This is Part 7 in a series outlining my family’s exploration of Iceland during the summer of 2019, pre-COVID. It was a mostly outdoor experience, exploring the wild and natural sights of a beautiful country during the height of summer. For the full journey, and notes on places to go and things to see, check out the other posts in this series.
- Part 1 – Grundarfjörður
- Part 2 – Snæfellsnes
- Part 3 – Golden Circle
- Part 4 – Roaming in Reykjavik
- Part 5 – Landmannalaugar
- Part 6 – Southern Coast
- Part 7 – Jökulsárlón
- Part 8 – Departure and Epilogue
In a little more than a week, we had made our way across the southern half of Iceland, and seen wondrous wild landscapes, wildlife, and dozens of waterfalls. We’d enjoyed good food, soaked in volcanic hot springs, and hiked past steaming sulfur vents. But our actual experience with ICE had been limited to viewing mountaintop glaciers from afar. Today, we would remedy that – it required quite a bit of driving, to the southeastern part of the island, but it was one of my wife’s must-see locations on the island. It would turn out to be among the most memorable of the trip.
We did have quite a bit of driving ahead of us, so we planned a few brief stops with – what else – waterfalls. The familiar trip to Vik was uneventful, and we continued east. After winding past farms and sheep, we found ourselves once again driving along the foot of oceanfront cliffs. Falls cascaded off in many locations, and though we paused to visit several only a few of these warranted a distinct name, it seemed. Foss á Síðu was an impressive, single cascade that was as narrow and graceful as Skogafoss had been wide and powerful, and every bit as beautiful. Nearby, a river alongside the road tumbled over a rocky cascade near a picnic area, and gave an excuse for another pause.
Soon though, the rocky, glacial escarpments gave way to a broad almost featureless plain covered with low scrub and wildflowers. We were, in fact, driving across a broad lava bed, forming a vast dark plateau. Compared to the dramatic cliffs and falls, this area was almost completely featureless. Boring, almost. Except that on the eastern horizon, we could see the mountains and glaciers of Skaftafell and Vatnajökull National Park. Mountains rose abruptly to six- or seven-thousand feet, and each valley was filled with a tongue of ice that flowed all the way down to the black lava plain. Looking at a map, this area in the southeastern part of Iceland is perpetually covered in snow and ice. Viewed from ground level, the snow cap appeared to blend into low clouds, and the glaciers carved their way through the rock down to every valley floor.
I immediately wanted to stop and explore, but we had a reservation to make, so we pressed east, arcing around the southern end of these mountains and into an area of cloudy gloom. Before long, we came upon a fairly sizeable suspension bridge, a unique structure of civilization that seemed out of place across a substantial ocean inlet. We’d finally made it to Jökulsárlón, the iceberg-filled lagoon at the toe of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier.
After checking in, we were led to temporary shelters where we were fitted for full-immersion dry suits. These bright yellow suits were a little bulky, but we were assured that these would keep us dry and reasonably warm if we should fall into the 1 deg C water of the lagoon from the inflatable boats we were about to board. While we didn’t expect it to happen, our quick safety briefing also revealed that if we DID fall in, the likely recovery procedure involved first pushing us DEEPER into the water. The trapped air in our suits would provide a buoyant spring effect against the immersion, and help pop us back up and onto the boats. We all recognized the logic of this maneuver, but hoped we wouldn’t have to endure it.
(Note, the tour company at Jökulsárlón also has larger amphibious boats, but we were assured that while these were dry, they were also slow, and couldn’t get out and among the icebergs the way our smaller boats could).
Having been warned, we all walked in a group down along the shoreline, and past a helipad where some more well-heeled guests were arriving, and to a small dock where two sixteen-foot rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) were tied up. Our group split up to board the two boats, each holding 8-10 guests plus a skipper/tour guide. In no time, we were off, heading through the lagoon to the northwest, toward the toe of the glacier, miles away.
We zipped through the water, dodging small floating chunks of ice and clear slabs that thinly covered the water’s surface, and headed toward monsters. The icebergs here come in several different forms, and each gives some indication of its history.
Starting way back up on the glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull, the ice falls as snow. Over time, and under pressure, each meter of snow is compressed into a centimeter of dense, pure ice. After about 1,000 years of compression and slow movement down from the mountains, the ice reaches the toe of the glacier. Here, water flows underneath, into cracks and crevices, and slowly melts the structure until the glacier cracks with a sharp report like thunder, and tons of ice break loose. Sometimes, ice falls off the cliff at the glacier’s toe, and crashes into the water, generating a huge wave that propagates across the lagoon. Other times, the ice breaks off somewhere along the thousand-foot depth of glacier that lies below the surface. The ice then rushes up to float on the surface, breaching like an enormous whale. Either circumstance is devastating to small boats that get too close, so we kept our distance from the glacier’s toe.
When it first breaks loose, the ice is extremely dense. Short wavelengths of light are scattered from its surface, such that the ice itself looks as if it is a deep blue color. It’s NOT actually blue, but it scatters blue light, much in the same way the sky does, or a large body of water appears blue, even though it’s clear.
The blue effect doesn’t last long. Only six to eight hours after being exposed to the air, the melting at the surface allows air to penetrate the surface, causing micro-cracks that turn the ice bright white. In other places, thin ice allows light to penetrate, making it transparent, or translucent.
Here in Iceland, many of the bergs are marked with prominent black stripes. These are actually compressed ash, marking volcanic eruptions from years past. Volcanologists can identify specific eruptions based on the chemistry of the ash, of course, but the spacing and width of the stripes also form tell-tale patterns, a bar-code of ash-fall that bear witness to a pattern of known eruptions over hundreds of years.
Once the ice is free and floating in the lagoon, it continues to change. Both the water and air melt and erode the icebergs, carving and weathering them into a variety of shapes, and in some cases carving tunnels. Many icebergs feature prominent shelves, often at odd angles, that mark locations of previous waterlines. As ice melts and breaks, both above and below the surface, the icebergs rotate and shift to find a new equilibrium. Often, this may cause an iceberg to completely flip over, suddenly and dramatically. For this reason, boats keep their distance – the larger the berg, the more room needs to be given. A rotating iceberg can rise from beneath a boat, or flip to crash down on top of a boat – both pretty bad scenarios.
While we were gawking at the variety of the floating ice, we managed to catch a glimpse of a sudden icefall off the glacier itself. Several seconds later, we heard the thunderous crack, like a cannon shot that reverberated both through the air and the water. The glacier looked close, but the delay in the sound gave evidence that it was still well over a mile away. It was impressive to see, and we were very fortunate to have been looking in the right direction as it occurred. I was glad we weren’t closer, as the sudden falling of what amounted to a four-story building could really cause trouble for those that were too adventurous.
Soon, our exploration of the lagoon came to an end, and so we ventured back across the channel and out to the beach. Here, those icebergs that eventually floated out into the ocean through the channel would be washed back up to the beach, and so we were able to get an up-close interaction with naturally carved ice sculptures.
The beach was… magical. It was absolutely incredible, the variety in size, shape and color – ranging from the newly fractured deep blue up through crystalline and transparent – of the ice was completely unexpected to us, and the contrast of ice on black volcanic sand was gorgeous.
We wandered through the maze of ice, enjoying (once again) a totally new experience. Occasionally, a seal would pop out of the water and watch us, before returning to a spit of land to haul out just across the inlet. We spent an hour here, easily, exploring and admiring the last few days of 1,000-year-old ice.
Too soon, it was time to head back west, back toward our cabin. But first, we had to make a quick stop among the foothills to have a late picnic lunch, and then I had to stop in Skaftafell. I coaxed everybody out of the car and we started walking up into the mountains toward Svartifoss, a thin waterfall that plunges into a basin of hexagonal basalt columns. On the way, we passed another waterfall, Hundafoss, which was impressive in and of itself. The hike was not a long one, but it did involve a fairly significant climb up away from the flat lava basin. Soon we were surrounded by greenery, and hundreds of feet above the valley floor. The trail reaches a high plateau before descending again to a bridge at the foot of Svartifoss – but my family mutinied, and were content to NOT walk beyond the initial view of the falls. I had to admit it had already been a long day, so I contented myself with a distant view before we made our way back down the mountain.
We left the glaciers behind as we headed further east, and eventually targeted one more stop as the sun started to approach the horizon. Fjaðrárgljúfur is a dramatic canyon with unique, almost soft-looking curves in the rock, carved over millennia and carpeted with green moss and other plant life. Pop star Justin Bieber made this canyon famous several years ago by filming part of a music video within it, and that immediately transformed the place from an out-of-the way sight to a tourist destination. For a short time after it gained notoriety, the place was swarmed with people, and significant damage was done to the canyon rim as multiple approach paths were worn into the soft ground. Iceland authorities have since established a common designated path, and built a platform out over the rim, to try and manage impact. On one hand, it’s a much-needed improvement to help contain the damage. On the other, it would be great if people were respectful in the first place. The canyon IS a beautiful place, much deeper than I expected, and my family will forever know it as Bieber Canyon, for better or worse.
Though the sun was still out, it was actually getting late, and we still hadn’t had dinner. We set our sights on Vik, and made a stop at the Smidjen Brugghüs brew pup where we recapped the day over huge burgers and good beer (or Appelsin orange soda), before eventually making it back to our cozy cabin in the woods.
Another great day in Iceland!
Next, we head home. A few last sights, and some overarching thoughts on lessons learned for travelling to and from Iceland.
Get Out There