Monday, August 07, 2006

Iceland Pt. 2

The saga continues....

We left Reykjavik on Friday morning and drove on a big bus across the south to Jökulsárlón, a glacial river lagoon. It’s an offshoot of the giant Vatnajökull glacier that covers a lot of the southeast. It’s a lagoon, attached to the ocean by a small river mouth so that lagoon doesn’t freeze. The lagoon has been growing steadily over the years, due to an increase in glacial melting – about 100 metres breaking off each year. The lagoon has also been used in several films, including two James Bond movies (A View to Kill and Die Another Day) and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. For Tomb Raider they painted the amphibious vehicles they take tourists out in to resemble Russian ships, and for Die Another Day they blocked off the lagoon’s entrace to the sea, freezing it over. And then they totalled 5 Aston Martins on the frozen lagoon. After Jökulsárlón we drove back west to our farm/hotel Geirland, just outside of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. This is the farm that Ingunn’s dad Hallgrimur used to work on every summer, so we’re in his home turf.

Kirkjubæjarklaustur is very near the volcano Laki, whose massive eruptions in 1783 lasted for 10 months. Fountains of molten lava shot up around 1000 metres above ground level, and Laki spewed more than 30 billion tonnes of lava and 90 million tonnes of sulphuric acid. The black cloud that followed covered Iceland, killing crops and blocking out the sun, and 20% of Iceland’s population died. As well, the Laki cloud covered Europe causing crop failure, livestock poisoning, and starvation that led to, among other things, the French Revolution. A favourite story around Kirkjubæjarklaustur is that of a church pastor, who gathered his congregation in the church as the lava started to flow towards them, and proceeded to give a very fiery and passionate sermon. The lava miraculously split and went around the church, leaving it intact. The church is still there, surrounded by a lava field, but the only issue we could find with this story is that people can’t survive even just standing next to molten lava. It’s so hot, that even if you’re beside it you’d probably spontaneously combust. We were supposed to hike up into the Laki basin, as it is now dormant, but it was pouring and foggy and so they decided that if we wouldn’t be able to see anything then there was really no point. Icelander’s have lots of stories about religion and natural events, another one being a large eruption in the year 1000, the year that they accepted Christianity. Many saw this as a sign from the pagan gods that Christianity was bogus, but Iceland peacefully converted anyways so that they would be able to trade effectively with the rest of Scandinavia and Europe.

On Saturday we got up and were originally supposed to hike up Laki, but instead went on a hike to the waterfall behind Geirland. All the farms around the south have there own waterfalls, both for a source of fresh water, and before there was a national electrical grid many farms got their power from their own private substation at the base of their waterfall. In fact, one of Hallgrimur’s jobs when he worked here was to hike up to the waterfall and clear all the debris out of the grid under the falls. After that we changed into dryer clothes, as it had been pouring the whole time and we were all soaked. Then we set off to Fjaðrárglijúfur, a peculiar canyon carved by the river Fjarðrá, lined with steep rock walls. Then it was off to Fagrifoss (“beautiful falls”) on the Geirlandsa river just off the Laki road. Today was a day of falls, and after Fagrifoss half of us went swimming at the pool in Kirkjubæjarklaustur while the others went to the famous church that escaped the lava flow.

On our drive on Friday we crossed the Sandur, and stopped in at the Núpsstaður farm. The sandur is a broad desert expanse that lies across the southeastern coast, and is composed of deposits of silt, sand, and gravel carried down by glacial flooding when one of the two volcanoes underneath the Vatnajökull icecap erupts. The sandur is divided into two sections, the most visible being Skeiðarársandur, which stretches for 40 km between icecap and coast. Iceland has a Ring Road, and the very last part of it to be completed was the portion across Skeiðarársandur in 1974. They constructed large gravel dykes to strategically channel floodwaters away from the only road in the area, but it didn’t help much in the glacial flood of 1996. On September 29 a 5.0 earthquake rocked the Vatnajökull icecap, causing the eruption of a 4 km long subsurface fissure known as Gjálp. The next day the eruption burst through the surface, sending a column of steam 10 km into the sky. Meanwhile, the subglacial lake in the Grímsvötn caldera was filling with water from ice melted by the eruption, and on November 5 the ice lifted and the Grímsvötn reservoir drained in a massive flood, releasing up to 3000 billion cubic litres of water within a few hours. The floodwaters, dragging icebergs the size of 3 story buildings along with it, destroyed all the bridges across the sandur. The sandur is understandably unoccupied by anyone, and on the eastern edge we stopped at a small memorial to the 1996 flood, where they had on display some of the twisted metal girders that were a bridge.

The Núpsstaður farm is on the western edge of the sandur, and is set into a cliff side. The small turf roofed church on the farm, dedicated to St. Nicholas, is mentioned in church records as early as 1200. It was restored in 1657 and again in the 1970s by the National Museum, and is one of the last turf churches in Iceland that remains in general use. This farm was also home in the early 1900s to a postman and farmer who was said to be the only person able to cross the sandur in all conditions. Before they built the Ring Road, people would often detour to walk over the glacier, as the sandur is full of quicksand and other traps that claimed many lives. The postman’s 97 year old son still lives at Núpsstaður, and when we stopped by he was just o his way to the little turf church to scrub the floors!!!

On Sunday morning we packed up our stuff and loaded up the bus. We went to two more waterfalls (there sure are a lot of them), and visited the history museum at Skógasafn. We drove by Katla, an active volcano that is expected to erupt any time. There is a funny legend about Katla involving a nun and some magic pants, but I’ll save that for another time. Our bus driver had reported that we were in the area, and if Katla had started rumbling we would have been given a 30 minute warning to get the hell outta there! Now we’re back at Ingunn’s apartment in Reykjavik, and we had a very quiet day today seeing as we were all tired and sore from all the excitement over the weekend. And now I must return to Buffy.

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