April 6, 2016

A Trip To Iceland

It's easy to see Iceland makes the top ten remote places to visit both with Lonely Planet and Unesco site lists.   We reach a ridge overlooking the magnificent Thjors River in the  Thjorsardalur valley in south-central Iceland.  Only one icy paved road, but not a single building, pylon or electric light  in sight - not mention that there were no jet trails. 

Yes, even I need a vacation from plants.

So, after a long, and rather mild (and yet recently snowy?) late winter here in New England, an 'island vacation' seemed to be in order.  When the opportunity to visit Iceland with some friends came along, I acted quickly. Iceland is quickly becoming an 'it' destination, Iceland, although it has been on my 'must visit' list for an embarrassingly looooooong time.

Like....from the 1970's when I was a kid.

This trip to Iceland helped fulfill a lifelong dream to one day re-create the tales in this 1959 book by bird artist George Miksch Sutton, a frequent read of mine, when I was in junior high.

My junior high school librarian surely knew this, as there was one book that I checked out so often that I remember her telling me that I should just buy it. This trip really started with 'Iceland Summer - Adventures of a Bird Painter', a summer of birding chronicled by the noted ornithologist and bird artist, George Miksch Sutton.

Recently, I found an old copy on eBay, and it made it's way in my suitcase to northern Iceland, where I now sit near a window in the small city of Akureyi, about 40 miles from the Arctic Circle. It's where we are starting our journey around the western and southern side of the country.

This Common Eider, a large sea duck, was just one of many in a flock I was observing in the Eyjafjor∂ur Fjord, just outside of the northern Iceland city of Akureyi - which sits about 40 Km from the Arctic Circle.

I am here with my friend Jess (who is neither a birder, nor a nature person, but we can compromise between design research, and rare birch species.). Because of this, I am just treating this trip more as a sourcing trek, than anything else - so that next time, when I come here, I'll know where to go, and how things work.

I am too early to do any birdwatching, as most breeding migratory birds don't arrive for a month or so, but I did see some Puffin's on display in a gift shop - they still hunt them here, and eat their meat as well, but hunting is restricted.

There are few places on Earth so populated by nesting birds, however, and although most of the birds which migrate here have not arrived yet for nesting, there are few song birds - most are wading species or waterfowl. Still, Iceland is considered a global birding hotspot with millions of birds due to arrive any week now.

Hraun, or block lava is common here - a unique, young basaltic lava which is sharp enough to cut ones skin, is covered with Racomitrium, or soft-fringe moss, which turns brilliant green with the summer rains, but in winter, is still a beautiful sage tone.
Heather grows in the southern part of the country, and was the only plant I could find in bloom.

One doesn't go to Iceland to see plants, and even from the alpinist's perspective, the flora itself, is just not that uncommon.  The nation's isolation has kept many species of plants limited (and gratefully, even reptiles and mosquitos don't exist here!), but this isolation and harsh climate also brings with it challenges for the few plant which exist here.

The great sub-arctic means that plantlike if limited. Welcome to the tundra and tephra landscape,  the land of lichens and fringe-moss.

Woolly Willow predominates the landscape in many areas. Only a few meters tall, it is one of about half dozen species of dwarf of shrubby sub-arctic willows in Iceland.

Trees, in fact, are so rare, that the few forests which remain are small, and precious. Any native species of plants are face challenges from over-grazing, let alone natural challenges brought on by the harsh climate which affects soil microbes and fungi. All of this hampers any natural growth as it is because microbes affect soil fertility. Factor in a natural lack of nitrate and phosphate in the geologically  'new' soil, and any growth with trees or plants, is limited.

Arctic Birches are rare, and mature, if not ancient ones like this, are even more rare in the Kjarr, or Icelandic Birch Forests.

The few forests which existed were populated with arctic birches. Only a few square miles of these old forests remain today, known as Kjarr - the Icelandic Birch Forests, where even ancient trees are only a few meters tall.).

Even where there are grasslands which are grazed, the scenes can be stunning. Especially during this transitional period between seasons.

To the tourist, and even the science minded who loves some ecotourism, the landscape and nature in Iceland is nothing but magnificent - - so unique, that few places on our planet can offer such an experience. Few words can capture the beauty and grandeur of nature here.

Perhaps the nicest outdoor bathroom in the world, sits near a tourist site. Good design is everywhere in Iceland.

Any trip to Iceland will undoubtedly include a tour around the 'Golden Circle', a popular tourist track which can take you around a few of the islands'  impressive natural wonders, but journey beyond the route, and one can really experience remote beauty. This is what I love about Iceland - it can be so remote, that an electric light, another car or even a gas station might not be seen for a hundred miles (worth noting, when it comes to gas!).

Beyond the ring road of highway 1, remoteness exists, requiring a 4x4 or even a more off-road vehicle with special tires. Our 4x4 was just a commercial rental, and we had to stop on this road near an ice cap, once we found another car stuck on a snow bank, which we helped lift and re-establish itself. They had to proceed forward, due to the incline being too icy to reverse, but we decided to turn around ( 60 miles from the nearest highway, it seemed like the smart thing to do).

I wish I still had my Land Rover 110, but here in Iceland, this is what one needs to rent - complete with a snorkel, and the strong suggestion to travel with at least one other vehicle in the remote areas. - note the thermal steam rising in the background here from a fissure.

Greenhouses are big in Iceland, all heated by geothermal energy and electricity, they allow Icelanders to raise tomatoes, cucumbers and even melons. This one focused on crops of lettuce. That said, fresh veggies were hard to find in most markets .

Behind the greenhouse, a huge pile of discarded lettuce root balls - not sure if this was a proper compost pile, or just trash - most of the debris here seemed to be peat based plugs discarded from hydroponic culture.

Sheep, which spend most of their winter indoors, re-appear in fields and meadows beginning in April. Over-grazing is a real problem in Iceland, as is hay production.

Some of these ecological challenges are being reversed though through re-introduction of native species and some controls on grazing. IT may be impossible to reverse the introduced species which are more aggressive such as the ironically iconic and lovely blue lupines so often featured in promotional images on travel sites and blogs. The lupine was introduced with good intent, in an effort to keep the overgrazed and baren volcanic soils from eroding, and in many instances they have achieved what they were introduced to do, but reversing this invasive plant which has seeded most everywhere, has been difficult.

Roads in Iceland are graded by whether they are paved or not. Most that venture inland, and into the highlands are either gravel, or just mud, requiring both large off-road wheels and vehicles. We had to help lift a 4x4 off of a snow ridge, which had become stuck - surprisingly, the drivers were tourists from Rhode Island.

The tundra is a landscape where the long, cold winter and short, cool summers of the arctic climate makes tree growth impossible. There are still vast areas of tundra in northern Iceland, but as you can see by these fences, grazing areas for sheep still exist, although the government is restricting more areas from the damaging effects of grazing.

Black Crow Berries, Empetrum nigrum are common food source for wildlife in the summer months. Berries have low moisture and higher protein, so some can last through the harsh winter, becoming a valuable food source for wildlife.

We drove along the western coast of Iceland, through the many fjords and inlets, to the northern city of Akureyi where we made basecamp in a nice AirBNB. From here, we took day trips to destinations ranging from magnificent waterfalls and a geyser to the Icelandic Winter Games, where we took in some Arctic Circle skiing and even a snow mobile rally.

A flock of Whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus), the Eurasian counterpart of the North American trumpeter swan, arrived for a summer of breeding in what is the most western part of their breeding zone which extends across sub-arctic Northern Europe.  They are considered to be one of the heaviest of the flying birds.

The farms however, are few and far between. Each, so attractive with their colored roofs, and old homes. We were lucky I think, to be here just after a late snowfall.

On the western coast, what appears to be icebergs are long stretches of land on either side of fjords, which stretch out into the sea. Their color was magnificent, and we were able to see them a different times of the day.

On the evening returning to Reykjavik, the same range transformed into a magical vista, reminiscent of another planet.

Frost lifts many of the grassy fields in what is known here as Pufa, or frost heaves. We've seen the same phenomenon in Switzerland as well. It makes walking difficult, and farmers hate it, as it can make a hay field un-mowable.

Massive glacial valleys in the north of Iceland were so impressive. Look - not a single house, nor an electrical pylon in view. This is what our planet must have looked like thousands of years ago.

All in all, the landscape here is stunning if not epic when it comes to beauty and natural wonders. Geysers, magnificent waterfalls, massive canyons, and rare geological formations ranging from basalt towers to deep fissures make Iceland like no other place on earth. Add in ice sheets, huge glaciers and some of the cleanest water and air in the world, and one can see why Iceland is so popular.


  1. Unbelievably gorgeous. . .thank you so much for sharing your photographs, and your observations on the nature of Iceland. It would be a dream destination!

  2. Anonymous5:00 PM

    Awesome! I too have always wanted to visit Iceland. Your pictures are beautiful.

  3. Hi Matt - for your next visit, I recommend "Burial Rites" by Hannah Kent. Great book. Interesting insights to hard scrabble living conditions in Iceland in the late 1800's. Well worth it. I took look forward to a trip to Iceland - but from AU it's quite a hike!

  4. Anonymous3:50 PM

    dear matt
    cannot say enough thank-you's for the trip to iceland vicariously via your post and photos.
    a couple looked like art by rockwell kent.
    maybe you will be leading a tour there one of these years?
    we read that arctic areas, such as iceland, are losing their cold, and as you discovered upon your return, our spring-like winter is currently morphing into wintry spring (many early magnolias brown and blasted, etc.). topsy-turvy world we have achieved.
    all best,
    ~ 02568

  5. Keily9:03 AM

    Great post! Thank you! Can someone help me choosing a company where I can get a tour to Antarctica? Maybe this https://poseidonexpeditions.com/arctic/iceland-jan-mayen-spitsbergen/ will be the best choice??


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