Blue Lagoon Finale

Today was departure day. While other travelers were hastily checking out of Grandi to meet their airport connections, Leah and I had other plans. We had purposely booked an evening flight to give us another day of touring, but nothing too rigorous. We jumped on the option of keeping the Land Cruiser, and driving ourselves to the airport, coupled with a visit to Blue Lagoon.

Photo Credit: Ragnar Th Sigurðsson/Arctic Images

After two weeks of circumnavigating the country/island for a total of 2020 miles, we were more than ready for a few hours of rest and relaxation before battling the airport madness.

We stopped briefly at a roadside turnoff in Reykjanes to explore our surroundings,

and spelunk a small crater from last year’s eruption.

However, as I write this, I regret missing the spectacle of Iceland’s August 3rd eruption and lava flow of Fagradalsfjall’s Geldingadalir volcano.

Nevertheless, because of the fissure’s volatility, the landscape is scarred and uninhabitable, yet eerily beautiful.

And because of Reykjanes’ geothermal properties, the Blue Lagoon has become legendary for the healing properties of its milky, mineral-rich waters.

Digression…

The social and political landscape of Iceland is an unusual paradox–progressive in some matters, while also Puritanical at times. For instance, currently 67% of women no longer consider marriage a precursor to children.

Nor is organized religion very popular these days. Although Iceland has adopted Lutheranism as its state religion, the majority of Icelanders identify as either atheist or non-religious.

Iceland is also a global leader in promoting and protecting gender rights and equality.

Which begs the question: How can a Penis Museum exist in the center of Reykjavik when Icelanders prohibit nudity at any and all pools, spas and beaches?

After arriving at Blue Lagoon registration,

we claimed our color-coded, “Comfort” bracelet, which entitled us to:

  • Entrance to the Blue Lagoon
  • Private locker
  • Silica mud mask
  • Use of towel
  • 1st drink of our choice

We grabbed a towel on the way to our respective locker rooms–offering both public and private spaces for changing and showering. Once we located an available locker, we were directed to shower before entering the pool. Same-sex monitors were everywhere to assure compliance.

I met Leah outside the bathhouse with my towel and phone. The air temperature was 54oF and we were both shivering.

“What are you doing with your phone?” she asked.

“I need it to take pictures,” I answered.

“Don’t ya think you’re taking a big chance out there?” she continued.

“Probably,” I admitted, “but the water’s no deeper than 4.5 ft, so I’m not too worried. And NO splashing!”

“Okay, but just so you know–if you drop your phone, it’s gone forever. You’ll never find it in this,” she warned.

I gripped my phone with one hand and grabbed Leah’s hand with the other, and together we slipped into the warm, milky waters.

Ahhh!!

The water temperature felt like 90oF, but as we approached the bridge, rushes of hot water circulated around us with a thin mist hovering over the surface.

It’s hard to believe that Blue Lagoon was created by accident when engineers discharged geothermal plant condensate into a nearby lava field and expected the water to permeate the porous rock. But they didn’t consider that sedimentation would eventually clog the pores, and turn the fields into expansive reservoirs.

The lagoon didn’t seem overly crowded, but a lifeguard assured me that today was the busiest day since the pandemic recovery.

Although, the further we ventured, the fewer people we encountered.

until we reached the outer limits of the lagoon to enjoy a quiet moment by ourselves.

That’s when we realized that most of the crowd was either drinking around the bar,

or applying a silica mask doled out from the treatment kiosk. So we did both!

Unfortunately, our time in Iceland has come to a close.

We’ll resume our summer travels in Maine and Canada.

Till then, Kveðja Ísland! (Farewell Iceland!)

P.S. I didn’t sacrifice my phone to the Blue Lagoon.

Spelunking the Largest Lava Tube in Iceland

Leah and I overnighted in Arnarstapi, a tiny fishing village perched on a lava cliff in West Iceland, where Mt. Snapafell looms large across the horizon.

Icelanders believe the village still pulses with a healing energy that emanates from chieftain, Bárður Snæfellsás, half ogre/ half human and sorcerer from the first settlement.

as imagined by sculptor Ragnar Kjartansson in 1985

Legend suggests that Bárður was swallowed by Snæfellsjökull glacier. Perhaps it was his penance for killing his nephews, who admitted to pushing his daughter out to sea on an ice floe.

Consequently, Bárður was forever frozen in time and eternally committed to protecting the people of Snæfellsnes Peninsula,

and preserving its unspoiled natural beauty…

Another storm was brewing the day of our drive to Snæfellsjökull National Park. We mapped a route in search of the mysterious Snæfellsjökull Volcano, and took the high road as directed by GPS…

until we ran out of road and visibility halfway up the pass.

It was snowing on the other side of the mountain, and road crews had already conceded to Mother Nature.

So back down the mountain we went, where the weather was more predictable, and the roads were more reliable.

Unfortunately, we sacrificed a critical hour to correct our course, which translated into less time exploring Snæfellsjökull glacier at Snæfellsjökull National Park.

Instead, we continued to our next destination and penultimate excursion–

Our pre-paid guided tour of Iceland’s largest cave was originally scheduled for 1pm, but with rain clouds rolling in and a cold drizzle spoiling any chance of sightseeing or picture-taking, we expedited our drive to Borgarfjörður, with prospects of joining the noon tour if allowed.

We arrived at 12:05pm, but Sigurður (Siggy) agreed to include us, since he was already waiting for another late arrival with reservations. Hallelujah!

With our tour party now complete, each of us received a hardhat and headlamp, and Siggy (our only true-born Icelandic guide during our trip) led us 100m across a lava field called Hallmundarhraun to a twin opening in the earth where the roof of Víðgelmir had collapsed, revealing the cave’s only entrance.

We were dressed for winter inside the cave, where temperatures usually rise to 4oC, but Siggy was comfortable in a traditional Icelandic wool sweater knitted by his mom that he wore this day to celebrate Iceland’s Independence Day.

While traditional wet caves boast an array of stalactites and stalagmites, Víðgelmir cave gave us icicle formations,

and colorful mineral deposits imbedded in the walls,

and ceiling.

After an hour, we reached the end of the boardwalk where the tube narrowed,

and it was time to resurface.

With a 2-hour drive to Reykjavik ahead of us, we may yet reach the Penis Museum before closing time.

To be continued…

Tall Tales of Iceland

Iceland’s oral and written history is steeped in mythology and folklore, and rooted in the country’s natural wonders. From the time Garðar Svavarsson, a Swedish Viking first settled in Húsavík in 870 AD, Icelanders have imagined a world where phenomena is best interpreted through their sagas of mysticism.

Iceland’s first settlement succeeded in the second half of the ninth century because of adventurous Vikings from Denmark and Norway who were looking for a fresh start in a new world that offered opportunity, security, and stability. A parliamentary assembly of regional chieftains gathered in Thingvellir in 930 to form the Althing (assembly of free men), and ruled as the unifying body of this “free state” until 1264.

Originally, the Althing accepted Northern Germanic religion or Goðatrú (Truth of Gods) which resembled the religion of their homelands. Sacrifices were overseen by landowners/priests in temples and shrines to appease the gods and spirits, of which Thor and Odin were most popular.

By 1000, the Althing rejected paganism and enacted Christianity as the religion of the land under pressure from Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason, who embargoed all trade between Icelanders and Norway and held the sons of chieftains as hostages unless Icelanders accepted baptism.

Yet, despite the introduction of Christianity, pagan influence was not easily erased, and still informed how settlers reacted to their old surroundings, and their new spiritual allegiance.

For instance, when Leah and I discovered Dimmuborgir, a dramatic expanse of lava fields east of Myvatn,

we learned that the pillars were the creation of emptied lava lakes from an immense volcanic eruption about 2300 years ago.

But legend tells us that Dimmuborgir (or “Dark Castles”) was created by Satan after he was cast from heaven, and Dimmuborgir was the gateway to the devil’s “Catacombs of Hell.”

Also seeking refuge at Dimmborgir are the Yule Lads–13 offspring of Grýla and Leppalúði–who are regarded as trollish pranksters who eat misbehaving children before Christmas.

Jökulsárgljúfur National Park is another popular destination we visited that invoked the spirits and captured the imagination of pagan worshippers.

Jökulsárgljúfur, Iceland’s largest canyon, stretching 25 km long and 500 m across is the result of endless catastrophic flooding caused by an Ice Age eruption so fierce that its glacial ice cap exploded.

However, the Norsemen believed that Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed created this natural wonder by touching earth on a jaunt across the sky, leaving behind the impression of a massive hoofprint that became the canyon Ásbyrgi,

with a rock island spur named Eyjan.

To the west of Ásbyrgi, lie the cliffs of Hljóðaklettar and its inhabitants, the mythical Huldufólk (Hidden People), who cautiously avoid sunlight, or risk the same fate of the elves and trolls who have turned into stone pillars from sun exposure.

Another example of trolls behaving badly can be found along the black sand shoreline of Vatnsnes peninsula in northwest Iceland. From a geological perspective, Hvitserkur is a 15-meter tall basalt monolith that’s been shaped by severe North Atlantic storms and constant temperature changes.

Although Hvitsekur resembles a drinking dragon, Icelandic folklore refers to the stack as an evil troll who raided a local church to silence its bell tower, but turned to stone after being caught by the sun’s early rays. The petrified troll is home to hundreds of nesting birds who forever punish him with a thick layer of guano, and Icelanders who mock him with the name “White Shirt.”

Of all the stories, historians consider Goðafoss a landmark in North Iceland culture, for its here that regional chiefs met with pagan lawmaker, Thorgeir Ljósvetningagoði to determine whether to continue their old ways or embrace Christ as their spiritual guide.

The saga tells us that as a gesture of Iceland’s newly adopted religion, Thorgeir Ljósvetningagoði stood at the brink of the falls to cast a collection of Norse idols into the abyss, marking an end to paganism. Thus, the waterfall was christened Goðafoss, the “Waterfall of the Gods.”

It was the beginning of conversion, and Iceland eventually capitulated to convention. Nevertheless, the notion of magic and sorcery continued to flourish in Iceland, well into the 17th century. A museum located in Hólmavík is devoted to the subject.

It tells the story of 25 or so victims who were executed on charges of witchcraft between 1625 and 1685.

The museum also exhibits some unusual artifacts,

ranging from the sublime…

to the ridiculous.

Superstitions began to fade during the last decades of the 17th century, and the Reformation came as a shock to Icelanders. But consider a 2007 study by the University of Iceland that found an estimated 62% of the nation still believes in the existence of elves, and 40% of the population is irreligious.

Thank God for bogeymen!

Other Worlds of Iceland

Significant geothermal zones and volcanic landscapes throughout Iceland may give the impression of a primordial, preternatural planet. Yet, Icelanders have prevailed, despite the harsh and ever-challenging environment of their homeland.

Such is the case of Möðrudalur, a remote farm settlement in Eastern Iceland protected by Mount Herðubreið, the “Queen of Icelandic Mountains.”

Möðrudalur ranks as the highest inhabited farm in the country–at 469 m (1739 ft) above sea level, and supports a weather monitoring station, having recorded the lowest temperature in Iceland, -38.0 °C (-36.4 °F) on January 21, 1918.

The farm became inaccessible once Ring Road 1 was relocated northeast in 2001. However, a new F-road was eventually cut to continue servicing the curious folks who felt a connection to the old trails crisscrossing the wilderness, and a thousand-year history that made this a protected area.

A church was built in Möðrudalur in 1949 on once-sacred ground by farmer, Jón A. Stefánsson to honor his wife’s passing in 1944,

and decorated by revered folk artist, Stefán V. Jónsson.

A guesthouse, a small store and highly regarded restaurant serving locally sourced farm-to-table fare have been added over time to boost tourism in the area.

A more dramatic and inhospitable environment lies 90 km to the north. Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon was carved by fire and ice and a rushing river that over time laid bare the cores of spent volcanoes.

Following the Jökulsá á Fjöllum upriver (which flows from the Vatnajökull glacier) is an impressive triplet of waterfalls, of which Dettifoss is considered the most powerful in Europe, plummeting 45m (150 ft) into Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon at 400 cubic meters per second during the summer melt.

Returning to the Ring Road, it’s another 60 km west to the Myvatn Geothermal Area (Hverir), a volcanic swath that rivals the fumaroles, steam vents and mudpots of Yellowstone…

We cleared our lungs of rancid Sulphur fumes before checking into nearby Laxá Hótel, where the Krafla caldera looms over Myvatn Lake in the distance.

But Leah and I weren’t done for the day! After enjoying a meal at the hotel restaurant, we donned our hiking boots and enjoyed a solitary 10 pm stroll through Dimmuborgir,

a field of unusual lava formations caused by an eruption 2300 years ago and the subsequent collapse of a massive lava tube.

After a day of walking through location settings for Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and Alien, it’s little wonder that Iceland takes its landscape cues from a very powerful producer.

The East Fjords of Iceland

Continuing our counterclockwise circumnavigation of Iceland, today’s drive (Day 5) carried us through tranquil fishing villages,

along spectacular fjords,

and past so many sweeping landscapes…

that Leah wondered—given my many photo epiphanies–if we would ever reach Egilsstaðir, our evening destination.

Fortunately, in our favor, our summer days have 22 hours of daylight.

We started our journey with a brief stop in Djúpivogur, a 16th century Danish fishing port and trading post that attracted European merchants. By the mid-1800’s, there were four houses in Djúpivogur, and Langabúð was one of them.

Constructed in 1790 as the village storeroom and warehouse, it was considered the economic and social engine of the town up until the 1950s. Today it’s a museum and visitor center.

A walk around the Djúpivogur’s harbor offered little shelter from the frequent gusts of blustery wind coming off the water. Leah stayed behind in the Land Cruiser, but I found the 34 granite “Eggs of Merry Bay” atop their pedestals to be an interesting oddity,

as each egg had been named for a local bird.

Next stop was Petra’s Stone Collection,

beautifully curated throughout her house and garden in Stöðvarfjörður.

What started as a hobby during childhood, became an obsession throughout her adult life, until she acquired the world’s largest private collection of mineral rocks,

mostly unearthed in the vicinity of East Iceland.

We also stopped in Fáskrúðsfjörður, a small fishing village with French connections that dates to 1880. Originally developed as a French trading hub fortified by a chapel, a hospital and French consul, the town still retains its French flair.

Once we returned to the Land Cruiser, we vowed to limit our stops, but the road beckoned, and I couldn’t resist!

“One last time,” I pledged. And Leah relented.

We detoured to Teigarhorn, a natural monument and nature preserve most valued for its cache of zeolites, and most likely the source of so many of Petra’s discoveries.

Teigarhorn is also a protected nesting ground.

Ultimately, we made it to Egilsstaðir, had a meal, and found our way to Vok Baths, a geothermal spa,

tucked into the banks of Lagarfljót–a long and narrow lake–where Icelandic folklore (c. 1345) suggests a giant serpent dwells.

Three infinity pools of increasing temperature (105oF max) offered us the perfect opportunity to melt away the stress of a long travel day…without a serpent sighting.

Finally, the midnight sun had set on our day at midnight.

And hopefully, our hotel has decent blackout shades to protect us from a 2am sunrise.

Water and Ice, Part Two

Imagine an aquatic gallery of ephemeral ice sculptures in varying shapes, sizes and shades of blue, dancing around a glacial lagoon before floating out to sea or washing upon a black, sandy beach.

After our hike at Skaftafell, Leah and I were expected at Jökulsárlón for a late afternoon amphibian boat tour of the glacial lagoon, but not before a required stopover at Fjallsárlón for a dramatic view of an outlier glacier…

receding into a volcanic valley,

with chunks of ice fighting for a place to thaw.

I could have spent hours at the shoreline photographing the amorphous shapes, but our boat excursion across the road at Jökulsárlón was soon boarding.

We rolled off the moraine in fat tires, and effortlessly glided onto the lagoon for a chilly boat ride surrounded by orange vests and hulking ice.

Our captain cautiously piloted the amphibian as close to the bergs as allowed, to limit the wake of curious kayakers,

and knowing that hidden ice is usually more voluminous than exposed ice.

Also present in the lagoon was a resident colony of surreptitious seals,

anxiously awaiting high tide to feast on herring and cod swept into the icy inlet.

After disembarking, we crossed to the Atlantic, where jewels of ice wash ashore,

and decorate the beach,

a fitting terminus that would gain Banksy’s approval and mine.

Water and Ice, Part One

Imagine an amphitheater of “organ pipes” carved out of a grass-topped lava field with a 20-metre waterfall plunging down its center into a roiling pool of green water.

It sounds impressive, but seeing is believing, so Leah and I navigated to Skaftafell, a nature preserve in southeast Iceland that belongs to Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland’s largest park with 18% of the island’s land mass, where Svartifoss is one of the featured attractions.

We arrived at the Visitor Center parking, and cursed the ATMs for making paying for parking so difficult. We hiked through the campground before arriving at the Visitor’s Center.

I was literally speechless. Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður? Really!? How could there possibly be a word with a V, a K, two Js, and a letter that’s stuck between a b and a p? And how about the pronunciation? And what does it even mean?

But there was no time for questions. We were there to hike, and there was a waterfall to explore.

We caught the trailhead past the same campground and began our ascent. The trail was wide and steep at the start. So much so, that metal mats filled with crushed stone lined the path to keep erosion at a minimum. We caught our first view looking east when we cleared the trees.

We continued above Gomlutun, across Estragil gulley on a footbridge, past two waterfalls (Hundafoss and Magnusarfoss),

until we reached the approach to Svartifoss.

My pulse quickened. I sensed this waterfall was special. I zoomed in until the falls filled my frame, and I lingered before I pressed the shutter.

I raced around the side of the canyon for another perspective…from the bottom.

Svartifoss translates to “Black Falls” and it lives up to its name,

as it showcases a splendid backdrop of charred columns of basalt.

Svartifoss was the inspiration behind Gudjon Samuelsson’s design of Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland’s celebrated cathedral in Reykjavik.

We were down the mountain and at the Land Cruiser after 2.0 hrs. in Skaftafell, which included our lunch at the overlook and a potty break.

It was time for more sightseeing down the road, and we were on a schedule!

But first, some unanswered questions:

  1. Apparently, Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður is a real Icelandic word,
  2. pronounced: https://forvo.com/word/vatnaj%C3%B6kuls%C3%BEj%C3%B3%C3%B0gar%C3%B0ur/
  3. and meaning “Glacier of Lakes” National Park

Water and Ice, Part Two follows…

Hiking a Shrinking Glacier

There is a glacier lagoon at the tip of Sólheimajökull’s tongue that never existed a decade ago. Today, that lagoon is 80 meters deep, and its fed by glacial melt.

Sólheimajökull is an 11km outlet glacier of Mýrdalsjökull, Iceland’s 4th largest ice cap of 269 named glaciers, and easily accessible and suitable for ice adventuring.

Climatologists have been studying Sólheimajökull’s since 1930, documenting a loss of more than 2 sq.km. of its ablation area, and retreating a mile from its original marker.

During the summer Sólheimajökull loses 3 meters of ice every month with frequent ice calving.

With so much chatter about climate change and glacier volatility, I thought it best to have a look around the ice and judge for myself. So Leah and I drove to Sólheimajökull to join a guided glacier expedition,

where we were outfitted with a harness, helmet, crampons and ice pick. With some instruction, we learned how to dress ourselves and behave like mountaineers.

Then the conversation shifted to safety first, and how to avoid the treacherous crevasses on a melting ice mountain that’s constantly in motion.

After a brief hike, we arrived at the ice, but the approach to the top wasn’t a graduated trail; it was a wall.

Suddenly, I felt our training was insufficient, and I couldn’t imagine that all of us were prepared to dig in with our crampons and ice axes and climb over this wall, but that was unnecessary. We simply stepped around the mound on chiseled risers that were rapidly melting…

until we all reached flat ice.

I questioned why this ice had a different color and texture–more like ice coal–than blue crystal.

Valerio, our guide from northern Italy attributed it to the 1918 eruption of Katla, Iceland’s largest active volcano, and fragments of rock and debris–known as glacial till–that typically develop when a glacier passes over bedrock. We were walking on 100-year ice dated by the volcanic ash trapped inside the ice!

Except for occasional photo ops like a discovered ice cave,

we were always moving across the ice and up the throat, and discouraged from breaking the line or falling behind.

After 30 minutes on the ice, it was time to celebrate with a drink. Valerio grabbed his New Zealand ice ax to tap a vein under the ice, and the bar was open…

and it was cold and refreshing!

Since 1890, Iceland has lost approximately 18% of its ice mass to warming, and Sólheimajökull is melting faster than scientists originally speculated. They are sounding the alarm–telling us that Iceland’s glaciers are melting faster than they can recover.

And climate change, of course, plays a pivotal role in this process. Ironically, eco-tourists are rushing to Iceland to experience the glaciers before they disappear.

But Iceland is doing something to mitigate the damage by pledging carbon-neutrality before 2040. Already, the island’s geography and geology provide almost 100% renewable energy for generating heat and electricity.

But will it be enough for future generations?…

Seljalandfoss and Skógafoss

There is no shortage of waterfalls in Iceland, although some are more spectacular than others. Estimates of total waterfalls throughout range from 10,000 and up. But Icelanders have their favorites, and Seljalandfoss and Skógafoss are two of them. Located just off the Golden Circle and only 30K apart made it impossible to resist, so off we went, chasing waterfalls.

What makes Seljalandfoss special is its geological standing. It’s believed to be a part of Iceland’s receding coastline in Southern Iceland, where the Seljalandsá River once ran over the edge of a volcanic cliff and dropped into the Atlantic. 

Seljalandsfoss’ glacial water originates from the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, a smallish ice cap atop Eyjafjallajökull volcano that last erupted spontaneously in 2010, belching so much ash high into the atmosphere that day turned into night and European air traffic was grounded for 5 days.

Eyjafjallajökull towers above the waterfall,

and the Eyjafjöll mountains feed meltwater to the river Seljalandsá, which runs down the slopes before dropping off the Seljalandsheiði heath in the form of Seljalandsfoss waterfall.

Repeated eruptions over millennia have extended the coastline by 12K, while erosion has hollowed out an extraordinary hiking trail that circles behind Seljalandfoss, which literally translates to “selling the land of waterfalls.”

Leah and I could immediately tell upon approach that this was a popular destination, which was soon confirmed by a full parking lot. There was a kiosk for paying the 800 ISK parking fee ($6), but I didn’t realize it until we were leaving. Oh well, I guess I was too focused on the shower I was about to take.

But Leah had different plans. “I’m not doing that,” she insisted. “I can’t find my rain pants anywhere and there’s no way I’m getting soaked. Besides, it’s probably slick from all the mud and water, and I don’t feel like breaking my neck on the third day of vacation. But you should go, and I’ll just look at the pictures later….Tell me about your insurance, again.”

“Shouldn’t we at least take a selfie like everyone around us?” I asked.

Leah had decided that Seljalandfoss’ 60 meter (200 feet) cascade was best appreciated from a distance,

while I was too anxious to capture Seljalandfoss from every angle.

True, the trail was muddy and slippery, but that was only a minor inconvenience.

The challenge came from dodging the unrelenting spray, as if it was weaponized by the wind.

I instantly missed Leah as my assistant. She would have made the perfect rain shield.

After coming around the back side of Seljalandross, I rejoined Leah on a path which led to a small waterfall known as Gljufrabui,

hidden within a slotted canyon.

We hiked back to the Land Cruiser and headed in the direction of Holt. I was casually driving, enjoying the scenery at 90 kph (60 mph), Iceland’s top speed limit, when I hit the brakes….after noticing Iceland’s perfect farm.

We made one additional stop along the way to Skogafoss, when I slowed to catch a glimpse of what appeared to be a Hobbit house built into the mountain.

However, on closer examination, it appeared to be a shelter for sheep and goats.

The approach to Skogafoss had several imposing mountains in the vicinity, also part of the former coastline.

Ironically, Skógafoss translates into Forest Falls, but there’s not a tree to be found in the area. It seems the Vikings had a penchant for chopping all of them down to create their settlement a thousand years ago.

Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland. Game of Thrones fans may recognize the falls as the aerial backdrop for a romantic encounter between Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow when flying with her dragons.

With a width of 25 m (82 ft) and dropping 60 m (200 ft) with water fed by two glaciers, a rarity (Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull),

visitors can climb a rickety 430-step metal staircase anchored into the cliff, allowing visitors to reach the spillover and enjoy a view of the coastal lowlands while basking in the Highlands, or continue on a popular trail leading up to the pass between both glaciers.

Skógafoss is a place where magic happens…

Completing the Golden Circle

Feeling exhilarated after our Silfra snorkeling adventure, Leah and I said goodbye to Thingvellir, and set out to complete the remaining natural wonders of the Golden Circle trifecta.

We continued to Haukadalur, a geothermal valley in South Iceland that boasts a plethora of fumaroles and geysers,

including the powerful and predictable Strokkur, Iceland’s most active geyser that regularly erupts every 5 to 10 minutes like clockwork,

sending boiling water skyward, 20 to 40 metres beyond its mineral-stained crust.

Afterwards, we traveled to Hvítá river canyon to visit Iceland’s beloved falls, Gullfoss. The water in Hvítá river travels from the glacier Langjökull, Iceland’s second largest ice cap, before cascading 32 meters (105 feet) down Gullfoss’ double drops in dramatic display.

We arrived in time for one of Iceland’s typical daily weather changes as we hiked to the closest observation deck. The blustery gales had driven the cold drizzle and falls spray sideways. While we were dressed appropriately in warm parkas and rain pants, Leah was miserable and could only manage a walk to one of many overlooks of Gullfoss.

I tried to ignore the weather, but the poor visibility and annoying spritz was affecting my ability to keep the camera lens dry while trying to capture the “perfect shot.”

Leah retired to the comfort of the Land Cruiser, while I climbed above the canyon wall in search of a different perspective, thinking that if I distanced myself from the water, I could keep my camera dry.

The best that I could manage, given the circumstances was adequate…

However, to my chagrin, I found the perfect shot at the base of the foothills, but it belonged to a park graphic with information about Gullfoss…

However, looking southeast, I also discovered a telling view of Thingvellir’s distant topography just beyond the Visitor Center.

Of course, being a national park, certain rules apply; and understandably, drone photography is a no no. But Gullfoss is so expansive that it would surely benefit from an aerial approach, so the Park Service sanctioned a third party to capture the awe and splendor that only a drone can see.

We ended our day in Selfoss,

where more adventures await…

Touching North America from Eurasia

There is one place on earth–Silfra–where it’s possible to “touch” two different continents underwater and it’s located within the Golden Circle of Iceland. Leah and I were up for the challenge, but it required some preparation.

First, we traveled southeast of Reykjavik to Thingvellir National Park, the birthplace of parliamentary government (Althing, 930 AD), and the zone where volcanic activity has played a heavy hand in shaping our planet.

Not to get too bogged down in earth science, but a rift occurred through the middle of Iceland where two tectonic plates are pulling away from each other 2.5 centimeters every year as a result of volcanic activity in the region since the beginning of time,

and much of it vents under Lake Thingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake.

Above sea-level, lava fields at Thingvellir have been torn apart by tectonic forces, leaving gorges and fissures to admire between two continents.

However, inside the rift valley created by daily earthquakes throughout time, there is one ravine, Silfra that allows snorkelers and divers to experience the tectonic plates underwater, but it requires a dry suit to tolerate the water temperature (2o C) and a certified outfitter to guide thru the underwater fissure.

Leah and I had booked an excursion through Arctic Adventures, who supplied all of our underwater gear and a guide to assist with dressing, and underwater photography.

We dressed in a parking lot by the roadside where various outfitters have set up shop.

Over the thermals and wool socks we supplied, we stepped into fully insulated jumpsuits to wear under incredibly bulky dry suits with fixed booties, snug rubber sleeve guards around our wrists, lashed with rubber bands, and a snug rubber seal around our neck with a rubber band choker. An industrial zipper across our deltoids sealed us in.

Then came a rubberized neoprene hood over our heads. Imagine forcing your head through your neck. After accessorizing our fashionable outfits with neoprene lobster gloves, we were ready for the apocalypse.

We were a group of twelve…

under the supervision of Chris (from Hungary) and Marcelo (from Sao Paulo). We split into 2 groups of 6,

and waited our turn to enter the water.

Immediately, the suit constricted around my lower body as I stepped deeper and deeper into frigid water…but I stayed dry! Without hesitation, I glided in and immersed my face. Only the small area around my facemask was exposed and the sensation around my lips felt like a cold scalding until they turned numb after 10 seconds.

We flopped onto our backs, and let the current carry us slowly through the gorge while watching the arctic terns doing aerial maneuvers overhead.

As we floated past Grynningar Shallows, I was awed by the clarity of the water, with visibility beyond 100 meters (300 ft).

We were in the water approximately 40 minutes. Once we reached the Silfra Lagoon, the stiff current required strong frog kicks for us to reach the exit point.

As promised by Marcelo, each of us emerged from the lake with “Angelina Jolie lips.”

Overall, the experience was sublime. However, my biggest complaint had to be cold hands. Most of the time, my hands stayed clasped behind my back, out of water, but the weak stitching around the seals of the gloves made them porous. Marcelo quipped that the gloves leaked because they were made in Sweden.

Lest we be judged for our adventurous antics, consider this unassuming mother of three from Germany, who stripped down to her swimsuit, and took the polar plunge, albeit for only 30 seconds.

I don’t think she’ll be doing that again, anytime soon, but for me, it could become an addiction.

New River Gorge

The New River has been carving the Appalachian Valley for the past 10 to 360 million years–depending on who you ask–which makes it an ancient river–ranked behind the Finke and Meuse as the world’s third oldest river. Of course, there is the obvious non sequitur, given the river’s moniker and apparent age.

One story claims that its name comes from a translation from Indian dialect meaning “new waters.” Another explanation tells of Captain Byrd who had been employed to open a road from the James River to Abingdon in 1764. Byrd used the Jefferson-Fry Map published in 1755. However, this map did not show the river, so Byrd noted it as the “New River.”

Originating in North Carolina, the New River flows 360 miles north until it meets the Gauley River in southern West Virginia, providing some of the best whitewater (Class IV rapids and above) on the planet, and the main reason for our visit.

Our first look came from an overlook behind the Canyon Rim Visitor Center,

treating us to canopied canyon walls as far as we could see, soaring 876 feet above the water.

and a profile of the New River Gorge Bridge (the Rusted Rainbow).

When the New River Gorge Bridge opened in 1977, it was the world’s longest single-span arch bridge for 26 years. With an arch 1,700 feet (518 m) long, it is now relegated to the fifth longest.

While I appreciate the engineering feat of a half-mile span that saves travelers 45 minutes of detouring,

it’s the river I’ve come to conquer.

New and Gauley River Adventures shoved off from Stone Cliff at 10am–14 miles downriver from the bridge–with six eager adrenalin junkies and our guide, Costa Rica Scott in one raft, and a support raft to tag along. Leah refused to float with us, despite my gentle coaxing.

Once we were properly outfitted with life jackets and helmets…

off we went…

While the first half of the trip was relatively lazy, with fountains of 60oF spray coming from occasional haystacks and laterals, the spring run-off and torrents of rain before our arrival had turned the second half into a fast-moving, turbulent churn, filled with hydraulic traps, and 7 foot waves.

which had us threading our way through Keeneys, Dudleys Dip, Double Z, Greyhound, and Millers Folly Rapids with increased caution.

Miraculously, we never flipped and everyone remained in the boat throughout the ride. However, the soul behind me spent most of the time stretched across the raft with his head pinned over the gunwale, retching. Fortunately, whenever our pilot commanded us to “dig in” (paddle like our lives depended on it), I avoided smacking him across the face.

After 4 hours on the river, our take-out was just shy of the bridge, beyond Fayette Station.

What a blast! If only there was time to run back and do it again, but that would have left little time for hiking to Diamond Point;

visiting Cathedral Falls in Ansted;

investigating abandoned beehive coke ovens in Nuttallburg;

strolling through a mining ghost town (pop. 5) in Thurmond;

or just chilling at The Outpost, “Where Wild Meets Wonderful.”

Perhaps another visit is in order.

Ballistic Badlands: Avoiding a Nuclear Winter

Long stretches of telephone totems tethered as far as the eye can see…

Free-ranging livestock sprinkled across the flatlands…

Barbed wire perimeters surrounded by pastureland and littered with cow pies…

From 1963 to 1993, one thousand Minuteman II missiles (ICBMs) capable of delivering a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead to a Soviet target in 30 minutes were housed in underground silos like Delta-09 that stretched across the Great Plains,

(Library of Congress)

with 150 launch sites dispersed throughout South Dakota, transforming the serenity of the prairie into a hibernating military zone.

(Library of Congress)

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site commemorates a period in America’s history when “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) imperiled the world, and delves into the birth of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, and development of ICBMs.

At the height of the Cold War between Soviet Union and United States there were more than enough nuclear missiles in both arsenals to destroy the planet 5 times over.

As I walked through a maze of interactive exhibits, childhood memories came flooding back.

While growing up in an era of “duck and cover” mindfulness, we were acutely aware of the danger outside our global window.

With the school claxon sounding in 3-clang intervals, my classmates and I responded by hunching under our desks in silence until the principal gave us the “all clear” over the PA. It was our way of showing the Commies that we were prepared and doing our part in the recurring struggle to keep ourselves safe from a political bogeyman.

Of course, as we got older (these drills lasted through middle school), we doubted that “duck and cover” would ever protect us from a nuclear firestorm or subsequent fall-out.

Because of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the realization that Pittsburgh’s steel mills were a likely military target, my father’s master plan in the event of a nuclear attack was to convert our basement closet filled with dusty canvas awnings and rusted paint cans. We painted the concrete blocks a putrid shade of green under the glare of a single dangling light bulb swinging from the ceiling, and filled the 6 x 6 closet with mattress slabs, jugs of water, and a box of batteries for our flashlights. I always wondered how our family of four (at the time) would survive inside this moldy space.

After touring the Visitor Center, we rode 15 minutes on I-90 West to a decommissioned missile silo roughly the size of a football field, and the feeling was ominous.

Locked beneath a sliding 9-ton hatch…

was a vertical rocket in-waiting. I pressed against the tinted, transparent armor and peered into a hole 185 feet deep for a first look and a photograph.

Despite being disarmed,

it was no less unsettling to consider that humanity holds the power of mass destruction, and the Badlands backdrop–75 million years in the making–could vanish in an instant.

Badass Badlands: a Surreal Landscape

Pillars and spires, pinnacles and hoodoos, canyons and gorges, ridges and ravines, bands of colors and beds of fossils, mixed-grass prairies and resilient wildlife…the Badlands of South Dakota are a scenic recipe so fantastic that I sometimes wondered if my camera could adequately capture the range of strangeness that surrounded me.

But I was up for the challenge!

What follows is a visual diary of Badlands National Park…told in 3 parts.

The Yellow Mounds of Dillon Pass

From a distance, this mustard-colored landscape qualifies as the perfect location for a film shoot on an alien planet.

Leah and I were casually driving along the Badlands Loop Road near Dillon Pass,

when the Yellow Mounds popped into view…

and I knew that I had to explore this phenomena more thoroughly.

I climbed atop one of the mounds…

which overlooked a network of foot paths…

to the Pinnacles on one side of the hill,

and offered an outstanding overlook of the Conata Basin to the southwest…

and beyond.

And as I surveyed the scene below,

I realized that the scope of South Dakota’s Badlands defies framing.

The Badlands cannot be contained, and the sheer beauty and colors transcend any exposure.

What’s Mine is Mine

Leah and I were prospecting for wedding bands along downtown Deadwood’s famed historic Main Street when we ran into a local miner–a chip off the old block–who told us that touring the abandoned gold mine on the edge of town was a hoot and a value-added experience.

Broken Boot Gold Mine has been running tours and amateur gold panning since reopening as a visitor attraction in 1954–long after the last ounce of gold was discovered.

The 15,000 ounces of gold extracted from Sein’s Mine (1878 -1904) through pickaxe and candlelight was hardly the mother lode the Sein Brothers had hoped for, but a rich vein of iron pyrite (also known as fool’s gold) ran through the mine, and that was just enough to make the mine profitable…for a time.

The mine closed in 1904, but reopened in 1917 to extract iron pyrite for the war effort. After a year, all mining operations stopped and the mine went quiet…

until Olaf Seim’s daughter (and sole heir) was persuaded by promoters to segue Sein’s Mine into Broken Boot Gold Mine–thereby creating a new tourist experience and de facto location for shlock horror movies…

According to the operators of Broken Boot Gold Mine, “[it] has operated longer and more successfully as a visitor attraction than it did as a working mine.”

Leah and I made a $14.00 investment (seniors get a $1 discount), which got us a 40-minute walk-thru and Wild West mining advice. We donned our plastic pastel safety helmets and entered a tunnel that was dim and chilly.

We crept through reinforced passages with 10 other investors,

and imagined a 10-hour shift in relative darkness–about the time it took to burn through one candle–while searching for precious metal,

and valuable mineral deposits.

Our guide reinforced the feeling of claustrophobia by switching off the lights and allowing our eyes to adjust to total darkness before lighting a single candle, a miner’s only light source.

Despite the price of gold hovering near $1,800 per ounce, few amateur miners were willing to spend an extra 10 bucks for gold panning lessons after the tour…

while Leah was completely satisfied with her bogus stock certificate.

Rock Art

Billings was our final stopover in Montana before continuing east to Deadwood, SD. Upon arrival, Billings health officials issued a local advisory restricting outdoor activity due to a blanket of smoke and ash that had invaded the valley from several regional fires that were burning unabated.

While we would have preferred exploring the winding trails through the Rimrock Bluffs–overlooking the Yellowstone River and town–we lowered our expectations, given the extreme heat and unhealthy air quality index, and opted for a brief walking tour through Pictograph Cave State Park, known for its natural and cultural significance.

Just a 5-mile jaunt south of Billings, we approached a sandstone bluff in the shape of a horseshoe, and turned into an empty parking lot. Surprisingly, the Visitor’s Center was open and filled with a variety of artifacts that WPA workers recovered from the cave floor between 1937 and 1941–considered the first major archeological excavation on the Northern Plains.

In all, over 30,000 artifacts were discovered, with some dating back over 9,000 years.

We cautiously hiked up a narrow, sandy footpath through sprigs of yarrow and juniper shrubs, hoping to avoid an encounter with a prairie rattlesnake or bull snake…

until we reached the mouth of Pictograph Cave, revealing a stone wall that was once part of a ceremonial lodge. The dotted line above the left side of the wall structure was drawn by WPA workers to mark the original floor line before they began digging.

We stood motionless for a beat to allow our eyes to adjust to the shadows, before scanning the cave in search of ancient charcoal and red markings. Even with the help of graphic displays that emphasized these creations,

it was no less a challenge to identify the drawings due to a veil of calcium that had formed over the pigment during a dry period. These figures were carbon dated between 1480 to 1650 A.D.

The red pigment was created from an ancient recipe combining ground up hematite (concentrated iron ore) with assorted binders such as animal fat, berries, blood and adjusted with water or urine while heated to form a paste that was applied by finger or stick.

A rack of flintlock rifles that were painted within the last 200 years is located no more than 15 feet away from the other figures.

While not the easiest to decipher, a nearby graphic makes it more apparent.

Continuing our walk along the cliff, we reached a middle cave with evidence of clams fossils and other sea life embedded in sandstone that likely lived during the late Cretaceous Period when this portion of America was under water.

Then up a rising that followed the curvature of the cliff, we reached the Ghost Cave. While no drawings were discovered here, a series of round boulders known as concretions formed as a result of a clam bed that was exposed when the sea eventually receded.

These cliffs continue to evolve as winter ice cuts through brittle stone; massive rains charge over the cliffs, turning into intermittent waterfalls; and smoke ash eats away at porous surfaces.

While the evolution of our landscape is inevitable, we must look for ways to tap the brakes on what’s creating the intensity and severity of our man-made issues, and allow nature to take its true course.

After all, it’s not supposed to be this hot; it’s not supposed to be this dry; and it’s not supposed to be this smoky during Montana summers.

How Great is Great Falls, MT?

The short answer is,”Not so great; it used to be greater.” But then there are those who prefer baldness to a full head of hair. Allow me to explain:

To be fair, my perception of Great Falls is not how it originally presented to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark,

while they mapped the mighty Missouri on their epic expedition from Pittsburgh to Fort Clatsop, at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Lewis’s impression of Great Falls was, according to Paul Russell Cutright, in his book Lewis & Clark, Pioneering Naturalists, “the grandest sight he had ever beheld, the water of the Missouri here dropping over a precipice more than 80 feet high. He stood motionless for a long time, completely enchanted by the beauty of the scene.”

Photographed by F. Jay Haynes, Summer, 1880–Montana Historical Society

In fact, as Lewis slowly portaged the Great Falls in June 1805 (his greatest challenge to date), he was amazed to find not just one “great falls,” but a series of five falls of varying sizes that dropped the river level a total of 612 feet over a 10-mile stretch.

Then came the dams. By harnessing the power of five falls with five 20th century hydro-power plants, the industrial age awakened the West, and “The Electric City” became an important crossroad for future settlement, forsaking the beauty long admired by the Blackfeet and other tribes.

Leah and I set out to discover the “falls”, by racing to Ryan Dam before the last light of day.

The gorge was aglow,

while the sinking sun was offering up a shadowless palette of pastels.

I imagined the falls as it once was and what it’s become…

and wrestled with my first impression informed by mountain and machine.

There is no denying that nature has carved out something very special…

but the landscape has been inalterably changed.

Big skies are forever interrupted,

and prairies yield to bounty over beauty.

The following day, we set out by bicycle on the River’s Edge Trail to “find” the other falls.

Nearly 60 miles of paved and single-track trail along the Missouri River provided panoramic views of scenic river valleys;

engaged us with public art created by local artists…

as we rode through neighborhood parks.

The trail carried us to cliffside lookouts of Black Eagle Falls and Dam…

Rainbow Falls and Dam…

and Crooked Falls (still untouched by a dam);

while also connecting us to historic downtown, filled with numerous casino options and burgers to die for…

at the celebrated Roadhouse Diner.

Unfortunately, our search for Colter Falls (the final of five falls) would remain unfulfilled, as the reservoir created by the Rainbow Dam has permanently submerged Colter Falls (making this the perfect metaphor for Great Falls) to the extent that we are left to debate if commerce is a compromise or a sacrifice.

Big Things Come in Small Packages

This post originally celebrates the enormity of the General Sherman sequoia as I observed it 4 years ago. However, today it’s a reminder of the fragility of this ancient forest–currently facing a ravishing fire–where the largest living organisms on our planet are in peril. General Sherman has survived over 100 burns in its 2,200 years of existence, but the scale and intensity of today’s wildfires have become more commonplace, and threaten the world around us. I pray the fire can be contained and the forest survives, so future generations can appreciate nature’s miracle.

Streaming thru America

“Size matters!” has long been considered a hard fact among those who measure the enormity of things, and eagerly justify the value of their preponderance. Yet all things big begin from most things small, and that’s the long and short of it. While this may come as a relief to many who seem challenged by the limited extension of their personality, it comes as no surprise to sequoias that have sensed this for millions of years.

Giant sequoia trees are native to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, where they grow exclusively in protected groves. Every tree starts from a firm cone no larger than a chicken’s egg–

hand and cone

–each one releasing thousands of seeds resembling oat flakes, hoping to take advantage of a litter-free forest floor made fertile by fire.

Flash forward 2400 years, and if the then-seedling hasn’t been logged…

Mark Twain stump

…or besieged by fire (although its bark…

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Glacier N(o) P(ass)

Each and every time Leah and I applied online for an entry pass to Glacier NP we were too late, and we fretted that maybe we made the trip to Glacier for nothing.

Then I learned that if we make a reservation for an activity inside the park, that would guarantee our entry through the gate. So I booked a scenic rafting trip through the Middle Fork of the Flathead River with a third party vendor.

Problem solved…or so I thought.

It turns out our rafting outfitter operated in the village just outside the park gates, and our park entry was still in jeopardy. We could have canceled with sufficient notice, but we were still up for a float,

and decided to go with the flow…

through glacially carved flats,

and formidable canyons walls…

that were ideal for jumping into crystal-clear waters.

But there is another way in, and it’s not really a secret. Just get to the park anytime before the gate attendants arrive at 6AM, or visit the park anytime after the gate attendants leave for the day at 5PM.

We did both, and left tired each day…but satisfied!

There’s very little to say about Glacier National Park that hasn’t already been said. It’s acknowledged by many as one of the crown jewels of the National Park Service since its inception in 1910.

If there was a beauty pageant for National Parks, Glacier would win the crown, and wear it with authority:

There are more than enough peaks to pique a mountaineer’s interest;

plenty of waterfalls to satisfy a photographer’s wet dream,

and a fair share of elusive critters to make one’s heart beat fast.

Sadly, no bears wanted their portrait captured by me, despite ample park activity reported at the time of our stay.

While much of the park’s majesty is projected through its mountains, lakes, canyons and waterfalls, its easy to overlook the shimmering river rocks beneath our feet,

or the shimmering heavens above our heads.

The Mountain Is Out Today

Mount Rainier is so imposing that it makes its own weather, and on most days the mountain disappears under its thorny crown of rain clouds.

In fact, weather analysts calculate the odds of “seeing” Mount Rainier likely hovers between once or twice a week, considering the 189 rain-days per year, producing 126 inches of precipitation annually.

On the other hand, July is Mount Rainier’s driest month, with an average of 7 days of rainfall, amounting to 2 inches on average, which improves the odds tremendously for the millions who live and travel the I-5 corridor between Tacoma and Seattle. They invoke a familiar colloquialism that captures the moments when Mount Rainier reveals itself. They say, “The mountain is out today.”

My youngest son Nathan, who lives in nearby Bellevue had arranged long ago to glamp with Leah and me for a summer weekend at the National Park so he could experience Paradise, up close and personal, for the first time.

Happily, during our visit, “the mountain was out,” and it was magnificent!

On our first day together, we sought out a few of the requisite park sites as part of Nate’s Rainier orientation, including:

a wobbly walk across a suspension bridge…

to gaze at ancient trees…

in the Grove of the Patriarchs;

a hike to Myrtle Falls, cascading 72 feet into a rocky gorge;

a gambol across Sunbeam Creek on the Wonderland Trail before it rolls into Stevens Canyon;

tracking iconic, Narada Falls,

as it plunges 168 feet into a canyon of split rocks;

admiring Reflection Lakes, sans the reflection (ruined by wind-swept ripples);

and relishing the trove of jaw-dropping, mountain vistas that seem to vanish into thin air–

which we reflected on while enjoying a soft-serve swirl at the historic Paradise Inn.

The next day, the mountain was still out, and it was a picture perfect day for hiking the Skyline Trail to Panorama Point.

Of all the trails I’ve trekked, I can say with cautious certainty that the Skyline Trail may be among the most magnificent of them. With the sun out, and blooming wildflowers dotting the landscape, there are few hikes that can compare.

We started on a paved path from the Paradise Inn at 5,420 feet elevation, and continued to climb through flower-carpeted meadows for a mile…

until we reached the Deadhorse Creek Trail spur, and looked back in wonderment.

We were now traipsing through packed snow and rocky terrain as we reached the tree line. We paused for a break where other hikers were keenly aware of something or someone through binoculars and long camera lenses. I scanned the mountain for movement through my viewfinder, and discovered the attraction–a team trekking across the glacier on their way to the summit.

Nisqually Glacier was now looming large in our sights.

The spectacle of watching the snowmelt pummeling the moraine below was thrilling.

It seemed to us that Rainier was so close, we could almost touch it.

With one last push, we arrived at Panorama Point, having climbed 1400 feet in 2 hours. I should have felt drained, but I was giddy with excitement with views from the overlook,

while also spotting Mount St. Helens far in the distance,

and capturing the Nisqually River as it meanders through the Rampart Ridge gorge.

On our return trip, we opted to take the Glacier Vista spur for a beauty shot of the mountain,

and ourselves.

Returning via the Alta Vista Trail gave us a very different impression of the valley below,

but also prompted us to occasionally glance back to admire the source of all the magic.