Thursday, July 27, 2017

Discovering Iceland- A Fine Conclusion

Our trip benefited from fine weather.  Temperatures were around 50°F with no heavy rain and only a few truly windy days. Continuing along Highway 1, the Ring Road circling the island, we were on the coastal planes, shadowed by the massive Vatnajökull Glacier. In places there were fertile fields of grass with cattle, sheep and horses.  Other sections were large expanses of lava rubble that spoke of large floods unleashed when volcanic activity melted a part of the ice until the water broke loose in a wall of water and rock.

Making an early start on the next day, our tour van pulled onto a rough road that suggested a gravel mine to me. It was a birding detour. We saw Skuas, called the pirate of the seas.  Not at all attractive.  Try as best we could, we could not even get flight photos.  Not very exciting.  We continued walking along the road with the van trailing us, and it did become more interesting as Golden Plovers were seen. 

They were acting in a way that suggested there were chicks present.  This was getting better.  With time a little chick was seen. It was amazing; it was already showing some of the adults' brilliant patterning.

We did not stay close to the plovers very long and were soon on our way north towards a glacial tongue at Svinafellsjökull.  To be honest, I took this photo so I could spell it and find it on the map later.

It was a good place to walk up on a moraine for our photo to send home. In all of the daily hurrying about, it is easy to miss the signs and the family photos.  Once home, you can be at a loss for spelling Svinafellsjökull.  It doesn't exactly roll off of my tongue, and I am sure I mispronounced 100% of the Icelandic names. You would laugh at what I go through to get the Icelandic alphabetic characters into the text.

Leaving the glacier, we only went about 11 kilometers before another unexpected detour, this time off to the left and close to the mountain.  Hofkirkja is the sole remaining sod church in Iceland.  That is one excellent reason to stop.  The second pretty good reason is that it has a restroom in a nice grove of trees nearby. 

This was so beautiful that I am tempted to break my rule to only show one photo of a given attraction.  This was in my top ten of the entire trip. 

There was also another stop for Icelandic horses.  Never happened when I had an apple with me.  No matter though, they were glad to get a little head rub.

All along the drive, there were these massive tongues of glacial ice breaking through the mountains on the way to the sea.  The black streaks of rock in the ice speak to the forceful attack on the mountain by the glacier's mass.

We passed the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon to the Hali Country Hotel that would be home for two nights. We did not stop at the lagoon initially, in favor of an evening shoot with the best light. Also in my top ten for the trip was my lunch of marinaded Arctic Char.  Heavenly.

We filled the afternoon with an excursion farther north to a black sand beach at Stokksnes.  The sea breeze was kicking up the fine black sand; I limited my photography out of fear of where the sand might enter.  This was the site of a US radar station during the Cold War. I had to wonder if assigning someone there was sometimes a sort of punishment, especially in the dark winter.

The real highlight of the day was after dinner. Even at 22:00 in the evening, the parking lot at the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon was packed.  The low evening sun shown through the many small bergs stranded in the lagoon, as the tide began to rush out through a small opening to the ocean. No other glacial lagoon connects to the tidal cycle.

Down on the edge of the lagoon, a photographer can find a rich selection of ice forms as the tide shifts grounded bergs and floats others out to sea.

Getting low can yield many nice compositions that border on abstract.

The contribution of reflections add interest too.

While I was doing this, Pam was wandering around the lagoon's outlet as the tidal flow was increasing.  The shapes of the little bergs caught her interest, and then she spied a seal active in the outflow.  In a magical moment, a berg in the shape of a seal swept past while in the distance the dark outline of a real seal surfaced.

It was getting close to 23:00 and the parking lot was emptying, but most of us headed to the ocean beach.  Some of the bergs being swept out to sea are grounded on the beach.  Using a very slow shutter and getting very close with a wide angle lens makes for some ethereal images with creamy water surrounding crystal ice forms. This is mesmerizing.

Then, I realized it was almost midnight and most were ready to find the hotel.  Oddly, on one side of the mountain to the left was the glow of the setting sun, and to the right side was an early glow where the sun would appear a few hours later.  

Tomorrow was our last full day before returning to Reykjavik, and we aimed to make the most of it. We backtracked on Highway 1 to Svartifoss.  It required a steep 1-1/2 mile march up.  I say "march" because we wanted to get there before the buses from Reykjavik arrived.  Svartifoss is a straight plunge of 65 feet off of a beautiful wall of hexagonal basalt columns. It was worth the effort.

Along the trail near the falls, there were profuse beds of Wild Geranium, just like at home.

Returning from Svartifoss, we took a rough road to see the face of Fajarsalon glacial lagoon.  The panorama view is too wide to include the complete view.  In the middle of the glacier's face are two extremely tiny dark spots. Those are large zodiac boats on an excursion to see the face.  It's the only way I know to suggest the size of the glacier.

Our stretch of good weather was coming to an end, as was the trip. The next morning was a long drive in rain to Reykjavik.  We made another stop in Vik, and saw the sea stacks from a new perspective.  

 The rain brought in some waves. I love the coast when it gets stormy.

A rainy day seemed perfect for concluding our trip on the island.  We arrived at the Fosshotel Rekjavik with time to prepare our baggage for an early morning bus to the airport, and then gather for a farewell dinner.  Our companions and leaders were fine company, and the people in Iceland delightful.

Asked about my favorite of the trip, I could not pick one.  I'll go for the top ten:
  • Gullfoss -   are real brute of a waterfall
  • an Atlantic Puffin with a beak full of Sand Eels
  • A Golden Plover and its fuzzy little chick
  • Haifoss -  the high twin falls are spectacular
  • Hofkirkja- the last sod church
  • an overnight on Flatey Island
  • Red-throated Loon and chick
  • Arctic Char in all possible presentations
  • Black-tailed Godwit
  • Our travel companions
It will be difficult to top this trip in the future.  But, I will keep looking for something at least equal.

Thanks for your interest.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Discovering Iceland- Amazing Powerful Waterfalls (and a few more birds to boot)

After leaving Flatey Island, we actually got a full eight hours of sleep in preparation for a big day of major water.  Gullfoss is one huge and complex waterfall.  It is a prime destination for the day buses from Reykjavik, so we were away quickly the next morning.  Arriving at 08:30, there were only a few visitors from nearby lodging and campgrounds. I took my first photo from the car park about 300 yards away.  The mist from the falls made it difficult to keep the lens dry.  It is immense.

There are two drops in Gullfoss. At the top is a broad cascade. Fortunately, the wind blew the mist away from this location.

After the river Hívtá sweeps over the cascade, it collects itself in a wedge to make a sharp drop to the right. Then the river plunges to the left through a narrow canyon.  It is a brutal drop.

The mist from Gullfoss creates an ideal environment for grasses and wildflowers as seen along the pathways. While I concentrated on the falls, Pam also found Water Avens and Wild Geranium.  It was a nice surprise.

Our visit at Gullfoss was timed to end when the buses arrived. We made a brief stop at the thermals at Geysir which is the namesake for all geysers.  It goes off about once every five minutes.  If you have been to Yellowstone, this is a little tame.

Our wonderful driver and guide, Johann Óli Hilmarsson, is familiar with some lesser known but wonderful spots bypassed by the Grayline buses.  Leaving Geysir, he detoured from the main highway into what appeared to be a campground.

There, we saw Faxifoss.  (By now you might guess that "foss" means "falls" in Icelandic.)  The river ran  over a broad ledge.  It was curious to see a nice island in the pool below the rushing water.

I suspect that the real reason Johann Óli picked this place to stop was the nice little cafe overlooking the falls. We had lunch on the deck interrupted by a short rain squall.

Maybe Johann Óli was looking a little smug because we would learn that the next waterfall was a stunner.   It was the twin falls of Haifoss .  Google Maps describes it as "a dynamic waterfalls in a secluded location."  That summed it up just right.  The river splits nearly a half mile above the drop and neither side steals all the flow. That seems against the natural order.

Haifoss is roughly 4 miles from the pavement.The road was so rough that, as we climbed, we saw a progression of smaller cars that the drivers parked in favor of walking.  Some of the rocks used for the road were the size of a baseball. Substantial ground clearance was needed.

Let's look separately at the two drops. The right hand falls  comes first. It drops into a hidden pool in a violent plunge. This and the other drop are about 122 meters. That's 400 feet!

The other falls offered an impressive rainbow.  The river enters from the side and pushes the flow off to the side as it descends.  It rivals Gullfoss in brute size because of the height.

It had been a day for big and powerful landscapes.  Back to the hotel for dinner at 19:00.  It was a busy day.

You might think we'd done enough, but just past midnight  we loaded up for the nearby  Floi Nature Preserve.  After all, the sun doesn't set until after midnight. We first found Black-tailed Godwits fussing over us because they had chicks in the grasses. They would take to the wing, fly about fussing and return to somewhere near the usually hidden chicks.

Then we went to a series of ponds that had good numbers of Red-throated Loons, some with a chick.

That was a pretty full day.  Next, we had a long drive up the east side of the ring road - so yes, another early start for Seljalandsfoss.  No birds, I promise.  There were big waterfalls of many shapes, a cute house and the leaning tower of basalt.

Seljalandsfoss drops 200 feet over a lava wall.  It is one of the few that people can walk behind for dramatic views.  It is pretty wet.  I skipped that. To me, the defining view includes the rich carpet of yellow flowers thriving in the misty spray.

There was a trail along the lava wall to the left where I found a small 5 kw water turbine, plus some familiar blooms I'd expect in my beautiful Finger Lakes - Wild Geraniums.  We also found Cow Parsnip, which is also common in our Finger Lakes.

On we went to Skogafoss, another big one.  It is 50 feet across with a drop of 200 feet.

Walking back to our van, I was struck by the idea of big and little that was in the waterfalls and in the vehicles.  The little green guy is actually a camping rental.  I don't think I would fit. The monster at the right is for access to some of the more remote locations that surpass even the road to Haifoss.

Just past Skogafoss, Johann Óli pulled our van into a side road where we found some traditional buildings sheltered near the mountain.  Imagine this view in autumn or winter.

Reaching the town of Vik at midday, we saw one of the iconic rural Icelandic churches perched up on a hilltop.  The visitor may love the rich blue color of Alaskan Lupines surrounding the church, but the residents hate how these invasive plants are choking out their native plants. Johann Óli cringed each time he saw a visitor photographing a massive field of lupines.

Vik is the location of a black beach with sea stacks.  Nice scenery, though we hit it at a time of high wind which blew the fine black sand, making it uncomfortable and a danger to the camera.

As we progressed, there was talk of a secret place to photograph that was special.  Secret meaning not heavily visited.  Arrived to find so many vehicles, it was hard to park.  (Likely a new travel guide broke the silence?) Anyway, it was unusual even if no longer a secret.

More interesting, and virtually deserted, was a basalt outcropping that we explored in the evening. 
Basalt is a hexagonal column of lava formed when lava cools slowly. The columns can be 50 feet high.  In one place we found a leaning column of basalt.

Next, we will reach the shoreline below the immense Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon that is part of Iceland's largest glacier, Vatnajökull.  The glacier is over 3,000 square miles in extent and averages 1300 feet in thickness.

Jökulsárlón and Vatnajökull will get their own blog posting.


Monday, July 24, 2017

Discovering Iceland- An Overnight on Flatey Island

We'd seen Flatey Island three days before when the ferry Baldur, crossing Breiðafjörður Bay, stopped there.  It unloaded day-trip passengers and potable water. Today, we would leave our van on the boat, taking only an overnight bag and photo gear.  (Our van would be waiting for us at the ferry terminal in Stykkishólmur.) The island of Flatey is about 1-1/4 miles long.

We had an easy departure time at 09:15 from the Brjánslækur ferry wharf.  We were all eager to explore Flatey.  At the terminal, our overnight baggage for the island went in a freight box to be off-loaded.  Right on time, the Baldur approached and executed a 180° turn to back up to the vehicle ramp.  It wasted no time; it has both bow and stern loading, plus bow thrusters.

Once ashore on Flatey, you walk.  It is a modest 1/4 mile to the only hotel on the island. The hotel has a small utility vehicle to transfer our luggage.  The accommoda- tions were quite nice. The island may be remote, but the food was not spartan.  How about a cod tacos with pickled veggies? It spoils the traveler.

Of course, we did not come to Flatey for the luxury but rather for the scenery and the birds. I've been on other islands where there were no real roads, and it is liberating.  Life is simpler and the children play soccer with joy, or search the shore for polished stones.  Adults have time to sit on the porch and socialize over a bottle of wine. The pace of life on Flatey was noticeably easier.  All but two families are summer cottagers. In winter it is likely very quiet with no children because there is no school.

A walk around the island finds a lot of  interesting scenes.  A boatman is rowing out to one of the boats anchored in a partially submerged volcanic cone called Höfn on the map. It is a perfectly sheltered anchorage.

There is a rusted and long abandoned tricycle left on the side of the trail near the hotel.

Farther down the trail is a homemade wheel barrow.  I saw some modern ones with lightweight plastic tubs - more efficient - but not as creative.

The island's church stands on the highest part of the island.  With only two year-round families, it did not seem to have any activity.  We saw many small churches in the countryside, often speaking of an early time when substantial fishing communities supported them.  Such was the case on Flatey.

Exploring Flatey begins with a short walk from the hotel towards the bird cliffs.   A small wetland reveals the ubiquitous Mallard, in this case a duckling.  I had in mind something more exotic.

 It did get better.  This is a Red Phalarope. It was picking for food in the seaweed at low tide.

On the trail from the ferry wharf, there was a field of thick grass and several Red-necked Phalaropes were making a lot of noise with each passing person.  Close inspection located a nest some 30 feet from the trail, and very well hidden.  The little bit of dried grass stalks beneath the bird was the only tip that this was a nest.

There was another surprise, Snow Buntings.  Only these were not in winter plumage. They were frequent on the bluff above the cliffs, and seemed to be picking small insects from the many small pink flowers.

Flatey certainly had a rich array of birds. The sun rises on Flatey around 03:00 or a little before.  It is a pretty gradual event.  I still wanted more Atlantic Puffin images, including some with the beak full of fishes for their chicks in the burrows. I'd seen them that evening in poor light. 

Long before breakfast on the next morning, I arose to try once again for the puffin image I wanted.  In the early morning quiet, the sheep were bedded along the way, and not at all wary of people.  Arriving at the cliffs, I settled down low below the crest of the hill so the incoming puffins would not see me.  They were more wary than those at Latrabjarg.

I could pick up the incoming Atlantic Puffins far offshore and watch their flight pattern.  Usually they came in for a pass and then made a loop back out to sea before deciding to land.   The first several thwarted my effort as they either changed course abruptly, or disappeared behind the bluff just as the scene came together.  This was tough, but finally one bird came in nicely.

Even better, the Puffin landed on a rock outcropping before deciding to go to the burrow.  In its beak is a jumble of slender sand eels for the chicks.  It posed right and left. The bird was not actually posing, but looking around to decide if it was safe.  Oh, the joy!

I walked back to the hotel feeling so rewarded that I didn't care if breakfast was only dry toast, as long as there was coffee.  After a wonderful hot shower, the breakfast was (as I expected) much more than toast.  I pretty much chilled out until the Baldur arrived at 13:00 to continue our travels. 

I loved Flatey, and only wished I could have had another day.  Now it is off to huge waterfalls and other scenery.  There will still be birds, but also a tiny church and maybe a geysir, as they are called in Iceland.