Travel Palette – The Land of Fire and Ice
Flying to Iceland in late November doesn’t seem like the most intelligent time to see the magical country. As storm clouds fought the open sky for supremacy over a land akin to another planet; our predisposition of what to expect was quickly changed. Even in the clutches of winter, we were treated to a dazzling array of colors which continue to inspire me today. Each location on this trip opened my eyes to some wonderful palette combinations.
Daylight in the winter is a very scarce resource in Iceland. With limited light, Glymur was a hike that worked perfectly into our plans. As the sun rose over the peaks around us, we crawled out of our car and onto our first excursion into the Icelandic wild. With a fresh coat of snow, the landscape felt devoid of life. It wasn’t until we reached a higher altitude that we noticed the beautiful moss covered rocks, vibrant red muds, and golden grasses.
Vík was where I experienced some intense geography shock. Seeing black sand beaches for the first time is a strange moment – your mind is at odds with what we perceive beaches to look like in the U.S. The sand is a stark contrast to the grassy cliffs and gray rocky pillars. Colors that usually associate with the end of autumn appeared more brilliant. If you are in search of one of Vík’s little secret spots, you may find yourself looking for the wreckage of U.S. Naval pane that crashed back in the 1970’s. If you take the right random country road, you may stumble upon the fuselage of a Douglas Super DC-3.
We then traveled south of Vík for our next venture which involved exploring glaciers. What better way to enjoy the sun than ice climbing on a glacier. The ice is a captivating blue, like sky frozen and trapped underground. Due to the high density of glacial ice, it absorbs every color in the spectrum except blue. While trekking around, there were massive piles of black sediment breaking the otherwise pristine ice. Interestingly, we learned that this ash is actually from a volcanic eruption during the early 1900’s. Our exploration was a strange mixture of awe and melancholy after learning from our guide about the glacial recession happening in Iceland. Sólheimajökull has retreated more than 887m. in the last 20 years. (If you’d like to more about glacial recession, I would recommend checking out the documentary Chasing Ice. Sólheimajökull plays an important role in this film.)
Known for its thriving seal population, and whales which swim into their fjord, Hvammstangi is a great staging area for exploring the region. Just a 20-minute drive from this village is a natural amphitheater located atop a large hill. The vista afforded is like staring into a black and white photograph. The wealth of gray opens up a lot potential if you need an alternative to black and its accompanied tints.
After escaping an encroaching blizzard from the west, we made our way north into the northern fjords. Unbeknownst to us, the wind was relentless. A walk on the beach seemed like the last thing we should have done, but the promise of seeing seals in the ocean made logic secondary. Just off the shore there is a rock known as Hvítserkur. Its sculptural form propped against a backdrop of endless ocean and sky was breathtaking.
After driving for hours, we approached the volcanic tunnels of Shurtshellir. Like much of Iceland’s wonders, they aren’t easy to find. If it wasn’t for our GPS, we would have driven right past the single trailhead marker poking out of the snow. This lava tunnel is about a mile long and sporting many deviations from the beaten path. With headlamps on and my fear of claustrophobia intensifying, our journey brought us to some bizarre collections of earth hues. Portions of the cave exuded a terracotta hue, while others appeared mossy, albeit bereft of life.
There aren’t many places on this earth where you truly feel magic in the air. Even while battling the elements, I can’t help but marvel at the freedom of Iceland’s open land and skies. With their northern lights casting an almost hallucinogenic spectrum of color, you relish these moments when the unexpected appears from the monotony of night.