My new book is just about ready to share. It’s called Out in the Cold (cover, left), and as we run up to publication I’m sharing some photos and excerpts here on the blog. In Out in the Cold we explore up north: Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and maritime eastern Canada, including a curious artifact, the last remaining French colony in North America, a tiny pair of islands off Newfoundland called Saint Pierre and Miquelon. Today it’s winter in East Iceland. Hope you enjoy it.
NAKED AND FREEZING ON VATNAJOKULL
Reindeer break at once across the hill above the road – a herd of forty – and kicked-up snow gathers speed rolling our way. No apparent reason for their stampede. These beasts, magnitudes more hearty than the dispirited troika that pleaded for handouts in Russian Barentsberg, appear to run for pure joy.
In the world of Icelandic reindeer, the ladies are both the fairer sex and the tougher. Females and males alike shed their antlers annually, but bulls shed right after the rut, in autumn (and it must be a relief, because reindeer antlers represent the fastest tissue growth known in mammals, up to two and a half centimeters every day. They can weigh ten kilograms).
Cows fight, physically, for the best feeding spots in the winter when they are pregnant, so they keep their antlers through winter. Collectors fan out across these hills as soon as the snow melts searching for shed antlers that soon after appear carved into every kind of bauble in the boutiques of Reykjavik.
The day of the eclipse Agnar was guiding a group. “We were standing on that hill there,” he says, pointing, and for a few minutes at maximum eclipse “the reindeer all got into a group,” as they do at night. “For the reindeer it was a very short night.”
The Arctic fox (that they reckon has been around for 10,000 years, turning brown in summer and white in winter) is Iceland’s only native terrestrial mammal. Reindeer, Iceland’s entire cadre, were introduced from Norway. Unlike the Lapps of northern Scandinavia, Icelanders never took to domesticating reindeer, so they live up here in the eastern highlands in winter and come down toward the shore for better grazing in summer.
Agnar parks the Super Jeep in front of a completely improbable guest house built for twenty or thirty, perched at glacier’s edge and across a road marked only by reflective yellow poles along one side. Truth is, the glacier looks the same as the mountains it lies between this time of year, undifferentiated, everything bathed in white.
Agnar sets about digging places to make footfall in the snow, a spadeful per step, from the vehicle to the door. Just several meters away but over the snow horizon, he claims heat glows beneath the snow and that we should shed our clothes and jump into a hot pool.
At minus eight degrees it sounds like an act of dubious wisdom, especially since we can’t even see that such a thing exists.
“Most people,” he smiles, take their clothes off and run with their coat and boots on, maybe a towel.”
He points to the changing rooms, leaves us towels and sets off with his spade digging a path.
No one within twenty miles. We do as he says.
We imagine that once we commit we will see the tail lights of the Super Jeep driving away down the hill, Agnar cackling with evil, the two of us locked outside and naked.
Shedding my clothes, I read a sign on the wall that explains the water in the pool stays at a constant 48 – 53 celsius degrees. Stand at the edge and the snowy rim reaches above your private parts, not that there’s anybody around. You jump in – quickly – and find a place not too near the hot vents, and your feet float up like in the Dead Sea except it’s not salty.
Whoever made the pool rimmed the water with stones and today nature has laid fresh snow around the pool so that when you get down low in it to expose only your head to the cold, you can’t see above the snow rim. It’s quiet as a scared kitten, so quiet I imagine hearing individual snowflakes land on the glacier. This tiny mote of space is all that exists in the world. It’s snug in the water and morsels of ice tickle your face.
Refreshing, renewing. And like so many other things around here, utterly incongruent. Elsewhere on this island, with heat so near the surface Icelanders bake Rúgbrauð, or Geysir Bread, buried in a pot two feet underground to cook overnight.
Guides the world over fix on their favorite landmarks. For our Burmese guide it was factories. “That is milk factory,” “That is rice factory,” “Do you want to see brick factory? Take photo?” Kemm on Streymoy Island liked churches.
For Agnar it is power stations. He shows us all of them (and there are many) big and small, and tells the tale of a farmer and his own personal power station. Power shed, really. It seems that one summer, when there was no snow, the electricity went out and the farmer went to investigate.
He found the door blown off and snow tumbling out of his shed. Failed electricity led to a burst pipe, turning the shed into the farmer’s own personal snow machine. His neighbors snickered that he could hire himself out to ski slopes.
Agnar’s tires are straight-from-America and too big for him to carry a spare. Only America, where bigger is always better, he says, would make these tires. He scoffs at an Icelandic company that has 38 inch tires made in China and imported. They won’t do in EAST Iceland.
And since they are too big to carry a spare, what do you do if you have a flat?
“You have to fix it.”
He glued his tires right to the rims and the mechanic who helped him told him he was crazy. But he didn’t mean for them to come off. Ever.
I was wrong about Agnar at first. All this derring-do makes Agnar’s fine company on the side of a glacier beat that of any neurotic city boy, or gentrified psuedo-farmer like me.
Back to Egilsstaðir, one of Iceland’s few inland towns and the transport hub for the east. It is the first proper town if you arrive on the Norrona ferry and home to an airport with multiple daily flights to Reykjavik. Population, about 2,750.
There is a cafe in the red house (they just call it the red house) in the middle of town. Tonight maybe thirty people socialize in a light, Egilsstaðir way, gathered in groups around laminated diner-style tables like the Hvonn brasserie in Torshavn.
(Most people on the island are related at least at the 8th or 9th remove. To avoid striking up a relationship with your cousin when out at the pub, there is an “incest prevention” app based on genealogical data that allows people to bump phones and determine how closely they may be related. Just in case.)
An Indian fellow in the kitchen serves up tandoori chicken dishes, Gull Icelandic beer in big mugs and ‘wood fired’ pizza, surely exotic in a place with no wood. People come for the food and the free wifi, or to play chess.
Icelanders play a lot of chess. It is one of the ways to pass the long winter. In the off season fishermen carve chess pieces from whale bones (wood being more scarce) and people knit. There is a fine selection of yarn in the store. Families, friends, the community, everybody nods closer in the winter.
And Icelanders read. In the 1960s there were a dozen daily newspapers and forty bookshops in Reykjavik. There are more books published and more books read per head here than anywhere else. Every tenth Icelander is an author.
Meanwhile, in the Icelandair Hotel Herad across the way, mod furniture that may have found exile here from the rest of Europe after the 80’s swivels in place beside the overbearing silence of its restaurant. The Hotel Herad’s most notable feature may be ahead of its time. Its default TV news channel is not the advertising wasteland of CNN, but France 24 TV news.
UP IN THE AIR
I throw open the blinds the day of our flight from Egilsstaðir and flop back down on the bed, self-satisfied because I’ve built an extra day into our itinerary and this will be it, the day we are socked in with a full blizzard. The street is scarcely visible and the flags outside stand straight, towel-snapping in the wind. No plane will fly here today.
Snow-whipping wind bends the trees sideways while I imagine a day of amniotic calm in which I needn’t be kempt nor ept nor sheveled. I imagine ordering modest room service fare in the modest Icelandair hotel, never progressing beyond my underwear and soaking in the state of the world as France Vingt Quatre sees it, nibbling the admittedly graying grapes on the Herad’s fruit platter. Until the next time I look and blue sky and calm reign, and the occasional car makes wary time down the highway.
All flights lead to Reykjavik, four of them, at 8:55, 12:15, 12:55 and 16:10. They ask that you arrive thirty minutes before your flight but still you have to ring the bell on the counter for service. It’s a little whacky. There’s a video monitor on which Saevar the Reindeer Whisperer offers tours of East Iceland.
Americans have tried to convince ourselves since 9/11 that a more prominent display of intolerance, flags and belligerence by Homeland Security will take care of the security threat. Back home we have made the dour airport experience the new normal.
In Egilsstaðir, the old normal never left. There is no security and there are no security personnel. You are hard pressed to find any personnel at all except the lady behind the counter at the coffee shop. And there are no bag scanners or x-ray machines. Just jump on and ride.
By this time we have had any number of alternating gales and lulls since that first look out the window. Three Caterpillar tractors with big blades race up and down the airstrip. In winter, I guess clearing that bit of land is a full time job. The 8:30 arrival, a Fokker 50, roars in ten minutes late and we are southbound within a half hour.
A pilot on the Savusavu air strip in Fiji once lauded the entire Fokker line to me, saying these little worker bees demand the air, and you have to hold them on the ground. So it was with today’s flight in a Fokker 50, as we roared down the air strip and out of east Iceland like lightnin’.
When I was a teenager my friend Jim and I found some of his dad’s money, paper bills that said “Landsbanki Islands,” and we scoured maps to find these islands. We couldn’t, and came to realize the translation would be something like the “National Bank of Iceland.” In fact, the failure of Landsbanki, alongside Iceland’s other two big banks Kaupthing (“marketplace”) and Glitnir (as we learned in the Faroes, Norse heaven), precipitated Iceland’s bankruptcy in 2008.
The word “Islands” works the same way here. The airline is Air Iceland when you book your tickets in English on the web; here it’s Flugfelag Islands in its livery, and in-flight magazine.
They keep Reykjavik city airfield busy with domestic flights to Isafjordur, Akureyri and then on to Grimsey in the Arctic, Þhorshofn, Vopnafjordur and Egilsstaðir, to Tórshavnin the Faroe Islands and to Illulisat, Nuuk, Narsarsuaq, Kulusuk (where we are bound soon) and Ittoqqortoormiit in Greenland.
From my seat 2A I lean forward and guess that if that propeller comes loose so will my head, because before they start it up and it spins too fast to see, I reckon it is maybe just a touch more than a meter from where I sit. Which might be just as well if the prop flies off, anyway.
Here is a previous excerpt, from the Faroe Islands.