Friday, July 31, 2015

Visiting Viðey

Today I visited the island of Viðey, reachable by a short ferry ride from several points in the city. The 1.6 km island is currently uninhabited; there is a restaurant and some art, but mostly nature - including about 30 species of birds.

The island is long and narrow, east-west. Reykjavik is to the south and Mount Esja to the north. The island itself is relatively flat and covered in grasses and flowers. No birch trees - and also no lupins! 

On the western half are a few pieces of art, including some monoliths by Richard Serra, and an incredibly uninteresting piece by Yoko Ono. The eastern half has ruins of the fish-drying operations and village that were once there.

But the birds - I saw and heard plenty of them, most of which I can't identify. However, I did see and hear and can identify the kría, which I'm pretty certain was one of Hitchcock's inspirations. This bird divebombs your head if it thinks you're in their territory. And the trail designers of Viðey decided to put part of the trail right next to prime egg-laying area. Seriously, people? I had some truly Tippi Hedren moments.

Aviary aggression aside, what is most notable about the island is how peaceful it is. Even when you can see the city, it feels very far away. We were fortunate to have a beautifully sunny day, with views of the mountains and the bay beyond the rustling prairie. The wind and the birds dominated the soundscape; the occasional aircraft broke in, but not startlingly so - unlike the ludicrously loud hedge trimmer being used upon our arrival.

There is enough hiking to occupy you for the afternoon, but you could also find a nice vantage point and watch the waves and the grass for a while. Bring a picnic and a sketchbook if that's your talent.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Inside Stakkholtsgjá Canyon

The second hike I did on Tuesday was special enough I thought it deserved its own post. The canyon is accessible by bus once a day from the Volcano Huts (or, I suppose, by foot). The ride is only 15 minutes via Reykjavik Excursions. (If you get to the huts on RE, as most people do, the ride to the canyon is free.)

South of Þórsmörk is the Krossá river valley. On the south side of it, the Stakkholtsgjá canyon opens up between tall cliffs. This canyon itself is the hike, although there is no trail per se. It's quite flat, but a hiker will have to cross a stream several times. I would recommend hiking poles, and if you know me you know I don't use them! But they are helpful for stream crossings.

The canyon itself is beautiful; my photo above doesn't do it justice.* The walls are vertical, and in many places green with mosses and small plants. The canyon winds a bit, so the view constantly changes. 

I was the only one to get off the bus, but I encountered other hikers who had arrived by car or tourbus. Aside from the large group of Americans, chattering away about their lives and seemingly oblivious to their surroundings, the experience seemed to reduce most visitors to silence. With the high walls and the tumbling of the water, the space seemed sacred.

It was probably my favorite hike thus far, although I had a feeling that this was one of those trips where I said that about every hike. If I come back to Þórsmörk, it'll be to do the Fimmvörðuháls or Laugavegur treks, not repeat dayhikes, but I would stay an extra day just to do Stakkholtsgjá again.

* Better photos to come from my camera.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Merkurrani Plateau and Valahnúkur

With another hike planned for the afternoon, I decided to kill the morning by doing the Merkurrani Plateau hike, which didn't sound all that exciting.

At first it goes up through the woods, past Sönghellir cave, which I didn't stop to look at. Maybe next time. The trail is supposed to turn west, while the trail up to Valahnúkur goes straight. I didn't see my turn, but I wanted to go up it anyway.

It was a steep ascent, 869 feet, and much of it heavily used and in need of some TLC. However, the view from the top was incredible in all directions. At the peak there is a sundial (inoperative at the moment) that also labels all the surrounding features. Unlike Rjúpnafell, the view from the top was much better than on the way up.

On the way down the turnoff was more visible; at least, the pegs were. The path itself wasn't worn. It followed the top of the plateau quite pleasantly for a while, before descending to the valley below. 

Supposedly, the trail passes by the cave Sóttarnellir, but I didn't see it. However, I had descended all the way to the valley, and on the map it's not clear the trail goes that low.

The hike was about 3-4 miles total, with 1079 feet of cumulative elevation gain.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Hiking the Tindfjöll Circle and Rjúpnafell Mountain

On my first full day in Þórsmörk, I decided to hike the Tindfjöll Circle, a hike of 4-6 hours.* It's the longest of the recommended short hikes in the area - the longer ones being the two treks that end in the valley.

From the hut to the riverbed (2km) is pleasant but nothing exciting. From there one picks up the Tindfjöll trail.**

The trail climbs gently up through a canyon to emerge on the north face of Tindfjöll, with spectacular views in every direction. My phone was hard-pressed to capture them, although I hope my proper camera did better. The trail heads east towards Tröllakirkja, a rock outcropping that looks rather like two hands pressed together in prayer. 

Not far past this point, the mountain Rjúpnafell is visible. It sticks out quite  obviously from the land around it and is also obviously quite steep; the trail switches back and forth up the side of it. For some reason I decided it would be a good idea to climb it.***

After heading downhill to a pretty mountain stream, I began the ascent. It was steep to begin with and got more so, until I was using my hands as much as my feet.

Finally, I did something I don't do very often; I decided to turn around before the peak. I was at least two-thirds of the way up, and technically I probably could have done it, but it wasn't fun. The views weren't going to get any better - I was already on the side of a bald mountain. And all I was doing was worrying about getting back down again.

So I climbed down and set out to finish the Circle. The trail here is a little dull (relatively speaking), until the river valley comes into view. From there it is ludicrously spectacular, with viewpoint after viewpoint, descending to the river. The trail then follows the river back to the beginning of the loop.****

All in all, it was a lovely hike. It's in need of some maintenance, which I believe it is undergoing, but Icelandic weather is rough on trails. My best guess is that I hiked 5-6 miles, with 3,238 feet of elevation gain. (The latter being derived from the altimeter on my watch, although as it is based on barometric pressure it is basically useless in Iceland.)

* This is my first of many pet peeves about the Icelandic trail maps; the one sold through Volcano Huts lists distance only in time. You can only estimate imprecisely with the key.

** Theoretically. My second pet peeve is that the Volcano Hut maps color-code the trails, but in different colors than the trail markers. Blindly following the markers led me to cross the river quite unnecessarily, although to be fair it was quite obvious from the map that I shouldn't.

*** My third pet peeve is that the VH maps indicate steepness with "xxxxxxx" on the trail, ignoring the perfectly good convention of contour lines. Here the official Iceland area maps do a much better job, although they are worse in almost every other way. They make great guides to the local birds, though. Which is exactly what one looks for in a map.

**** On one online forum, a user complained that the trail in fact did not follow the river valley, which was impassable. Here I am inclined to give the VH map a pass, as (a) there was a trail and (b) the watercourse changes from year to year and season to season. Mind you, I extend no such charity to the Iceland map, as it doesn't show the river trail at all.

Two weeks in Skaftafell

Yesterday was my last day in Skaftafell. We spent the last two weeks building a bog bridge, repairing wooden-earthen steps, digging out water bars, rebuilding ditches, building stone step, and uprooting lupin. I learned to cut turf and use a handsaw properly and greatly improved my hammering efficiency. We were quite lucky with the weather, with only three days being wet, and the free weekend was beautifully clear. Even so, it was great to have professional-grade 66* North raingear. Icelandic summers are pleasant enough if you lose the expectation that the air ought to be warm on your skin, but working in them requires an adaptable wardrobe. The rest of the team was awesome. There were three Americans (all New Yorkers) and seven Brits (one of whom lived in Germany), varying in age from 18 to 40-something. While we varied in experience and expertise, everyone worked hard - on the trail and in the kitchen, as we had to cook our dinners in teams. I probably ate much healthier than usual as a result. I'm now on to Þórsmörk for a few days of hiking.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Volunteering in Skaftafell

To read more about what I'm doing for two weeks in Skaftafell, check out a blog by two of my fellow volunteers here. Lots of detail and good pictures!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Hiking Morsárdalur

Yesterday part of our team hiked through Morsárdalur to Kjös on a mostly flat trail following the Morsa River between mountains. The picture above, at the terminus of our hike, doesn't really do the views justice. (Take a look at This video pan for a better look.)

The trail heads roughly west through a pretty barren landscape, with the sea to the south and mountains to the north and northwest. Part of this area has been sculpted with dikes to prevent damage in glacial flooding. As the trail approaches the end of the mountains to the west, plant life picks up considerably and the trail passes through an Icelandic forest.

Before hitting the mountain, the trail turns north, so you are hiking up a valley with mountains on every side except behind. The trail peters out as the entire valley becomes a streambed; luckily, we hit it at a time of very low water.

The hiking is relatively easy in here, as it's flat and it's clear which direction to go, but it also feels slow; you can see the entire valley, compared to which every step is nothing. 

Eventually, the valley ends. To the right is a high valley covered by glacier; to the left is a continuation of the valley, under the name of Kjós. After the turn, the valley eventually ends, running into a mountain that looks like a painted backdrop (above). On each side of the trail are steep mountains with high-up waterfalls. As there is no exit, the only way out is back.

It was a beautiful hike, although we had a minor problem with our group getting separated in the return journey. But all made it back safe and sound. One-way, the hike is 7.5 miles, with a 300-foot elevation difference between the start and turnaround, although my watch measured about 800 feet of gain due to minor ups and downs, as well as, possibly, changes in the weather.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The new boardwalk

Our trail team built a boardwalk over a flood-prone area, and one of my fellow team members blogged about it.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Skaftafell park

I'm now in Skaftafell, part of one of the three national parks in Iceland, doing trail work. This is our campsite. Not a bad view to wake up to!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Waterfalls in southern Iceland

Since Sunday I've been in Skaftafell, part of Vatnajökull National Park. This is Svartifoss, a famous waterfall in the park.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Hiking Mount Esja

Greetings from Iceland! I've been here for a week  now and so have seen quite a bit of Reykjavik by now. My first hike was up Mount Esja.

Esja is north of the city across the bay; it looms a bit like Rainier over Seattle, although it isn't nearly as high. It's easily reachable by bus, although I had some bus misadventures I won't detail here. The 57 bus from the city stops right at the trailhead, and the fare is very reasonable.

(Apologies for the lack of photos. My phone and Blogger aren't playing well together.)

It's a beautiful hike. While it's volcanic, it reminded me more of Colorado hiking. At lower elevations there were many flowers, including the ever-present (invasive) lupin, as well as babbling streams. The trail itself is steep, but wide and smooth.

There are two routes up, as well as a path that doesn't go up to the top. Both of the routes up get increasingly steep and meet shortly before Steinn, a boulder with a register. Many people turn around here.

I kept going; the steepness increases sharply, and I certainly felt it. Up ahead I could see the rocky, fluffy cap, which was nearly vertical. At one point I made a wrong turn and found myself less than 20 feet from the cap but with no way to reach it - the surface between me and it was loose, steep, very exported dirt. I was heading back down when I found the actual trail and proceeded up again.

The cap involves rock scrambling. In many places chains are anchored as handholds. It's not exceedingly difficult climbing, but the exposure is a bit unnerving.

However, I did make it to the top, the Þverfellshorn, and signed the register. From there, the mountain continues as a long ridge, reaching the true peak at a further point. 

The hike is 2.8 km one-way with 545 meters of elevation gain or so.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Packing for a month away

Off to Iceland for a month! And everything fits into a backpack and a daypack. Whew.

In packing, I had three guides: a Google search of “backpacking Europe,” the equipment list provided by the volunteer site, and my own travel experiences, such as my trip to Brazil. Packing was a bit more complicated than your typical backpacking-through-Europe gig, because I have to (a) bring camping equipment and (b) bring clothes I can do hard labor in AND not look like a total disaster in Reykjavik.

Camping equipment: The worksite equipment list had first priority. The site requires some camping equipment as well as more seriously outdoor gear than your average traveler would bring. This makes packing everything else difficult, as sleeping bags and steel-toed boots take up valuable space. I need the following camping equipment: sleeping bag, sleeping pad, bag liner, microtowel, headlamp (basically, everything but a tent). You can see all of that in the photo above, with reference foot, excluding the headlamp and including a pillow. Anyone who says a pillow is a luxury is not a side-sleeper.

Shoes: Practically every website says to bring shower sandals (Havaianas: check) and only one pair of shoes, although many of you, they sigh, will insist on two pairs. The “for ladies”* lists say to bring a comfy pair of flats. This makes me choke on my tea: I’ve never met a pair of flats that didn’t rub against and eventually bleed open my feet. Then, as I encountered the phrase over and over, I began to think maybe I was a freak with unnatural ladyfeet. (Well, I probably am.) But my work site requires both steel-toed boots and boots suitable for hiking. I ended up packing a fourth pair of very small lace-up shoes on the excuse that I need something I can play capoeira in, after all. The fact that they are glittery played no part in my decision at all. Nope, none.

Outerwear: I’ll be working and living outdoors for two weeks. So: rain jacket, rain pants, Uniqlo down jacket (I can’t rave enough about these; they pack TINY). Hat, gloves, sunglasses.

Bottoms: Reasonably attractive hiking pants for trail work and excursions that won’t embarrass me in the city. One skirt, a flyweight Thai thing.

Tops: A couple of Ts (quick-drying), two SmartWool long-sleeves, and the love of my life, the perfect REI hoodie. If I could go back in time I’d buy five more of that hoodie. Note: All these tops, bottoms, and shoes are black or grey. Matching is not going to be a problem.

Etc. clothes: Socks and underwear. Pajamas. Swimsuit (for hot springs). Capoeira t-shirt. I debated bringing capoeira pants, as I’ll be training a few nights, but unlike the shirt they can’t be worn for any occasion. (The cord stays at home; taking up that much space to ensure people know my rank seems ego-driven.)

Toiletries: Minimalist.

Odds and ends: Camera, cell phone, thick book I don’t mind losing, journal, passport, wallet, pen, etc.

And that’s it! Let’s see how that gets me through a month - and how much I bring back with me.

* Many websites have two lists: “What to bring when backpacking Europe” and “What to bring when backpacking Europe (for women).” This totally ignores the genderqueer and men who like kilts, but people who can’t even see the problem with using the male as default/unmarked certainly haven’t considered trans/queer/etc. issues. But the short version of the female list is: Replace some pants with skirts, bring a cardigan, and your shirts probably won’t be button-down. I have to give a shout out to Rick Steves, who even though he is writing for your decidedly unhip, recently retired relatives, manages not to gender his list.