes people will complain of feeling dizzy after eating it. I had come to Iceland curious to try this disgusting dish, and now that I have, I can confidently say I will never again desire to.

There were some other foods that I tried in Iceland, but nothing as exotic as the ones above. Skyr was a sweet dairy product that was denser than yogurt but somehow seemed airier. A famous stand in downtown Reykjavik served its budget hot dogs with ketchup, sweet mustard, mayonnaise, and fried and raw onions. The only thing that I really had a problem consuming in Iceland was the tap water because the high sulfur content made it taste like rotten eggs, one disadvantage of the island's geothermal activity. I gagged every time I brushed my teeth.

For my last two days in Iceland I stayed in Reykjavik, walking around the city and visiting some of its museums but none too noteworthy. On March 18th I took an early morning bus to the airport and said goodbye to Iceland.

This has been a long post, perhaps my longest, but my experience in Iceland was so thrilling and memorable for me that I had much to share. I could say more about the places in Reykjavik, the Icelandic people, or the country's history, but I suppose if I've held your interest for this long some of those things would be better discovered on your own visit to the country.

The next post will finish up the account of my Nordic travels with the stories of my time in Norway.


Anonymous said...

Nicholas, I just took time to read the posting of Iceland - we need to send this to the Commercial Appeal. This is an amazing write up and I know with Iceland being in the news lately, this could capture front page of the travel section in the sunday edition. I am serious, you need to forward this on........mc

Nick O. said...

MC: Thanks for the support! I think the post would need to be significantly shortened to be published in a newspaper, but it's worth a shot.

John said...

Beautiful descriptive writing. I enjoyed it very much.

Kate said...

I just stumbled upon your blog. Interesting info on Iceland. Thanks! I was just wondering what company you did your tours with?