A Warm Saga from the Land of Fire and Ice

By Haley M. and Anna S. ’20
Photos by Hayden F. ’20

Not long after waking up on our first day in Reykjavik, we had already managed to dress in full Viking regalia, with steel helmets and swords. It was an incredible and hilarious tableau that encapsulated what would be, for the 23 students and four chaperones who travelled to Iceland over spring break, a truly incredible experience.

After leaving the Viking museum (and doffing our Norse battle gear), we explored the city of Reykjavik and learned about the country’s history. We took in the majestic Hallgrímskirkja cathedral and then visited the Reception House of Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, and even wandered around the grounds, as it is open to the public. This openness and trust helped give us perspective on the oft-repeated claim that Iceland has the nicest citizens in the world.

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A Warm Saga from the Land of Fire and Ice
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At the Whales of Iceland Exhibition we saw realistic, life-sized models of 23 species of whales and dolphins. Because of the material the models were made of, the carefully hand-painted details, and the sounds of whales echoing through the speakers, we felt as if we were beneath the waves.

The next day on the way to Iceland’s second largest city, Akureyri, we stopped at Grábrók crater and admired the breathtaking landscape of mossy lava fields. It was one of many stops amid the mountains and ridges that form Iceland’s rugged geography, and that allowed us to take in the full breadth of the tiny island’s unique beauty.

From our base at Akureyri, we ventured out to first stop, Goðafoss, which the locals call “the waterfall of the Gods” for good reason. We stood in awe of the 40-foot-wide Skjálfandafljót River cascading 100 feet to the rocks below, taking photos galore. Next came Lake Myvatn, whose frozen surface offered great snow angel-making, and from which we made our way to Dimmuborgir. The name means “dark castles” in Icelandic and looked eerily like Mordor from “The Lord of the Rings.”

Later we took a dip in the milky blue, mineral-rich Myvatn lake and kept a look out for the elves whose existence a majority of Icelanders believe in, or at least don’t deny.

We saw no elves.

We did see, through the steam rising from the volcano-heated springs, falling snow which capped the rocks surrounding us.

Iceland’s hot springs — and its entire existence — are the product of active volcanos; the island sits atop the boundary of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, and some of us were even able to straddle the two, essentially standing in two different continents at the same time. It rocked.

The next day, we suited up in bright red, hooded-parka onesies and embarked on a whale-watching and fishing expedition, looking like a troupe of frigid firefighters. We tried our hand at catching cod, the staple of Iceland’s fishing industry and therefore its national economy.

After we disembarked, we met Elvar Reykjalín, a colorful fisherman with no shortage of stories and who, among other things, demonstrated how to properly butcher a cod and chased us around with a fish eyeball in his mouth. Our fishing-themed day continued with a visit to Siglufjördur on the north coast, where learned about the early herring industry.

We stayed across from a beautiful river ringed by stunning mountains, but the most striking sight awaited us in the night sky. We flooded outside and beheld a rippling ribbon of green. The Northern Lights defy description and though we all took pictures, none fully captured their unique majesty. Our tour guide, who had worked in Iceland for 10 years, said that this was only the fifth time he had ever seen them, and they had never been as vibrant and active as they were that night. It was a truly a once in a lifetime sight we will never forget.

On our journey back to Reykjavik, we stopped at the University of Akureyri for a lecture on the effects of climate change on the fishing industry in Iceland, which engaged us all. We followed that with one more stop, at the unique turf houses made by the Icelandic people and which have been preserved from the 18th century.

Later we took in another natural wonder, Gullfoss, an impressive two-tiered waterfall which deserves its title as one of Iceland’s most famous sights. If you look over the edge just right, you can see a perpetual rainbow during the day.

Afterward, we visited one of Iceland’s geothermal power plants and learned about Iceland’s impressive use of renewable energy. Harnessing the endless supply of heat from the earth’s core that rises to the island naturally, the country is able to meet its energy needs while producing virtually no CO2.

After leaving the plant, we visited the Lava Tunnel and were given chains to attach to our shoes, and helmets with headlights to help guide us through the tunnel. We walked through the lava-formed cave, and admired the red hued, upside-down icicles. At the end of the cave, our guide instructed us to turn off our headlights and experience complete darkness. She told us this was the darkest environment we would ever (not) see. The experience was bizarre and disorienting — and fascinating.

Our journey had come to an end, but we reflected with gratitude on the friendships and memories that we will carry with us forever. Perhaps the most enduring lesson this tiny island in the North Atlantic taught us was that nature’s beauty is good for the spirit, and for that lesson we are all profoundly grateful too.