Hunting the Auroras in Iceland

 

When I first saw the landscape I thought, this is the place I imagined when I read the phrase “primordial soup” in my science textbooks. Sulfur, nitrogen, complex carbons everywhere, you can almost see them mixing to create the necessary chemistry for life. But from the air, the land appears barren: asphalt colored soil, bluish-gray waters, the clouds taking on various shades of gray and white. The treeless landscape makes me think about the Vikings, who cleared the land to build their ships. These warriors were actually just Norwegian fisherman and farmers who left the mainland as political refugees. They boarded their mighty ships from Norway and set sail for a better life. Some were blown off course and accidentally landed on this remote island where they tried to carve out a living as best they could. It’s incredible to think about what they must have endured throughout their lives trying to make a home on this harsh terrain.

Halfway between Europe and America (but still in Europe technically), Iceland is a volcanic island in the farthest northern peaks of the mountain ranges that run along the bottom of the atlantic ocean and lies just below the arctic circle. It’s about as close to the edge of the world as physically exists on a sphere, once referred to as the land of Thule, thought to be the edge of the universe in the north.  This may seem like a counterintuitive destination in the winter but this is what makes it the best winter vacation spot for someone like me. I love to wake up before dawn, but can never seem to fit this into a real-life schedule. Here, 9am feels like 4am. The sun rises in the southeast around 11:30am and dribbles along the horizon, eventually setting in the southwest around 4pm.  You can stay up late, sleep in, then relax with a hot cup of coffee and some mellow music at breakfast, and still not feel like you’re missing any of the (short) day.  Pack all of the sightseeing into this short window of light and cozy up again with a drink  in one of the many snow-covered cabins heated by fireplaces and wood burning stoves. It’s not just cozy in the winter though, Iceland is a land of year-round  sweater weather because the high temperatures in the summer are only in the low 70s, and it can even snow in August in parts of the western fjords. This is my ideal habitat.

After a lot of research, we decided that driving in Iceland in the winter had the potential to ruin our relaxing vacation with the stress of unpredictable blizzards and ice covered roads. The appropriate car, tires, and insurance would have cost nearly as much as a guided tour with a driver anyways, so we decided to do something we’ve never done before and sign up for two group trips. The first trip was the one we were most excited for, three days and two nights on the south coast of the island where we would explore a glacial lagoon, do a glacier hike, and the highlight – an ice caving expedition inside one of the glaciers in a naturally formed tunnel of bright blue ice.

Our driver and tour guide for our first trip, Asgeir (pronounced “Oscarrrr”, meaning god of spears) was a clean-shaven young guy with thin-rimmed square glasses that framed his bright blue eyes above a constant smile. As we pulled out of Reykjavik, we quickly learned why the Vikings named this country Iceland (or Island in Icelandic), changed from it’s equally-appropriate original name of Snowland. that the weather can be harsh.  It’s almost a complete white-out, and we are immediately grateful that we are not the ones driving. We stop to help the car in front of a us, a group of tourists who wonder if they should turn back because the conditions are so horrendous. Asgeir explains that this is normal, and that the roads are marked with yellow poles and reflective stripes to help drivers navigate the near-zero visibility: one stripe means it’s on the right side of the road, two stripes means it’s on the left.

We soon reach our first stop on the Golden Circle portion of our tour, Thingvellir National Park, home to the world’s longest running Parliament, first established in 930 AD, and also to a dramatic landscape formed as a result of sitting along the border between the North American and European tectonic plates. The sky cleared and the sun rose just as we arrived, creating a magical snowy world that was breathtakingly beautiful. We instantly fell in love with Iceland.

We continued on to Totrokkur geyser, which shoots a column of water up to 98 feet in the air every 4-8 minutes, similar to Old Faithful at Yellowstone. We watched the impressive spout a few times through the steam clouds rising up from the boiling pools surrounding the area, then climbed back on the bus. Next was a stop at Gullfoss falls, a powerful, wide waterfall tumbling through a crack in the earth. We admired its beauty for a while before rejoining our group, where we were hit with some bad news. A freak storm, a spinoff from a hurricane in the US, was brewing and was supposed to hit us overnight. It was predicted to be one of the worst storms in Iceland’s history, with high temperatures and winds, and torrential rain.  This meant that the ice caves would be flooded and dangerous, and we would not be allowed in them. I was crushed. This was the main reason we’d come on the tour. Despite my mood Allison insisted I join her for dinner, so I collected myself and was able to salvage the evening with a shockingly delicious dinner buffet of fresh salmon served smoked, cured and grilled, and local lamb, two of Iceland’s specialties.

By morning the roads had reopened but our ice caving adventure had not. Instead, we spent the dawn hours at a volcanic black sand beach, where we watched multiple people disregard the guides’ warnings about standing too close to the unpredictable waves, then get knocked down, losing some very expensive cameras along the way.  From there it was a three hour drive to our hotel along the coast. The grassy fields suddenly morphed into lumpy lava fields of black rock encased in bright green moss with a dusting of snow like icing sugar.

Asgeir was eager to share his Icelandic traditions sprinkled in among the obligatory normal facts about volcanos, glaciers, lava field formations and ice lagoons. He recounted one of his favorite pastimes for us: sheep sorting – farmers herd their sheep down the mountain every September, but they don’t know whose sheep are whose. So, they invite their friends to sleep over to help with the event. This begins with a beer at dawn’s first light, and then comes the sorting. Everyone stands in a circle and takes turns pulling a sheep, one by one, reading the ear tag, and “sorting” it to the correct farmer’s cubical. By noon they sheep have been sorted and the men are plastered, which signifies that it’s time to start singing. The rest of the day passes in song, until the friends either fall asleep or return home for the night.

As we listen to his stories, we see fuzzy Icelandic horses rolling adorably in the snowy field. Some have their heads partly below the snow, buried like ostriches in the sand. We smirk as we imagine huge Icelanders on the backs of these tiny things. Looks are deceiving though, these My Little Ponies come to life were bred in Iceland to be strong and sturdy, and are so prized that if a horse leaves Iceland, it can never set foot back on the island in case it’s been contaminated.

We had another incredible dinner of local lamb and smoked fish, and then piled on the bus for our first northern lights hunt. We stood in total darkness, staying warm with the occasional swig of brandy from our new German friend’s flask, waiting. Nothing. The next morning we set off for Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, one of the other natural highlights of the trip. Though much of the floating icebergs had blown across the lagoon from the storm, the crystal clear blue ice in jagged formations that had washed up on the jet black shore was stunning.

Our final activity was a hike on top of the glacier that housed the ice cave we were meant to explore. It also happens to be the glacier that played set to the Ice Planet in Interstellar, as well as parts of Batman and Game of Thrones. That sounded like the most exciting thing about this place to me. I figured it couldn’t be much different than walking a typical trail in the winter.  We put our crampons, harnesses and helmets on, picked up our ice axes, and followed our guide in a single file line onto the glacier. I was immediately in awe. Like Interstellar, this was a whole new planet. Snow-covered mountain peaks breaking through a base of chunky bright blue ice, and the rest of the world swirling white. To get a taste of how cool the ice cave would have been, our guides took us down into an ice crevasse – it was like entering a frozen aquarium – beautiful. The weather was brutal so we headed back after an hour, but we are resolved to come back for an entire day on the glacier next time.

During the six hour drive home I sorted my mixed emotions about the trip. I was relieved not to be driving but frustrated to not have a choice about where we stop and what we do. Pulling up to a each new site, we have to wait for all 15 people on the bus to do everything: unload, go to the bathroom, eat, take pictures, etc., then it’s back on the bus to the next highlight. We aren’t used to being on someone else’s schedule, and especially with blizzard like conditions that confine us to the bus at times, it can feel a little suffocating. But a potential benefit to this (though it could also  be a curse) is having a chance to get to know new people. Talking with others on our trip was a great way to spend the many dark hours, discussing ideas and advice on future travel, sharing pictures and stories and memories. It’s amazing how many interests Australians, Germans, Americans, Indians, and Chinese all have in common. Travel like this makes you realize that although we all think we’re unique, the same desires motivated us all to pile in the same Mercedes bus for a trip into the snow and ice to admire the quagmire landscapes and for a glimpse of the Northern lights.

We had planned to arrive back in Reykjavik just in time to ring in the new year. New years Eve in Iceland is a force to be reckoned with. We had read that there is nothing else quite like it, but we didn’t fully grasp what that meant until we found ourselves in the middle of it. The evening begins with everyone sitting down for a big meal with their families. We had been invited by a generous Icelandic-Dutch couple who owned the airbnb we were staying in to celebrate with their family, which meant merging with Dutch tradition and having huge bowls of hearty pea soup.  After dinner there are 10 huge bonfires lit around the city of Reykjavik – families walk to one of these and spend the next couple hours, drinks in hand, gossiping and singing around the fire. We happened to be passing the biggest of the bonfires during our bus ride home, so our guide graciously pulled in and let us join the crowds and enjoy the warmth, and a beer, before driving us back to Reykjavik to experience the rest of the celebration.

Everyone heads home by 11pm to watch the annual New Years Eve TV show, Áramótaskaupið, a roast that pokes fun at Icelandic politics, culture, people, and tourists. Our host’s sister kindly translated for us, and it was hilarious even to us. The show ended at midnight and we were swept out the door to watch the fireworks.  But this is not a firework show like you have ever seen before. The rescue teams in Iceland, which have 12,000 active members, sell fireworks throughout the year as a fundraiser for their gear and training. Because everyone cares so much about the rescue teams, every single family buys loads of fireworks.  Real, 4th of July, huge fireworks. As soon as we set foot on the street it felt like a landmine went off. We were surrounded by explosions from all sides and overhead. Every family in the city was in the street lighting their fireworks in unison, hundreds of thousands of them, for hours. It was mesmerizing and terrifying and purely exhilarating all at once. A snowstorm came, so we ducked back inside and were quickly pulled into conversation by the family. They told us all about the history of the holidays, the traditions and folklore. Icelanders are the historians of the Norwegians. This may be why Icelanders today are prolific writers. There are lots of sagas written by Icelanders, like that of Erik the Red and Leif the lucky, the son of Erik the Red. In fact, one in every ten people on the island has published a book. The long dark nights and a harsh yet beautifully surreal landscape probably contributes to the amount of literature produced – a lot of time to ponder and write, and fodder for the imagination. Icelanders are very imaginative people, who believe in all sorts of fantastic creatures. Rocks are houses for the trolls. Elves are really the cheeky ones though. By 4am we couldn’t keep our eyes open, and with only 4 hours until our next tour began, we snuck away to the bedroom and shut out the rest of the party.

Our second driver was a British expat with stubbly cheeks and a cossak-style furry hat that hid most of his head and face. He was eager to share his failings and details about his divorce, environmental issues with aluminum production, whaling, and tourism in Iceland. He’s on his second relationship with an Icelander, knowingly confiding in us that most marriages between locals and expats end in divorce. The dice are loaded from the start. Much like our chances for seeing the northern lights. Tonight we were headed to the Snaefellsnes peninsula, a totally isolated piece of volcano-studded land jutting off the west side of the island, marked by Snaefellsjokull national park and volcano on the tip, and Iceland’s signature Kirkjufell mountain at the other end. Part of our inspiration for coming to Iceland was based on a National Geographic picture of the northern lights dancing over this mountain.

Because of the weather, the road, and the landscape, this tour involved more observing out the window than stopping. Allison is the picture-taker and I am the lazy passenger. We sit side by side with my heavy coast draped over our legs like a blanket. Our heads almost always switching between reading our books and out the window. The bus ride allowed us to look out the window for long stretches and enjoy the landscape while the driver drones on. He’s starting to sound more like a constant reading from his  diary and less informative. We pass fields of jagged and craggy black dried lava, then more fields of softened, rounded mounds of lava, now covered with green moss. We pass a few houses placed on a snowy landscape precariously draped over rock, in between the mountains, ocean, and lava fields, which take the place of the fields or patches of trees found in a typical countryside. We pass one small wooden house in this scenery with a few lights on, a large boat on a trailer in the driveway. Isolated and alone but for the horses in the field. A few more houses sprinkled farther away. We pass quickly by and continue on the one road that encircles the peninsula, but my mind lingers and starts to make up the details: A fisherman by profession maybe, long hours of hard work, many of which are spent in the dark this time of year.  He has probably had more hard times than good, but I guess we all have ups and downs. Just out here living his life. I wonder how often he gets to see the northern lights?

The blizzard that had been keeping us to a crawl let up and we hopped out to admire some magnificent glacial blue pools and waterfalls, resembling a smaller winter version of Plitvice National Park in Croatia. Huge gusts of wind drown out the pleasant soundtrack of our walks in the snow and the crunchy sound it makes beneath our feet. Not seeing the sun for a couple of days makes you realize how much you appreciate a clear blue sky, even if only for a couple of hours. We had just enough time to appreciate it and walk the full length of the falls before the snow picked up again.

Night came even more quickly in the snow. We began to get excited about our country hotel, anticipating its warmth, a fresh seafood dinner, and another chance to hunt for norther lights, only a couple hours away. But just as we settled in for the dark ride, we watched, horrified, as a line of headlights came towards us from the tip of the peninsula, and our bus drifted towards them in slow motion. One after another, we heard the crunch of metal and the bus shook. We watched the cars spin off in different directions in the snow, and our bus came to a stop on the side of the road.  Our headlights illuminated the expression of terror, surprise, and confusion on the face of the driver of the first car. A bald man in his late 30s. “Fuck, Fuck” our driver exclaimed, having forgotten to turn his microphone off. But that was the worst of it, thankfully. Luckily, despite the sound our bus had just glanced the other cars and only axels and mirrors and doors were damaged, not people. Everyone on the bus was ok and people were already running to check on the other cars before we came to a complete stop off the side of the road. We were very lucky. Maybe we used all of our luck in that moment and now it’s exhausted for the remainder of the trip.

Now we had to wait for a new bus to come all the way from Reykjavik and it was going to take a while. Three cold, dark hours passed while we were waiting for the bus – we had been hoping to have several hours to stay in one spot in the dark and watch for the northern lights, but never would have predicted it would be in these circumstances. To our sorrow, it was a blizzard today and the snow was still blowing horizontally. The skies were still covered. No stars could be seen.  A clear sky is hard to come by in winter in Iceland. Tonight was not going to be our night.

I felt such anger after we finally arrived at the hotel at 10pm. The appreciation and relief that I felt in the moments after the wreck has been consumed by a rage that started to grow during the three hours we spent waiting in the snow for a replacement bus, and the subsequent two hour drive to the hotel. By time we arrived, it was palpable. I tried to keep it from advancing further with the hot tea that was waiting for us.  The company also offered a free drink with a dinner as a consolation – the least they could do. I scoffed. I tried to hide at one of the tables in the corner, so we could be by ourselves, but Allison refused to join me in my isolation, so I joined her instead at the two long tables where everyone else was seated. We just happened to sit down across from a well-traveled retired Australian couple from Perth who had never seen snow before. They were unaffected by the night’s events. I tried to see things from their perspective: A small delay be damned, it’s not going to ruin our trip. Their positive attitude, not conveyed by any words, just behavior, extinguished my bad feelings. When the offer of free wine came, I gave it to the Australian man instead. He deserved it.

In the morning, my anger dulled into sympathy: our result was only a delayed bus. Our guide’s consequence might be a job. I felt for him as I listened to him tell us about the day’s plans, seeming like a small child who just crashed his father’s car and is now eager to please, and mulled over the idea that we are all just an amalgamation of different personas. The boundaries of each component are not that clear however, and change over time as they are redefined by the accumulation of experiences we have.

We left at 9am, with two hours still to go before dawn, and hiked out to a church on the coast, lit up by the strange neon crosses that mark the graves in Iceland. From there we worked our way further down the coast to watch the sunrise in a small town perched on high cliffs dropping straight down into the sea.  It had turned into a beautiful clear day, and we were reveling in the light. But the next item on the agenda was to spelunk through a deep dark lava cave, a hollow lava tube that someone had discovered an entrance to. We reemerged an hour later, grateful again to see the light of day, and snaked our way around the rest of the peninsula to the famous Kirkjufell, or “church mountain”. It was beautiful, and the pink and purple light was hitting it just right. I seized the moment and asked our guide if we could stay and explore while the rest of the group went for lunch at a nearby cafe. He agreed. Finally, freedom! It was as if a weight had been lifted off my chest. Allison and I took off, climbing a hill to discover some Icelandic horses, then back down and across the street to walk along the ocean around the side of the iconic mountain. The sea foam had frozen and made fluffy white patterns along the black volcanic shore. We wondered if we should never get back on the bus and instead hike to a local hotel and hide out to wait for the auroras.

But the weather turned stormy again and the bus returned for us, so we reluctantly  climbed back on and continued the journey to Reykjavik. We made a final stop just before the city to give the northern lights one last go. An hour later, once our toes and fingers had numbed and people were growing restless, we spotted a faint glow in the distance. It was hard to make out any color, and had someone not taken a photograph that proved a green tint, it could have been easily overlooked. But it was the real northern lights, so at least we wouldn’t have to lie when we talked to our friends and family after we returned. Icelanders believe in many mythical things: The hidden people (elfs), trolls that hide in the volcanoes. We were beginning to think that the northern lights may also be one of these apparitions.

We had booked two extra days in Reykjavik at the end of our trip, mostly because that’s when the cheap flights were, but with an added bonus of boosting our odds of seeing the fantastic display of northern lights the country markets so well. The weather had warmed since we left. Everything had a puddle under it. We always try to spend the day as locals would, so instead of making a beeline to the ultra-touristy and expensive Blue Lagoon, we headed to the local city pool, which turns out to also be geothermically heated. At the counter, the cashier warned us that in Iceland it’s mandatory to shower before you enter the pool. Naked. We entered our respective showers/changing room at the same time, unsure what to expect. I hurriedly undressed and walked quickly, completely naked, to the corner shower stall. I soap all the hot zones circled on the life-size human cutout on the wall, then slide back into my bathing suit, relieved, and meet Allison on the other side. We ventured into the freezing air and found a large lukewarm pool surrounded by around 10 smaller pools ranging from 30 to 40 degrees Celsius. We chose the one with boulders that gave the feeling of being outside the city. The water smokes from the heat and a constantly rising fog surrounds us. The majority of the people were older with thick, solid arms, some only a little smaller than my thighs, and bodies that quickly lost their robustness and appear to be melting. Bodies sculpted by professions requiring physical strength. A younger group of Icelandic men are very thin and wirey and pale; no need for strength in their modern professions it seems. The whole spectrum of the physical progression with age is on display.

We sweat in the sauna briefly and then wash again in the showers. We emerge feeling rejuvenated. And hungry. So we step into a local sausage place owned by a German and order two of the local specialty, sausage with fresh onions, fried onions, sweet Icelandic mustard, remualade, chili, and ketchup. They are delicious. We’ve heard Icelanders love ice cream, so this seems like a logical next stop. We hike the couple miles through the harbor to the other side of the city in search of the local ice cream hotspot, Valdis, recommended by the New York Times. On the way home we pass a very cozy café tucked inside the Iceland Air hotel block, and decide to curl up there with our books for a while. We order an espresso and a licorice hot chocolate, an homage to the licorice-loving Icelanders, made from homemade dark chocolate bars and ground licorice root powder, it is surprisingly delicious. We are the only two by the fireplace, and it’s a moment of pure contentment as we sit, disconnected from the world yet fully present and completely relaxed.

Our plan was to cook dinner at our guesthouse, then take an 8:30pm bus out of the city in a final effort to see the northern lights. The cloudcover prediction on the Iceland Aurora Forecast website was clear, and the NOAA solar activity website glowed bright green over Iceland. We figured this was our last and best chance. We boiled spaghetti and poured a glass of wine, then put on our boots and coats and headed outside. As we walked out the door, we checked Allison’s email to make sure the bus was on time, and found a notice saying the tour had been cancelled, with no explanation. Thinking fast, we spotted another woman waiting outside and ran over to see if she was waiting for the same company. It turned out she was waiting for a different tour, so we quickly called and confirmed that there was still room for us on the bus and that we could pay at the main station. As we pulled into the “main station” we simultaneously realized that this was actually the harbor and that the company’s full name included “adventures on sea”- we were going on a boat! We were amused by this turn of events, but if this wasn’t a sign then what is?

On the boat I watched Allison struggle to put on the thick wind suit.  She zipped the thick, red snowsuit-like contraption over her pants and and winter coat, and we headed up on deck to look out at the sky. Almost immediately, we see  a small green dot glowing straight ahead. This alone was enough to get us excited, but as we get closer the darkness and cold suddenly shattered and the entire night’s sky cracked with ribbons of light, like a river of flowing from some distant source in the stars.  Layers of pink, green, purple, and white. It felt as though this dancing light was displaying the secret coordinates to heaven. It was mesmerizing and tranquil and amazing in every way. We had expected at most a meager show of green, but instead witnessed an ethereal explosion of color. Cuddled together looking up, I heard myself repeating the same phrase over and over: “oh my god”, as I gaped at the new beams pulsing above us. Our mouths oscillated between hanging open and wide smiles. I felt like a child: wholly unaware of feeling anything but jubilation and amazement. A shot of dopamine right to the brain. The unfiltered response when we realize that we are small creatures still trying to understand the universe that we’re a part of.  Most objects or natural phenomena that we see have the predictable behavior and that gives a sense of comfort. Just as you can follow the trajectory of fireworks and anticipate the burst of light that follows, or the path of a shooting star that catches our eyes until it burns out. But the northern lights violate all of these rules. They are pure randomness and chaos. A sense of relief is felt when they suddenly appear, punctuated by complete gratitude to be here in this rendezvous of chance. I felt more spiritual in that moment than I have in any pew. The silent display around us touched something deeper. We just happened to be on this boat, with a clear sky, at this hour. An incredible coincidence.

Hours later, after the spectacular show had dimmed and our boat was pulling into the dock, my mind wanders to the Gaelic monks that were here on the island  when the first Vikings came. These monks were fervently seeking isolation for prayer but I cant help wonder if they too were attracted to the land of these silent heavenly lights and lava from the underworld. It’s hard not to interpret this as the island on top of the world, far away from anything else in the known world, an eternal conflict of heaven and hell on display. What magic is found here.

The next night we saw something much less bright, just a faint green glimmer as we walked along the coastline out to the lighthouse. It was almost a subtle wave, saying “goodbye for now, I am still here, but you’ll have to come back”.

As we depart for the airport two days later, we’re rewarded with a perfect soft blue sky. We can see the Snæfellsjökull volcano clearly in the distance, a rare event our guide told us. She was putting on her best face for us as we were leaving, showing that she is the prettiest in the early morning light. The light had transformed the gray and dull world to illuminate much more that had been buried behind the layered, thick clouds. The blues and purples and pinks on whites and blacks of the surface are an unexpected burst of soft colors on a pale landscape.  The clear sky left us with a great view to survey the land below from the plane. Snow covered everything but we could still make out craters, mountains, and rivers. A full and varied landscape inviting our future exploration. And like those first drifters, we declare that we will come back some day and try our luck again, maybe in the western fjords. In no time at all, we’ve passed over a section of land and are now hovering above the foreboding and unwielding north atlantic. I glanced out of the window and shivered at the sight of it…the SAS airlines staff walk the aisles handing out free coffee, and refills. We descend into Berlin, I see the sparkling green city of 3.5 million people surrounded by lakes, and feel like I’m home. Excited to be in my apartment with Allison for another week of this vacation, exploring all the places I’ve made a list of to show her, cook dinner, fall asleep, and wake up together. Then she’ll leave and I’ll be again in my solitude.

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