Eric Dinerstein William C. Young
Iceland, 20-25 August 2016
Day 2: Monday, 22 August
Up at 7:30 with the sun shining bright, which quickly turned to dense fog. Gathered our stuff and headed downstairs for breakfast. It was a buffet of very grainy and delicious homemade bread, other breads, lunch meats including smoked lamb, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, red bell peppers. Spreadable mushroom-flavored cheese, soft-boiled eggs, skyr - though unfortunately this kind had sucralose in it (back home I love Siggi's Skyr and have pretty much forsaken all yogurts in favor of this low-sugar thick stuff, which nevertheless contains real sugar). The elder host came to visit our table and tell us what we can see, with a map. He was very friendly, and I saw him visiting all the tables. Went back to the room at 9:10, loaded up the car, and got out at 9:40.
The Ring Road
The Ring Road consists of 1 lane each way. The shoulders, such as they are, are only about 6" wide, and the entire roadway, at least the segment we drove, is elevated to a degree that prevents pulling off the side, bordered with a drop of around a foot, and rocks. Snow stakes are posted at regular and close intervals along the sides - I don't know what else to called them, but they're the tall thin sticks you might see in snowy areas so that, when the road is covered by snow, you still know where its edges are. Despite how thin and light they are, their regularity still adds to the narrow feeling of the roadway. Thankfully there's not a lot of traffic at all. A car every few minutes, maybe. Sometimes longer stretches with no cars. Many stretches of the road are marked to allow passing. The speed limit outside of town is mostly 90 kph, which is around 56 mph. 100 kph felt just fine to me, and most cars seemed to travel at that speed. I didn't see many police cars at all during the whole trip. I guess with nowhere to pull over to, it would be hard for them to do anything about your speeding except follow you a long way. I think I saw two of them, and they were in towns. I didn't see many cars speeding excessively.
I learned that, if I wanted to stop to see something, I had to keep an eye on the rearview mirror, and just stop in the road. When not in the mountains, the road is long and straight enough to have a view fairly far behind so I had enough time to get going once I spotted a vehicle coming. There were dirt roads here and there off the Ring Road - I think they must have been long winding driveways leading to farms. These were very hard to notice until I got right up on them, and by then it was too late to suddenly swerve off the road onto one. The tall grass that grew along most of the road hid them until they were right there.
Announcing "SWANS!" out loud, I pulled off the road as we approached a small bridge that went over a small river in which I'd spotted them. Unlike most places, there was actually a turnoff here, and I made sure to appreciate it. We were there for 15 minutes, and the family of 6 swans was all we saw for birds here. I think this was the entry that eBird questioned me about later: "Are you reporting a listing of ALL the birds you saw? That's an unusually low number for the amount of time…" or something to that effect. This turned out to be a normal bird frequency for non-birdy areas in Iceland, which is very different from back home, where I can stand anywhere and see a lot of birds, even if they're just "boring" House Sparrows, starlings, pigeons, doves, and cardinals. In addition to the swans, a few sheep grazed and lounged on the far bank of the river, a farm behind them, and some horses off in the foothills on our side. Google Maps says this was in the rural municipality of Húnavatnshreppur.
I pulled off the road a second time around 10:40 for a photo op, just past the roundabout in Blönduos, because there was actually a wide shoulder pull-off there. The shoulder edge became a drop down into a small gorge with a farm on the far side. While taking pictures here, 3 Redwings flew by, and 2 shorebirds, probably Dunlin. That was pretty active for a random stop here.
Blönduos itself was another small town, but I noticed these small towns we passed through were very clean and had a modern feel to them, not like run-down forgotten low-income backwater towns you pass through all over America on long drives. Maybe because the country is so small, it doesn't forget anyone.
Mountains & Sheep Photo Stop
At noon I spotted a few cars parked to the right of the road in what appeared to actually be a small dirt parking lot after driving a long time seeing only the countryside, so I turned off to park. During most of the drive, seeing all these mountains, I wished I could just stop and photograph them, and this gave me the opportunity to do it. Finally out of the fog and drizzle, the sun was shining, and it was nice to be able to just be still and take in the mountains. To the right side of the road, the land dropped down into a gorge, then rose to peaks. Across the road, green slopes climbed toward low peaks, sheep grazing here and there in the tall grass. The sun warmed the air to the point where I was able to take off my jacket. I noticed here that there are patches of snow up towards the tops of the mountains, but they're just scattered patches, not snow-covered peaks or the like. These mountains appeared to be only a little taller than the Blue Ridge Mountains, but then I'm a poor judge of size. A trail led down into the gorge, but we followed it only a short distance, stopping when it started to descend. I wondered how far it went; this could be a good stop for a hike. After admiring the gorge and mountains, we walked back to the car, and as I photographed the mountains off our stern there, a couple sheep ambled by, trying to involve me in their constant conversation of "baaaa".
The coordinates for that stop are: 65.464057, -18.869186. Despite being one of the more official-looking places to stop and park, I saw no sign, and on Google Maps it doesn't have any sort of label, other than saying the area just east of it is called Hörgársveit. We left there at 12:45.
15 minutes later I pulled off the road again, struck by the sight of dark pointed spires reaching for the sky. It turns out these are "lava peaks, shaped by glaciers and frosty weather". Looking at my photos, it's easy to guess which one is called Hraundrangi ('Steeple Rock'). This jagged row of teeth looks different from the other geologic features we'd been passing, so it was worth a stop. The road here passes through the valley called Öxnadalur below the fjord Eyjafjordur. This stop was made easy by another gravel turnoff, this one complete with a large sign that gave some of the information above, but mostly had information about the lack of utility pylons marring this landscape (the cables run underground here). Apparently they are fighting the National Grid's plan to erect them here; I hope they win.
We finally reached Akureyri, a cute town nestled against the southwest tip of Eyjafjörður. Wikipedia calls it a city, but I didn't have an impression of towering office buildings. Certainly there were a few large ones, but not many. Tysons Corner, VA, located 20 minutes west of Washington, DC, is much larger and more dense. Akureyri is the second largest urban area in Iceland, after Reykjavík. Wikipedia says: "The area has a relatively mild climate due to geographical factors, and the town's ice-free harbour has played a significant role in its history."
Icelandic towns do small things that end up making them feel friendly. For instance, whenever we'd find ourselves approaching a town on the Ring Road, a digital sign on the side of the road would show my speed and either a smiley face or a frowny face. After seeing this a couple times, the anthropomorphism of it made me want to slow down in time to see the smile, not the frown. Very effective for someone like me! And it made me happy to be greeted with a smile.
In Akureyri itself, at least on the main road through town, all the red lights were in the shape of a heart. So even though they were telling me to stop, it was hard to be irritated about it. Speaking of the traffic signals, you get a yellow light in addition to the red for about one second before the light turns green. This was a nice quick warning to take my foot off the brake so the car would start itself. My brother told me the lights in Scotland are the same.
At the south end of town, we took the causeway/bridge across the tip of the fjord and then north up the road on the other side, just following the Ring Road. Crossing that causeway leaves the city completely behind. We even passed through a stretch of trees here before we started passing an occasional street leading to only a few houses. The road took us upward from the level of the causeway and water. Now we were looking for our AirBnB, and the address styling in Iceland is different from in America, so I was thankful for the specific directions given by AirBnB, as I couldn't figure out how to properly enter the address into the GPS unit. It turned out to be down a shared dirt driveway that hung off the Ring Road, and the house was exactly as shown in the listing, perched at some elevation on land overlooking the fjord. I could see Akureyri stretched out on the opposite shore, a bit to the left in my view across the water. We arrived at 2:20 and unloaded the car. The B&B section of this house was in the bottom floor, which at the front of the house was a basement, where the ground met the front door, but had many windows across the back of the house where it was above ground, overlooking the water.
The hostess's name was Bergþóra, pronounced "Berg-thor-uh". We didn't meet her husband Starri at all, and Bergþóra remained invisible after our initial meeting. We entered the bottom floor from an exterior door around the side of the house into a laundry area, from there passing into what felt like a small kitchen until I realized it had no appliances other than a small refrigerator. It had a kitchen table and chairs, and a counter stocked with plates, utensils, and food items. A note on the refrigerator read "BREAKFAST", and a dish on the counter contained digestive biscuits, scones, and cookies. A low bookshelf lined the wall under the row of windows, and there was a loveseat beside a small table with picture books. The view out the windows and glass door there showed the yard, where there was a small cluster of trees, a hot tub and a trampoline, and then the grass fell away to the water below. The bathroom was behind me when looking out the windows, given a little bit of privacy from the kitchenette in addition to its door by a folding screen. Beyond the common area were two bedrooms, A and B; we had room B, which I recommend for being on a corner and having a window to the fjord.
After getting our stuff settled in our room, we set out at 3:25, heading northeast towards Husavik.
Not very far up the road, we entered a very dense fog on the drive, reminding me of San Francisco when it just rolls right in. Stopped in Husavik for gas at 5:00. We had planned to look around the coast north of there for birds, but the fog was so thick it was pointless, so we decided to drive up over the top and around to Ásbyrgi (pronounced "Ows-beer-gee"). Stopped there at 6:00 in the Gljúfrastofa Visitor Centre, where we were told that many birds have already left for the season, but we could try the lake or the pond, where sometimes there are grebes. I admired several nice books they had there - one for birds and another for plants, and took the opportunity to look up the large plants with flower/bud balls I had been seeing regularly. They are Garden Angelica, with the Latin moniker Angelica archangelica. That's a rather impressive name! Wondering what inspired it, I found my answer in the "Nomenclature" section of this web page, which sings the praises of this plant.
From there, we opted to visit the pond at the end of the road. As we drove towards it, the car passed between enough trees that I could almost consider them "woods " except that their shorter stature let in too much light to feel like a forest The straight vertical walls of Ásbyrgi Canyon grew taller and more impressive as we drove on. There had been some trees and small groves in our journey prior to this, but not often.
We reached the little parking lot at the end of the road at 6:18. I heard birds as soon as I stepped out of the car, and we managed to locate wrens flitting about deep in the branches of shrubs in the middle of the parking area. They flew across into the trees ringing the round dirt lot, and, following them, I spotted a young redpoll with its signature red cap. The wrens here were the only ones we were to see on the trip, and a lifer for me. From there we made our way down the dirt path between pale-barked trees with thin, twisting trunks - aspens? They were taller than me, but not much - maybe 10 feet. Another redpoll put in an appearance, younger than the first and lacking its red cap, hunting a bug where the dirt path split. We continued on through the trees, and as I made my way down some steps, I began hearing wet noises - small echoing splashes, letting me know we were coming up to the pond. The trees split to reveal a pool at the base of the cliffs, verdant with wet green moss covering the lower rocks. Ducks were the cause of the wet sounds, diving and dabbling in the water. They were Eurasian Wigeons, and one young fuzzy brown duck who was either a Tufted Duck or a scaup. We stood on the little dock and watched the ducks for a while. Here I heard another wren and a Redwing, but no other passerines. On the walk back to the car, a Whimbrel flew over the path. We left here at 6:55.
Ásbyrgi to Akureyri
Now we had to drive back the entire way we'd come, and I drove as quickly as I could, trying to beat the clock for 9:00, which was when we were told that was when most restaurants in Akureyri close. Coming around a descending bend in some mountains, getting near Eyjafjörður (the fjord that the house and Akureyri are located on), the car was embraced by yet another dense fog bank.
It was in this fog that I saw a fogbow and just had to hang my phone out the window and hope I captured it, as there was nowhere to stop and I didn't want to stop in the road in the fog. I managed to get a very nice photo of it without looking. A fogbow occurs across from where the sun is. Above the fog, it was a bright sunny day, not overcast, and I could see that in the warm quality of the light filtering through the fog. The sun was to my right, and the fogbow was following me out my driver's side window.
The fog did let up eventually as we got closer to the house.
Dinner in Akureyri
We didn't stop at the house, but passed it on the way to town. A couple minutes after 9:00, we stopped at the first restaurant we encountered at the southern end of town, which turned out to be a great choice. This was at the Nóa Seafood Gallery. The menu consisted mostly of fish options, but both of us chose the lamb prime rib after having heard proud boasts of the lamb from locals. We had a long wait for the food, but I think that was because a tour bus load of people was there. The restaurant's environment was pleasant enough, and the wait staff polite and tolerant of our late arrival. The praises of the lamb were very accurate; the meat was served medium rare, with a dipping sauce made of butter, crème fraîche, and stock that was so delicious I dipped everything in it, including the potato wedges and cherry tomatoes. We finished there at 10:35.
I can't help but feel that Icelandic sheep have the best life. They roam free all year in the mountains, grazing on the heath and grass and lichens they find. They looked very relaxed to me. They have one bad day in their lives, and I just hope it ends quickly for them. It was explained that the slaughter happens all at once, not throughout the year, and all the meat for the coming year is immediately frozen. Icelanders claim you can taste the wild heath and lichen flavoring the meat. I wouldn't know how to judge that, but it was very good.
We got back to the B&B at 10:48, where I weeded through the day's photos while Bill typed up his trip report for the day. We didn't see many birds today other than groups of Greylag Geese and swans, but the scenery made up for it. I didn't find the feel as dramatic as yesterday, but I think that was due to the lighting: dark clouds yesterday, and bright sunlight today - once we got out of the fog. What I could see of the land in today's drive actually reminded me a bit of I-82 through western Virginia - low mountains, not too distant, with farms scattered here and there in the foothills. But here there is more space, and the landscape is more rugged, not nearly so domesticated.
Caught this journal up and got to bed at 1:10. Still awake at 2:00.
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