Thursday, February 8, 2018

Iceland Expedition: Vik, Waterfalls, and The Secret Lagoon

Yesterday, we made our trip to see the sights along the southern coast of Iceland on our way to the town of Vik. Again, our goal was to leave around 8:30 AM and we departed around 9:45 AM. We’re growing as people.

Our first stop was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. We parked and tried to pay for parking, but the machine refused to print the parking pass, even after charging my credit card. I saw an official looking guy carrying around a noteboook, so I figured I should say something to him to keep  us from getting a ticket. I eventually figured out that he wanted to see the charge on my bank account. So, standing in front of a waterfall in the middle of nowhere Iceland, I used my fingerprint to log into my bank account (through a local bank in Blacksburg), and showed him the charge that had been placed only a minute or two earlier across the parking lot. Welcome to technology in the 21st century.

Ice daggers
The waterfall itself was neat. One single drop, over the ridge to the ground. We also walked along the ridge and saw several other smaller falls. Tanner and I improvised a tripod mount (using a C-clamp tripod, phone mount, and my knife), but weren’t able to take any long exposure shots like we had hoped to.

The next stop was Sk√≥gafoss. This incredible waterfall and the surrounding landscape was probably my favorite thing about this trip thus far. It was very cold and windy (you may be noticing a theme here), and, to make it even better, the waterfall was blowing water droplets that felt like rain towards us as we approached it. It may not have been the smartest idea, but we walked over to get as close as we could to it. We didn’t come all the way to Iceland to just stand in the back and take pictures. The waterfall thanked us (Mike, Steven, and Tanner especially) by drenching us in water, when the wind all of the sudden changed directions. Our jackets are waterproof, but our pants are not. The good news is, once everything freezes over, it’s not as cold.

Getting wet
The aftermath
After that incident, we climbed the ridge behind the waterfall for a better view. The vistas at the top were incredible. This was definitely my favorite part of the trip thus far.

That's definitely Everest
The upper falls
The explorers
Once we cleared the immediate overlook with all of the tourists, we continued onto the ridge beyond, and the views only continued to get better the further we went. After a few hundred feet, ours were soon the only set of tracks in the snow. We were on a trail, but we were breaking new ground (at least for that day). I can’t express in words how insane these vistas were. The scenery, along with the isolation, made it feel like we were on top of Mount Everest. There was also the random windswept snow cyclones to deal with, coming over the edge of the mountain. As tanner said later, as far as earth is concerned, “That’s the closest I’ll ever be to heaven.”
Blowing snow
The view
The top
Black sand beach in Vik
After that experience, we continued on our journey to Vik, arriving at the black sand beach about a half an hour later. This beach was pretty surreal. It had the texture of a normal beach, for the most part, but the sand was jet black. We also had it almost entirely to ourselves. After spending some time dodging waves, we walked down the beach to where it met the cliff face. Adam, Mike, and I explored a few shallow caves while Katy watched the waves and Tanner, Steven, and Laurel climbed rocks.

Rock climbing
At this point, if you haven’t watched the video blog from today, stop reading and go do that! I won’t be able to adequately describe in words what the video shows happening in real life, and I’d rather you experience the video unspoiled. To wet your appetite (pun intended), I'll just say I may have lost a GoPro as a result, but the video Tanner got makes up for it.

Wet, but laughing
When I came out of the cave, I asked Katy where Tanner was. She pointed to a rock almost backed up to the cliff face down the beach. As I watched, Steven ran to Tanner’s rock in-between waves, and managed to get about halfway up the back side of it before the next wave broke. The bad news, however, was that another “surprise” wave was also coming. It hit Steven full in the face just as he looked up, and swept him off the rock into the surf. As the wave went out, Tanner grabbed Steven’s hand sticking out of the water and stabilized him. Steven stood completely still for a solid few seconds and then said, “Okay, I’m going back now,” and started sprinting up the beach. At this point, Katy just shook her head and said, “Boys!” Steven eventually caught up to us, and Tanner ran up behind him. It was obvious they were both pretty shaken up, although both of them were laughing hard, Tanner nearly doubled over. Steven said, “I thought, ‘So this is how I’m going to die.’” Tanner said, “I so wish I had gotten your face on the video. You were terrified.”

I promise we checked he was OK before laughing!
We knew we needed to get Steven out of his wet clothes as soon as possible, so we cobbled together a replacement outfit from extra clothes we had brought along as well as spare layers we had on, and the guys created a towel enclosure so that he could change in the parking lot. Thankfully, the car was nearby and, although he was shivering for a few minutes, he was very soon sitting in the car with new, dry clothes on, and suffered no further ill effects (that we know of). We did, however, scare off a few other visitors to the beach. One car pulled into the parking lot, saw what was going on, and then turned around and left.

Basalt columns
We had two more stops in Vik. The first was Dyrholaey, a huge natural bridge that juts out into the sea. Steven and Tanner only joined us for a short amount of time here, since they were still a little cold from their earlier drenching. The second stop was Halsanefshellir, a basalt cave along the black sand beach with inverted basalt columns along the cave roof. We found several signs warning us to beware of “sneaker waves,” and took a few pictures for Steven.

We ate the centerpiece
On the way home, we stopped at a restaurant called Gamla Fjosio, which, translated, means something along the lines of “The Old Cowhouse.” It was a local farm to table style restaurant, which focused on beef dishes from its herd of cattle. The guys who ordered sodas got them in little glass bottles, and, after much debate about whether we were eating the centerpiece like dumb Americans, we tried the thin little breadsticks standing in the jar in front of us. I ordered the Volcano Soup, a “hearty beef soup with vegetables.” The food was all very fresh. In fact, after taking a bite, Tanner was convinced that his burger was still mooing. Steven inhaled his, while Katy and Tanner worked through theirs at a little slower pace.

This morning, we decided to do something a little closer to home so that we could come back to the place we’re staying and prepare for our dip in the hot springs later in the day. After quite a bit of discussion, we settled on Gljufrasteinn (The Poet’s Path). This six kilometer (roughly four mile) hike wound its way through several fields, along a nearby stream, before entering a small valley and ending at a waterfall. Apparently, a local poet would walk this path quite often for inspiration.

I really enjoyed this hike because we were truly alone, hiking through an open plane and down a valley, guided only be occasional markers. The hike itself was fairly secluded, and based on the lack of footprints, we were probably the first ones there in several days. Although I'm sure many tourists come here, it felt like we were experiencing "true Iceland" on this hike.

Who needs a path?
The drop off
Despite what it may sound like, with quite a bit of snow on the ground, this hike was not the walk in a park you might expect it to be from the description. Near the beginning of the hike, I stepped off a footbridge and sank into a snow drift up to my thigh. There were a few other places that were similarly deep, but, for the most part, it was only as deep as our boots. The biggest challenge we faced was crossing all of the little tributaries for the main stream without breaking through the ice and getting wet. We were mostly successful, although, on the way back, both Tanner and Steven fell in up to their hips, wetting their feet again. The scenery though, was beautiful, as we followed the foot of a mountain ridge up the valley. The waterfall at the end, although not as impressive as some of the others we’ve seen this week, made the hike totally worth it.

The falls
The last stop of the day was The Secret Lagoon hot springs. After hearing from several people who had visited Iceland that we should avoid the Blue Lagoon at all costs (an expensive tourist trap, apparently), we settled on The Secret Lagoon as a good mix between natural and remote, as well as having facilities. On the way there, at one point, Tanner was driving in white-out blizzard conditions over a mountain pass (again). Later, he told us he’s very rarely been scared driving, but this did it for him. He didn’t want to stop for fear we would be hit, and he didn’t want to keep driving because he couldn’t see anything! In the end, he just blindly followed the taillights of the guy in front of us very carefully.

The "Secret" Lagoon
When we arrived, the air temperature was around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. We paid or entrance fee, showered, changed, and then ran outside into the (literally) freezing cold. It was actually snowing as we jumped into the pool. The water, however, was very hot, and once we got used to it, we were pretty comfortable. The water that fills the pool overflows from the nearby geyser, which are boiling. The geysers themselves are roped off to keep you from burning yourself, although several in our group referred to them as the “personal hot springs.”

We were hoping to see the Northern Lights this week, but, unfortunately, it’s been cloudy and snowing most of the week. As we were sitting in the lagoon, however, the sky was perfectly clear, and we were able to see stars, satellites, and, in Katy’s case, a shooting star! No luck on the Northern Lights, though, as the solar activity for the evening wasn’t really conducive to it. We did stop once on the way home (in the middle of a long stretch of open road) when Tanner spotted a patch of open sky and made one last attempt to see them, but to no avail.

All of the road closures
Our trip back, which should have been roughly an hour and a half ended up almost doubling in length. The treacherous mountain pass from the trip to the lagoon was now closed, so we had to reroute around it. Each place we tried to turn towards Reykjavik, however, we were met with a closed gate. Eventually, we talked to a couple of (Icelandic VDOT?) guys, who explained that several cars had slid off the road, and now there was a snowplow stuck, blocking the pass. As one of them said, “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait five minutes!” With this information, we ended up tracing the coast almost all the way around to get back to the city, arriving around 11:15 PM.

When we got back, Mike and Steven decided it was time to go find some real Icelandic hotdogs...

We have had several long days over the course of this trip, but they have been amazing and packed full of adventure. While it will be good to be going home tomorrow, it will also be sad to leave!

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