The final Saga

This, sadly for us,  is the final entry detailing our travels.  We will post in the weeks coming of our reflections on the year now that we’ve been home for almost 2 months.

Kaia wrote most of a very detailed blog about Iceland’s history, language and other key cultural elements as well as some of our activities.  But alas …. the web version of WordPress is also glitchy, and the 90% of her entry vapourized.  Agh!  She was leaving for camp that day so she’s left it to me to redo the entry.  Cam


Thanks “mormor” for your guest appearance on our blog last entry.  You noticed things that I didn’t even see! I will emphasize different things in my entry here.

Iceland has always seemed rather “epic” in my mind.   Everything about it seemed exaggerated; waterfalls, hot pools, volcanic activity, remoteness, midnight sun … and I never met someone who’d been there that wasn’t really taken with the country.  It seemed like a fitting “last stop” on our journey this year.  We were especially looking forward to the long days; the very northern tip of Iceland is just slightly north of the Arctic Circle and we would be there on the longest day of the year.  We were also looking forward to having mormor along for this leg of the journey.  She had already been to Iceland, twice, but wanted to experience it with us.

Iceland was first visited by Roman sailers in the 3rd century AD – likely blown off course.  They did not settle though.   Celtic monks followed in the early 800s.  Permanent settlement was begun by Norwegians and Celts in 874, when Infolfu Arnarson named his settlement “Reykjavik” which translates to “smoking harbour” (smoke from hotsprings).  Sixty years later (930) the settlers formed a government (Alþingi) that is now recognized by some historians as the earliest example of democratic government.  Most early settlers were fleeing strife in Norway – their king sounds like he wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with.  These people were vikings, and most of them worshiped Norse gods. Around the year 1000, King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway threatened to attack Iceland if they didn’t adopt Christianity, and at that year’s parliament, they took on the new religion … en masse!

Much of Iceland’s history is full of internal and to an extent, external conflict.  Early settlement’s family stories are told through “sagas” which were written in the 1300 and 1400s (writing had now taken hold) about events 200-300 years earlier.  Families feuded, and conflicts often ended brutally.  But the sagas describe things rather matter-of-factly, so make for some rather surreal reading.  People are identified by their settlement areas (eg. Cameron Jackson of Peterborough arrived at midnight to avenge the earlier slaying of his brother.  But along the path he met Kaia Cameronsdottir who dissuaded him ….)  Yes, my dad’s name was Jack, and Icelanders still identify their children through the father, though even this tradition is facing some challenges among the newest generation of parents in Iceland).

Some other historical highlights include:

  • in 1627, European pirates based in Algiers raided Iceland in search of slaves.  They made off with 400 residents of Westman Islands and sold them into slavery back in Algiers.  Thirty years later a ransom was paid to repatriate most of the slaves.  Mediterranean raid on Iceland … who’d a thought!
  • during the 1700s the Christian church successfully persuaded Icelanders to leave behind the notion of retributive justice and adopt instead the notion of punishment.  Prior to this, justice was very much “an eye for an eye” which resulted in a never ending sequence of family and inter community violence.  Through the church they then passed judgement on the accused.  So now, instead of getting butchered by your wife’s brother’s father, you could be burned at the stake, or if you were a woman, bound, put in a sack and thrown in the rapids at þingvellir.
  • through the ages the country has experienced a continuous steam of volcanoes and earthquakes; these are a defining part if Iceland. This is obvious to the tourist almost every step of the way. More on that later.
  • Icelandic woman fought for and achieved suffrage several years before Canadian women (1915)
  • 1918 became autonomous but still under King of Denmark; after WWII became an independent republic with an elected President
  • after becoming autonomous in 1918, Iceland declared itself officially neutral in international affairs.  During WWII Britain was worried that Germany would occupy, so in 1940 established their presence there and subsequently turned this role over the Americans.   Amidst great domestic controversy (many Icelanders were and still are fiercely independent in nature), Iceland joined NATO in 1949 and a large base was established in Keflavik (50km west of Rejkjavik).  When Rejkjavik outgrew its local airport, it took over the base at Keflavik which now serves as Iceland’s international airport.  So … if you fly to Iceland, be prepared for a 50 minute drive into Rejkjavik!

Betty has already described our journey – 1 week with a camper, out and around the Snæfellsness peninsula then out and back along the south coast.  We could have done the classic circumnavigation route (1400km) but didn’t want to spend all our time driving.

Snaefellsnes peninsula route
We drove around the Snæfellsnes peninsula
south coast of Iceland route
then headed around the “Golden Cirlce” route and east as far as the glacier lake of Jökulsárlón. From there we returned to Reykjavik along the coast via the Westman Islands.

Instead of a diary sort of approach, I’ll instead use the photos to help make some impressions and tell some stories.

Good morning!
Good morning!  I slept up top with the kids, while Yvonne and Betty staked out the lower bunk.  Our bedrooms opened to the big wide world of Iceland.
Typical. Wide open landscapes, with cool or cold wind blowing. This was actually one of the warmer dinner times … with all jackets on.
Virtually all of Iceland is treeless; much of it is covered only in moss and lichen. Ancient volcanic cones like this one dot many horizons.  Note the relatively fresh lava field in the foreground.
Looking across to the Olafsvik (“Olaf’s harbour”) at the foot of the Snæfellsjokull glacier.
A rather inspired ocean’s edge lunch stop.
Kaia, caught between a rock and a hard place.
We saw a surprising number of cycle tourists like this guy. At a certain level, it might seem appealing (things roll by at human speeds …) but we all agreed that there are much better places to cycle tour. Distances are great here, the wind howls, there is virtually no shoulder, and its flipping cold and often rainy. Hard core, man!
When I saw this church I immediately thought of a similar photo I had taken in southern Germany – see below.

atop on old volcanic cone at the tip of Snæfellsness peninsula.
Hike down from the cone
Sheep were everywhere. This guy was spectacular!
We noted that Iceland lambing was about 2 months behind Germany, for obvious climate reasons. These guys were only about a week or two old.
Þjóðgarðurinn Snæfellsjökull. In case you are rusty on the Icelandic language and character set, this is the Snaefellsjokull National Park – in the middle of the summer no less!


The monument to acknowledge half giant Bárðar of Bárðar ‘s saga. To get a flavor of such a saga, have a quick read through the “Coles notes” version on Wikipedia.
The kids and I hiked up to this crack in the cliff where you climb into the crack through the winter’s residual snow and ice. Hundreds of gulls soared in the thermals above.
classic Iceland … almost barren landscapes, views so far …
This (geothermally heated) hot pool was tucked off the main road a few km. The main pool was 32degC. Another small one was 38. I believe this one was 42!
Regular readers have seen us blogging in some rather unusual locations this year. Yvonne and Jake are hard at work here.
This art was on display at the Settlement Center in Bogarnes. Self contained audio interpretation provided a great sense of early settlement, mostly through the recounting of saga highlights.

From the Snæfellsness peninsula we returned through Reykjavik and set out around the “Golden Circle”.  I don’t think many tourists to Iceland have NOT done this famed loop.

Stop #1 on Golden circle. Þingvellir (“Thingvellir”). What a place! This geography teacher is standing on a plate tectonic boundary. That’s the North American plate on my left, and the Eurasian plate on my right – they are pulling apart at about 2cm/year. It is in fact this plate separation that gave birth to Iceland is is responsible for all the volcanic activity.  I show all my geography classes a video that features Dr. Iain Stewart standing in this very place, telling viewers in a VERY Scottish and VERY enthusiastic voice “I want to show you how the planet works!”.
The other thing that makes Þingvellir (“parliament plains”) a special place is that this is where the first Alþingi (“parliament”) met. Once a year, starting in 930 Icelanders from all over the island would trek overland and by boat (no small feat!!) and pass new laws and dispense justice in this outdoor setting.  The lögsögumaður (“lawspeaker”) would stand on top of the cliff (“Law Rock”) and recite the country’s laws. Keep in mind that during the first 200 years, Iceland was an oral society only. Participants would camp in the plains to the right of the cliff. Remarkably, these outdoor parliaments continued for 800 years until it was suspended for 45 years then moved to Reykjavik.
Betty at Golden circle stop #2: Geysir.
The main geysir erupts irregularly, about every 5 minutes give or take 3 minutes. It is quite explosive and shoots up about 15m and showers the area with scalding water.  Not long after we left I read a news story about some young kids getting burned here 😦  Many people try to capture the exact moment the the bubble swells up and erupts. This was my best effort.)
I know I am breaking a few copyright rules here … but thanks to the photographer who took this spectacular postcard photo!
Stop #3 on the Golden Circle: Gullfoss. Recall from Betty’s blog that a “foss” is a falls. This huge falls is where the heathen law speaker of the Alþingi flung his idols of Norse gods after Iceland swung over to Christianity in the year 1000.


The next days proved to be quite “fossy”.S3050009

You can walk right behind the falls … as long as you’re game for a shower.
There was a fantastic trail leading to the precipice. Note the hundreds of gulls that are nesting in the mist on the far side of the falls.


This sight was common. I’m not sure if anyone has every lived in these, or whether they are used as root cellars.
One of many glacier tongues of Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður. C’mon, don’t you recognize that root word from before? It’s a National Park.  This Glacier is the largest one in Europe outside of the Arctic – what you see is a TINY part of the ice mass.
Oh, the wide open spaces …


The basault columns at Svartifoss above really looked like organ pipes. We had hiked up from the popular glacier tour center of Skaftafell. There were all sorts of glacier outings in including ice climbing and full day traverses, but costs were exorbitant. At this point in our trip, we felt like we had experienced lots of high adrenaline adventure (for much less money!) so were quite happy to simply set off on a hike.

Kaia and I set off for another glacier overlook while Jake and Yvonne went back to meet up with Betty on her flatter hike.
Another tongue of the Vatnajokull glacier.


This was one of only two places in the country where we found trees.
Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon.
Jake thought it was a cool place to skip stones.



Betty mentioned the dive bombing terns that drew blood. This family quickly aborted their walk through a tern nesting area.
It was all about these little guys.
This moss covered lava field stretched as far as the eye could see.
The basault columns on the black beach of Reynisdrangar.  Basault columns are (I think) always hexagonal in cross section, for some mineral crystallization reason.

Our final destination in our week journey was the Westman Islands (“Vestmanaeyjar”).  Settlement of this archipelago of small islands got off to a rather notorious start when a group of slaves from Ireland killed their captain/master Hjörleifr (he apparently didn’t treat them terribly well).  They escaped and settled on what is now known as Heimaey island in the group.  Recall that justice in early Iceland was retributive.  Hjörleifr’s brother Ingólfr found the Irish slaves and slaughtered them all.  From that point on (875 AD) the islands have been known as Westman Islands, because the Irish were referred to as Westmen by the Norwegians to their East.

Settlers of the Westman Islands had a tough life, living on fish and puffin eggs which they collected from the cliffs.  Puffin numbers are now in sharp decline so egg collection has all but stopped, but most of the uninhabited Westman islands have a single cabin  that was used by the puffin egg collectors.  I snapped the photo below as we approached Heimaey Island after the 45 minute ferry ride from the mainland.

Puffin egg hunter’s cabin
Our “campsite” that we randomly drove to at 11PM after arriving on the island. Little did we realize at the time that we were parked on 42yr volcanic ash from the volcanic cone “Eldfell” about 800m away!  Fitting that our camper is named “lava”.

The Westman Islands are notorious for another reason: their recent volcanic activity.  Surtsey island rose out of the ocean in 1963, and in 1973 Heimaey Island hit the world media map when an enormous eruption started.  There were 5000 inhabitants of the island at the time, and most were evacuated.  A few remained to “fight” the lava flow using a previously untested technique of pumping cold ocean water onto the advancing face of the flow.  The eruption lasted 6 months and literally consumed about 20% of the town, but the water pumpers were able to slow the advance and were able to protect the harbour from becoming completely closed off. The eruptions added 2.5 km² of new land to the small island, including our campsite.

This brand new museum tells the story of the town’s struggle with the 1973 eruption. The building is constructed over an excavated house that was buried by the eruption. The curators have done a fabulous job using multimedia to convey the urgency, despair and ultimate perseverance of the townsfolk during the struggle.
Ouch!  400+ other homes met this fate or worse.
The furthest point of advance of the 1973 lava flow.
The four of us climbed the 200m high cone Eldfell (“fire mountain”).  Look closely and you can see Kaia and Jake near the top. Betty started up but it was so windy she literally got blown off the trail and retreated to the van.
On top of the Eldfell cone. You can see clearly how the lava flowed into the town. It was REALLY windy up here!
While admiring the view from the top of the cone, Jake picked up this rock and noted that it was “hot”. We said “couldn’t be … must have been in the sun”. But when he went to put it down he realized that the smooth rock it was on was also warm.
We quickly then realized that we had found a “vent”, and the little cave inside was too hot to leave your hand for more than about 1 second. We were astounded, and I actually wondered for a few moments if the cone was becoming active again! Nobody we’d spoken to about the cone had said anything about this vent, though we learned later that it is a well known place to roast hot dogs. Apparently Bill Clinton was served one of these hotdogs when he visted a few years back.
I believe this is Surtsey – the island that erupted out of the ocean in 1963.

We were a bit overdue for a shower, and this becomes an issue with 5 people living in a small camper.  So we headed off to the swimming pool in Heimaey and discovered to our delight a fantastic outdoor play area.

3 pools; hot, hotter, hottest. The large swimming pool is behind me, inside.
On the right you’d shoot out then bounce your way down the black trampoline slide. All in geothermally heated hot water!
S3070010 (2)
climbing wall, another slide, basketball court … they know how to do it up, these Icelanders!
I set off with Kaia and Jake to climb the peak adjacent to the harbour. We were told it had some ropes and ladders so were excited … but Betty figured this one would be a good one to sit out!
We shared the peak with sheep, puffins and clouds. It was otherwise a pretty fantastic view back into town and out to the other islands.
The five of us went Puffin spotting along the coast, but found the sheep much easier to see.
Jake is in the spotting “hide”, and indeed there were a bunch of puffins swimming in the ocean below us.

The Westman Islands had proved to be well worth the “detour”, and our family never minds a ride on the ferry.  The island really speaks to the remoteness, resourcefulness and courage of the early and more recent Icelandic setters.

Our final day back to Reykjavik involved further exploration of Iceland’s volcanic reality.  Most people know that homes in Reykjavik are heated with geothermally warmed water, but I was surprised to learn that a whopping 96% of buildings across the entire country are heated this way!  26% of the country’s electricity comes from geothermal power stations, and I wanted to see what such a thing looks like, so we stopped at the Hellisheiði power station – one of 5 in the country.

High pressure steam is collected from many smaller wells then piped to the power station. (photo from the net)
We wondered why all the steam pipes ran zig zag like this instead of straight or bending lines. See if you can figure it out – I’ll tell you in a moment.

Iceland power recently built quite a spectacular visitor center at the power station and we quickly found ourselves on a guided tour.

The steam is fed through 4 generators like this to make electricity. The “waste” steam is then converted back to hot water and piped 30km to heat buildings and domestic hot water.  As the hot water returns to the power plant it runs under Reykjavik’s roads and sidewalks so that plows are not needed in the winter.  I thought this was an urban myth, but apparently not!  The cooled water is then pumped back down into the ground near the wells where the steam is drawn from to complete the cycle.
A week is a long time to spend in a small van with a mother in law who is full of hot air.

Geothermal power appears quite environmentally benign but there are increasing concerns about the impact of steam extraction on geologic stability – much the same as concern over small earthquakes around area of intense oil/gas fracking.  Speaking of concerns in Iceland about electricity consumption, I learned of quite an interesting controversy that unfolded earlier last decade.  26% of electrical power in Iceland is geothermal – the rest is hydro power, so 100% of electricity is renewable, and there are many more untapped rivers in the country.  The government decided about 10 yrs ago to diversify the economy by attracting large foreign investment aluminum smelters with cheap electricity.  Bauxite ore would be brought from half way around the world to Iceland, processed on the coast, then shipped as aluminum to market.  The new hydro project and associated smelter  was sited in a very economically depressed (“desperate”, according to the government) area and was to help bring Iceland into “the modern age”.  It became a flash point for contrasting notions of development and huge protests greeted every step of the project.  Environmentalists believed that the hydro power should be exploited on smaller scales and used to power locally-grown industry like the electrically-lit and geothermally-heated greenhouses that are supplying an increasing percentage of the county’s vegetables.  Icelanders pride in their wilderness and self sufficiency. Ultimately though, 5 massive dams were constructed (“Kárahnjúkar”), 70km of penstocks were drilled out by the Italians, a huge powerhouse was built by the Germans and the American Alcoa Aluminum company completed their smelter in 2008.

photo is from the net

A second similar dam/smelter has just come online further north in the country, though the controversy and conflict persist.

By the way, the reason they zig zag steam pipes is because the heating and contracting of the pipes causes expansion and compression, and the zig zag takes up the associated stress.  Pretty elaborate solution though, huh?

We left Hellisheiði power station where I had a smile on my face and headed down the road where we soon stumbled into warm fuzzy Icelandic wool shop that brought a smile to the knitter Yvonne’s face.

We didn’t spend time in Reykjavik when we arrived so did leave the later part of an afternoon and evening to explore a bit.

The “Whales of Iceland” museum featured life size recreations of a couple dozen species of whales around Iceland. This is a sperm whale, but the great blue whale left an even greater impression on us!

We had some time in the early evening to explore the many walking streets of Reykjavik.

The striking Hallgrimskirkja in central Reykjavik. The church is named after the renowned Icelandic poet Hallgrimur Petursson, and you can climb to an observation deck near the top.

I took some time to browse through a great little music store.  I’d come to appreciate that Iceland has a  vibrant music scene, and is rather over represented by new young talent internationally.  I’m now enjoying my 2014 indie sampler.  Have a look and listen to the popular folk band Árstíðir here.

Trolls (or “little people” as they’re sometimes referred to) play a special role in Icelandic folklore. Apparently, many folks still believe in them, and few will openly admit they flat out don’t believe they’re real.
Even Reykjavik shared the cycling passion we saw in our other European cities.
Betty treated us to our final dinner of the journey in this downtown restaurant. We’d spent the previous 7 days driving past sheep and new lambs, and they are virtually the only livestock on the island. So Betty, Yvonne and I had lamb … REALLY good lamb. Kids ate fish. As Betty mentioned in her blog, we took time to reflect back on the year to recall our favorite places, experiences, people, meals, and started to try to figure out what we’d learned and how we’d changed. We’ll share those thoughts next entry.

We enjoyed the strong sun above the horizon when we left the restaurant at 11PM and found our way to the trail head of our midnight hike.  Betty bid us farewell as we set off to celebrate the longest night of the year with a midnight hike.  At 64° N latitude (just shy of the arctic circle), the sun set at about 1AM and rose again at 4AM, but it stayed light the entire night.

It was a quiet, contemplative hike/climb. Partly because we were coming to terms with the end of our journey, and partly because it was about 1AM and we were tired!
You might recognize this one from an earlier post. We’re near the top of Mt Esja just outside of Reykjavik.  Its about 1:30 AM.

It felt fitting to end our journey with a hike.  It is something we all enjoy doing, and we’d hiked in every country we visited this year, save a couple.  Hiking was also the activity that gave us time “apart” … if you consider 10 or 20 steps “apart”.  On a journey of 10 months where we were mostly within a few feet of each other 24 hrs a day, a few meters of separation for quiet contemplation was often welcome.

We grabbed 3 or 4 hrs sleep then headed back to Reykjavik to a swimming/bathing pool.  The low but strong morning sun felt great as we lounged in the many different hot pools and the one VERY cold pool.  A good soak seemed like a fitting way to prepare ourselves for the long journey home.

We said our goodbyes and thankyous to Stein, Bàra and their two children Làra and Dagur. They had provided us with travel suggestions and food but especially with some explanations about how the less visible aspects of their country work.

We’d really enjoyed Iceland.  It was so different than anything else we’d seen or done this year.  The people were gregarious in the best sense of the world.  I would love to see more, but I have to say I found Iceland prohibitively expensive.  A week was all we could afford, and with the exception of the camper costs, we were doing everything low budget.  It is so expensive, in fact, that Stein travels once a year to the USA to shop.  He buys electronics, clothes, toys and other stuff for the family, and the savings compared to Iceland purchase easily pay for the round trip.  Iceland is of course rather remote, but that alone does not explain the exceptionally high cost of living.  Maybe a reader can fill me in by leaving a comment.

Last fight .. of many this year. Jake was looking forward to the individual media screens that Iceland Air has on the planes.
Our most conscientious blogger, hard at work after only a few hours sleep, and hours away from Canadian soil, friends and family.  Her brother is enjoying his own TV screen, watching the secret life of Walter Mitty which was filmed in part in the wilds of Iceland.

The smiling faces of Canadian Immigration and Customs officers were so welcome at Pearson airport, but our taxi driver to my mom’s house in Etobicoke was over the top grumpy when we crammed the four of us and our luggage (which now included a bicycle trailer) into his car.  “Why didn’t you hire a van?”  We bid Betty farewell at the entrance to the brand new rail link that connects the 3 Pearson terminals to each other and to downtown (built for the PanAm games) and felt sorry for her need for one more ongoing flight to Ottawa -we were exhausted.

Yes, it felt great to be back in Canada, and to see mom again and sleep in familiar beds.

But I have no idea how to end this blog entry.  How do you close this year? Yes, we are home, but the journey lives on in our minds, chatter, emails and activities each day.  Thanks to our readers for staying with us this far.  And talk to you next week.


7 thoughts on “The final Saga”

  1. Well done to the Douglas family. I enjoyed hanging out with you for the last year or so. I know more about the world now than I did a year ago, thanks to you all. Thank you. Now sit still a while will ya? Blair Graham.


      1. If you look really hard there are actually two profiles that appear to share the same nose. The one on the outside overshadows the one on the inside.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s