Tag Archives: Vatnajökull

ICELAND 2016 3: Hvolsvöllur to Kirkjubæjarklaustur via Skaftafell, Jökulsárlón


Our principal destination for the day was a visit to western Europe’s largest national park, about 140 miles east of our starting point, Hvolsvöllur. We were headed for Skaftafell,  the oldest national park in the country, now included in the vast Vatnajökull National Park.  (A fell is a mountain or hill, while a jökull is a glacier.) Along the way we passed lots of small waterfalls descending from the coastal ridge and admired the moss that thickly carpets roadside lava fields when we stopped to stretch our legs. The vast glaciers that provide the soil and water for the coastal plains came into view in this stretch of the coast, building anticipation of the vast icy slopes at Skaftafell.

imgp1668 The Skaftafell park center is located at the foot of hills between two big glaciers, Skeiðarárjökull and Skaftafellsjökull. It has a very nice visitors center with displays explaining the geology and human history of the area, as well as artifacts from early research trips on the glaciers. Commercial guide companies have reception centers in small buildings along the edge of the visitors’ center’s parking lot. There is still no entrance fee to the park, so the lot is pretty full most summer days. There is also a campground without a separate entrance just past the parking lot, adding to the traffic.

Our plan was to do a moderate hike in the park. I expected some discussion of whether we should check out the visitor center first, but we set out for the trailhead as soon as we had 20160729_061719our daypacks ready to go. Our destination was Svartifoss (black waterfall) that appears on many postcards and tourist snapshots. I have often visited it on the way to farther destinations in the park, but this was our first real hike of the trip. We wanted to see how everyone’s knees felt about going up and down Icelandic trails and we knew there would be a lot of people on the trail.

We hiked a three-mile loop that felt like more, with lots of photo stops and brief interactions with other hikers from many countries on the trail. I remember hearing Icelandic, Spanish, Italian and British English; I am sure there were Asian and Indian visitors as well.

We ate lunch somewhere along the way and returned to the car in early afternoon. Bragi suggested we really should visit Jökulsárlón or Glacial Lagoon, as it is not much farther east (35 miles) along Highway 1. It is another very popular tourist stop, with duckboats doing tours among the icebergs calving from the glacier. We agreed to skip the boat tour and walk both the beach below the bridge and the shoreline beside the Lagoon. In August of 2016 the icebergs seemed about half the size of those in my photos a decade earlier. I realized that Susan didn’t have this comparison, so I did not mention my disappointment. I hoped the shrinkage reflected this summer’s warm temperatures, and not the general trend of quickly shrinking glaciers caused by climate change.


We enjoyed walking the dark beach and looking at the chunks of ice glistening on the sand as they shrank. There were many fantastic shapes, and many photographers trying to capture the perfect image for their recorded memories.

The bridge at the mouth of the lagoon was built with concern for the possible effect of an iceberg the size of an apartment building ramming the structure. Fortunately, a clever engineer designed an iceberg trap that sits on the floor at the mouth of the lagoon, about fifty feet upstream from the bridge. I picture it as a broad bar with strong metal teeth extending toward the surface of the water. Nine-tenths of each iceberg is underwater (remember from grade school science class?) so icebergs that won’t fit under the bridge are stopped until they shrink down to a size that slides easily under the valued structure.

We walked beside the lagoon as well, taking photos there, too. We ended our visit there trying to skip stones that were rarely flat across the still lagoon waters, and then attempting to flip a floating chunk of ice by tossing rocks to shift its balance. I think the nine-tenths-below-the-water rule spelled failure from the start, but it was a nice day and we may have been reluctant to climb back into the car.

It was 77 miles back to our lodging at a farm hostel near Kirkjubæjarklaustur,  but we enjoyed the very green scenery, once we had passed the large glaciers and their gray outwash plains. Susan walked from the highway junction near the village to the pretty local waterfall, Stjornafoss, and an interesting local landmark known as Kirkjugólf, the Church Floor. The twenty-five by thirty-foot Floor is composed of the tops of a small field of basalt columns.

This little village is one of my favorite stops on the south coast of Iceland. But I have to admit that pronouncing Kirkjubæjarklaustur was a big challenge for me when I first visited here. After I had picked up a little vocabulary it was easier. Kirkju = church, bæjar = farm, klaustur = monastery/convent. Any word this long in a Germanic language is going to be a composite, so the challenge is to split the long word into manageable short ones. Figuring out where each syllable ends is a longer term issue.

No one has ever called me a foodie, but I have to admit that good food is one of the attractions of this area. I have stayed at least twice at Geirland, a really nice farm inn, a couple kilometers inland from the village. They serve excellent meals, but were not in our budget this trip. Once I had my Icelandic phone working (it took the second day in Iceland to get the battery charged, new phone company directions correctly interpreted, etc.), I phoned Geirland to see if they might have room for us in the dining room this evening. ‘No, they had a big tour group coming in, they were sorry but they had no room for us at the table.’

My next choice was the Systrakaffi,  a casual café near the highway junction where I had enjoyed lunches and late afternoon teas in the past. It was seven by the time we got there and there was a crowd at the door. We asked the people ahead of us and they said it seemed like a long wait for a menu that was shrinking with the evening’s food supply. We thought about returning to our hostel and pulling out one of our freeze-dried meals. Someone in the parking lot suggested another café — actually a deli they said, down the local road a bit farther. I don’t know that Kaffi Munkar  had been there the last time I visited the area, but they featured the excellent local farmed fish, bleikja or arctic char. I don’t eat farmed fish at home; there are lots of nice healthy wild fish available here. In Iceland I try out what is on the menu and have found bleikja delicious and affordable. Susan chose something more familiar to her and we both enjoyed our meals.

Our farm hostel lodging turned out to be another double bed in an even smaller room than our lodging the previous night. This hostel did have two bathrooms for the five rooms of guests, and beautiful farm scenery on the (ten mile?) country road from the highway. I slept well in the quiet surroundings. I think it was overpriced and cannot make any recommendations for budget lodging in this area.

At the end of the day I recorded the birds we had seen so far: whimbrel, great skua, arctic skua, arctic tern, fulmar, red wing, wagtail, whooper swan, plover, snipe, oyster catcher. It has taken a while for me to become familiar with these north Atlantic birds, but birds are most of the wildlife to be seen in Iceland, so I enjoy recognizing them as we pass.



My Favorite Volcanologist

It shouldn’t be completely surprising that someone writing a book about Iceland´s volcanoes could develop a fan relationship with a particular volcanologist.  His name is Sigurður Þórarinsson (Seh-gur-thur Thor-ar-in-sohn), or Siggi to his friends.  He lived from 1912 – 1983, so I never had an opportunity to meet him.  But his enthusiasm for all aspects of Icelandic geology, history and culture is so very clearly and beautifully communicated in his many writings that I have appreciated him from my initial contact.

He first appeared in my research as the author of several readable books on the histories of several active volcanoes: Hekla, Askja and Surtsey.  Then I found the text of two lectures that he had presented in London in the 1950s and an article in the UNESCO Courier in the 1970s.  Both presented combinations of scientific information and folk lore about Iceland´s dramatic landscape and the people who live in it.

When I tried to track his career, I learned that he studied at the University of Copenhagen in 1931-32 and the University of Stockholm later in the 1930s, initially focusing his field research on glaciers. At that time the University of Iceland (founded in 1911) offered few if any classes in the earth sciences. This undoubtedly encouraged Sigurður´s studies in the other Scandinavian universities.

In 1939 he participated in the important archaeological dig at Þjorsádalur in south central Iceland and developed a method for identifying the age of ash layers and tested his theories there.  He then spent the World War II period in neutral Sweden, refined his dating system as tephrochronology methodology and earned his doctorate degree at the University of Stockholm in 1944 with a thesis on that subject. The tephro-chronology techniques that he developed as a graduate student provided an important tool for volcanologists trying to map the impact range of individual volcanoes.

He returned to Iceland in 1945, becoming head of the geographical/ geological division of the Museum of Natural History in Reykjavík in 1947. In 1968 he became Professor of Geography and Geology at the University of Iceland. He served there until his retirement in 1982. While at the Museum of Natural History he also spent time as a visiting professor at the University of Cambridge, and sponsored a series of British university research expeditions to the Vatnajökull ice cap in the 1950s.

The British faculty and students who came to study the Vatnajökull glaciers considered their Icelandic professor a geologist who specialized in glaciers. Some of his research in the 1950s focused on jökulhlaups, the glacial floods that often result from volcanic eruptions under glaciers. Grímsvötn and Öræfajökull were the two sub-glacial volcanoes he focused on at Vatnajökull.

In the late 1950´s he became an active conservationist, concerned about the future of Iceland’s unique Nature.  He became a member of the Board of the Icelandic Council of Nature Conservation in 1956, the same year that Iceland adopted its first national conservation legislation.  In the 1960s he actively campaigned for establish-ment of Skaftafell National Park.  Founded in 1967, this was to be Iceland’s first national park on the North American model – a natural museum where maintenance of geological processes and native plant and animal life would take precedence over entertainment of human beings.

Clearly Sigurður Þórarinsson was a brilliant scientist, writer, educator and activist.  But Icelanders remember him for one more talent that was less well-known among his international colleagues.  Sigurður was also a poet and song writer, responsible for several popular songs that remained well known in Iceland long after his life had ended.  Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigur%C3%B0ur_%C3% 9E% C3%B3rarinsson) lists them as: Þórsmerkurljóð (María María), Vorkvöld í Reykjavík and Að lífið sé skjálfandi.