Sunday, June 26, 2016

Land of the Midnight Sun

For our final trip prior to repatriating to the US, Grant & I traveled to Iceland.  The entire island is just below the Arctic Circle so it's not technically in the "land of the midnight sun".  But it was light 24 hours a day while we were there.  It could also be called the land of lava rocks because that's about all the soil there is.  Supposedly the island was wooded when it was discovered in the 900's, but the early settlers made quick work of that and cut down every single tree.  They are trying to repopulate the trees but that is going to take some time.  

We were in Iceland for a little over four days and every day we did something that required us to wear a helmet.  Good vacation, huh?  Riding ATV's, exploring lava tube caves, descending into a volcano and rafting a river -- our heads were well protected each time. 

Grant's ready to go
We began the trip with a one hour ATV ride in a driving rainstorm.  We climbed to the top of a small mountain where the wind almost blew you over the edge.  It was a great ride, so great that we signed up for an all day ATV ride later that week.
Although we look like astronauts, it's really just the ATV riding gear.  

The all day ride was even better -- better weather, better scenery.  We rode through mountain bowls, along the coast, up a ski slope and to a geyser.  Some parts of the trail were pretty rough.  On the way out we stopped to buy our lunch for the day, which included homemade oatmeal raisin cookies.  After 3 hours of bouncing over rocks and ruts, the cookies were reduced to oatmeal raisin crumbs.  

Our ATV trail.  No traffic jams.  
Iceland's largest ski resort.  We climbed it on our ATV's.  

Lava tube caves form when the lava flow cools on top to form a hard crust.  But the lava continues to flow underneath.  When it runs out a cave is formed.  The entrances to the caves occur when part of the roof collapses, exposing the cave.   The caves typically have colorful walls from the minerals and heat.  

Professional spelunkers. 

Stalagtite or stalagmite?  It's growing from the ground -- stalagmite.  

Iceland is not the place to visit to see wildlife.  We saw this cat and about 4 or 5 of his relatives.  Grant saw a couple of mink along the coast.  And that was it.  The arctic fox is native to the island; reindeer and horses have been imported.  And that's about the breadth of the non-human species spectrum.  

This church, Hallgrimskirkja, was at the top of the hill.
We stayed at the Hotel Leif Erikson, which is directly across the street from a statue of ...... Leif Erikson.  And the Hallgrimskirkja, the largest church in Iceland.  There was a miscue upon our arrival.  Supposedly there was a leak on our room so we had to be "upgraded" to the Best Western for a night.  That ended up being an adequate hotel except that the water must have been straight out of the hot springs.  The room reeked of a sulfur smell.  The Leif Erikson hotel owner made it up to us by giving us free beer during our stay, a very popular solution with the 18 year old on the team.

Our visit coincided with the Euro2016 Soccer tournament, which is a very big deal in Europe.  Last year Iceland defeated the Dutch to gain a spot in the tourney.   Given that the total population of Iceland is 330,000 people (slightly less than the Quad Cities) it's a huge accomplishment to compete against the larger European nations.  

One night the Iceland team ( I don't know what there team name is.  The Icees?  And the junior league is called the slushies?)  was playing Austria for a chance to advance to the final 16.  All the hotel guests and several passerby's watched the game on the terrace.  On the last play of the game Iceland had a breakaway three on one and scored a goal to win.  It was incredible.  

The crowd after the winning goal

High street.  

The barrier announcing that it's a walking street.  
This photo was taken at 10 pm.  Still lots of daylight left.  We visited during the summer solstice.  Sunset was officially at 12:03 am and sunrise was at 3:00 am, but it never really got dark.  

Another helmet wearing activity was river rafting.  As you can see, this was not a category 4 or 5 Deliverance river.  It was pretty mild.  But the scenery was great and our boating colleagues were fun.   At the end of the ride, we played a game where a person stood on each end of the boat while the rest of the crew spun the boat in a circle.  The object was to see who could stay on the longest.  In the Grant vs. Mark challenge the old man got wet.  Brrr!  The water was near freezing.   

It's hard to look manly in a helmet and tights.  

After rafting we drove the Golden Circle, a scenic road trip so named because of the average age of the tourists on it.  I fit right in.  First stop was the waterfall, Gullfoss.  It was a sunny day and the waterfall was beautiful so I took a bunch of pictures.  When you look at them later you realize that it's a bunch of pictures of the same waterfall.  I decided to spare you and only publish a few.  If you want to see more let me know and I'll send you the link.

Note the rainbow in the foreground. 

This light-weight and low-to-the-ground rope is the only thing between you and the edge of the canyon.  

From there it was on to Haukadalur, an area with several geysers.    Interesting fact -- the English word, geyser, comes from the Icelandic word, Geysir, which is the name of one of the geysers in this field.  But it erupts only rarely.  Another geyser erupts every 10 minutes which is very handy for the tourists.    Another interesting fact.  Iceland gets 15-20% of its energy from geothermal heat.  The balance comes from hydroelectric making it totally renewable energy sourced.  With the cool weather and low cost electricity it's a great place for computer server centers.

A whole crowd of tourists with their camera aimed at the geyser.  Some of the more stupid ones were downwind.  

Final stop on the Golden Circle was Pingvellir, a national park.  In olden times this was a meeting place for people around the island.  In recent times it was where Iceland announced its independence and the site of a few rock concerts.   Iceland is located on the Mid-Atlantic ridge where the plates from Eurasia and North America meet.  The two plates are separating from each other.  They're currently about 6 km apart and moving 2 cm away from each other every year.  

The water here is 10 meters deep and very clear.  People throw money in for good luck -- the water is clear enough to read the denomination from the surface.  

The wall on the left is the North American plate.  

The North American plate.  

The meeting place in the park.  

We also took the "Inside the Volcano" tour.  This consisted of an hour hike to a dormant volcano.   From the top of the volcano we rode a window washer lift down 120 meters to explore the cavern.  The ride down was smooth, but Grant & I were holding on tight.

Trail to the volcano

We went down further than the height of the Statue of Liberty and the Hallgrimskirkja.  

View from the top

We walked across this platform to get on the window washer contraption.  
Ready for six passengers and a driver.  

Yes, that is snow in the background.  

The colorful walls inside the volcano  

This is a poor picture looking up at the opening of the volcano.  

The window washer basket descending.  

We did it.  

The rest of the photos are just some nice scenery shots.  Enjoy.

Volcano crater

These flowers were all over the lava fields.  They must be pretty hardy.  

Racks and racks of fish skeletons drying for subsequent use in fish stock.  Yum.  

One final note.  We traveled to Iceland on WOW Airlines, a budget carrier (as if the plane color didn't tell you that already).  It was a three hour flight.  We were delayed four hours on each end of the trip.  Wow.