27 March 2006

Arctic Sundays

Yesterday was J's brother's last day here, so we went for a hike in the ridges and valleys of Nesjavellir. J and I have driven there a few times and noticed all the hiking signs and stiles climbing over the barbed-wire fences, so we figured it'd be worth an exploration.

The weather yesterday was blazingly sunny, cold and crisp, with a wind that stirred the pockets of snow in sparkling spirals in the sun. The drive to the hills around the steam vent valley is about a half hour from town, across open land dotted with summer houses, following the hot-water pipe that provides all the heat for our houses Reykjavík. There was no snow at that altitude, but the mountains visible in the distance that we were heading towards were dusted just enough to highlight their craggy blackness, so we were prepared for some snow during the hike. The approach to Nesjavellir is through two or three valleys, each with a tiny parking area and trail maps, so we pulled off in the first one, and suited up in the very best of Icelandic and US hiking gear, strapped on backpacks filled with skyr and extra mittens, and headed through a valley between two looming moss-covered rock outcroppings.

The hike was like a mini-sampler of Icelandic terrain, from knee-deep drifted snow, past tiny animal footprints (arctic foxes? I don't know), and through ice-encrusted plains. We climbed a few steeper hills, and in true Icelandic fashion, were rewarded immediately with panoramic views of the backside of Esja and the mountains further north. At the highest ridge, we could also see the full expanse of Þingvallavatn, a rich deep turquoise against the white-dusted mountains ringing it.

The weather was cold and windy enough on the exposed ridge that we only met one other small group of hikers during the whole trip, whom we passed with a cheery "goðan daginn" as we picked our way among the lava rocks. Even though the below-freezing temperatures and snow seemed very wintry, I caught a breeze that carried the legendary Iceland smell of growing things, moss, and a hint of sulphur, that to me means warmer times ahead here.

We concluded the hike on a short stretch of the Gömul Þjóðleið, the old National Trail. We had visions of Viking families on their tiny ponies picking through the rocks on their way to nearby Þingvellir. At this near-conclusion of the journey, it must have been exciting times for them, travelling so far, and knowing that at the next ridge, Þingvallavatn would spread below them.

Hiking here is such a different experience from what I grew up with, where the trees obscure the landscape most of the time, and views are earned after trekking through the close forest. Here, the views are always there, but it also means you're exposed to the wind that pours from the sea straight across the ridges of mountains, stirring up the snow and burning your cheeks. Still, with the right clothes, and the promise of a good long soak in a hot-tub afterwards, it's definitely worth it!

Ship sighting: A lot of cargo ship activity recently. J's brother got a few good views of some of the big ones, like the ship departing yesterday evening, stacked five-high with containers. Today Hvassafell arrived at noon, and is due for a 12-hour turn-around. Note on the site that although this boat is owned by an Icelandic shipping company, it is not registered in Iceland. Apparently none of the cargo ships operated out of Iceland (the fleets for Eimskip, Samskip, and Atlansskip) are actually registered here, due to tax reasons.

I also learned that the Icelandic Port Association exhibited at the Seatrade Cruise Shipping Convention last week, in Miami. The big boys of boating, all in one room together. From this picture at the breakfast table during the event, it looks like it was a fun time, huh?


tsduff said...

WOW! I saw this valley from below when I was there, but the snowy expanse is breathtaking in your picture of Þingvallavatn. I remember the wind you describe, when Bjarni and I hiked up on the Snaefellsjokull. It almost knocked us down, but it was also exhilarating. Great post!

Liz said...

Hey E. Thanks for commenting on my blog. I am so glad you did because I had lost the link to yours and now I can read up about your adventures. Hugs to you and J.! We'll "talk" soon!