Notes from the Field: 7-8 September 2015

My journey to Iceland has begun, albeit with a minor disappointment: my seat assignment was changed from a window seat behind the wing to an aisle seat over the wing. Damn, I was looking forward to watching the Great White North pass beneath us, hoping to see Greenland and some of the great islands that make up Canada’s Arctic! Boarding the plane I was taken back, as much as can be for someone not alive then, to photographs of flight crews from the 1950s: the female attendants’ dress looked much like that seen in old TWA photographs, complete with those little caps worn then. And on the bright side, there was nobody in the middle seat and the woman at the window not only kept the shade open for most of the flight but also gave me quite a few tips on good birding spots!

Our arrival in Iceland was markedly similar to that at home: The plane bucked and swayed in the clouds for long minutes before sashaying drunkenly down the runway and when we deplaned we offloaded to the tarmac, where we were smacked with wet but not particularly cold winds of about 25mph as we dodged puddles en route to the terminal. Shades of Unalaska… Passport and Customs control were remarkably easy, and less than 90 minutes after landing I was heading into the early morning gloom in my rattletrap rental car. I was expecting “used” and “older” but got more than I bargained for: my rust-speckled and noisy Suzuki is old enough that it doesn’t even have a USB port for the radio – bummer!

Lava fields in Reykjanes Peninsula
Steaming ground at Gunnuhver

I spent a couple hours exploring the Reykjanes Peninsula, and was fortunate to get out for a couple-mile hike during the only hour of the day that it wasn’t pissing or spitting rain. Persistent low clouds prevented me from seeing much above 800-1000 feet, but the ground-level topography was fascinating: fields of lava as far as the eye can see, some of it cooled to domes or small pillars and almost all of it covered at least in part with multi-hued lichens and moss. The Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet here in Iceland, and at Sandvík there’s a small footbridge connecting the two plates – you can, literally, walk over a small fissure from one continental plate to another. I’m not much of a geology nerd but it really is quite fascinating!

the Bridge between Two Continents

In Gunnuhver, whistling steam from numerous vents and mud pots blended with the low clouds to create a sulfur-laden layer of moisture at ground level. I found one small spring, obviously developed for bathing, and was surprised to find the water merely tepid, at least at the surface. The weather conditions were abysmal for photography but the area is close enough to Keflavik that I should be able to return on my last day here.

Tepid spring near Gunnuhver

The rest of the day was spent battling fatigue and occasionally gusting winds on paved but somewhat narrow roads, through areas whose grandeur (at least that’s what the books say) was obscured by clouds. I stopped at a visitor center and was shocked to find the weather report indicating sustained wind speeds of only 12-15… No way, I thought to myself. I know my wind speeds. Look at the flags, at the grasses! Feel the car door straining to hyperextend! Turns out they do wind speed in meters per second rather than mph or knots – now I know…

Arrived safely at my first stop, a small sheep and dairy farm not far from Reykholt… And went to bed after a brief soak in a hot tub filled from natural hot springs and an early dinner.

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