Thursday, February 25, 2010

All Good Things ...

Yes, all good things must come to an end, and the end to this trip is tomorrow. This post will have no photos because it was late when we got back to the hotel last night, and the husband had a guest column to finish up for The Cavalier Daily, and so yesterday's photos are still on the camera.

We actually could not have timed yesterday's activities better if we had tried. We rode Icelandic horses through a lava field in the afternoon, finishing just before it started to snow. Icelandic horses do greatly resemble Shetland ponies, but they take offense should you call them "ponies." They, like Icelandic sheep, are basically very, very purely bred. No outside horses or sheep have been allowed onto the island for a thousand or so years, meaning that the bloodlines are pure. In the case of the sheep, that is said to be the reason the wool is such high quality.

The ride through the lava field was quite nice. Icelandic horses are really gentle to ride. The snow started as we took the bus from the stable to the second part of the day's activities, a visit to the Blue Lagoon. This came highly recommended by several people. One of those people had enjoyed the Lagoon during the month of June. While I am sure that it is very nice then, I would be glad to argue that the way to experience the Blue Lagoon is as the snow falls. There is something quite special about floating on one's back in water that is 37 to 40 degrees Celsius and feeling snowflakes fall on your face. I'm not sure it gets much better than that, especially after two hours on a horse for a rear end not used to such activity.

The snow continues to fall this morning, reminding us of the Virginia we left behind a week ago. Today we are off to shop a bit including to look for a CD that Jimmy was playing done by a wonderful singer from the Faroe Islands. We also have some prezzies in mind for certain people. We also plan to visit the 871 +/- 2 exhibit on life in early Reykjavik. The 871 +/- 2 comes from the dating of the materials discovered at the site. Tonight, we will be eating at a restaurant participating in the annual Food and Fun Festival. Chefs from around the world come here to cook meals using only pure Icelandic foods; what they produce is sold at a fixed price (a very good fixed price) at restaurants around town. At the end of the festival, this weekend, they will have a cookoff and declare a winning chef. We won't be here for that, but at least we will partake of some of the bounty.

After we clear up all that has likely accumulated at home during our absence, I will try to post a few more photos of the lava field ride, the Blue Lagoon, and whatever adventures might befall us today, in the snow. You'd almost believe we were in Iceland today.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Iceland as Viewed from a Large Chair

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here are yesterday and today mostly in pictures. During that time we have seen some truly amazing icicles right outside our room ... decided that troll marshmallows are too big to eat in one bite or even one hundred (these are called "tractor eggs" in Norway) ... continued to marvel at Mt.Hverfjall ... hiked among snow-covered pseudocraters formed when steam caused by lava running into the lake "erupted" through the earth ... ... seen the first geothermal power plant in Iceland (it generates now, as it did when it was built, a whopping 2.6 megawatts) ... seen a hot rock you wouldn't want used in a massage, discovering in the process that it really isn't the heat but the humidity else why would we feel colder next to this than far, far away from it ... eaten some quite tasty rye bread cooked in a metal container within a geothermal hot spring such as that shown here ... done a bit of birdwatching thanks to these gyrfalcons (Iceland is home to two types of falcon--gyrfalcons, the largest falcons, as well as merlins, the smallest falcons) ... stood with one foot in Europe and the other in North America as they separate--the pipes shown here touched in 1977 but are now several inches apart ... seen the Northern Lights
... seen Icelandic horses similar to the ones we should be riding tomorrow ... and driven by houses in snowy Akureyri that have corrugated metal siding ... all but the Northern Lights viewing in the company of our wonderful guide Jimmy. Since returning to Reykjavik this afternoon, we have fortuitously found ourselves staying in a room once used by the world's tallest man who fit in a chair that we can only marvel at and get lost in. We have also trekked some 18 kilometers out of the city to an outlet store (the yellow building with the red roof in the center of the photo) to obtain two knitting pattern books, yarn for two sweaters, a CD of Icelandic music, and assorted small souvenirs for less than the yarn for one of the sweaters would have cost at home. Still to come ... riding, the Blue Lagoon, and a day unplanned save for dinner. Oh, yeah, I guess we'll need to come home after that.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Aurora Borealis FTW!

The camera is still in a plastic bag, warming safely, the better to protect some (in my humble opinion considering it was the first time either Blaine or I had ever tried anything like this) pretty darn good photos of the aurora, including one or two shot directly up, over our heads. I must say that 25th anniversaries don't get much better than this. I had actually started a post on what we did today when the hotel desk called us to say that the aurora was starting much earlier than usual, at a bit after 9:00. We rushed out, losing what I'd drafted in the rush. No worries, though, since this trumps that. We will likely go watch it some more in a bit, when we have warmed up, but I expect we will just watch and enjoy the show then. Doing the photos (out in the field of pseudocraters I have yet to blog about) was pretty numbing in the cold department. I'm ready to avail myself of the hotel's heated cabin from which you can watch the aurora.

Okay, it's approaching midnight, and it appears we caught the aurora at its peak for tonight. Here's a shot that Blaine and I judged among the best.

Iceland - Lake Myvatn

Lake Myvatn is where we've come to attempt to see the Northern Lights. Last night was a no-go though it was clear. We checked an aurora website with a hotel staffer and the aurora's center last night basically pulled it away from Iceland. Tonight is supposed to be better, so we're keeping fingers and toes crossed that the sky to the north stays clear.

We flew up here from Reykjavik yesterday, into the town of Akureyri. Akureyri has a population of about 17,000 people. To put that in perspective, Iceland is roughly the size of the state of Kentucky, and has a population of 320,000. Sixty percent of those people live in Reykjavik or the area immediately surrounding Reykjavik. Akureyri used to be the largest town outside of Reykjavik. It's dropped to fourth largest, but the first three don't really count since they're in the area immediately surrounding Reykjavik. Lake Myvatn, about an hour's drive from Aukreyri, has a year-round population of some 425. To help put that in perspective, there is one ATM here ... from June to September. That's because Lake Myvatn is one of the most popular summer vacation destinations. There are four hotels here, two on the north side of the lake and two on the south side. We're in one on the south. It has 35 rooms and although maybe two or three are booked now, all are booked already for the entire summer, which is also the case at the other three hotels.

Flying here from Reykjavik was fascinating. The landscape went from no snow to some snow to total snow cover. In fact, we circled Aukreyri for ten minutes or so before landing in order to let a snow squall pass.

I must admit to getting a cheap thrill out of getting off a plane and seeing a driver holding a sign with our name or the name of our hotel on it. Our driver/guide had an impossible Icelandic name but offered that he also answered to "Jimmy." While the pilot had told us our circling was due to "rain," Jimmy said it had actually been snow falling sideways. Jimmy also pointed out the father of Bjork, the Icelandic singer, who was either arriving with us or meeting someone who had. Jimmy and Bjork were neighbors once, and he says she's just like anyone else when she comes home to visit.

The drive from Aukreyri to Lake Myvatn can be done in an hour, but we took longer. Besides stops for photos, like this one of Aukreyri and the scenery just to its right. I think I mentioned at the end of my last post that part of the drive was in white-out or near white-out conditions. There were times when I could see things out the side window, while the front window yielded only white. Here's a representative side view. Fortunately, the lake itself has almost its own little weather system, and by the time we got there, it had actually stopped snowing and cleared. Right before the lake itself, we drove along the Laxa River, which drains from the lake to the Atlantic Ocean to the north. This stretch of the river is known for its trout and has been leased by a fishing club in Reykjavik for the next several years for an incredible sum of money. If you want to fish here, the first available "appointments" are in 2011. The river follows the path of an ancient lava flow, so instead of the river cutting out a channel in the landscape, it instead follows an existing channel.

One part of the south end of the lake does not freeze in winter. The crater here is Mt. Hverfjall; it's one of the largest craters of its type on earth. It's 140 meters deep and a kilometer in diameter. It was formed about 2500 years ago. It very much dominates the landscape as one drives around (or on, in the winter) the lake. Lake Myvatn (the name translates as "Midge Lake," though there are only a couple of varieties of midges out in the winter) has an average depth of only 2.5 meters, meaning that the bottom is covered with algae. Despite the relatively shallow depth, people do drown here because the water comes from underground springs and is pretty darn cold year-round. We made a quick stop at the visitor's center. It's not normally open in the winter, but the manager was there and is a friend of Jimmy, so it offered a good place for us to chill while Jimmy went home and let his dog out. Here's a fun "fact" we learned. And now, early Monday afternoon, Jimmy is about to pick us up to continue our tour of the area around the lake. We went walking this morning through the small village of Skutustaoir, an old church, and a field of pseudocraters. We took lots of photographs including some of the icicles outside our window, some of which are at least four feet long. Since Blaine is up from his nap, this seems like a good time to hit "publish post."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Iceland Day One

I’m writing from Reykjavik’s Hotel Loftleidir where, as I noted on Facebook, the interweb comes at a price. If it is free or substantially less costly from the north, where we go tomorrow, I shall post these notes and possibly more from there.

Aside from very little sleep (for me, anyway; Blaine slept like a baby just as he is right now) on the flight from JFK, it hasn’t been a bad trip at all, 24 hours in. We got a pleasant surprise when the Delta agent in Richmond told us that they could, in fact, check our luggage all the way through to Reykjavik. We had thought that we would have to get it from Delta then carry it across terminals at JFK to re-check it with Icelandair. Both bags arrived with us in Reykjavik, even sitting next to each other on the baggage claim carousel.

We did score a window and middle seat on the north side of the plane for the flight to Reykjavik; unfortunately, there were no Northern Lights to be seen. I did play around a bit with handheld photography from the plane as we taxied out and after we took off. The flight itself was uneventful except for some almost wicked turbulence over Newfoundland. Icelandair offers dinner for a charge; we declined, figuring sleep was more important than food. In between trying to sleep and looking out the window for any glint of the aurora, I followed our progress on the seat-back screen.
Speaking of the seats, they were decorated with gems about the Icelandic language, such as this one for the row in which we were sitting. We landed only a bit late, around 7:10 a.m. instead of 6:45 a.m. The disconcerting thing was that it was still pitch-black. I tried another handheld shot or two as we were taxiing to the terminal; this will show you just how dark it was at 7:20 or so. Even passengers arriving to stay in Iceland rather than transfer to a flight to a mainland European city have to clear security upon arrival in Iceland, something I’ve never encountered before. Perhaps because our flight arrived a bit late, the process went quite smoothly, without any delays. We hit the ATM and then, because Keflavik Airport is actually some distance from Reykjavik, hopped a bus into the city. By this time, between 8:00 and 8:30, there was a line of white on the horizon signaling the coming sunrise. Even after our arrival at the hotel a bit after 9:00, the sun wasn’t really what you might call “up.” It will be interesting to see when it starts to set this evening or afternoon. I’m now updating this and can report that it didn’t start to get dark until around 6:00. I was surprised by this until I remembered that the fact that Iceland adheres to Greenwich Mean Time essentially puts it on a permanent two-hour daylight savings time basis. This means more dark in the morning but more light later in the day, after work or school.

In the meantime, we are about to get ready to be picked up to go whale watching. Because of winds off Reykjavik, we will be leaving instead from Grindavik on the south coast, near the Blue Lagoon we will visit later in the week. When we confirmed the pickup time, we learned that there has been a pod of orcas in the area lately, so we might cheat the “whale sightings are not guaranteed” clause in the booking documents. We shall see.

And we did, indeed, see, not orcas but two humpback whales. First, though, obligatory photos of the two of us in the sea suits provided for our comfort.
The other thing provided for comfort, mine anyway, was seasick pills. I took one as we set out and managed to get through the rather rough voyage in much better shape than some people did. I was actually fine as long as I was shooting photos. It was only when I stood around doing nothing that I started to feel disconcerted by the motion. Needless to say, I took a lot of photos. Here are two of my best
and two from Blaine.

A few more random notes. Someone on the plane from New York was somewhat dismissive about our Reykavik Hotel. I, on the other hand, think it’s delightful (except for the interweb tariff). Here’s a shot down the spiral staircase that we take up to our room. And each room is dedicated to a different local artist, as shown by the room number plate on the door of our room. There are also various works of art in the common areas. This photo is outside the lift on our floor while this one is on the floor below.
Before we came, I read four mysteries by Arnaldur Indridason that are set in Reykjavik. I mention this because I had the chance to investigate an explanatory detail given at the start of the first book. Here’s a clip from the local phone book. Yes, the listing is by first name rather than last. Iceland still uses the traditional “son” and “dottir” surname convention, which means that it’s easier to find someone by their first name than last.

Finally, I have to give a shout out to the reason I’m here on this trip as well as throw out a shot I snapped quickly at breakfast. Not bad, if I do say so myself … the photo and the subject thereof.

P.S. on Sunday, from Lake Myvatn. The interweb is free here, so I shall try to post again tomorrow. First attempt at seeing the aurora is in a few hours. Know, though, that our landing at the airport an hour away was delayed due to snow and that the first half of our drive to the hotel was in white-out conditions. That said, it then turned sunny and we toured the lake under a true-blue sky. I also broke my promise not to get a sweater when we happened on a shop in which a local woman was selling sweaters to the shopkeeper. Blaine knows my fiber obsession well enough to know that I was telling the truth when I told him that the yarn in the sweater would cost me more at home than the sweater itself would. Photo to come. First, though, I need to take today's shots off the camera and get ready for later. Fingers crossed for clear skies!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sequels Prequels

When last I posted, I included a photo I shot looking up our driveway the first morning into our last big snowfall. It's the first photo in the post. Here's the view up that same driveway the next morning. That's one big tree and several smaller ones across the top of the driveway. No, they did not hit the pickup truck shown in the idyllic photo from last time, which is not necessarily a good thing. The husband has been muttering about wanting a new vehicle, and this would have made that dream a reality. Once the husband and older son got a path shoveled up to the trees, they managed to remove them, a process involving much chain-sawing and chop-saw chopping. By the time they broke through and got to cleaning the snow off the pickup truck, they'd worked up quite the sweat. I tried to help but kept getting told to move because this or that branch might shift, something might fall, and so on. I took this as a good thing and didn't feel guilty about playing with the new 50mm lens I got for my Canon. Since it's been years since I've used anything but a zoom lens on an SLR, it took a while to get used to not being able to change the scene by zooming in or out. Here are some of the shots I ended up with.

Yes, that's a dogsled in the last shot. My mother brought it with her when she moved down here, and it looked sort of forlorn there in the snow with no companion dog team.

And here we are, a week out from when those shots were taken. The driveway still only has a footpath cleared, making unloading after grocery shopping a bit of an endeavor, but the roads we use to get anywhere are fine and were fine most of last week. The same cannot be said for many of the back roads in the county. The schools are supposed to re-open tomorrow; they have only been open one day in the last two weeks, and that was on a two-hour delay. Of course, it's also supposed to snow a bit tonight and tomorrow morning, so the possibility of another closure is real. And yesterday's newspaper called the snow coming tomorrow "a little more" while also mentioning "a lot more snow" coming a week later. That's actually fine with me since the only forecast I'm concerned about for the near term is Friday, when we drive to Richmond, fly from there to New York, and from there to Reykjavik. There have actually been several days lately on which the weather was better in Reykjavik than here. Here are links to the ten-day forecasts for Charlottesville and Reykjavik. As I write this, it will be colder in Reykjavik than here, but the daily highs and lows are much closer together. It is also forecast to be sunny in Reykjavik on Monday, February 22. Sunny means no clouds, and since clouds interfere with aurora viewing, no clouds is a good thing. Speaking of forecasts, there is also one for the aurora. It has not been updated to reflect the time we'll be in Iceland, but if you're wondering what our chances of seeing the Northern Lights are, this might help you.

Still on the "to do" list besides packing is to see, 36 hours before our Icelandair flight is scheduled to leave from New York, if I can check in online and, most importantly, get our seat assignments. It really should have occurred to either the husband or myself, but instead I found the advice on a travel forum to sit on the left side of the plane while flying to Iceland. The windows on the left face north and can offer above-the-clouds views of the aurora. Why didn't we think of that? It doesn't really matter, since we did learn it before, rather than during or after, the flight. And so, with five days to go, it really is all coming together. Here's hoping those aren't famous last words.

Finally, my last post also mentioned my making a bag out of plarn, yarn made by cutting up plastic shopping bags. It turned out that I had enough plarn to finish the bag. The instructions had the handles being reinforced with twine. We have twine somewhere in the house or garage; I know we do. It just wasn't in any of the numerous places in which I looked. I was determined not to buy anything new for a bag made from recycled plastic bags, so I rummaged through my basket of leftover yarn and used something from there. I haven't yet used the bag, but I will. I've also started saving bags for another plarn something. Working with the plarn was too fun not to do it again.