A trip to volatile, alluring Iceland

With Bárðarbunga threatening to erupt, our correspondant looks back at a recent visit to the island of ice and fire

Photo: Shelby Gilje

Photo: Shelby Gilje

Shelby Gilje
Seattle, Wash.

Its waterfalls are breathtaking; its steamy geysers fascinating; its bubbling mud flats could make you believe you’ve flown to the moon.

And if you long for adventure, note that Icelanders reside among live volcanoes, and one erupts about every five years. Most are not as dramatic as Eyjafjallajokull, which erupted in 2010 grounding thousands of airline flights in and around Europe. I would not care to be present for a volcanic eruption, but would love to see the Northern Lights or aurora borealis.

The sun does not set completely in Iceland in June. The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, are best viewed time from mid September through mid April.

And the food? Who wouldn’t enjoy the sumptuous breakfast buffets that are standard fare in Nordic cultures; marvelous fish-stock-based soups for lunch; salads with all manner of vegetables and delicious fish dishes. And of course fresh lamb. At one hotel there were raised beds of herbs and other ready-to-pick salad materials outside my room window.

But why write about Iceland for the Norwegian American Weekly? Let’s talk DNA. Or if you want to be technical, deoxyribonucleic acid.

According to an exhibit in the National Museum of Iceland, 80 percent of Icelandic men’s DNA connects them to Norway; while 51 percent of the women have Celtic DNA. And Icelanders speak a form of Old Norse, which gave the English language words such as “jury, them, their, husband, sister, born, and die” to name but a few. So a visit to Iceland can be a bit like visiting cousins in other parts of Scandinavia.

Our tour group learned about Iceland’s history during an 11-day University of Washington Alumni Association trip arranged by Odysseys Unlimited, with lecturer Terje Leiren, professor of Scandinavian studies and history at the UW, and Icelandic tour director Steingrimur Gunnarsson. Our group of 17 travelers hailed from Washington, Oregon, California, Alabama, and Minnesota.

Photo: Shelby Gilje You almost can’t walk around in Iceland without tripping over a waterfall.

Photo: Shelby Gilje
You almost can’t walk around in Iceland without tripping over a waterfall.

Just as many visitors do, we traveled the Ring Road northeast from Reykjavik to Akureyri. We made frequent stops at scenic spots, and saw a spectacular waterfall nearly every day.

The extensive pastoral countryside with lambs, ewes, cattle, and horses was easy on the eyes. Not much traffic, though on country roads our tour bus occasionally had to pause for meandering sheep. After all, the half million sheep outnumber people in Iceland.

Photo: Shelby Gilje Namaskard in Myvatn is so unearthly that NASA sent its astronauts there to practice for their trip to the moon.

Photo: Shelby Gilje
Namaskard in Myvatn is so unearthly that NASA sent its astronauts there to practice for their trip to the moon.

Lake Myvatn and the surrounding area in the north are alive with bubbling mud flats, lava fields and moon-like volcanic craters. It is a nature reserve that ranks among the most beautiful sights in Iceland if not the world. Looking at these surreal environs it’s easy to comprehend why Neil Armstrong, the late American astronaut and the first man to walk on the moon, and his colleagues, trained on Iceland’s moonscapes.

A dip in the warm, relaxing Myvatn Nature Baths is about $22 per person, rather than the $75 to $100 fee at the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik. No one in our tour group opted for the famous but pricey Blue Lagoon, but half a dozen donned swimwear for Myvatn’s more reasonable hot springs.

Photo: Shelby Gilje Chris Eisinger models mosquito netting, the hot fashion statement for summer.

Photo: Shelby Gilje
Chris Eisinger models mosquito netting, the hot fashion statement for summer.

However, beware the summer insects in the Myvatn area! The birds may love them, but swarms of gnats and mosquitoes bugged some of us so much that we spent about $14 for netting to cover our faces. Yes, some of us looked costumed for Halloween; some tourists passing us on a hiking trail laughed but said: “You are smart!”

Geothermal power plants are able to harness heat coming from deep in the earth for more than just spas or swimming areas. The pipes that deliver this energy to Iceland’s approximately 330,000 residents can be seen along the road side. It helps generate energy with minimal pollution.

A friend who grew up in Iceland urged me to try some special foods there. Skyr, pronounced skeer, is Iceland’s version of yogurt, and I gave it a thumbs up. She also recommended rugbraud. In a cafeteria I tried a large slice of the dark, rye bread that completely covered a salad plate topped with a like amount of smoked salmon. Traditionally the bread is baked in the ground near a hot spring, but it definitely had picked up a fuel-like flavor, a little too much so for my taste buds. Travel guidebooks also caution that excessive consumption of rugbraud causes flatulence, earning it the nickname þrumari which roughly translates to “thunder bread.”

My taste buds responded more favorably to a tiny cube of shark meat at Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum, where siblings Hulda Hildibrandsdottir and Gudjon Hildibrandsson continue their family’s 400-year tradition of processing shark meat.

The flesh of a Greenland shark is poisonous, because of the toxin trimethylamine oxide, which, upon digestion, breaks down into trimethylamine, producing effects similar to drunkenness. Similar problems occur with the related Pacific sleeper shark, but not in most other shark species, whose meat is often consumed fresh.

Photo: Shelby Gilje Carroll Hershey tries shark dipped in Brennivin, also known as “black death.”

Photo: Shelby Gilje
Carroll Hershey tries shark dipped in Brennivin, also known as “black death.”

Greenland shark can be eaten if it is boiled in several changes of water or dried or fermented for some months to produce Hákarl, considered a delicacy in Iceland and Greenland.
These shark “farmers,” as they are called, let it ferment for six to nine weeks, then dry it in an open, roof-covered shed for three to four months. Hákarl, or putrid shark meat, is sold in stores for about $100 for 2.2 pounds. Our hosts offered us a sample dipped in a shot of Brennivin, also called “black death,” a vodka made from potatoes. Maybe that helped it go down!

Icelanders waste nothing: they are great at repurposing. At Gauksmyri Horse Farm, which raises and trains Icelandic horses—and riders—halfway between Reykjavik and Akureyri, hoof trimmings had been made into napkin rings. Ditto for barbed wire fencing sprayed with glitter. And there were necklaces and key chains made with polished hoof materials that resembled agates, and old horseshoes repurposed into napkin or mail holders.

Three trainers at the horse farm demonstrated the smooth gait of Icelandic horses, with one woman, Marina Schregelmann, a 23-year-old kindergarten teacher from Germany, holding a full glass of beer while her horse galloped. She spilled very little.

It takes about three years to fully train these horses, and about 80,000 are exported each year to fans in Europe and the United States. Such a horse for a family costs $2,000 to $3,000. You might find it hard to believe, but according to Gunnarsson Iceland has more horses as pets than cats and dogs.

In Akureyri, we viewed more examples of reusing/repurposing at the gallery of textile artist Anna Gunnarsdottir, who works with wool, silk, leather, and fish skin. The artist uses hand-felted Icelandic wool to make decorative globes, lamps, and a variety of other items. And jackets and dresses are made of fish skins. She displayed a bowl that looked as if it had been made from netting. Fish nets or old stockings? I wondered. Nope. “A sheep’s intestine,” Gunnarsdottir said. She was elected City Artist of Akureyri in 2008, and has studied and exhibited around the world.

One of our more interesting stops was a visit to a family farm at Thorvaldseyri, near where the volcano Eyjafjallajokull erupted four years ago. The volcano’s name means island, mountain, and glacier. It is difficult for non-Icelanders to pronounce. But try these pronunciations: AY-yah-fyad-layer-kuh-tel or Eye-a-fyat-la-jo-kutl. Or take a suggestion from Rick Steves, travel operator and author of numerous guide books, and simply call it “E15,” 15 signifying the number of letters that follow the initial “E.”

While there we viewed a professional video of the eruption made by PlusFilm of Iceland and heard from the farm couple, Olafur Eggertsson and his wife, Gudny Valberg. When they heard the forecast that the volcano would erupt, Gudny said they worried most about their cows and placed them in the barn with a four-day food supply before the family left the farm.

“We did not know when we might be able to return,” she added. Upon their return they found the cows were okay, but ashes from the eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull were everywhere. Friends and neighbors came and helped clean up. Then of course there were other problems such as flooding, as the volcano had rearranged the landscape.

Now the family operates the Eyjafjallajokull Visitor Center, which includes a theater where the video is shown and a gift shop. And the sheep they previously farmed? “Now we are down to 11 sheep,” said Gudny, who narrated much of the video.

Iceland facts & figures

325,000, of which about 200,000 reside in or around Reykjavik.
Number of tourists rose from 300,000 in 2003 to almost 700,000 in 2012. Tourism represents 6.6 percent of Iceland’s GDP and contributes to 19 percent of the export income.
No army:
Iceland is the only NATO country that has no army, and its police officers do not carry firearms on regular duty.
Patronymic names:
Sveinsson or Sveinsdottir, signifying the son or daughter of Svein, are commonly used.
Imagine having a geyser open up beneath your home or its plumbing! Some property owners in Iceland purchase geyser insurance.

Shelby Gilje is a longtime Pacific Northwest journalist having worked at The Kitsap Sun of Bremerton, The Seattle Times and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 29, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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