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Report from the Field: In the Wake of the Vikings: Scotland, Iceland & the Faroes
Published on Wednesday, June 18, 2003
Lerwick, Shetland Islands
Following our flight from Edinburgh, our group started the day with a walking tour of downtown Lerwick, capital of the Shetlands, before setting off on a bus excursion. Driving out of historic Lerwick, where the original houses clustered along the seafront date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, we passed the remains of a Neolithic farmstead on a small islet in a freshwater loch. The original structures date to 700 b.c.; a few hundred years later, a huge defensive wall was built around the islet, and a tall broch tower was added to the site. Our first stop was in the charming village of Scalloway, where we visited the castle built in 1599 by Earl Patrick Stewart. En route back to Lerwick for lunch we drove through the historic Tingwall Valley, where the Shetland version of the Norse parliament was held, and noted many abandoned croft houses, from which more than 300 people were cleared by heartless landowners in the 19th century.
But the highlight of the tour was the visit to Jarlshof, where much of Shetland’s 6,000 year history of human occupation is represented in Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Viking and 17th century structures preserved beneath several metres of windblown sand until revealed by a huge gale early in the 20th century. It is likely that many additional structures lie hidden on this promontory, beneath the early prehistoric houses and souterrains, wheelhouses, broch, Norse farm and laird’s house visible today and neatly interpreted by our guide, John. On the way back to Lerwick we passed the site of Catpund, where 3,000 years of evidence of the quarrying of soapstone is visible on the bedrock on either side of Catpund Burn, highly reminiscent of the Fleur de Lys site in Newfoundland where Dorset Eskimos also carved out material for their soapstone pots and lamps.
The new group for the Northern Isles to Iceland trip arrived, they quickly boarded the bus and made their way to the hotel for lunch and to Jarlshof.
Back aboard the ship, the new passengers found their cabins and we all participated in the emergency evacuation drill. Afterwards, we had a welcome cocktail party with staff introductions and went to dinner. Our evening ended with a concert by a local Shetland band in the ship’s lounge. It was truly a pleasure listening to their music.
Lerwick, Island of Noss and Papa Stour
This morning we slept in until 0730! We started our morning with a walking tour of Lerwick. Lerwick has a strong Norse influence from early Vikings who occupied the area, but Dutch Traders from the Hanseatic League largely established the city in the 1600s. Merchant homes and storehouses crowd the shoreline, some having tunnels into the city that were used by smugglers. Fort Charlotte was built in 1781 to provide protection for the city, but fortunately was never tested by battle. Our walking tour covered everything from flowers in the formal gardens to the problem of diminishing attendance in a city of many churches.
Back on the ship we gathered together on deck to view a popular bird colony. Our captain did a remarkable job getting the ship close to the Isle of Noss so we could have a close-up view of the 160,000 pairs of seabirds nesting on the cliffs. Most of the birds were gannets, but there were also kittiwakes, guillimots, fulmars, puffins, bonxies, and some lovely eider ducks on a small platform just above the water. The geology was also well worth a good look, with various layers of old red sandstone sloping upward to form convenient ledges for nesting sites.
After lunch Peter Harrison gave our first lecture of this expedition, on puffins. Using PowerPoint slides, he showed us spectacular pictures of puffins doing all kinds of antics.
Papa Stour is also part of the old red sandstone unit, but it is not sedimentary. Instead the island consists of lava flows and ash layers that form spectacular seastacks, tunnels, and arches. Our first Zodiac ride of this voyage was around the sea cliffs of Papa Stour. The rain did not dampen our spirits as we navigated through the spectacular rock formations and sea caves. The highlight of our Zodiac adventure was a sea cave that went deep into the island and came out the other side. We lit our way with torches (flashlights) and carefully found our way through to the other side.
This evening our captain welcomed us aboard the Clipper Adventurer with a cocktail party and dinner. Afterwards, we sailed past the northernmost point of the British Isles, Muckle Flugga, a lighthouse designed and built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s father. As we departed the Shetland Islands, we looked westward into the vast Atlantic Ocean towards our next destination – the Faroe Islands.
The Faroe Islands
This morning was another lie-in as we made our way to the Faroe Islands. The Faroe Archipelago is a series of 18 volcanic (basalt) rock islands. The Gulf Stream encircles the islands and tempers the climate all year round, so that the harbors never freeze. There are 300 bird species on the islands, and the oystercatcher is the national bird.
After a leisurely breakfast we listened to lectures given by two of our naturalists, Callum Thomson and Scott Babcock. Callum’s talk was called Vikings in the North Atlantic and included descriptions of archeology sites from Scotland to Labrador. A surprise visit by our Clipper resident Viking, Lou, provided great amusement for all in attendance. Scott did a double-header animated PowerPoint presentation entitled How the Earth Works and The Big Chill. Before we knew it we had arrived at our destination.
Today was Whitmonday in the Faroes. This is a celebration of the beginning of Pentecost Unfortunately, this meant that all the shops were closed in honor of this religious holiday. This was not a problem for us though; we traveled a ways out of town to the small village of Kirkjubour. The countryside was steep and rocky; sheep of various colors dotted the landscape (even multicolored ones). The village is famous for three historic churches and was once the ecclesiastical center of the Faroes. A bishop was in residence there until the Danes took over after the Reformation.
Upon arrival at Kirkjubour we were enthusiastically welcomed by two sheepherding dogs that tried in vain to keep our unruly group in order. Our guides had the same problem, as people scattered to try to find the best vantage point to capture the lovely setting and the three historic buildings on camera.
The Olav Church remains the oldest medieval church still in regular use in the Faroes. It dates to 1111 and is a model of Scandinavian simplicity with its plain windows and seating. A lovely painting of Christ as a fisherman by the Faroes’ most famous painter, Samal Joensen Mikines, adorns the altar. Beside it lie the ruins of the Gothic-style Magnus Cathedral undertaken by a despotic bishop, Erlund, in the late 13th century. Since no one but he had any enthusiasm for the project, it appears that construction was discontinued after his death in 1308. Another church ruin, the Mary Church, has mostly tumbled into the sea, but a few pieces of the ruin can still be seen in the field to the south of the cathedral.
The main building at Kirkjubour is the “Roykstovan,” a 900-year-old farmhouse made of logs salvaged from a shipwreck and lovingly altered and tended through the centuries. Our guide recounted some of the many legends attached to this house as we relaxed in the huge kitchen. Afterward Tim Soper had arranged for the National Museum of the Faroe Islands to be open for us to tour. The museum had several displays of artifacts from the early settlement of the Faroe Islands. There was also a fascinating Viking section, including a grave marker with runes carved into it. The museum had a wonderful exhibit of traditional Faorese fishing boats and equipment; we were amazed at how small they were for the open sea.
Back in the capital city of Torshavn, our guide led us on a walking tour of the historical part of the city, where the government buildings are located. Since 1948 the Faroe Islands have been self-governing and have their own parliament and flag. It is an example of Faroese culture that all the major government buildings are unpretentious and are located in converted warehouses along an industrial waterfront. After our tour of Torshavn it was time to reboard the ship for a quick recap of the day’s events and Tim’s briefing of our arrival to Mykines Island this evening.
Directly after dinner we made it to the beautiful island of Mykines. We loaded into the Zodiacs and headed toward the landing site. Hundreds of kittiwakes nesting on the cliff greeted us with a distinctive cry that sounds just like their name, “kit-ti-wake.” Mykines Island is the westernmost island in the Faroe Archipelago; it rises quite rapidly from the sea (1,837 feet). Immediately after unloading, we had to climb a set of very steep stairs; after that it was all uphill. However, the climb was worth it, the puffin colony is enormous and is found all around the cliffs of the island. We had two hours to spend on the island, and everyone agreed it was too short. It was close to 2300; the daylight was fading and fog was rolling in; time for bed and sweet dreams of puffins.
Vestmanna, Streymoy, and Vagar Islands
The early birders left this morning at 0630 to travel by a Faroe Islander’s boat to the Vestmanna bird cliffs on Streymoy Island. The outing was reminiscent of the previous Zodiac exploration of Papa Stour except that here the sea cliffs and seastacks towered several hundred feet above the waterline. As advertised, seabirds were abundant and varied, including numerous eiders, guillemots, black guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, and puffins. There was also an opportunity to take a close-up look at one of the fish farms that are becoming an important part of the Faroese economy. As soon as the cliff cruisers returned, it was time to head off on our excursion to Streymoy and Vagar Islands.
Our first stop of the morning was Kvivik, a Viking longhouse site nestled at the foot of a gentle slope, with a stream running by to spill into the sea. One of the longhouses was the dwelling, with a long hearth down the center; the other, immediately adjacent, was the byre and barn, where stone stalls and a drainage channel are still clearly visible. Both structures were built of slightly curved, stout stone-and-rubble foundation walls. Above the village, sheep dotted the bright green grassy slopes, just as they did 1,000 years ago when this was a thriving Viking community. Among the artifacts found during the 1942 excavation of the site were many soapstone pot and lamp fragments and spindle whorls, demonstrating the importance of this material (most likely imported from the Scottish Isles or Norway) for cooking, lighting, and weaving. This beautifully situated site brought to life the images and settlement characteristics described in Callum Thomson’s earlier Vikings lecture.
At the picturesque hillside village of Saksun, we toured a typical farmhouse (now a museum) from the early 1800s. It was built with stone and wood, and had a roof of birch bark and turf. The oldest part of the home is the roykstova, meaning “smoke room.” This is an all-purpose kitchen, workroom, and main living area. As well as being a historical exhibit, the site is also a working farmstead supporting 300 sheep.
We traveled to nearby Vagar Island through an underground, three-mile-long subsea tunnel, an engineering marvel blasted through solid basalt rock.
Sandavagur, our last stop of the day, was voted the most well kept village in the Faroes. Our guides took us to the Evangelical Lutheran Church and cemetery, which are decorated in the traditional Nordic style. This is the fourth church built on this site and was designed by a local architect in 1917. The church is famous for a large rock in the corner of the sanctuary with rune writing engraved. The stone is displayed at the church because the local people discovered it the same year the church was built.
The story goes something like this: A farmer in Sandavagur was plowing in his field and came upon a rock. He dug out the rock, but did not notice the rune writing because it was covered with dirt. As it was too large to move, he left the rock in the field. One year later, a young man carrying peat stopped to rest on this rock. A year of rain had washed away the dirt, and he noticed unfamiliar writing engraved on the rock. Thinking it might be ancient runes, he quickly ran to the village and told the villagers, who followed him back to take a look. They sent a copy of the writing to Denmark to have it analyzed and transcribed. This is what it said:
Torkjell Onundarson, an easterner from Rogaland, built first in this place
The term “easterner” means from Norway, Denmark, or Sweden, as opposed to a “Vestmanner,” who would be from the Hebrides or Ireland.
Back on board the ship, we listened to three dynamic lectures: Peter Harrison’s Birds of Iceland, and Scott Babcock and Jane Thomson shared double-header presentations, Fire and Ice: Scenic Geology of Iceland and Landscape Art of the Faroes and Iceland.
Tonight we set our clocks back one hour and gained an extra hour of sleep on our way to Iceland.
Thanks to the North Atlantic tides, we got a rare opportunity to sleep in until 0800 today (in addition to gaining another hour of sleep by changing our clocks to Iceland time). This was to allow Captain Philipp a chance to catch the rising tide into the harbor of Höfn, which is notoriously difficult. Those of us on deck watching the landing found out why, when the ship did a 90-degree turn with only a few yards of clearance to reach our dock. As we gracefully eased into the landing, a spontaneous cheer went up from the onlookers.
The town of Höfn, which means “harbor,” is located on the southeastern tip of Iceland. Glaciers dominate the horizon, and the air temperature reflects our surroundings. We all bundled up and boarded buses to the Glacier Lagoon and the Vatnajökull Glacier.
The Glacier Lagoon formed during the past 60 years as the Jökulsárlón Glacier receded and left a series of moraines behind that blocked the meltwater, forming a lake. We had the experience of traveling in a craft called a “duck”; it can drive over the land and then convert to a boat as it drives into the water. The highlight here was huge icebergs of intensely blue ice that had been calved off the glacier, which is rapidly retreating like most others in Iceland and around the world.
Next, we made our way up a very rough, very windy, very steep, gravel road to the Vatnajökull Glacier. If you are afraid of heights, then this was not the ride for you. We had a lovely smorgasbord lunch in a cook shack at the end of the road. Afterwards we boarded Ski-Doos and went snowmobiling on the glacier, which, at 3,200 square miles, is the largest in Europe. For everyone involved, from the Ski-Doos to the Sno-Cats, traveling on a glacier was an amazing and amusing experience. The only complaint was from the captain, who felt that he had been unjustly attacked with snowballs.
We returned to a late dinner, and afterwards many of us ventured back on deck to watch the captain cast off from the dock, an event so popular that the scheduled movie was postponed until tomorrow night!
Raudubjorg / Seydisfjördur
Today we put to test the old saying: "There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing." Misty, drizzling rain greeted us this morning and lasted the entire day. We made a wet landing near the red cliffs of Raudubjorg and enjoyed the scenery as we hiked around part of the 16-mile fjord. Wildflowers were abundant, and several of us stopped along the way to photograph them. A herd of over 70 reindeer was grazing nearby and charged up the nearest rocky hill looking for greener pastures. It was quite an amazing site.
Callum and Jane Thomson found three ruins of settlements that had been covered over with grass; an old farm site complete with smokehouse, stable, and old barn ruins; and a small family graveyard. Working our way north along the peninsula we came upon other croft or old farm buildings close to the sea. Finally we reached an older-looking settlement consisting of three rectangular sod and stone foundations next to a stream, probably dating back several hundred years and perhaps into the Saga Age of early Icelandic settlements.
Scott and Marca Babcock took a group of long walkers to an overlook of the red cliffs of Raudubjorg. This was a spectacular geologic site that revealed the deep roots of a geothermal area. The site was full of hot springs and geysers several thousand years ago, but erosion has now stripped off the whole upper part.
Peter Harrison, of course, led a group of birders along the coast in pursuit of seabirds. When it was time to go back to the ship, we all agreed we had a fabulous time despite the weather.
Back on board, we had just enough time to change into dry clothing and attend Callum’s lecture entitled: The Joys and Hazards of Arctic Archaeology.
The chefs outdid themselves and served up a delicious "cook-in barbecue" lunch (moved indoors because of the rain). Meanwhile, the ship continued to travel to another fjord where the village of Seydisfjördur is located. We disembarked and had the choice of three walks. The long walkers, led by Shirley Metz, Scott, and Callum hiked to a spectacular waterfall just outside the town. Jane took a group to the East Iceland Museum of Technology. Ragnar Hauksson and Marca led a short walk through downtown Seydisfjördur looking at the architecture of the buildings. We stopped to tour the beautiful Lutheran church, painted a bright sky blue with Norwegian designs.
This evening, Zegrahm Expeditions and the Harvard Museum of Natural History hosted the cocktail party. However, just before it was to begin, two humpback whales were spotted feeding. We all promptly headed up to the bridge to take a look. We were not disappointed; the whales stayed close by our ship surfacing and feeding. After watching them for at least half an hour, we reluctantly headed back downstairs for our cocktail party. Dinner was then served, with a special dessert of bananas Foster afterwards in the main lounge. Another day in Iceland was over.
Húsavík to Akureyri, Iceland
This morning we woke up early (0630) to start our tour of northeast Iceland. Húsavík was the first Nordic settlement of Iceland, in 850 by Garoar Svavarsson, a Swedish Viking. We traveled by Zodiac, disembarked at the pier, and made our way to the Húsavík Whale Center. This museum exhibition featured information on every Icelandic whale, with a special exhibit about Keiko, the orca rescued from captivity and brought back to Iceland after becoming famous in Free Willy.
We loaded the buses and headed out for the ultimate geology field trip. On the way we passed sheep pastures with steam vents spouting off hot clouds of water vapor, which the Vikings called “smoke.” Our first stop was an overview of Lake Myvatn featuring a lava flow that was extruded in the eruption of 1724-1729. Today home sites and pastures have been shaped from its rough surface.
The “pseudo-crater” field at Skutustadagigar looks like a series of small cinder cones. These are actually explosion pits ringed with scoria, formed 2,400 years ago when lava flowed over lakes and ponds, flashing the water to steam. Amazingly, the wildflowers were abundant, growing in unexpected places amongst the lava formations. We saw tufted saxifrage, moss campion, Icelandic poppies, alpine buttercups, ramberries, purplish braya, lady’s mantle, coltsfoot, mountain avens, water avens, and two types of willow – woollen and yellow.
At the next stop the birders got their highlight of the day, with an amazing number of waterfowl and other birds observed. The birders’ best was an overhead view of a pair of horned grebes switching places on the nest, with a pair of chicks hatched and two eggs to go. There were also Barrow’s goldeneyes, eider ducks, harlequin ducks, snow buntings, long tailed ducks, and the unique trilling call of a snipe maneuvering overhead. The unexpected sighting of the day was of a purple sandpiper, a “lifer” on several birders’ lists.
The last stop of the morning was Dimmuborgir, where a pool of molten lava drained towards Lake Myvatn, leaving behind bizarre pillars and blobs of basalt showing “bathtub rings” of the sinking lava lake and shiny coating of slag on exposed surfaces. Part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge extends through this area, producing a gap in the lava about one meter wide. This gave the geologically astute among us the incomparable opportunity to plant one leg on the North American plate and another on the Eurasian plate, while smiling for the assembled cameras and camcorders.
Lunch was at the hotel in Reykjahlid, featuring a platter of steamed carrots, new potatoes, and Icelandic trout. Scrumptious!
After lunch our road trip continued as we drove past the 60-megawatt Krafla geothermal power station, one of several plants in Iceland using steam from volcanic areas to produce electricity. About two miles up the road from here was Viti, a lake of surreal blue color contained within a 1,000-foot-wide explosion crater. In Icelandic, the name means “hell,” and this is what it must have been like here over the years that it took to construct this amazing geologic feature.
One of the more fascinating stops was at Grjotagja, a hot spring contained within a fissure developed along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Here it is possible to descend into a cavelike structure where rising steam and filtered light from above creates an effect like something out of a Jules Verne novel. You could image that this was where the Journey to the Center of the Earth started. The springs used to be a popular local party place until the water suddenly heated to more than 150 degrees during the 1980s. It has cooled down somewhat since then, but is still too warm to be a comfortable hot tub.
Finally, on our way to Akureyri, we visited Godafoss, a spectacular waterfall only 40 feet high, but the torrent of water rushing through the narrow gorge is just as impressive as Niagara. There is a story about a chieftain in A.D. 1000 who decided to adopt Christianity, and as a symbol of abandoning pagan worship, he threw his statues of pagan gods over the waterfall.
Akureyri is the second-largest city in Iceland; it has colorful buildings that line the streets under snow-covered mountain peaks. This is the first real town we have been in since Lerwick, and being a Friday night (not a holiday) the shops are open late! Dinner was on board the ship, but a few ventured off to try the local cuisine. After dinner Ragnar, our Icelandi guide, gave a walking tour of the town, visiting the botanical gardens.
Siglufjördur and Grímsey Island
The morning rain did not dampen our spirits as we made our way to the Herring Era Museum in Iceland’s northernmost mainland town. Siglufjördur is a historic fishing town that became Iceland’s herring capital in the early 1900s. The museum is located in a warehouse building and captures the essence of the fishing industry. To our delight, actors dressed up in turn-of-the-century clothing re-created a scene from those fishing days. After a very entertaining demonstration of cleaning and salting herring, the actors (also veterans of the herring industry) sang and danced to the accompaniment of an accordion player. Refreshments included three different types of prepared herring and a shot of schnapps.
Having enough of the schnapps, Peter Harrison took a group of birders off in pursuit of, well, more birds of course. This time they found ringed plovers, redshanks, redwings, snipes, black-tailed godwits, mergansers, and a host of other species. Especially interesting were the “nanny” eiders who were cooperatively baby-sitting as many as 20 ducklings, while the other mothers were off feeding. Ragnar led a group on a town walk of Siglufjördur, with an emphasis on the history and traditions of the community.
Reboarding the ship for lunch, we set sail for Grímsey Island. After lunch Jane Thomson gave a lecture on Current Archeology Studies in Iceland. This was an excellent review of the cultural history of the region, including a description of the Althing – the first democratic assembly in Europe, founded in 930.
This afternoon we arrived at the only point of Iceland above the Arctic Circle, Grímsey Island. An old legend tells us that trolls and giants inhabited the island until a man called Grímur killed them. However, he took the daughter of one of them for his wife and the islanders are said to be his descendants. It was an easy dock landing, with taxi service provided by locals if desired. A mile-long walk brought us to the Arctic Circle marker and cameras snapped pictures as we took turns standing next to the “road sign.” Peter made an elaborate champagne toast. He mentioned a whole host of Arctic and Antarctic explorers and generously included all of us in the same category as we celebrated our accomplishment. For some, it was their first time traveling to the far north. Others were veterans, “collecting” various locations around the Arctic Circle.
Those who wanted to went on a birding walk with Peter and Scott Babcock, and Ragnar again took a group around the small village to explain the day-to-day life of people on this remote island. Others opted to browse casually on their own and visit the shop with local crafts and Arctic Circle T-shirts for sale.
Recap tonight featured all of the natural history staff. Marca Kidwell-Babcock introduced it by recalling some of her own experiences working on the “slime line” in Alaska. Callum Thomson continued the fishing theme with his fox-stole-the-breakfast fish story. Scott talked briefly about the two different kinds of igneous rock – volcanic and plutonic. Jane played her music CD by Ian Tamblyn entitled Magma and Mica. Peter ended the recap by discussing bird eggs, which led (in a roundabout way) to his own fish story of the one who got away.
Dinner was wonderful, as usual, with a special dessert of crêpes suzette. Our after-dinner entertainment was Icelandic storytelling of trolls, giants, and fairies by Ragnar.
The West Fjords
Our morning started at 0530 with a wake-up call from Tim Soper to view the world-famous Hornbjard Cliffs. Those who responded were rewarded with incomparable views of soaring cliffs with strange jagged tops – the product of glaciation combined with extreme shoreline erosion. The cliffs are part of the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, a peninsula abandoned after WWII and protected as a national monument for preservation of wildlife. We landed at Hornvík, a rugged landscape with volcanic cliffs and great pillar-like slabs composed of erosion resistant basalt dikes.
The long walkers, led by Peter Harrison, headed off towards a waterfall. Not far off the beach was one of those pillars with the definite shape of a giant troll. Nearby we found a raven’s nest and then the den of an Arctic fox with three pups inside. The pups would curiously poke their heads out to see what all the noise was about. The short walkers went beachcombing, led by Scott Babcock, admiring the sparkling black sand. Meanwhile, the drivers of the Zodiacs went exploring and found a magnificent section of cliffs. Tim hurriedly called everyone back for a Zodiac cruise around the cliffs. Even though it was hard to tear ourselves away from the foxes, we all agreed the cliffs were among the best we had seen, complete with a cascading waterfall and huge numbers of nesting birds.
Back on board, we enjoyed a Father’s Day Sunday brunch with time for a very quick snooze before our next destination.
Sunshine! The clouds burned away and bright blue skies greeted us! Spirits high, we disembarked at the Port of Ísafjardardjúp. Our first destination was the Maritime Museum. This was an eclectic place with everything from the usual display of fishing gear to a functional radio room and a technician doing fish analysis. Outside we were treated to a demonstration of traditional dancing by a group of local students. Although it was Sunday, we discovered that the local merchants had opened many of their shops for us. The shoppers on board the Clipper Adventurer made it definitely worth their effort. The atmosphere was festive back on board the ship, many of us gathered out on the back deck to watch volunteers turn the pig roasting over a barbecue pit.
The tiny island of Vigur is the home of ten people – two brothers and their families plus a grandmother. Their primary source of income is eiderdown from countless nests on the island, which are harvested three times a year. They also raise cattle and have dairy products, which are regularly shipped to the mainland. Their transport vehicle is a 200- year-old boat that they load and launch in a fashion that hasn’t changed since the boat was built. Photo opportunities abounded here, especially nesting eider ducks and black guillemots hanging out in a crop of huge rhubarbs. Back aboard, we enjoyed a special barbecue dinner outside on the back deck of the ship. It was a wonderful day!
For the hard-core adventurers who enlisted in an after-dinner Zodiac tour, there was a special surprise awaiting. Instead of cruising the fjord, we went ashore where the crew had prepared a bonfire of Russian driftwood and various after-dinner libations. The main entertainment was Ed hauling a huge driftwood log from the beach to feed the fire and Ragnar telling tales of Icelandic gods and trolls. We all marveled at the incredible ambiance of sitting around the ruins of an ancient dwelling place as the fire burned and the Arctic sun set very, very slowly in the west.
Látrabjarg Peninsula and Flately Island
Our last day aboard ship was sunny and calm. This morning was an optional early wake-up call for those interested in viewing our arrival to the Látrabjarg Peninsula. Soon after breakfast we loaded up the Zodiacs for a cruise to the red-sand beach of the Látrabjarg Cliffs. The beach was magnificent; it stretched out in a horseshoe shape with a small inlet behind it. A gray seal curiously followed our Zodiacs as we searched for a landing place. It was a glorious morning, and we were all looking forward to a pleasant walk on the beach.
The landing was more difficult than anticipated, though, because of some shallow water, and since we had left our rubber boats in our cabins, we had to be even more adventurous today. Some made a jump for shore; others took off their shoes and socks and waded in. Even our fearless expedition leader, Tim Soper, got wet as he leapt aboard while pushing us out. After our beach walk we loaded back into the Zodiacs and finished with a cruise around the cliffs. To our delight a rock ptarmigan was perched high on a mound above us (first one of the trip). Another first, Peter Harrison briefly spotted a gyrfalcon flying in the distance.
After all returned to the ship, Ragnar Hauksson gave his lecture as we made our way to Flately Island, where a group of inquisitive Icelandic children, now on holiday from school, greeted our last Zodiac landing of the expedition. We promptly headed for an 11th-century church with paintings by Baltsar, a Spanish-Icelandic artist. The birders were delighted by a large number of red-necked phalaropes that were cavorting in drainage ditches, fields, and along the shoreline. The group also saw a red knot bird for the first time.
Back on board the ship we had the last recap of the voyage, which started with Jane Thomson sharing how art tells a story about life. Callum Thomson followed Jane’s theme and continued with the stories archeology tells us. Ragnar explained how Icelandic names work and argued that this was much more logical than our convention of family names. Scott Babcock and Marca Kidwell-Babcock used a roll of toilet paper to illustrate geologic time, and summarized the geologic history of our voyage. And finally, Peter supported Tim’s nomination of the Zodiac trip through the cave at Papa Stour as the highlight of the voyage.
Our expedition was coming to an end. Our captain, who actively participated with our adventures when he was available, hosted the final cocktail party and dinner. He also reintroduced the officers, for whom we have all developed great appreciation.
After dinner we cruised past the famous shield volcano Snæfellsjökull. Unfortunately the upper slopes were wreathed in clouds. The final entertainment of the evening was a You Are the Stars! slide presentation compiled by Marca, documenting the voyage in pictures.
Thingvellir / Geysir / Gullfoss / Reykjavík
With passports in hand, we disembarked the Clipper Adventurer for our last land tour of the expedition. Our first stop was Thingvellir, which means “assembly place.” This entire area is now a national park and was the ancient site of Iceland’s early parliament, the Althing. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge runs directly through this part of Iceland, as indicated by dramatic rift valleys that vividly portray the movement of the earth’s crust. Several of us took this opportunity to straddle a fracture, having one foot on Eurasia and the other on the North American Plate.
The generation of huge amounts of molten rock has produced a series of hot spots in Iceland, including the famed Geysir field. Although Geysir itself is no longer active, another called Strokkur erupts every few minutes. Upon arrival we were soon rewarded, and some of us almost sprayed, by the fountain of hot steamy water spewing out from a crater in the ground. Photographing the geysers took some perseverance and patience, while we waited for the next eruption. After our walk, we ate a salmon lunch at the visitor’s center and had a few minutes to peruse their gift shop.
Back on the bus, we headed for Gullfoss, one of the most incredible waterfalls in the world. The cool mist from the cascading falls was refreshing and the rushing noise deafening. A path followed the river leading to the headwaters of the falls. It was possible if one dared, to stand at the edge of the rock cliff directly opposite of the rushing water and look down the lava eroded canyon. Another path led to a higher lookout where the entire falls, as well as the distant Langjokull Glacier could be seen. Kerif is a huge cinder cone volcano that collapsed leaving an extremely large (60 meters deep) crater with a lake in the bottom. The brilliant colors of the contrasting rust cinder lava, bright green flora, and intensely blue water was stunning. Once again, it was possible to walk right up to the edge and look over, definitely challenging those who were acrophobic.
The last stop of our tour took us to a large greenhouse called Eden, appropriately named after the Garden of Eden. The hydrangeas near the entrance welcomed us in with their big bright flowers. Banana trees, tropical flowers, several different kinds of fruit trees, and a huge head of a troll made from sod were all a part of the display. There was also a souvenir shop and restaurant. The highlight for many of us was the ice cream cones. Delicious! Our timing was perfect; a rainstorm poured the entire time we were inside, stopping just in time for us to board the bus.
We finally arrived at the Radisson SAS Hotel in Reykjavík. Tonight was our last dinner together hosted by Zegrahm, as in the morning we would be departing at different times (some as early as 0500). Remember the parting words of our captain, “It is not farewell, it’s Auf ein Wiedersehen!” Until we meet again!