Notes from the Field: 15 September 2015


I spent most of the day exploring the Lake Mývatn area. This area is all in or near the Krafla volcanic zone and has some fascinating geology including some bizarre lava formations that are found on land only in Mývatn. There are thousands of lava domes and “pseudo-craters” formed by steam from a lava-covered lake bursting through the overlying lava. The Kafla area is one of the nation’s biggest geothermal energy producers and its pretty trippy to drive through sulfur-laden steam and catch misty glimpses of steaming, bubbling ground; fields of lava; hills of red volcanic gravel and miles of steel pipe going all over the place.

Mývatn is also supposed to be a a real birding hotspot, at least in the spring and summer. I found mostly Tufted Ducks, Whooper Swans, Wigeons, Redwings, Ravens and a pair of Slavonian Grebes on or near the lakes, and noticed a lot of Greylag Geese flying in formation overhead. I was hoping I’d catch the fall migration here but I seem to have missed it.

It was, again, foggy, cloudy, windy and rainy today. It wasn’t too bad in the morning, but the rain stopped me only from my last hike of the day – along the rim of a caldera filled with steaming turquoise water – and I used the time instead to treat myself to a long, long soak at the Mývatn Nature Baths. My skin hasn’t felt this good in I don’t know how long! My day finished back at the farmhouse, where I had a dinner of roasted, grass-fed Icelandic beef, reared and butchered right here one the farm. The flavor and texture are markedly different from that of our sedentary, grain-fed,  feedlot cows in America!

Notes from the Field: 9 September 2015

Another blustery day, but with less rain and higher clouds – perhaps at about the 1500′ level today. The sun has shone off and, less frequently, on. Today I drove to and around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, which allegedly has as its iconic centerpiece a 4700′, glacier-capped statovolcano, visible for kilometers and kilometers… Unless of course the clouds cover everything above 1500′ and rain obscures most of what’s below that. Alas, no Snæfellsjökul for me. I will be going one more time in that general direction and hope to catch a glimpse of it then.

The coast along the Peninsula, while just as windy as that of the interior, had the advantage of at least being occasionally rain-less and so I spent most of my day checking out fishing villages, wandering amongst the lichen- and moss-covered lava (thar’s blueberries in them thar rocks!), and walking along spray-spattered cliffs. I have to say, a stormy day in the North Atlantic is impressive indeed. Perhaps it’s simply because in our own somewhat protected bay we rarely see or feel the full force of the Bering Sea, but this ocean today bore down hard on everything in its path, battering 200′ cliffs and tossing auto-sized boulders to the beach. It’s hard to imagine WWII convoys, much less Viking explorers, crossing this ocean between Europe and North America. In one area the winds were strong enough that waterfalls appeared to be moving backwards, the water arcing up and away just as it dropped over the precipice. Seen from a distance it looked as if the cliff tops were steaming – which wouldn’t be unusual since steam seems to be coming out of the ground around every corner!

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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.