Published: July 19th 2009July 19th 2009
Besides having read about the Arctic in books and having seen the glossy photos in magazines, I had never really given much thought to what lay north of me. I live on Lake Erie, and so “north” is zebra mussels and maple-leaved flags. When mum sent me the scholarship application, I filled it out on a whim. It would be wonderful to travel, and as an aspiring biologist and a life-long nature lover, I was sure that I would find myriads of interesting flora and fauna . . . in the mean time, I had studying to do .
One of my references, Tim Catalano, lent me Barry Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams” when he heard of where I might be travelling. Despite the press of finals (especially chemistry) I devoured the book. Lopez’s book brought the Arctic to life for me, so much so that, although I had not yet seen tundra, tree line, ice, or frigid sea, I had already fallen in love with it.
When I learned that the destination had been changed, I was just as excited, if not more so. There is something compelling about exploring a new world and knowing that
others before you had felt the same awe, had struggled , had dreamt, and had died on and for the land. Greenland was a new world for hundreds of brave men and women, and the very precariousness of their existence makes their lives and their land all the more real. And Iceland! Biologically and geologically fascinating, I have wanted to travel to it since reading Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” My geology professor claims that it is the only country in the world that is actively growing— because of tectonic activity— as well as rising (as the land stretches its shoulders after having the weight of glaciers removed). I’ve heard too that Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Current, so that its waters teem and its shores are surprisingly green. I’ve heard that Erik the Red, in an effort to encourage people to settle on the distant, inhospitable Greenland, gave to each island the name that best fit the other. As I think on these two places, a strange procession of European and Eskimo images dances through my mind. I suppose that it is natural for lands at the ends of the Earth to thrive in
extremes: civilization and barbarism; harsh survival and surreal beauty; delicate ecosystems and nature’s astounding power. There is something in that story of life and death, light and dark, power and futility, that beggars my imagination and yet leaves me yearning for a land I’ve never seen, never felt, never endured.
Seven days and counting.
I leave tomorrow; I’m almost packed, I’ve finished Safina’s “Song for the Blue Ocean,” and I’ve made my bi-monthly inspection of Facebook. Right now, I’m enjoying a wonderful feeling of completion, and more than a little anticipation. I feel as though this will be my voyage of discovery, no less important to me than Columbus’ or Marco Polo’s voyages were to Europe. The ocean— the largest and most complex ecosystem on Earth— is too vast to even begin to imagine what I may learn and see, and that’s why I am going. I want to learn and see all I can, to comprehend it, and to share my experiences with others. It would be wonderful if something I wrote, a snapshot I took, or a word I spoke found a receptive mind. Like ripples on a pond, love for and
respect of the natural world would spread . . .
The world can be thought of as a huge, complex organism, and as long as things live and die in balance, the world is healthy. When a population spreads, uses up resources unrestrainedly, forms a cancer, the world is in trouble. Accelerated global warming is a fever that will cause extinctions, climate changes, and geographical changes. Injudicious consumption of our resources is internal bleeding, causing natural ecosystems to hemorrhage and leaving an unacceptable number of people (and animals) without the basic necessities of life. The world is still too big and too resilient to be forever destroyed by ordinary greed and lack of foresight (though our pursuit of ever-more-effective weapons and atomic secrets might do it) but it can be greatly damaged, enough so that it will become hostile to human life. People talk of this resiliency in terms of geologic time and blithely tell themselves that nothing need be done, but I am not a rock and I’ll not be around when nature recovers. I’d like to see changes now.
8-5-08: Arrival at Reykjavik
We ride over a vast lava plain; shards of what looks to
be gabbro and rhyolite lie fallen singly or into mounds. The road itself wends over crushed stone of the same type. Stone statues march along the highway. Tough little grasses, lichens, and a few brave broadleaf plants colonize this rocky terrain, covering it as mold would spot a petri dish. To the east there are mountains and steam rises from the base of one— a geothermal plant. According to our guide Haldor, 90% of Iceland’s homes use geothermal energy. Though Iceland was settled in the 9th century, there are only about 300,000 people in a land about the size of Ohio, and most of these are scattered along its jagged coastline. When we reach Reykjavik, we’ll actually be in Iceland’s most populous city; 180,000 of its 300,000 call it home. The houses we see are simple affairs painted with bright colors. The bold reds, blues, and yellows contrast sharply with the muted tans and sages of the lava plain.
Though Iceland has a rich history by human reckoning, geologically it is very young: 4 to 12 million years young. The lava that we drive over at this moment is only a few thousand years old. Because the rocks here are
so young, there hasn’t been enough time for secondary minerals to form, leaving the country energy-rich but mineral poor. We pass an aluminum smelter (but I thought Al formed from clays as a secondary mineral?) When I ask, Haldor explains that, because the energy is so inexpensive here, it’s cheaper for the smelters to import the raw materials and refine it here. Fishing, aluminum, and tourism form the basis of Iceland’s economy.
We pass the town of Keflavik on its landward side. Keflavik was an US army base until very recently (last decade or so), but its economy now revolves around fishing. Icelandic children learn three languages: Icelandic, Danish, and English. Haldor mentions that Icelandic has changed little from the original language of the Vikings, whereas the other Scandinavian languages (Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish) have been influenced by the rest of Europe. In terms of national pastimes, football (what we Americans call soccer) and golf are popular. Looking at the pitted landscape, I can only imagine trying to free your golf ball from the rough. Ninety percent of the country is Lutheran. Interestingly, dogs are not allowed on the island, because they carry a parasite that tends to spread to
people and sheep.
Q: What would you call a wise man in Hafnarfjordur?
A: A tourist.
Takk fyrir: thank you
Today I’ve met loads of people: Dee who loves the North; Jes, who is a Danish philosopher, amateur photographer, and loves the outdoors; Derry and Charlene who like to Scuba; Debbie from the lounge; Luisa from Milan, Italy; Linda who told us about dogs, parasites and Icelandic horses; Steve the boat builder; Steve the biologist; Margaret; Mike the camera guy; and Karen Copeland, our mentor.
Iceland is beautiful— a land of jagged rocks softened by a thin, green coat, a land of mountains softened by mist cloaks. The sea here in the harbor is still and surprisingly green. Jellies (not many and not big) float by as I look over the ship’s rail. They are translucent- white, maybe four inches across, with pink and white swirls of internal organs.
Reykjavik itself is quaint and full of modern art statues, parks, and old houses. Everywhere has a story— the stories are illustrated by the statues and the old buildings— and I can see that these people have a great love for this land. We pass one towering
statue of Reykjavik’s first settler, Egill Arnason. Most of the houses use corrugated tin on walls and roofs to protect from rain, the yards lack trees of any great size, and the people drive normal (USA type) cars on the right side of the road. We walk past skater-boys, bikers, Pepsi-cola advertisements, and I see nary a brown head of hair all day. All in all, Reykjavik is a young city living within old bones, and the culture of its forbears still shrouds it somewhat, like the sea-mist. Our guide Haldor is perhaps a bit over-zealous in pointing the city’s charms out to us, so that we have only thirty minutes in the House of Culture. At the House of Culture museum we peer into gloomy glass cases at old Viking sagas and eddas. They are written on calf-skin with letters of black and delicate illumination in reds, greens, and browns. We also visit an exhibit about the birth of Surtsey, the newest land on Earth. We eat at the Fish Market— a delicious two course meal with a hint of Asian influence (more than a hint, really). We have lobster-and-something-else soup and then Hag-fish prepared in three different ways.
Each is a unique taste-adventure so that I honestly thought that I was eating three different things until I was told. Our next meal is aboard the Explorer and it is also delicious. I am very excited to set sail tomorrow, but I can’t keep poor Amanda (my roommate, the other scholarship winner) up any longer with the scratching of my pencil.
So far we have been instructed in lifeboat safety and I’ve weathered (with the help of Amanda’s Dramamine) my first set of green gills. I’ve met more wonderful people, including Richard the bird-man, Ursula and Walter the German Coloradoans who know about puffins ( their jaws have parallel hinges so that they can slot the fish in more efficiently), and Robyn who has a cold. We sail to the cliffs of Byartangar, the most important bird-breeding cliffs in Europe. The cliffs, made of layers of lava flows interspersed with layers of soil, are tall, vertically shorn, and craggy with many pockets, caves, and precariously-rooted plants. Though the breeding season is ending, the grey-winged, gull-shaped kittiwakes still wheel over the sea, little black puffins make their awkward low flights, and the ever-present jellies ungulate by.
We sail northwest to see Snaefellsjȍkull (the starting point in “Journey to the Center of the Earth”). After our Iceland-expert Ragnar’s lecture on the history of Iceland, we embark upon the zodiacs. Our sturdy little vessels nod on the opaque green sea, and everywhere kittiwakes, Arctic terns, Eider ducks, and puffins bob, wheel and dive. We congregate in the zodiacs around the bow of our ship to celebrate the inaugural voyage. We smash the champagne bottle against the ship and we all sit in our rubber rafts and drink champagne and orange juice from plastic cups.
The rocky shores of Flatey Island looks much like a cake: a layer of brown seaweed, followed by black, wave-beaten rock, and then the greyer, more weathered looking volcanic rock. The thinnest layer of flora and the brightly-painted houses hide the rocky layers from island eyes, but looking from just off the coast the layers are stark and clear. The land rises in layers from the sea, the different wave textures map the currents, and in the background the Breidasfjordur cliffs fade into that indistinct blue-grey color of distance. Even the sky itself is lined and layered with clouds, as thought the heavens were
naught but a weaver’s loom and the clouds different threads.
The island’s ecology is sparse: seaweed, sea birds, tough grasses, buttercups, dandelions, a few other broadleafs, and the ever-present lichen. The people resemble their land— sparse, strong, clean. They also bake the most delicious apple cake!
Flatey Island lies behind a series of smaller isles that makes a cove, and today four bright vessels sail in the natural harbor. A small, scaffold-bound church stands upon the highest pastureland (there are more sheep than people, I would guess). Its outside is spartan, but inside a Spanish painter has left bold, dark, and coarse scenes of Jesus mixed with everyday Flatey-Island life. At our landing site, we step through seaweed crisped black and past a score or two of dead puffins, neatly lined up against a barn.
On Flatey I meet Irish Vinnie, the archaeologist that used to work in the desert; Rob the white-haired, kind-faced sailor; his son, Evan, the high school guidance counselor and soccer coach; Alexandra Cousteau who’s writing a book that spotlights the need to realize how important oceans are and protect them. She writes, explores, and lectures. At dinner, I meet Ragnar the Icelandic scholar; Mina the
Swedish woman with curly blond hair and interesting conversation; and Darcie. We talk about everything from genetics to conservation, clothes driers to birth laws.
We begin this morning at Hornstrandir, the lonely northwest corner of this lonely country. We hike five miles of broken, pit-fall lined road to the top of a high, flat cliff. It was not a challenging vertical climb, but the rough terrain caused some problems. I photographed several interesting plants— up here it is tundra-like, with lichens and mosses, stones, evidence of vernal pools, and very small, typically mound (or mat) forming plants. The view from the cliff’s edge is breathtaking; we stand on the point of the fjord and look over dark waters, white beaches and high green slopes. These high cliffs generally end in a plateau or flat area, but their gently rolling tops belie the treacherous layering of rock beneath. Sediment flows form debris piles— I see that the steep craggy land is slowly being worn away and tossed into its own valleys or the ocean.
Our next stop is Vigur Island. It is a wildlife haven; we have seen more of terns and puffins here than at the
all-important breeding cliffs of Byargtangar. The terns are garrulous, aggressive birds with short tempers and no fear, while the puffins are almost comic in their clumsy, quick-stroked flight and alert stance. Also, harbor seals play about these rocky beaches, and I look up now and again to watch one rascal pop his head up, look around, and laugh at the world before submerging again.
The eider farm consists of a couple or maybe three houses, several shacks, and the barn. The ducks are quite tame and seem to view humans as benefactors rather than enemies. A path has been cut into the island’s naturally grassy face, and what is left long is full of seabird nests. The small beaches are rocky, while the rest of the coast is hidden by dark piles of seaweed-clad boulders, forming small tidal pools. Huge basalt outcroppings stand, ancient sentinels, beaten age after age by the wind and sea and decorated with orange and grey lichens. The rocks are the bones of this land; you can see that the plants and people grow on them tenuously. I think of the old Norse legend of a giant being killed and his bones becoming the land and I can see where such a story would come from.
After Vigur, we turn our bow to the west and leave Iceland behind us. Lindblad’s president and founder Sven Olaf is no longer aboard, having departed after our morning hike. Tonight we have our first debriefing. We talk about Iceland’s current wealth (Aluminum and fishing), the controversies over creating more power plants (involves dam building), and selling Icelandic medical records to a company researching genetics. A passenger from Hull (I think) England told us a tale. I record it in brief, but I will try to remain true to his style.
“We’ve had beautiful weather, so you don’t know what Iceland is like in winter. Imagine, if you can, a bit of twine, big as a broom handle with all the ice frozen on it. Imagine men’s lips freezing together, imagine the dew form your nose freezing into icicles— it was that cold. This place that you’re in now [Hornstrandir] has seen a lot of maritime history. Ships from Hull used to come fish these waters, but the Icelanders said it was Icelandic waters. We knew we were right, but history has judged and proved them right. One year, the winter of [63 or 68] was the worst on record. Ships would sail into this fjord, you see, and get in the lee of those cliffs for protection from northern gales. Once ice started forming on your rigging, it was a race against time; you see, you had to cut it down from the ropes and the mast or the weight of it would flip your ship like a turtle. Three ships had gone down here in two weeks. The chaplain of Hull had had to knock on sixty doors to tell the families ‘so and so is not coming home.’ Well, he knocked on the door of Mrs. Harry [Egan]. They presumed that Harry was dead.
Now, this water is so cold in the winter— I’ve been submerged, and I swam four breast strokes before I was frozen crucified, like this—” here he sticks his arms out in illustration — “The ship made for the lee of those cliffs, but when they tried to turn to avoid crashing nose-first into them, the ice in the rigging pulled the ship over. Before the ship went down, three guys got into a life raft. Two died of exposure, but Harry survived the night. I knew Harry Egan when he was a kid; 5’4” and tough as teeth. Somehow he survived, wet and frozen, suffering from extreme exposure, but he knew there was a farmhouse eight miles away. So, he walked around the fjord through the snow. When he got there, it was boarded up— a summer house. Harry Egan was a sailor and so he got into the lee of the house to wait out the night. He stood, because he knew if he sat he would fall asleep and never wake up. Well, he survived the second night but he didn’t know what to do next.
He was just about to give up when this boy appears. He had come to check on the house. Harry Egan’s widow gets a call from him, ‘Harry, where are you? In heaven or in hell? I didn’t know they had telephones.’ Harry Egan swore to her that he would never sail again. Eight weeks later he was on another boat. Maritime history was made here; when another ship was about to go down the same way, two Icelandic coastguardsmen risked their lives to get the crew to safety.”
We eat our supper with Sissy and Cotton. Cotton used to do website design. I learned that Derry and Charlene do charity work and did computer stuff, Bob sails on the National Geographic Sea Bird, his son Evan wanted to be a soccer coach and is a guidance councilor, and Susan the New Yorker does not like the outdoors, roughing it, or anglers (the fish). I take a walk on deck and chat with Richard, who watches for interesting creatures. I ask how far out the sea-birds will go from land. He explains that there are birds all over the sea; mariners learn which kinds tend to stay close to the shore. There are minkie whales, orcas, and (possibly) humpback whales in this area. As we get farther from Iceland and get off the continental shelf, we’ll have a better chance of seeing bigger baleen whales (minkies and humpbacks are both baleen whales). Richard spots several dolphins being circled by the 6-foot winged birds named gannets, but even with binoculars I can’t see them. Tonight, we change our clocks as we head west towards Greenland.