Eric Dinerstein William C. Young
Iceland, 20-25 August 2016
General Notes & Observations
Iceland was wild, rugged, and beautiful, with lots of expansive views due to the lack of trees. So many rocks dotted the landscape that when they weren't there, it was notable. Farmland comprised long stretches, and as mentioned above, almost reminded me of driving south down I-81, with mountains behind vast green fields, except these mountains were dark, often with smooth sloping flanks, and the farm fields blended into rock fields. The land wasn't so quilted and parceled as in Virginia, and it was hard to tell sometimes where a farm's boundaries were.
The farms were distant from each other, and I didn't see many fields that looked like crop plantings. Mostly it appeared to be hay, and it must have been harvest time because many fields were mowed and dotted with hay rolls. These were huge cylindrical wads encased in plastic wrap, mostly of one color per field. A lot of white ones, some pink, some black, some pale green.
In Reykjavík and near it, the land looked like heaved asphalt - large black cracked humps, often with lichen and ground-hugging plants growing on them.
I already mentioned the roads - raised, with no shoulders. Almost everywhere we went, they were that way. Occasional side roads or driveways connect to the main, but suddenly and at a "T", and often hidden by tall grass so that I didn't notice until it was too late to turn onto them safely. Here and there were sudden picnic tables - just a single one down a short drive from the road, with a sign pointing it out. And people camped wherever. Campgrounds looked like a grassy area with tents and cars on it; no lots or boundaries.
The speed limit was mostly 90 kph on the Ring Road and other main roads, dropping to 60 or 50 in towns, most of which had those digital signs at their outer limits with the happy and sad faces, showing the speed you're going. Upcoming towns are announced by a sign showing sort of a black city skyline of four buildings against a yellow ground, and the far side of town has the same sign but with a red slash through the town image.
The road we took into the Westfjords wound along the coast, which was dark and rocky. It reminded me a bit of the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia, but with a darker feel, and though there were cliffs dropping to the water in places, I didn't notice them as much as in Australia. I think the road here was up more of an angle from the water, while the GOR is often edged by steeper cliffs. California's Coastal Highway just feels more bright and sunny, from the weather to the natural palette.
I didn't notice many places to stop for a toilet along the Ring Road outside of towns, especially not in the Westfjords, where you just better stop for fuel and a toilet before entering them. Unbelievable miles and miles with nowhere to stop, just occasional farms and no other buildings. That we stopped at a church that was open, and I thought to use the toilet, was a stroke of luck. We stopped at another church later in the Westfjords, but it was locked.
As mentioned, there were a few places to pull off, but not as many as I'd like, and nothing that looked official. No parking lots, just those sudden side drives. Even at eBird hotspots, I could see nowhere to park. Does everyone walk?? Sometimes I just stopped in the road and kept an eye on the rearview mirror while Bill scanned with binoculars.
I should take this opportunity to mention there are some roads in Iceland called "F roads", which require an off-road vehicle. If reserving a rental car and planning to go on these roads, make sure it's a suitable car. They're listed as such. Here's a map showing where the F roads are. We didn't drive on any of them, so I can't comment on them personally. Also, I read they take preservation of their landscape quite seriously, and don't care for people going off-roading. I read of tourists being arrested for doing so. I don't blame them; the landscapes I saw were pristine. I don't even remember seeing litter in towns.
Sheep and Horses
Sheep and horses were everywhere once we got a certain distance north of Reykjavik. The sheep are a variety of colors and roam freely, sometimes even in the road. I kind of envied them in their pastoral mountain lives. We saw them in all kinds of terrain, including on slopes and rocks. They hung together in small groups; 3 seemed to be the number I saw most often.
The horses were stocky, with thick shaggy manes and tails. A good number of them were dark with lighter manes, and some had 2-toned manes, light and dark. I don't recall seeing that in all the horses I've seen in my life, which have been many. I kept wanting to stop for photos, but places to do so were very rare.
As for other land mammals, we didn't see any wild ones - no foxes or deer relatives of any sort. No squirrels or rodents. Only the sheep, cows, and horses scattered throughout the landscape. Again, I wondered what an Icelander might think of a place like America, with so many small birds flying about, and the motion of squirrels all around. When I got back home, I read there are no native small mammals there besides the foxes.
We did see the two seals, way out in the water near the lighthouse on the first day. I'm not sure what species they were. I found a webpage which says: "Six species of seal have been spotted off the coasts of Iceland. The most common sightings are of gray seals and harbor seals. The remaining four species (hooded, harp, bearded, and ringed seals) are hit or miss."
I didn't notice many bugs, other than the midges and flies at Mývatn, and the bees by the one church. I didn't get any mosquito bites during the whole trip. I was focused more on birds and the landscape, so not really paying much attention to bugs, but I didn't see any spiders or beetles, and nothing else of note except moths. Definitely moths, fluttering here and there, some of which appeared to have pretty black and white patterning on their wings, but they wouldn't settle down and give me a good look or opportunity to photograph. I specifically remember seeing these at Ásbyrgi while hiking to the pond.
There was a lot of grass. Short green grass like what people want in their yards, but also lots of thick tall grass, blocking the drives that intersected the road, onto which I could have jumped off if only I could see them in time to slow and turn, but this tall thick grass often blocked them until it was too late. Lichen all over, lots of it pale and minty on the rocks. Lots of compact tundra-looking plants. Some small low-growing thing with leaves like tiny elm leaves. Dark blue berries, almost black - I don't know if they were the bilberries mentioned by the cake packaging I had on the plane, or the blueberries someone later told me people go hunting for, but the plants I saw didn't look like our blueberry plants. Apparently there are two kinds of blueberries all over Iceland. The Garden Angelica was in many places, seemingly mostly near water and low spots. Some trees, though no large ones. They got taller than me, but with thin and crooked trunks. There were aspens, and some trunks looked like birch. There are flowers, but small ones, not big showy ones. Sometimes there were yellows peppered through a field, but most often there was the pink-purple of heath, in clumps.
I did see some mushrooms - tall pale things out in the grass with long drawn-out caps and dark gills. They looked very European to me, like I've seen them in illustrated fairy tales or something. I haven't seen any with that form in the US. I was sad that I only spotted these while driving, so I couldn't take a picture.
Towards the South
My seatmate on the plane told me that the south had the most spectacular scenery of the country, with glaciers and icebergs, and lots of puffins. She said the puffins were there in Vik and stay through September, though you have to see them in the morning or the evening. There were lots, apparently, but during the day they're out to sea, hunting fish. She saw the northern lights on her trip, but the skies weren't clear enough where we were, and the last night I was so exhausted I didn't think to look up, whether it was cloudy or not. We saw no glaciers or icebergs in the northern waters or mountains.
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