Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

Pillowy Softness

Posted from Keflavic, Iceland at 10:45 am, July 11th, 2008

Beds are soft and warm and comfortable and awesome.

The cliffs of Arnarstapi were roamed all night under the midnight sun. Seabird colonies are generally noisy, chaotic places, so it was almost otherworldly to see all of the birds quiet and either resting or calmly staring back at me. The Arctic fox made a brief (although un-photographable) reappearance, and the twilight painted magic through the evening.

I set off towards Reykjavik at 4:30 a bit sleepy but more peaceful than anything else. A day earlier I had been thinking that the one photograph I most wished I had gotten was a good shot of the whooper swans, who in general have been so wary that they swim away at the first glimpse of a person; it seems I did something right in a past life, because at 5:30 a family of swans was sitting in a pond next to the road, posing for pictures. Shortly thereafter the little guys in the brain signalled that if there wasn’t at least a couple of hours of sleep that they would go on strike, and since that’s generally a bad thing while driving I pulled over and let the neurons rest.

Once back in Reykjavik I roamed all over looking for the delicious cafe that the Skipper and I ate at two weeks ago, and of course finally found it a block away from my parking spot. After lunch I returned to the cathedral for another obligatory photo of the Leifur Eriksson statue, and finally came back to find a parking ticket on the Wondermobile – apparently being able to read the small print (in Icelandic) under the giant “P” sign would have been helpful. After returning the Wondermobile and catching the bus to Keflavik there was much sleeping, showering, and trimming of hair and beard. Today it’s off to the airport and a flight to Boston, and after that the great Iceland Adventure of 2008 comes to its end.

Whooper Swans

In a past life I did good things, and so in this life I get to photograph swans. Assuming karma is real, in my next life I suspect that I may have to endure daily beatings.

Ending at the Beginning

Posted from Arnarstapi, Iceland at 12:45 am, July 10th, 2008

The trip is coming to a close in a pretty cool way – it’s nearly one in the morning and the skies are totally clear, allowing the twilight to cover the land. For about two hours the sun has been hovering around the horizon and the world has turned purple – if sleepiness doesn’t get too extreme I’d like to stay up all night to fully savor this midnight sun experience.

Here’s the day’s summary: I unintentionally slept late again, waking up at 9:30 under clear skies. It took about four hours of steady driving to reach the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and after a traditional Icelandic hot dog lunch the Wondermobile started the journey around the western edge of the peninsula. Given the clear weather the landscape was fully visible and it’s a beautiful place, with the Snaefellsjokull icecap (gateway to Jules Verne’s center of the earth) dominating the scenery. I made a stop at a bird cliff set amidst old lava flows at the peninsula’s western end, then headed up a four-wheel-drive-only track towards the icecap. From the high vantage point I got to watch the fog enveloping the peninsula’s end before I headed southeast towards Hellnar and Arnarstapi, site of the trip’s beginning.

I arrived in Hellnar at 10:00 PM, which in recent days has been when the light disappeared, and set off hiking without the camera. Of course on this night the world turned purple, kittwakes were feeding their fluffy white chicks, and the trip’s second Arctic fox showed up. It was tough to be upset over the lack of photos, however, especially since the odds are that I would have botched the pictures and it was nice to utterly relax amidst the scenery. Additionally, the symmetry of ending where things began is nice as it gives some insight on what effect the trip has had – for example, I’m noticing small details that I would have missed four weeks ago, and feel more willing to slow down and let the world unfold around me. Modern life makes both of those experiences difficult to accommodate, and as much as having a bed and a shower sounds nice it will be a shame to revert back to old ways.

Northern Fulmar

Northern fulmar. Flying.

Topless Mountaineering

Posted from Siglufjordur, Iceland at 8:55 pm, July 8th, 2008

An unexpectedly great day. The past few days have apparently been more exhausting than I realized, and after a long ten hours of sleep I was awoken by an arriving tour bus at 9:30. The fog was still heavy, so the Wondermobile was guided to Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city with a population of over 16,000. The library there offers free internet access, and more importantly has a cafe with really good coffee, so I took a couple of hours to catch up with the news and get my caffeine on.

Since there wasn’t a real plan for the day, and since there was a paved road heading around the coast, I detoured off of the ring route and took in the countryside. Eventually the road turned inland, and as the mountains rose and a fjord disappeared behind me the Little Voice in my head started talking. The conversation went something like this:

“Stop and climb a mountain.” said the Little Voice. “Please? Why wouldn’t you stop. It’s perfect weather and this scenery is about as good as it gets.”

“Little Voice,” I replied, “my legs are very tired from all of the recent hiking, and I want to get to the west fjords to photograph birds. There’s no time to climb mountains.”

“But there are no trails and no other people around, so you’ll have the mountain all to yourself.” persisted the Little Voice. “And besides, why did you come to Iceland if not to climb remote mountains that overlook fjords?”

Duly chastised by my inner monologue, who made an excellent argument, I pulled the Wondermobile off of the road and set off up a massive and scenic peak. Following a zig-zag path through boggy fields, up snowy slopes, and over loose rock it took a couple of hours and a few buckets of sweat to reach the summit, but the experience was awe-inspiring. While at the top I took a handful of photos, including several of fog rolling in from the fjords; it was only after about ten minutes that the realization dawned that heavy fog would make it extraordinarily difficult to navigate back to the car, so a hurried descent was made, all the while making note of every landmark I could find to use as guides back to the Wondermobile. Luckily whatever was rolling in wasn’t terribly thick, and the long trip back to the car ended up being surprisingly straightforward.

After the mountain climb the next stop was a short detour along high cliffs to Siglufjordur, Iceland’s northernmost town. The place once had a population of over 10,000 but the herring fishery collapsed in the sixties, and now it’s a sleepy and very beautiful little outpost along a fjord. Most important about this town, however, is that by the harbor is a municipal campground with hot showers. As grungy backpacker Ryan stepped into the shower and turned on the water a chorus of angels sang out and light shone down from the heavens as the liquid cleanliness flowed forth. I really liked this town when I arrived, but after that other-worldly bit of refreshment I found myself briefly considering forgoing a return visit to the bird cliffs of western Iceland in order to stay here for another day.


Listen to your inner voice, unless it is psychotic. Non-psychotic inner voices make you do things like climb mountains even when you’re tired, and that’s all good. And apologies for posting my ugly mug on two straight days, but this is (unfortunately) the best picture I have from the mountain top.

The Fog

Posted from Godafoss, Iceland at 9:25 pm, July 7th, 2008

I finally found a spot to sleep and headed to bed at 2:30 last night, then got up at 8:30 to revisit the waterfalls. Two days ago I was debating skipping Dettifoss altogether, and instead ended up visiting it three times – go figure. It’s a pretty awesome waterfall (“awesome” as in it shakes the ground), and after the fog lifted and visibility increased to more than two feet I found a placard that clarified the “largest waterfall” confusion from yesterday – the placard states that it is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. p = mv and all that, apparently.

There was a bunch of hiking today in Jokulsargljufur National Park, although I’m old and sore so not as much distance was covered as yesterday. The trails led to some odd lava formations, through the river gorge, and past several waterfalls. I took a look at Dettifoss from both the east and west side of the river – distance across the river canyon: probably two hundred yards, driving time: about two hours. Unlike the United States they aren’t concerned with saving people from their own stupidity here, so there are no railings or safety warnings around the waterfalls, which provides some amazing opportunities – I was able to sit on a sheer cliff with the waterfall roaring next to me for a good hour this afternoon, alone to think and enjoy the scene.

After leaving the eastern side of Dettifoss the journey continued on its loop back to Myvatn and onwards towards the west coast. While driving through Myvatn a bank of fog came in from the fjords that literally looked like something out of a Stephen King novel, and it went from blue skies and sunny to druid-like in about two seconds. The parking spot (for now) is by a waterfall further inland, and barring someone kicking me out the plan is to hide in the fog here tonight and then head on to the western fjords tomorrow. Sadly there are only two full days remaining in the trip before I have to head back to Reykjavik to return the Wondermobile on the tenth, with the return flight scheduled to depart on the afternoon of the eleventh; with luck the weather will stay good and the adventures will continue until then.


Posted from Jokulsargljufur National Park, Iceland at 1:05 am, July 7th, 2008

Ridiculously full day. Started out at seven in the morning roaming around on a volcano, ’cause that’s how I start my days now, and then revisited a number of sites around Myvatn including Vindbelgjarfjall. Lonely Planet describes the mountain thusly: “the easy climb up 529m-high Vindbelgjarfjall, west of the lake, offers one of the best views across the water.” Lonely Planet’s editors either just returned from an expedition up Mt. Everest or else they forgot the “…NOT!” after “easy”. In any case, the views are inspiring and a little exercise is always a good thing, so I climbed the beast both days. Today two little kids were already on the trail, and seeing as I’m competitive to an unhealthy degree I figured I could catch them and pass them along the trail. Lesson learned – Little Kid A went up the trail like a mountain goat and absolutely dominated me, although Little Kid B fell by the wayside about halfway up. Whether it’s healthy to compete against little kids in mountain climbing is a subject that can be dealt with later in a professional setting.

After chasing birds, more hiking, and other fun the next stop was at the Myvatn Nature Baths for a shower and some hot spring time. The notable events from this stop: first, during the mandatory pre-hot spring cleaning the showers were open and very close together. Having a hairy, large, butt-naked man scrubbing vigorously in the shower next to you is not good, and especially not good when you have mantouch issues. Second, the hot springs are nice – they make your skin pretty. Third, bikinis rule; there can never be too many good things said about them. And finally, in the changing rooms on the way out the little naked singer appeared. Maybe being a parent makes having a little naked guy walking around singing seem normal, but to this childless thirty-something it seemed just a bit surreal.

The marathon of a day continued after the nature baths with some photography followed by a longish drive along a four-wheel-drive-only road to visit Dettifoss, the largest waterfall in Europe. It’s listed as being the largest waterfall “by volume”, although since there are other waterfalls downstream it’s mildly confusing as to why this particular waterfall got designated the largest. In any case, even shrouded in dense fog (visibility is probably fifty feet) it’s a hugely impressive sight, but a warning to any future visitors – the spray blasting off of this waterfall will soak you; unfortunately my nice clean clothes are now quite damp after hiking down to the canyon’s edge. It’s now well after one in the morning, and as sleepiness is creeping in I’m stuck for a place to spend the night – the Dettifoss parking lot is the first place in Iceland where there has actually been a sign posted saying that sleeping in cars is prohibited, so I’m off to find another spot to park the Wondermobile for the few remaining hours of this evening.


Very nice I like you peoples!

Blow’d Up

Posted from near Myvatn, Iceland at 9:25 pm, July 5th, 2008

Perfect weather, lots of hiking. Myvatn and its lake is very pretty, with lots of birds and lots of geologic stuff that blows up. Europe and North America are moving apart at a rate of two centimeters per year here, and the result is a volcano, some hot springs, lots of lava flows, and too many other geothermal things for me to remember. Any geologist reading this right now is probably all like “son of a…” – sorry, I don’t know from rocks.

The weather report claims that the wet and blowy stuff will be staying away for a few days, so the plan is to stay here for at least another day. I’ve been spending nights sleeping in the Wondermobile, and can say with some authority that a Suzuki Jimmy will not let anyone who is over three foot six sleep comfortably; the contortions required to lay down in the back seat while stretching my legs into the driver seat are worthy of Cirque du Soleil. As much as I’m enjoying this return to my grungy backpacker roots, the shower and bed that’s waiting at Hotel Keflavik on 10 July is looking better and better.

Red-Necked Phalarope

Red-necked phalarope being photographable.


Posted from near Myvatn, Iceland at 7:10 pm, July 4th, 2008

The majority of the day was spent under overcast skies in Husavik, the whale watching capital of Iceland. After the close encounters in Antarctica the standard for whale experiences has been raised unreasonably high, so instead of going on a boat ride I visited the whale museum. The museum is excellent and features skeletons from several beached whales that do a good job conveying how big the animals are since… well, since they’re skeletons of whales, and are life-sized and stuff. Interesting facts learned about orcas: the females live to be 90 (!), and the name “killer whale” was bastardized in translation – early Basque whalers saw orcas attacking larger whales and named them “whale killers”. Interesting facts about sperm whales: they can dive to two miles in depth and hold their breath for two hours; no word on the origin of the name, and I won’t make any guesses since my mom reads this journal.

An interesting aspect to the museum was the fact that Iceland, along with Norway and Japan, is on the short list of countries actively engaging in whaling. There is a history of eating whale meat in Iceland going back over a thousand years, and the Icelandic word describing a beached whale essentially translates as “hitting the lottery” since back in the day a beached whale could feed several families through the winter. Things are different now, however, and while Icelanders will still consume minke whale meat in small amounts, the majority of the meat from the endangered fin whales that were killed in 2006 was never purchased and remains frozen in industrial freezers. While minimal whaling for minke whales might be seen as justified, the push from the whaling industry for larger harvests of minke, fin, and potentially other whales just doesn’t make much sense, especially considering that revenue from whale watching far exceeds whaling revenues. The position on the issue in this museum was clear, if muted, and they posted an interesting cartoon on the subject from a Reykjavik newspaper that showed a whale arguing with whalers that an intelligent animal shouldn’t be killed, and ended with the whalers shooting the whale and then asking “Hey, did we just shoot a talking whale?”

I have a belly button

Posted from Melrakkasletta Peninsula, Iceland at 10:45 pm, July 3rd, 2008

After re-reading the guidebook it turns out that the Langanges Peninsula is famous among mariners for its thick and persistent fog, so rather than wandering off into the morning mist I spent a couple of hours with the birds and the seas before turning back for fog-free lands. Once out of the fog banks the weather was good all day, and the scenery of Northern Iceland is tremendous – amidst lakes, hills and seascapes were birds including loons, whooper swans, red-throated divers, phalaropes, plovers, whimbrels, snipes, oystercatchers, eider ducks, harlequin ducks, gulls, jaegers, and numerous others that I couldn’t identify.

Amidst the nature and scenery the day’s main event involved another act of stupidity. It was my assumption that Iceland was located in the North Atlantic, but the Lonely Planet has been taunting me with two words – Arctic Ocean. If in fact Iceland really is in the North Atlantic and the book’s editors were merely playing a practical joke in the hopes that some fool would try to add another ocean to his swimming tally then congratulations to the editors, because they found their fool. Barring any mischief by the guidebook staff there are now four oceans that I’ve swum in, and surprisingly today’s soaking seemed ever-so-slightly warmer than the glacial dip a short time ago. In this case the water was unfortunately shallower so entry and exit took considerably more time and the brain was able to more strenuously argue its objections prior to the full dive into the freezing cold. Rod previously commented that he doesn’t get why I need to jump into cold water – luckily by definition irrational acts don’t have to make sense and it can be assumed that some sort of brain damage is the ultimate cause.

UPDATE: According to Wikipedia the northern part of Iceland does indeed touch the Arctic Ocean. Boo yah.

I stepped in sheep poo

Posted from Langanes Peninsula, Iceland at 11:15 pm, July 2nd, 2008

God spent most of the day recharging the waterfalls, but the wet stuff finally quit around 6:30 PM and the big bright thing made a brief appearance. The eastern fjords of Iceland are supposed to be incredible, but with visibility sometimes reduced to four inches it’s impossible to be be one hundred percent certain – Lonely Planet will have to remain the authority on the subject.

Since there’s still a lot of time remaining until the return home I made a detour up north to the Langanes Peninsula, which the guidebook describes as one of the loneliest parts of Iceland. Having spent over two hours driving the fifty kilometer “road” out here, it seems like the guidebook has it right. There are a handful of abandoned farms, a lot of birds, an occasional sheep, some rolling hills, and a blustery coast, but almost no signs of people – there have been two other cars all night, and no inhabited buildings. One very cool sight while coming out was a herd of 20-30 nearly wild horses running along the coast – they don’t like cars, and it was impressive seeing so many animals all take off at full speed across the countryside. The “road” ended in the midst of a long-abandoned fishing village so I’m camped here for the evening with winds howling, dozens of birds flying by every minute, and some impressive sea cliffs disappearing into the fog along the peninsula’s southwest coast. If the weather cooperates there will be a lot of exploring tomorrow, and if it doesn’t then it may be time to make an offering to Thor to try and get the sun back again.

Sting-ing Rain, Big ‘ol Fat Rain

Posted from Hvalnes, Iceland at 4:15 pm, July 1st, 2008

Today started out looking like good weather, and has turned into one of those days that usually requires a guy in a yellow raincoat on TV to be saying “The full force of this category three storm is now becoming apparent…”. At the moment I’m parked in the Wondermobile next to a lighthouse, and the car is shaking as waves of horizontal rain go tearing past; this is definitely the strongest storm I’ve been in recently, even more impressive than the two big storms at the beginning of this trip.

Aside from Mother Nature’s fury it’s otherwise been an unremarkable day. I slept late (8:00 AM), visited the glacial lagoon, and then covered some ground driving towards the eastern side of the country. Nature-wise there’s a sheltered bit of ocean about a half mile from my current parking spot with several hundred swans in it, and I also passed a sign with a picture of a reindeer on it; it would be more notable had I seen an actual reindeer, but when the weather is this bad I’ll take what I can get.