Iceland Diaries: Fire and Ice

Wednesday, Feb. 15

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I woke up like this

We fell asleep in total darkness, and woke up to desolate beauty. In the distance, wisps of fog floated alongside the ridge, and the glacier sprawled across the horizon. I was so glad that after my scare the previous night, I had told Kurt we could go back and camp in this spot.

On our way to Jökulsárlón, we got our mini coffees at a gas station filled with Japanese tourists putting on crampons and harnesses for a glacier expedition. I had some FOMO since Kurt and I hadn’t signed up for an ice caving expedition, but on the other hand, leaving our schedule open and flexible was allowing us to get all the way to Jökulsárlón and back in 3 days while making plenty of stops along the way.

Glacier Lagoon

Glacier Lagoon

Out of everywhere we’d been so far, Jökulsárlón, or Glacier Lagoon, and Diamond Beach felt the most otherworldly, closer to a Star Wars set than anything we’d seen on any of our North American camping trips. As icebergs calve from the glacier, they float downriver and gather in the lagoon before drifting off into the ocean. While we took in the scene, we spotted a few small heads bobbing in the water. A trio of seals swam among the icebergs, occasionally diving into the water searching for food. On Diamond Beach, the black sand is covered with a collection of grounded ice boulders, some so pure and clear that you can see right through them.

Lounging on Diamond Beach

Lounging on Diamond Beach

Glacier Lagoon marked the turning point for our drive back to Reykjavík. I was sad that our little road trip was already coming to an end, but at least there was another stop to look forward to.

Around mid-afternoon, we arrived in a small town just off the Ring Road and began looking for Seljavallalaug. A friend who has traveled to Iceland several times recommended the spot to me; she had me at the word “Instagrammable.” There were no signs prompting us where to go but we knew we had a 20-minute walk ahead of us, so we parked the Land Rover in an area where we saw a handful of other cars and campers. A group of twenty-somethings had just arrived back at their car holding bags of towels. A girl leaned against the bumper and dumped a liter of water out of one of her Doc Martens. We were pretty confident we found our spot.

After tossing our towels and suits into a backpack, we started walking into the valley. Ahead, a few other hikers in brightly colored rain jackets helped lead the way. The trail was made from the bootprints of every swimmer who proceeded us. We came to a river that was probably flowing more heavily that usual at this time of year due to the warm weather and consistent rain. Kurt easily hopped from rock to rock with his long legs, but it took me a little more maneuvering to get across; the last thing I wanted to do was slip on a wet rock and crash into the river. As we got further down the trail, the telltale sign of rising steam led us straight to the spot. “Instagrammable” was right.

Seljavallalaug

Seljavallalaug

Seljavallalaug is a pool nestled against a rock wall; hot water tumbles down the rock face into the pool, warming the cool water into temperatures pleasant enough to swim in. The pool is unguarded, with no entrance fee or anyone attending it. There’s three changing rooms available for getting in and out of your clothes, with some hooks on which to hang your things. As more people made their way to the pool, it took some knocking on doors and inquiring if each room was in use by men, women, or a group of both.

When we first got there, only one other couple was in the pool. We arrived at the same time as a pair of women, and we climbed in together, exclaiming over the gorgeous scenery. It was tranquil and perfect. As we soaked and swam, more and more hikers appeared. Two girls emerged from a changing room wearing bikini bottoms and posed in the water for pictures while flashing the peace sign. All of a sudden, a large group of dudes showed up, outnumbering us all, and the atmosphere changed from peaceful to rowdy as it quickly became a German sausage party. We and the other couple decided it was time to hike on out.

Back on the road, I wanted something hot to eat and a beer sounded pretty good too. We had ventured off the Ring Road onto some of the smaller local routes, and the GPS wasn’t helpful in finding much in the area. We almost gave up and stopped at a rest stop for another night of cold cut sandwiches, but suddenly spotted some lights in the distance and decided to investigate. It turned out to be a small hotel with an all-you-can-eat buffet and cold Gull on tap, everything we wanted in that moment. The dining area was mostly overtaken by a gaggle of high schoolers and their teachers on a school trip. We ate as much salad, lamb, fish cakes, potatoes, and pudding as we could fit in our stomachs. Gotta get our 4300 ISK worth.

Satiated, we found a rest stop in, of all places, a wooded area. Iceland is fairly devoid of forests, so parking among tall trees and pines almost made me feel like we were back in Wisconsin. A dark, overcast sky above us didn’t look promising for Northern Lights, and soft rain pattered on the roof of the Land Rover. Settling in for the night with the rest of the boxed wine, we drifted off to sleep to the sound of rain falling on the trees.

Honeymoon Roadtrip, Day 10: Kintla Lake

Monday, June 9: kayaking, hiking, and glacier spotting

One of our guidebooks perfectly summed up Upper Kintla Lake with the line “It’s a place you have to get to on purpose.” Once again, our alarm went off at 6 am. We took North Fork Road, which is unpaved, gravelly, and full of potholes (when we told locals where we planned to go, they always immediately followed up with the question “Do you have 4-wheel drive?”). On our way, we stopped in the small town of Polebridge to get coffee. Polebridge has no electricity and uses solar power or generators in their mercantile store and bar.

We made our bumpy way up the 40 miles of North Fork to reach Kintla Lake. The campground was open, but we only saw two other people there. Otherwise, it was just us (and about a million mosquitos). No motorized boats are allowed on Kintla, so the lake was completely calm. We immediately unloaded our kayaks and got onto the clear, inviting water.

Kintla Lake

Kintla Lake

Kintla Lake is about 5 miles across. On our way out, the wind was at our backs, making the trip relaxing and peaceful. We drank in the gorgeous scenery and bright sunshine. It was a perfect, beautiful day of 70 degrees. As we reached the end of the lake, we spotted the campground.

crossing the lake

crossing the lake

As Kurt secured the kayaks, we noticed a young mule deer grazing nearby. He saw us but didn’t startle. We continued about our business, getting out our daypacks and lunch, and he continued to hang around, keeping a safe distance while watching us curiously. I felt calmer with the deer nearby, thinking that that must mean there weren’t any bears around. Glacier has the highest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48 states, a thought that was constantly on the back of my mind.

our deer friend

our deer friend

After our lunch, we said goodbye to our deer friend and started a hike towards a view of the Kintla Glacier. After a while I got tired of constantly shouting “Bear! Bear!” and began to sing any song that came to mind. By the time we reached a meadow clearing with an amazing view of the glacier, I had run through most of the pop divas (Britney, Miley, Katy, Madonna). The mountain range behind us was the last on U.S. soil; beyond them lay Canada. We took pictures and drank in the gorgeous setting before making our return trip. I worked my way through 80’s rock and Disney soundtracks. Kurt politely did not complain about my terrible singing voice, but did say “I didn’t know you knew all of those songs.”

Kintla Glacier

Kintla Glacier

mountain man

mountain man

We knew that the return kayak trip straight into the headwind was going to be rough, but once we got back onto the water, we realized the true extent on how much more difficult it would be. The wind whipped between the mountain ranges and straight over the lake, creating small whitecaps. We attempted to hug the shoreline for calmer waters, but unfortunately it didn’t make as much of a difference as we had hoped. Kurt said that at one point he turned to look at me, I was padding as hard as I possibly could and I was still drifting backwards. If I paused for a second, the wind would spin my kayak to the side and it was a strenuous battle to get straightened back out. “Are we halfway there?” I called out to Kurt at one point. “We’re not even a quarter of the way there yet!” he shouted over the howling wind. With no rangers or other boaters in sight to save us, we had no choice but to put our heads down and paddle through it. My shoulders burned from exertion.

blue waters

blue waters

When we could finally see the other side of the lake again, the clouds above the mountain range grew ominously dark. I could see gray sheets of rain pouring in the distance. We were in a race with the wind, and we were at a distinct disadvantage. I ignored the burning in my muscles and continued to push through it, with renewed hope as the shoreline grew closer. Finally, we could see the boat launch. “We made it!” Kurt shouted in celebration. The rain was held at bay by the mountain range, and we reached land exhausted but dry.

We loaded the kayaks onto the roof rack and chowed down on snacks, then started the long journey back on North Fork Road. I was gazing out the window, enjoying the scenery, when suddenly a mountain lion wandered across the road. “Whoa!!” Kurt and I both shouted in unison. The mountain lion looked at us then bounded up the hill in three easy leaps. We fumbled for cameras but the moment was too quick. Seeing a big cat in the wild felt otherworldly; it felt like something had escaped from the zoo. “It’s like Jumanji!” I said.

We stopped at the bar in Polebridge for a few cold beers out of their cooler and a delicious bowl of chili. The bartender was a friendly guy originally from the East Coast. We talked about the area and how it was not for the faint of heart; he said that you had to be pretty adventurous and self-sufficient to go as far as we did. Getting AAA service out there could be a whole-day event. We enjoyed our conversation with the locals and the welcoming, rustic ambiance of the bar.

Polebridge

Polebridge

As the bar closed up, we settled our tab with cash (no electricity = no credit cards) and finished the drive back to the cabin. Along the road, we saw a baby moose spot our car and run back into the woods, his little knobby knees kicking adorably. Deer frolicked in the meadows along the road as the dusk settled in. We finally reached the cabin after our longest day yet, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing; everything about it was pretty perfect.

 

Wildlife sightings: snakes, mountain lion, moose calf, deer