Afternoon At The Arctic


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Europe » Iceland » North » Akureyri
July 4th 2010
Published: April 6th 2011
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After two days in Reykjavik last June, I headed up north on my quest
to get around the island, clockwise, in my final remaining five days
on Iceland. Since I had such a short time, I had to scoot -- and
quickly! Taking the bus was the best option for me, though far from a
cheap one. Hitching was out, as on some of the roads, one passing car
an hour is not unheard of, and I just couldn't risk spending my time
on the island on the side of the road!

Although the distance between the capital city and Akureyri in the
north is only about 380 KM and takes about 6.5 hours by bus, I decided
to stay the night half way, in a nondescript town of about, oh, say,
12 people. Or so it seemed. Quaint just about describes the place. It
was so windy and frightfully cold, I wasn't outside much at all,
except to take a few photos. Thankfully, the hostel was warm and cosy
and I had brought enough groceries with me to cook dinner in the
little kitchen. I don't even think there was a market in the town - it
was that small. Two days after leaving the capital, I arrived in
Akureyri, the second most populated town of Iceland, with roughly
17,500 inhabitants.

Being in Iceland around the time of the summer solstice is something I
shall never forget. The midnight sun is something I wish everyone
could experience at least once in their lives. The fact that people
are outside skateboarding, riding their bicycles and out walking their
dogs at 1am, 2am, is very very real in Iceland in the summer. It felt
like a typical late afternoon in winter, the sunlight still very much
alive -- in fact, it never got dark the entire week I was in the
country.

On the last day of June, I walked out the door of my hostel at 7:10am,
along with a lovely French gal, Barbara, who was sharing my hostel (a
two-story, open floor plan, pine-wooded cabin complete with a large
common area and self-catering kitchen -- by far one of the most
impressive looking places in which I have ever stayed), and into the
town, about 15 minutes walk away. We caught a bus to Dalvik, a sleepy
yet picturesque port town on the Eyjafjörður Fjord, where, at 9am, we
set off on an old boat named the Saefari, for an afternoon on Grimsey
Island. Grimsey, only 41 KM from the mainland, is a part of Iceland
where the Arctic Circle actually runs straight through.

I spent the first hour outside on the bow enjoying the lovely scenery
and snow-capped mountains on both sides of the narrow fjord. The crisp
but fresh air felt really good but soon it got too chilly and I
high-tailed it inside to the toasty, too-warm interior of the ferry.

It was about 10:15 when I first started to feel nauseous. This soon
turned into full-blown sea sickness and I nearly didn’t make it to the
bathroom down the stairs. I really didn’t want to have to see my
spaghetti and baked beans brekkie again (leftovers from last night’s
dinner), but I did, over and over and over again for the next 1.5
hours. The longest 1.5 hours of my life. I got a plastic bag and a
sympathetic look from one of the employees on the boat and then went
to find my seat again, trying desperately to climb the steep steps
back to the sitting area while the boat continuously pitched back and
forth, left and right.

It wasn’t long before I started to fill up my barf bag. The swells
were 1.5 meters high (but apparently this was a “so-so day,” because
sometimes the waves could be up to 6 meters high, according to one of
the crew), and they spilled over the deck of the rocking boat, so
going outside for fresh air wasn’t an option unless I wanted to get
thoroughly soaked in an instant. I couldn’t get comfortable, felt like
I had cleared out my insides of every vital organ, wished - no, prayed
- the boat would dock soon, and then, at 12:03, right on schedule, the
Saefari pulled up to the pier at Grimsey. We passengers had 4 hours to
explore the island on our own, before the boat set sail again back to
Dalvik.

Once on the ground of this 5-square kilometer island, I pulled my
shaky legs out from under me, zipped up my second jacket and we were
on our way. Barbara and I took off up the paved road, which soon
turned into a gravel/dirt path, and headed north towards the Arctic
Circle, following the small airstrip to our right and the crashing
waves below us on the left.

Grimsey is known for being a fabulous bird-watching island, but as it
was, that day, the tables were turned. As I was walking up the
deserted path heading to the wooden post, indicating I was now
crossing the Arctic Circle, hundreds of angry and possessive birds
were hovering all around, above and to the sides of me. I believe they
were the Arctic terns, an aggressive attack bird, nesting in the low
grassy lands on which I was now trodding, most likely protecting their
nests and young, and anyone walking along the dirt track to the
must-see signpost bothered them. We didn’t have a long stick to poke
at them but just kept walking trying not to get our eyes gauged out by
these nasty birdies. I watched the uneven ground in front of me so as
not to step on any nests or uneven tufts of grass as I self-guided
through the yellow-flowered hillsides up to the Arctic Circle sign. On
my walk back to the main trail, by keeping my head low, the shadows on
the ground in front of me grew larger and larger as these feathered
devils loomed down towards my head at breakneck speed. I felt like
Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock's movie,The Birds, as these
relentless birds dive-bombed and tormented me with their piercing
cries and flapping wings. I have heard from other travelers that were
physically attacked by these birds, but luckily they only came within
inches of me, which was enough to make me run as fast as I could,
flapping my own arms to try and get away from them, narrowly avoiding
a potentially bloody confrontation.

We took photos at the sign, which coincidentally pointed in different
directions to famous cities around the world, but never was there
actually any indication we had actually crossed the 66 degree mark
into the Arctic Circle. I was hoping for some sort of depiction and
left feeling a bit disappointed. No matter, our spirits were instantly
lifted when we saw hundreds of puffins (my first!) all scattered
primarily along the windy, rugged coastline, heads bobbing up and down
every now and then from behind the tall grasses lining the bluffs on
the left/west side of the trail. They were absolutely adorable.

It was a glorious day; sunny, though windy and rather chilly (but what
do you expect from Iceland??), but the four hours on the island proved
not to be enough time at all. We passed high cliffs, nestled with
birds and puffins, facing into the driving winds. The guano-packed
cliff faces were a bit odorific, to say the least! Barbara and I
pressed on and walked to the northern most point of the island, and
quite possibly the highest point at 105 meters, where we sat on a
grassy knoll and ate our picnic lunch. It was the perfect location:
peaceful and solitary, overlooking the dark blue waters and "mainland"
Iceland in the distance with all her majestic snow-capped mountains.
The animated puffins surrounded the two of us, entertaining us to no
end. These rotund, funny-looking birds with their distinguished,
bright orange bills, were attempting to fly into the wind, but often
would struggle for moments on end in the same spot, mid-air, until
they were catapulted backwards from the force of the strong winds. To
say I was amused at this site would be an understatement.

After our lunch and a nice rest, we walked back on the east side of
the island and back to it's one fishing village with it's smattering
of houses and population of a scant 100. In the late afternoon, we
clambered back aboard the Saefari, the last of the passengers to
embark, and soon set off again back to Dalvik. We passengers were
assured it would be a better ("smoother, but far from smooth") journey
back, which fortunately for everyone, was the case.

The boat trip back to mainland Iceland thankfully was a world of
difference than the ride TO Grimsey; a much more bearable journey. I
got a very small cappuccino from a machine downstairs for 200
Icelandic krona (with a free refill!) and sat outside on a bench on
the stern until Grimsey became a spot on the horizon. I fought the
bitter cold with a warm tummy but when my fingers went numb and the
frigid air became unbearable, it was time to go inside. I nearly had
to strip down to my t-shirt once indoors, it was so toasty warm.
Double the caffeine in my system and a grand day behind me and I still
fell asleep almost instantly once I sat down in my comfy ferry seat.
An Adam Sandler movie was playing on the flat screen TV, but I
couldn’t be bothered; my eyes couldn’t stay focused and soon I was
completely out.

We were back in the little town of Dalvik a few minutes after 7pm but
I had woken up at least 1/2 an hour before, when the sun was out, the
waters in the bay were calm and the surrounding mountains were crystal
clear. I went outside without my jacket and took some photos. The
warmth of the sun on my face never felt better! Soon we docked and
were then shuttled back to town by our waiting bus. Despite all the
pitching and rocking of the boat for the first three hours on the high
seas heading out to the island, it was the best $68.00 I ever spent.

Grimsey was lovely, and I'm glad I spent an afternoon on the island.
The rest of my time on Iceland "proper" passed too quickly, but
nonetheless, I made it around in a matter of days and managed to catch
my early morning flight out of Keflavik to London in time. I passed by
the area in the southern part of the island where only a few months
before the volcano had blown and wreaked such havoc on air travel,
especially in and out of Europe. The ash-ridden area was grey and
desolate, but life continued on. The tour buses and tourists were out
in full swing, the grazing livestock seemed to be relocated back in
familiar territory, and the powerful waterfalls and gorgeous glacial
lakes were still amazingly eye-catching.

This is how I will always remember my week in Iceland: wildflowers and
color everywhere, green grasses and red-roofed houses; picturesque
pointy-steepled churches dwarfed by the massive vertical
mountainsides; stunningly beautiful scenery; unique in it's varied
landscapes; near vertical cliffs dropping into the wild seas.

Did I mention Iceland is stunningly beautiful? Because it is.

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