Postcard from Iceland: Seven weeks in heaven

Takk fyrir að lesa.

Photo by Bella Bennett

Bella Bennett, a frequent contributor to The Times and rising junior at Skidmore College, has been sending regular dispatches from Iceland this summer.

Leaving Iceland was difficult, and not only because my friend and roommate Ashley lost her wallet containing her passport only five hours before we were scheduled to leave for the airport. It was primarily hard because I didn’t have any motivation to leave. I love my jobs and friends at home, and I was excited to return to them, but I was really happy with the SIT Iceland program, and my group was superb. Even more, I felt very at home with my extended host family in Reykjavik, and had an incredible time exploring Iceland during the last week. After seven weeks of excitement and continuous great (and often humorous) experiences, who would want to leave?

On Tuesday, we concluded our academics with more than four hours of presentations of independent research projects. Afterward, Alana and I met our host aunt Sólveig and her two daughters, and we all went to one of the 129 public pools in Iceland. This particular one is especially fun because it has three large water slides, in addition to the usual assortment of hot tubes at varying temperatures and lap pool(s) filled with children.

The next day, our group set out for four days of sightseeing and adventure. We started with the Golden Circle, which is a group of big attractions including Gullfoss (which means golden waterfall, and is the largest waterfall in Europe), Geysir, and Þingvellir (the area where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates diverge, or move away from one another). After seeing these three incredible geologic landmarks, we retired to a community center in a small town called Hvolsvöllur. The community center had an indoor basketball court and commercial-size kitchen, so we were able to cook a big meal together and then arrange

ourselves in sleeping bags throughout the court. Before sleeping, however, the majority of the group decided to hike to a giant and gorgeous waterfall behind the center. We were the only people for miles, and therefore had the falls completely to ourselves. The waterfall is unique in that it occasionally flows upward if the wind is correct. The hike was perfect after a day spent on and off the bus, and we even had a chance to scamper through a cold stream on the way there. Everyone was hesitant to take off shoes and step in, so we spent a while searching for a thinner section to jump across, but ultimately everyone was willing to take off their shoes after my friend Isaac and I waded swiftly across.

On the second day of our adventure, we packed up and headed in the direction of Seljalandsfoss. I should mention that “foss” means waterfall, so every word containing the word foss refers to a waterfall, and the combination of letters before foss describe a certain aspect of the waterfall. In this case, Seljalandsá is the river that supplies the falls. This site was especially exciting because you can walk behind the falls. I wasn’t able to bring my camera, because the spray from the falls was immense and we were all soaked afterward, despite rain pants and coats, but the water felt magical on my skin, and the memory is more than enough.

Two sheep on a hill beside Skógarfoss. Photo by Bella Bennett

Seljalandsfoss was followed by Skógarfoss, which as you may have guessed, is also a waterfall. Skógarfoss is a thick and immensely powerful waterfall. We were able to hike to the top and explore the river that feeds it, which rushes through a timeworn ravine before leaping 200 feet into a misty heap and flowing onward. I dislike my constant use of flowery language, but this hike was also incredible.

We spent the second and third nights nearby a town called Vík, in a smaller, slightly shabbier community house. It was really fun. We had one large community room, in which we could set tables and chairs for eating, or stack them in corners and spread sleeping bags in orderly rows for sleeping. After six weeks getting to know each other, it was fun and easy, mostly because we all got lucky with such an easygoing group. This house was a half an hour’s walk from a black sand beach, and on the second night there, we walked down and explored. Cliffs of columnar basalt descended onto the shore, upon which a colony of puffins nested. They’re much smaller than I previously thought, and they seem barely able to support the weight of their bodies when they fly. Their wings flap rapidly, and they seldom fly for long distances. It was very cool to stand on the pebbled beach and watch them fly from the cliffs to the sea for fish and back again.

The third day brought us to Vatnajökull National Park. Vatn means water in Icelandic, and jökull means glacier. First, we saw Svartifoss, which is named “black falls” because the base of the falls is composed of darkly colored columnar basalt. For a geology enthusiast, it was an intriguing site. After exploring this area and sweating in the rare heat of a 60-plus-degree day, we headed onward to Jökulsárlón, a glacial lake in the same park. The lake is giant and filled with chunks of glacial ice. A large and swiftly flowing river empties the lake into the sea; however, due to the glacier’s increased melting rate, the lake is growing. A black sand beach marks the mouth of the river, upon which chunks of glacial ice sit. Seals are common along the shore, as the cold water is favorable to many species of fish.

After our second night in Vík, we reached the final day of our journey. We visited another glacial lake, Sólheimajökull (home of the sun glacier), where we were actually able to walk on the glacier a bit. Then we began the three-hour drive back to Reykjavik, during which a sinking feeling began to form in my gut. This magical ride was coming to an end. What a fairy-tale vacation (with academics, of course) it was, and what a sad thing to have to return to reality. Before we had too much time to dwell on thoughts such as these, however, we stopped for a final swim in a geothermal pool. This one, Seljavallalalaug, required a misty hike into a valley. It is one of the oldest pools in Iceland, and used to be a well-kept secret; however, when we arrived, it was full of tourists drinking beer. Regardless, it was very fun to sit in a pool built in 1923 and warm up after our time exploring the glacier.

As we began to near Reykjavik, our program director announced that she had planned a surprise for us. She’d coordinated a horseback tour for us! Where the majority of horses have four gaits, Icelandic horses have five, and it was great fun to learn the tolt, a very smooth gait that is a genetic trait in these horses. I grew up riding, and somehow being connected with a horse again made me feel a bit more enthusiastic about leaving, if only to come home and give my now-ancient childhood pony, Ziggy, a good bathing and brushing.

As I’ve probably overstated, the whole week was mindblowing. This entry has been hard to compose, because I feel as though I’m bragging, but my real hope is that this travel-blog-type-column may act as a catalyst for adventure in you, and that you can have similar, if not more incredible, experiences. And if they should happen to take you to Iceland, you will at least have an idea of the beauty you will find, and where to find it.

I look forward to seeing you all when I return home. Takk fyrir að lesa (thank you for reading).