At times it was hard to breathe in Iceland.
Sometimes it was the scenery that literally took my breath away: waves and white sea spray against black sea cliffs, rift valleys glowing red and yellow with autumn heath and birch, glacier capped volcanoes, thundering waterfalls, or all of the above in a single day!
Other times it was a sulfuric stench rising from geothermal mud making it hard to breathe.
Still other times it was tightness in my chest, released by tears of awe and joy, at the dancing Northern Lights.
I returned from Iceland in early October after a conference and a week of family vacation. But I struggled for months to write a post about it. Somehow just describing the beauty of the place seemed insufficient. The island sits atop a seam in the earth’s crust where two continental plates are pulling apart. This rift between the Eurasian and North American plates creates large scale faulting that forms fissures and breaks in the land through which magma can seep (or explode) to the surface. I needed some time to delve into the geophysical phenomenon that created the stunning landscapes. I needed some time to understand the hardships and terrors that created tough, saga writing, parliament making, and fiercely independent people. I also needed some time to deal with rifts in my own life.
The Free Dictionary defines a “survivor” as “a person or thing that survives” and remains alive or in existence despite hardships or trauma. Iceland is a geologically new addition to this earth and to me its landscapes and people epitomize not just survival, but the notion that one can take tough circumstances and embrace them to build a stronger, more efficient and more beautiful whole.
Icelanders inhabit a harsh and unforgiving land. To survive and thrive they work with its harshness rather than fighting against it. For example, the Reykjanes Peninsula could be described as desolate. Lava fields cover the land right to the edge of the ocean where waves crash against stark black cliffs. No rivers flow here because the ground is too porous. The ground is also hot! In places it steams and is too hot to walk on without melting the soles of your shoes. We visited two geothermal areas on the Reykjanes Penninsula: Gunnuhver and Krýsuvík Seltún.
To some, this lava strewn and steaming ground looks (and smells) like hell on earth, but others see geothermal activity that can be harnessed. Geothermal energy accounts for about 25% all the electricity produced in Iceland and, even more impressively, provides for the space heating and hot water requirements of approximately 89% of all buildings in Iceland and 90% of all swimming pools. (And there are a lot of pools!)
The geothermal forces that provide for Iceland’s space heating and hot water originate about two kilometers below the surface where freshwater and seawater combine and are heated by magma. This magma is much closer to the surface in Iceland because of its unique position between two diverging continental plates. Icelanders access this superheated water via deep holes that lead to geothermal power plants. One of the most famous is Svartsengi the plant that provides power for much of the Reykjanes Peninsula. Superheated water is vented from the ground and used to run turbines that generate electricity. After going through the turbines, the steam and hot water pass through a heat exchanger to provide heat for the municipal hot water system.
Svartsengi is also the source of another Icelandic phenomenon – the Blue Lagoon. The world famous spa is a by-product of the power plant. On its way to the surface, geothermally heated water picks up silica and minerals. These minerals are helpful to a host of ailments and the soothing temperature of the water is wonderfully relaxing. Though we chose to experience Iceland’s geothermally heated water through its wonderful public pools (the kids were far more impressed with water slides than silica and minerals) it was still a sight to behold. The Blue Lagoon is a shining example of the way that Icelanders can harness the good in something that might otherwise be considered waste.
Beyond the Reykjanes Penninusla, the ground is less porous and plentiful rainwater collects into rivers – lots of them – strong and powerful. Tumbling from high glaciers in enumerable waterfalls and rapids these rivers produce ~75% of Iceland’s electricity through hydropower. They are also a huge draw for tourists. The mighty Gullfoss (Golden Falls) attracts hordes of tourists each year. However, unlike the great waterfall of North America – Niagara Falls – there are no casinos at Gullfoss. Icelanders seem to have a greater understanding that the power and beauty of nature alone can be the main draw for tourists. With tourism surging in Iceland, I hope it stays that way.
Another breathtaking waterfall is Seljalandsfoss, which literally means “selling the land of waterfalls”. The waterfall certainly lives up to its name, as it plunges 60 meters from the top of a moss and health covered sea cliff. A footpath leads behind the falls and my 8-year-old and I found the walk behind the falls so exhilarating that we did it twice! I loved the thundering of the water and the misty wind it blew up into our faces. I loved seeing the countryside through the waterfall. Awesome (in the true sense of the word)!
The Icelandic landscape certainly inspired my imagination, and it has inspired people for centuries as the backdrop to a rich literary history. This history began with oral story telling about Norse gods. Driving through the countryside, it was easy to imagine how angry Gods might have helped early Icelanders to explain steaming lava fields and mountains that spewed glowing rock, clouds of black ash, and flashes of electricity. Yet pagan deities and magical creatures also fit more peaceful aspects of the landscape. It was equally easy to conjure fairies dancing in the rainbows around waterfalls in misty, moss-covered cliffs.
Iceland moved from oral traditions to written sagas in the 13th and 14th centuries. The sagas contain 40 narratives describing the life in Iceland during the Viking age around the year 1000. This was a time when Icelanders abandoned ancient gods and adopted Christianity. Viking Sagas are filled with larger-than-life heroes and epic voyages. For example, the sagas describe Leif Eiriksson’s expedition westwards on what many believe is the true first voyage by a European to North America. But there are also “family sagas” about ordinary people, independent farmers and tradespeople, who formed the main class of a society free from kings, hereditary aristocracy, and taxes.
Myths, legends and stories are everywhere in Iceland, and they do much to enrich the experience for the visitor. Though I must admit not having read any of the sagas, we did visit the giant Giganta’s house in Keflavik.
Iceland was created under harsh and often violent circumstances. It is the clash of fire and ice: magma, glacier and crashing sea that creates the startling natural beauty of the place. Icelanders live in this harsh environment and rather than fight it they embrace it. They integrate it, harness its power, and weave it into their legends and culture. This trip came at a moment in my own life when pressures building within and around me caused a rift that felt somewhat like the spitting apart of continental plates. Iceland has much to teach about embracing what you are given and emerging stronger, smarter and more aware than you might otherwise have been.