Monday, May 09, 2005

Iceland volcano eruptions also known as fire and ice

It wasn't love at first sight.But midway through a nine-day drive around this island nation came the clincher.

To my right, a 25-foot-high waterfall dumped icy water into a stream that frothed from rock to rock on its way to the fiord below.To my left, at the bottom of a switchbacked two-lane asphalt road, Seydisfjordur rested in the mist at the end of the fiord, which runs 10 miles east to the Atlantic Ocean.

Turning in a slow circle, I saw freshet after freshet springing from cloud-draped, green mountain ridges.At my feet, heather and other tiny flowers and leaves that blanketed the ground had been painted in heartachingly subtle shades of pink and orange, yellow and brown by the fleeting days of fall.Mention Iceland and most people think: ice.

After all, the country sits just south of the Arctic Circle, with the blustery North Atlantic on its southern coast and the frigid Arctic Ocean on its north. Roughly 15 percent of its 40,000 square miles - a little smaller than Ohio - is made up of icecap. That includes Vatnajokull, a 3,200-square-mile glacier whose southern edge comes right up to the Ring Road, the more-than- 800-mile, mostly paved two-lane highway that circles the island.More than half of the land is desert plateaus.

An additional 11 percent is lava fields. Which brings up the volcanoes that help earn it the moniker "land of fire and ice."Geologically speaking, Iceland constantly is reinventing itself. It was created by underwater volcanic eruptions, and volcanoes continue to remake the landscape.In 1973, an unexpected eruption forced the evacuation of 5,000 people on Heimaey, an island off the southwestern coast.

A third of the village of Vestmannaeyjar, the country's most important fishing port, was buried under lava from Eldfell volcano, but many residents eventually moved back.More recently, a 1996 eruption under Vatnajokull Glacier set off a major flood. Other minor eruptions have occurred in this century.All in all, seemingly, not a hospitable environment.

That probably explains why, even though various groups, including Celt and Norse explorers, have been trying to live in these parts for 1,500 years, Iceland's population is only about 288,000. Two-thirds of those folks live in the southwestern area around Reykjavik, the capital. Heck, there are twice as many sheep as people here.So what's the attraction?

Raw, natural beauty - lots of it. During our nine-day drive-around last September, we saw rugged coastline, delicately colored tundra, colorful Icelandic horses, weird rock formations, amazing sunsets, glaciers, icebergs, steaming hot springs, and more waterfalls, raging rivers and streams than we could count.And, for the most part, we had it all to ourselves.

June through August is when Iceland gets most of its tourists. By September, temperatures are falling - it was in the 40s to the 60s - and prices may be falling, too, although some tour companies now are charging peak-season prices in September.How's the driving? These roads aren't for making time. They're for making memories.The Ring Road, for instance, is mostly two-lane and mostly asphalt:

Mostly two-lane doesn't mean sometimes four-lane, and mostly asphalt doesn't mean sometimes concrete.A lot of bridges in Iceland - there are many, thanks to the hundreds of streams and rivers flowing from the glaciers - are only one lane. You're warned with signs that say "EINBREID" - that "D" has a line through it and is pronounced "th." So you have to take turns going across the bridges, though in September, we never had to do much sharing.

16 percent gradeNow, about that pavement. You can be cruising along the Ring Road, enjoying the view, when you see a sign announcing "MALBIK ENDAR" - Icelandic for bye-bye, pavement. Next thing you know, you're driving 10 mph and dodging potholes.And there are the construction zones, which you often must drive through, not around. One day near dark, we were approaching Hofn (pronounced Hup), on the southern coast. A construction zone turned the road into a track covered with tiny gravel, and a sign announced a 16 percent grade.

Let me tell you, 16 percent is a hellacious grade.But the many "wow" moments make you forget. The Tjornes Peninsula juts into the Arctic Ocean on the northeastern coast near the fishing village of Husavik. Here, we saw our first large expanses of that magically colored ground cover. When you get up close, you see that much of the vegetation has taken root on thousands of pieces of volcanic rubble. Pretty neat how Mother Nature mends things.

East of the peninsula, Jokulsargljufur National Park holds Dettifoss, a waterfall that carries the greatest volume of water of any waterfall in Europe. (Yes, Iceland is considered part of Europe.) The waterfall is about 145 feet high and puts on a great show. Upstream is the shorter but wider Selfoss (requiring a 20- to 30-minute hike over very large boulders). Downstream is 90-foot-high Hafragilsfoss.

Volcanic-rock fencesLake Myvatn - its name means "midge," though the pesky flying critters weren't around in September - sits inland in the northeast, in one of the most volcanically and geothermally active parts of the country. Oddly shaped volcanic formations jut out of the clear, shallow lake, and the volcanic rock is so abundant in places that it's been used to build fences.The smell of sulfur is common in the air and water in much of the northeast.

The adjoining Krafla region is an extremely active volcanic area, and geothermal energy fuels a power plant, which you drive right through. South of the Ring Road here is an area so otherworldly that it was used by U.S. astronauts in training for the first moon landing.In the eastern fiords, we parted company with the Ring Road for half a day to follow sometimes paved, sometimes unpaved two-lane roads that take you in and out of these fingers of ocean, which reach into the island and connect sparsely populated villages.

Even on a drizzly day, the views were wonderful, suggesting the Irish coast.Sometimes the mountains crowded right up to the road's edge. At other times, the land opened up to a coastal plain flanked by those ridges. At one point, we pulled to the side of the road as a double rainbow appeared above the sea. Later, as the light began to fade, we came around a curve and found a bay filled with hundreds of swans.

For roughly 100 miles, beginning at Hofn and going west past Skaftafell National Park, the Vatnajokull Glacier dominates, sitting just to the north of the Ring Road. Jokulsarlon, a lagoon between the road and the glacier, is filled with icebergs that have calved from the glacier. In summer, you can take a boat ride among them. When we visited, we were excited by an even more intimate experience: Icebergs float under the bridge on the road, out to sea and, at low tide, are stranded on the black-sand beach.

There, we walked among them, touching their ancient ice.Extending west from Skaftafell for many miles is the Sandur, a desert area of black volcanic sand and gravel that extends from the glacier to the sea. It's caused by floods produced when a volcanic eruption under the glacier starts to melt the ice. Eventually, there is so much pressure that the water lifts the glacier, then pours out and rushes to the sea, carrying huge chunks of ice and rock.

100-ton ice chunksAlong the road sits a monument to the power of nature: a couple of large, twisted steel girders that were torn from one of several bridges damaged or destroyed in a 1996 flood that shut this section of the Ring Road temporarily.

Some ice chunks from that flood weighed 100 to 200 tons.So it went: misty sea; tidy white farm buildings with bright-red roofs; thundering Gullfoss (called "the golden waterfall"), Iceland's most famous waterfall, throwing a spray that turned into a rainbow on a sunny afternoon; tiny yellow wildflowers; shaggy white sheep.So much more to this land than fire and ice.

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