Notes From the Traveler's Journal: Iceland

Field notes contributor Larry Mishkar and his hiking partner Jenni Post spent seven weeks in Iceland last summer testing their physical and emotional endurance against the ashy trails and scree-covered switchbacks they encountered during their first pedestrian crossing of Iceland. Lucky for us, he brought his camera along.

June 16, 2010

We landed in Iceland early this morning—the land of fire and ice, and a wee bit of ash—after leaving Seattle last night.

Air travel was flawless, as the volcano under Eyjafjallajokull Glacier is no longer erupting. (The ash plume resulting from the volcano’s eruption last spring disrupted air travel in the western hemisphere for weeks.) Our plans were-touch-and-go for the past few months, but now only innocent white steam clouds rise above the crater. We also learned the volcano’s nickname, E15. Now, if only all long, Icelandic words had nicknames! Our rudimentary Icelandic lessons are proving a wise investment, however, nicknames not withstanding.

Three Stages: Glacier, Desert, Coast

 We’ve divided our route into three parts: the glacier pass section from Skógarfoss to Thórsmörk; the long hike across the desert highlands from Thórsmörk to Mývatn, and the final leg up the north coast from Mývatn to Hraunhafnartangi on the Greenland Sea. The 1950s concrete lighthouse and the rock cairn burial site of Thorgeir Hávarsson lies just 800 meters from the Arctic Circle.

We plan to spend two days in Reykjavik for jet lag recovery, sight-seeing, and shopping—we need to buy stove fuel and some trail food.

We’ll be sending a care package to Landmannalaugar, Landmann for short. The town is a rest stop (between Thórsmörk and Mývatn) on our route and the northern terminus of the famous Laugavegur Trail. It lies where the mountainous southern region bows to the expansive central high desert.

About the Laugavegur Trail

Thousands of tourists visit Landmann each season for its famous hot springs, loon inhabited lakes, and numerous nearby day hiking routes. With relatively easy road access from Reykjavik, it is a natural place to relax. It’s on one of the daily Landmann buses that our package will ride, tightly packed next to the hoards of backpacks and suitcases from around the globe.

Base camp in Reykjavik is a hostel just off the main square and next to the Allthingi—House of Parliament—and close to food, ATMs, pubs, and anything we might need.

There’s also an underground Viking archaeological site visible through a large window in the sidewalk just a few feet away. Another excavation recently took place on the other side of the hostel—archaeologists found a Viking-age forge site, the first forge ever located in Iceland.

June 17, 2010

We discovered yesterday that today, the 17th, is Iceland’s Day of Independence; we hurried with our shopping in anticipation of stores being shut. We suspect that the revelers will be up through tomorrow morning, not any different from your typical Reykjavik weekend, actually, so we’ll do the respectful thing and join them for beers on the lawn across from the Allthingi. Part of the celebration includes an antique car show, replete with large, shiny cars mostly from Detroit’s Golden Era.

June 18, 2010

After two mostly sleepless nights with 24-hours of daylight streaming in through our white-curtained windows, food buying, and Independence Day celebrating, we slide our packs (about 35 lbs each) into the belly of a white cross-country bus and fall into a coma as it heads east to Skógarfoss trailhead.

We are concerned about conflicting information concerning our ability to hike the pass. “Yes, it is open,” says one hut operator on the north side of the pass. “No, it is too dangerous and still closed,” the bus driver and a ticket seller say.

With dried sausage and vegetables, Icelandic cheese, jars of American peanut butter, and bags of custom-smoked salmon from Seattle, we leave the city behind and head east along Highway 1 – the Ring Road.

Blast off

A few hours later, we arrive at Skógarfoss. Foss means waterfall, thus it’s the Skógar waterfall. A small wood hut and brightly colored tents announce we have arrived.

This first section ends in a wooded dreamland called Thórsmörk. It’s about 13.7 miles to Thor’s Woods, that lovely valley filled with dwarfed birch, fragrant flowers, and one of Iceland’s most beautiful orchids.

To get there, the trail begins with a step staircase to the top of the original shoreline.

Lunch first—those stairs can wait.

During the meal, we meet a fellow hiker from France, Melwina, who, like us, has planned to hike across the country, using the same route. With my rusty French and really rusty, German, and her confessed uncomfortable English, we communicate enough to agree to join forces and become three.

After the obligatory waterfall photo, we take on the steel treaded stairs. Feel the burn!

Forging ahead

When we approach our first electric fence, my hiking poles vibrate in my hands, but wood fence ladders safely move us into sheep pastures.

With each step, a cloud of gray ash floats upward. Here and there, green grass pokes through ash. We follow the marked trail north, and climb toward the pass.

Our goal today is a set of huts at the pass summit, about six miles from the trailhead. The map showed two huts, relatively close together. Either one will work, we figure.

Into Skógar River canyon

After breaking for snacks and photos, we pass day hikers, waterfalls, and large singular boulders.

The Skógar River canyon narrows; the water sounds furious. The higher we go, the colder it gets. We pass a group of German day hikers lunching while perched on a pile of rock. Soon there’s no one else but us.

Thick fog whirls. Dead silence surrounds us.

Emerging from the quiet

Suddenly, a parked white pickup truck, a road, and a pedestrian bridge appear through the fog. From the timber bridge, we stare down at a rushing Skógar River, forced between steep-walled rocks.

Surrounded by fog

We soon find a trail that, according to the map, leads toward the lower elevation hut. We climb higher and higher, dense fog concealing every view. Only the sound of rushing water gives us a sense of place. It’s eerie.


And then a shout. “The hut.” A large, red rectangle of corrugated metal looms closer with every step. Our new French friend stands on the porch and welcomes us with a wave to the abandoned A-frame hut.

A sign carved with the name Baldvinsskáli in large block letters cut from plywood has been blasted by blowing sand and snow. But where is the other hut, the Fimmvörðuháls?

An otherworldly landscape

Around us, the landscape resembles a tray of brownies. Escaping heat has melted pockets in the snow, making thousands of dimples on the ashy surface.

Slowly the clouds clear and blue sky shows to the south. Thin baby blue clouds hang over the southern ridges, reflecting in pools of melted snow.

Before bed, I take one last look out the hut’s window. And there it is, sitting in silhouette on a black ridge to the north, the Fimmvörðuháls hut.