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.
Instead of a diary sort of approach, I’ll instead use the photos to help make some impressions and tell some stories.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Iceland power recently built quite a spectacular visitor center at the power station and we quickly found ourselves on a guided tour.
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.
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 didn’t spend time in Reykjavik when we arrived so did leave the later part of an afternoon and evening to explore a bit.
We had some time in the early evening to explore the many walking streets of Reykjavik.
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.
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 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’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.
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.