October 12, 2012

Into Iceland's great white north


After spending a night and going on a short hike in Seyðisfjörður, we drove northwest toward the last two destinations on our Icelandic itinerary.

Our plan was to stay a couple of nights at Iceland's largest lake, Mývatn, and another in its second-largest city, Akureyri, before returning to Reykjavík and flying home. We wanted to hike in a couple of volcanic areas, see the northern portion of Vatnajökull National Park and the Dettifoss waterfall, and possibly go on a whale-watching tour off the coast. We made it to both stopovers, but it didn't go quite as planned.

In Seyðisfjörður, we had been told an early snowstorm was expected in the region, but before we set out the weather forecast didn't seem that bad and the road report was decent. Sure, there would be snow, but it didn't appear to be beyond our past experience and we were only supposed to be driving for a couple of hours. Unfortunately, we didn't consider the wind.


Over the pass to Egilsstaðir, there was a light layer of white off the side of the road, but it disappeared as we drove farther. Turning inland, the Ring Road rose through rolling farm country between the coast and highlands. Eventually, as farmhouses became fewer and the landscape opened up, snow returned to the side of the road. When we stopped to take pictures of a reindeer crossing sign on the side of the highway, we got our first feel for the wind, opting to roll down the windows instead of having the doors jerked open.

We drove on, albeit much slower than the posted 90 kph. As the hills turned into mountains, it began to snow, with the flakes sticking to the road, and the gusts picked up - at one point the combination led to a short slide. Soon, visibility decreased and drifts formed on the road. Looking at our map, we decided to continue, thinking the highway would improve as it descended to a river about 40 kilometers from Mývatn.

When we reached the river, four cars were stopped at an intersection with a gravel road to the north - not a good sign. A person from one of the other cars told us the highway was being closed around us and a snowplow would be arriving to clear the unpaved road a few kilometers down to a farm, where we would be allowed to stay the night.


While we waited, more cars queued behind us and we relayed the message back, but the plow never appeared. Late in the afternoon, a Search and Rescue SUV with oversized tires arrived and began to ferry people down to the farm four at a time, leaving a collection of vehicles parked at a roadside pullout. When a Land Cruiser was allowed to follow, we grabbed our backpacks and cooler and climbed in with the two Norwegian occupants.

Down the road, we came to a collection of farmhouses and were directed to one where we could stay. There were three bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom; the power was on, but not the water or heat. Oddly, there was a Wi-Fi signal and we found the password, so had Internet access.

Soon, a couple from Wales arrived, then another from France. The caretaker of the farm stopped by and turned on the water and radiators, although they never really heated up, and told us Search and Rescue would return the next day to take us back to the highway. With the wind gusting nonstop and whiteout conditions outside, we huddled around the kitchen table for the evening, making new friends and sharing details of our travels in Iceland. We cobbled together dinner from food in our cooler and that the French couple brought.


The next morning, we woke to the same conditions outdoors, so sat and talked some more - and updated friends and relatives on our situation via Wi-Fi. We also were able to check weather and road conditions, and see when the highway had reopened. Everyone became antsy as the snow and wind appeared to subside slightly, but there was no sign of Search and Rescue yet. A couple of our housemates tracked down the caretaker and his family and learned he would begin driving people back to their vehicles as soon as he could get his started.

Soon, the Norwegians drove out on their own, leaving six of us at the house. We waited at the windows and eventually saw the caretaker begin to transport others and return. After feeling as if we had been forgotten, we flagged him down and were on our way again - 25 hours after arriving at the house.

Back on the highway, there were breaks in the clouds and the snow was no longer falling - it was, however, blowing sideways and the vehicles were drifted in place at the pullout. After freeing ours, we pushed slowly west on the snow-covered road. The scene was dizzyingly beautiful with a layer of snow blowing perpendicular to our direction of travel, obscuring the road.


We arrived at our guesthouse at Lake Mývatn at sunset, and found the power was out and the family-size cottage we had reserved went instead to a stranded family. The guesthouse had saved us a double room, which was ideal for the two of us and less expensive. The staff had cooked a free dinner for all, and we ate in a room that looked out on the lake as the last rays of light turned the sky orange. Late that night, the power came back on, and we had heat and hot showers.

The next morning, we were able to get in one short hike around the rim of the Hverfell crater adjacent to the lake before departing for Akureyri. On the way to the city, we stopped at the Stakhólstjörn pond, a waterfowl nesting area, and the arc-shaped Goðafoss waterfall. That afternoon and evening were spent strolling through town, looking in shops.


After an early stop the next day at a bakery whose front window and glass case were filled with treats sweet and savory, we were back on the Ring Road headed for Reykjavík.

In the days after the storm, we discovered just how bad it was. On its website, the Icelandic Met Office posted top gusts at two sites east and west of us of 32 and 104 meters per second - 71 and 232 mph. Unfortunately, I can't find a data archive to see if these recordings held or were only preliminary; I can find only information for the previous six days. The English-language news service, however, reported a top wind speed of 61 meters per second, or 136 mph. The 15 to 20 centimeters of snow that fell on the region was believed to be a record for that time of year, and the power outage in the area was the worst in 17 years. In all, 34 people spent the night at the farm.

While the storm forced us to abandon many of our plans in the north, we still had an adventure. And we have a reason to return!



Hverfell is a crater about 1,000 meters wide and 140 meters deep right across the road from the guesthouse where we stayed at Lake Mývatn.

Due to the snow, we parked on the Ring Road and hiked an access road east a little more than a kilometer to a frozen pond at the crater's base. From there, we continued north a short distance, then turned back south where a trail climbed to the rim.


We looped the rim, taking in the winter-white landscape around us and the lake, then descended and returned to our SUV at the road.

Here are more pictures of Hverfell.

Location: From Reykjahlíð, on the eastern side of Lake Mývatn, drive about 3 1/2 kilometers south on the Ring Road, then 1 1/4 km east on an access road.



Stakhólstjörn is just off the side of the highway at Skútustaðir and has a handful off trails leading to views of the pond, lake and waterfowl. There weren't that many birds when we were there, but the view across the water was beautiful.

Location: Stakhólstjörn is about 14 kilometers south and west of Reykjahlíð on the Ring Road across from a hotel in Skútustaðir.



The river Skjálfandafljót spills over the arc-shaped Goðafoss along the Ring Road east of Akureyri. It's name translates to Waterfall of the Gods, and the mists coming off of it make for an ethereal scene. There aren't really trails here, but you can walk out to the rocky ledge.

Here are a few pictures of Goðafoss.

Location: Goðafoss is located about 50 kilometers east of Akureyri on the Ring Road.

October 2, 2012

Walk among waterfalls in an Icelandic fjord


The next stop on our circuit of Iceland was Seyðisfjörður, a picturesque little port - population 700 - in the country's eastern fjords.


As we drove northeast from Skaftafell, we passed green farms backed by glaciers and waterfalls. In roadside ponds, we saw yellow and black-beaked whooper swans and other waterfowl, the extent of the wildlife we would see around the country.

After passing Höfn, the Ring Road begins its in-and-out route among the fjords. The drive is beautiful, but progresses slowly. Eventually, we turned up an unpaved road that cut a little more than 50 kilometers off the trip, driving by cascades and lakes and crossing a pass before rejoining the Ring Road.

A little farther on, we turned off the Ring Road at Egilsstaðir, drove up and over a pass with a ski area near the top, and down to Seyðisfjörður. There, colorful buildings sit at the base of the steep fjord walls.


In spring and summer, Seyðisfjörður is a ferry port for travelers from mainland Europe. A week into September, however, the town was quiet except for a small restaurant/gallery. We stayed in a more modern guesthouse - plenty of furnishings from Ikea - with a waterfall cascading down the steep slope behind it.

We had hoped to go kayaking on the fjord, but the outfitter shut down for the season at the end of August, with the departure of most travelers. We were staying only a night before moving on to the northeast of the country, so spent the evening walking around the extent of town instead.

When we arrived at the guesthouse, the owner urged us to check the weather forecast and road report because snow was expected in the area. That night, we looked online and called the phone number she provided for English-language information. Current conditions were rainy and snow was, indeed, in the forecast, but it didn't seem like anything we haven't seen at home in Montana.

The next morning, a dusting of white could be seen high up the fjord walls, but there were patches of blue sky and it wasn't currently raining or snowing.


On our way out of town, we stopped at a hydroelectric station on the river Fjarðará, which flows into town and the fjord. There, a trail follows the river up the lush, green slopes past a series of waterfalls. After hiking uphill for a little more than an hour, we turned around.


As we drove up and over the pass back to Egilsstaðir, we saw snow off the side of the road, but none on it. We would not be so fortunate later, on what was supposed to be one of the shortest driving days of our trip.

Here are more photos of the waterfall trail.

Location: The waterfall trail begins at the Fjarðarsel Power Station, down a short road on the south side of Route 93 about 2 kilometers southeast of Seyðisfjörður's main intersection.