In the land of fire and ice

One man steps close to the edge, as Iceland blows off steam.

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This is not up-Island, but for a story about Iceland in our Off the Rock section. The late noon sun turns the Holuhraun volcano plume an eerie yellow. — Anthony Rabasca

Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic that has captivated me since my first visit in 1967.  This is a remote place of pollution-free skies, rugged, natural beauty,  green valleys, unobstructed sea and landscapes, glaciers, geysers, and volcanoes. It is known to many as the land of ice and fire.

This past September my wife, Jane, and I were visiting with family residing in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. We would all be together for my 71st birthday.

Family members have often found it challenging to find ways to celebrate my birthday, but on this occasion my daughter, Maria and her husband, Brynjar Fridriksson, succeeded thousand-fold. Brynjar had been in touch with the Icelandic authorities monitoring and controlling access to Iceland’s current volcanic eruption. He had applied for a permit for a foreign photographer (me) to photograph the Holuhraun eruption located 165 miles northeast of Reykjavik and north of Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull.

Brynjar and I would be travelling with a fellow named Kjartan Blöndal. The plan devised by Kjartan, himself an accomplished photographer, was to arrive in close proximity to the eruption in time to capture the “sweet light” of pre-dawn, sunrise and early morning. He figured we would photograph until about 10 am then leave the site and drive to a safe location some 15 miles away to set up camp. We would catch about five hours of sleep and head back out to the volcano to shoot in late afternoon, continuing to photograph until about 9 pm, then make the drive back to Reykjavik.

At 7:00 pm, Wednesday, September 10, with all the required equipment, including gas masks, we left Reykjavik for what would be a 10-hour drive to the Holuhraun eruption.  Kjartan, an expert highly seasoned “4-wheeler,” did all the driving in his specially equipped SUV,  including six hours on paved and maintained dirt roads plus four hours across ancient lava fields, rivers and unmarked stretches of arctic desert. When we left Reykjavik  the weather was overcast and drizzling. Driving northeast, the winds picked up and the temperature dropped below 32 degrees, with clearing skies. With no light pollution, the Milky Way could be seen in all its splendor, accompanied by moonlight and faint waves of the Northern Lights. The only other source of light we could detect was the orange glow on the horizon. With nearly four hours of driving remaining, what we were seeing was the glow of the Holuhraun eruption. We stopped and turned off all lights to take in nature’s gift. The hardy Icelanders and I were deeply moved by these  magical lights piercing the darkness.

The off road night drive was dangerous and should not be attempted without a properly equipped SUV or an expert driver like Kjartan. About a mile from the edge of the lava flow we stopped the vehicle. None of us were prepared for what lay before us:  Vivid fountains of lava pouring from a fissure that extended for miles, and a distinctive volcanic crater spewing huge chunks of magma every 20 seconds or so. We were about a mile from the eruption but just a few yards from the lava’s edge. There  also was a massive plume composed of steam, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide gas reaching upwards of 30,000 feet. It was difficult to comprehend what we were witnessing. The fact that this scene did not seem real may have diluted whatever fears I anticipated experiencing in the presence of such a violent event.

The timing of our arrival on site could not have been better. The predawn light enhanced the enormous gaseous plume, creating yellows and oranges spread across blue sky. The effect of morning, afternoon and evening light was equally dramatic. Tornadic stacks of steam rising from the confluence of the lava and the glacial river, Jokulsa a Fjollum, created an eerie, almost unworldly scene. The lingering scent of sulfur dioxide gas (rotten eggs), the cold wind, the backdrop of glaciers, the brilliant red and orange showers of lava, the cracking, crunching sound of the cooled crust being pushed by subsurface lava, all were punctuated by the distant rumbles of explosions. When the crust cracked we felt a blast of heat from the exposed molten lava. At times the earth trembled beneath our feet. To be in the presence of such violent forces of nature is to be stripped of one’s ego and acknowledge that we mortals are mere grains of sand. In all my travels I cannot recall an experience or a place that generated such profoundly humbling emotions.

During the long drive back to Reykjavik we received a number of radio calls from the authorities wanting to know our position and whether or not we had left the forbidden area. We also heard of an unauthorized group of French tourists being rescued and fined when their vehicle got stuck in the middle of a river. The calls were a reminder of how dangerous this area is and of how fortunate we were to have gained entry. Very few foreigners have visited this area from the ground and the authorities have shown no signs of relaxing those restrictions. However, there are opportunities for viewing the eruption via helicopter and fixed

fixed wing flights that one can book out of Reykjavik.

Facts

– Since August 14 there have been nearly 25,000 3.0 or stronger magnitude earthquakes recorded in this area.

– Lava from the eruption has now covered over 30 square miles.

– Holuhraun is a separate and distinct volcanic activity than that at Bardarbunga.

– For current scientific information about the eruptions: en.vedur.is.

-See a map of Iceland, with the location of the volcano at:  www.vegagerdin.is .

Getting there: IcelandAir.com is the only carrier flying directly from Boston. Upside: it’s only about four hours, and you can often get good deals for Iceland layovers (including hotels and food) while on your way to European destinations.

Hotel Deals: tripadvisor.com/SmartDeals

Favorite restaurants: grillmarkadurinn.is/

fiskmarkadurinn.is/english/index.php

fiskfelagid.is/

laekjarbrekka.is/

tripadvisor.com/Restaurants

Anthony Rabasca is the father of MVTimes graphic designer Kristofer Rabasca. See more of his photographs at Anthonyseye.com.