Glaciers, Northern Lights and Lost Planes: Iceland Part II

 (Para ler este artigo em Português click aqui)

Walking On Water (Frozen, duh! What were you thinking? I’m not Jesus)

Now why the heck would we want to visit Iceland in the middle of winter? Glacial adventures and better chances to see the Northern Lights of course! Iceland just has so much to offer when it comes to outdoor fun. Glacier hiking was at the top of my list and ice cave tours are typically only available during the colder months as the warmer temperatures and excessive hours of sunlight make it unsafe to explore it during the summer. I went from never having seen snow fall, to glacier hiking! Yup. Not to brag but feeling pretty badass over here. I decided to book our Glacier Hike through Arctic Adventures after I read some great reviews and since we had a car rental, we drove ourselves to Skaftafell, about 4 hours away (you can also include a pick up/drop off from many hotels). If you’re driving, I’ll save you the trouble; put Skaftafell as a “Point Of Interest” in your GPS. We thought Skaftafell was a city so the GPS couldn’t find it because it’s actually part of a national park that encompasses Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Europe, measuring a bit over 3ooo square miles. Once we arrived at the turf house by the Skaftafell Visitor Center we were warmly greeted, literally, there was coffee and tea available to warm us up. The staff made sure we had proper shoes and clothing for the 3 hour hike ahead. Then they equipped us with a helmet, ice pick, and ice crampons for the hike. The landscape was breathtaking…simply beautiful as you can imagine.

Vatnajökull Glacier
Walking on top of Vatnajökull Glacier

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What we thought was a mountain was actually the glacier covered with soil. Twenty minutes into the hike we stopped and geared up before we continued the ascend onto the glacier. It’s so surreal to be standing on the glacier, walking across it and exploring its crevices and valleys. The organic shapes formed by the ice are like beautiful abstract art sculptures. In and out, through frozen waves, you lose yourself in the beauty of it all. It was like being in a sci-fy movie, out of this world yet it was still Earth. Iceland was awe striking, soul touching. Pictures can not even begin to grasp the feeling of being right there. Breathing the crisp air, stepping on that ice (slipping a little at times), feeling the warmth of the morning sunshine against the harsh cold wind from the glacier. Priceless. We walked through tight tubes carved out by the melting glacier water to explore a bit more and our guide allowed us plenty of time to admire and take photos. We did the hike back through a slightly different route. Once we got back to base, our packed snacks held us over till dinner time. Half way back towards Reykjavik, we reached Vik, a small town on the south of Iceland where we stopped at the Icewear Factory and saw how they make all those wool sweaters, hats and scarves. I bought myself a wool hat which was the best souvenir, as I ended up wearing it every day on our trip to keep my ears warm. At this point we had already lost the sunlight for the day. It was only 6 at night and pitch black.

IMG_1786rtlW Into Vatnajökull  20151127_134052-01_resized

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 What next? Go plane hunting in the dark…cause why not?

It’s not on the maps, there is no tour that takes you to it. But it’s any explorer’s dream. On November, 24th, 1973, an US Navy plane crashed (everyone survived) on Solheimasandur Black Sand Beach and no one cleaned up the wreckage. Forty plus years later and it’s still sitting there in stark contrast with the black sand. By the time we got to there, darkness had engulfed the coast and all that was visible was the full moon and a sky dotted by stars. The plane wreck sits off of Road 1, between 221 and 222. It just has a small gate marking the off-road so take it. About 8 km in and we just ran into it. Four-wheel drive is recommended for this unmarked road, but you might just get lucky in the winter and get enough cold temperatures and snow for the sand to freeze and make it drivable. As we drove with the high beams on, we saw nothing but infinity. There was nothing in front of us and we were just praying to God we didn’t drive into the ocean! Then we saw something…other headlights ahead. As we walked over the dune towards the headlights we saw the plane! Just chilling there (literally) like it has for the past 40 years. It has no wings attached, only the hollow carcass of the cabin remains. You can climb inside for photos and if you are there in pure darkness like we were, definitely use the slow exposure settings on the camera for the best shots. One of the other Jeeps that happened to be there turned its lights on and we got some great lit from behind shots. Thanks anonymous Jeep driver!

Solheimasandur, Iceland
Forty year old plane wreck, Sólheimasandur Black Sand Beach, South Iceland
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Up close of plane & a night full of stars. Solheimasandur Black Sand Beach, South Iceland

Follow the link for more detailed directions on how to find the plane crash site from the Expert Vagabond.

Bewitching Lights: Aurora Borealis  

What first sparked our interest in visiting Iceland was the chance to see the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. Seeing photos and reading about it we knew it was something we had to experience. Personally I wanted to be there and see the lights dance before my very own eyes. I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to witness this phenomenon of mother nature. To quickly explain, the Northern Lights are electrically charged particles from the sun colliding with the Earth’s gaseous magnetosphere. (I sound so smart. Thanks Wikipedia). The different colors depend on the amount and types of gases being dispersed. The first night we saw the magical lights it was very weak actually. We were just walking along the shore, past the harbor in Reykjavik and the city light “pollution” wasn’t ideal grounds to see the Aurora. So after a couple of hours we went back to the hotel slightly disappointed honestly. But we didn’t give up.

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Aurora Borealis by Seltjarnarnes, Iceland

We checked the forecast and decided to go chasing Northern Lights again, on a night that promised little cloud coverage. This time we drove towards the light house at Seltjarnarnes, away from the city lights. It was only a quick ride from downtown Reykjavik, under ten minutes even with all the snow. We found a spot and got the camera ready for action. At first, when the activity was beginning we just saw a hint of green in the sky and then it dissipated quickly. As the minutes passed though, it got more intense, more constant. It looked as if someone was blowing green smoke in the night sky! At times the movement was faster and other times it formed a perfect arch across the horizon. It is just mesmerizing to be standing by the shore, hearing the waves crash and seeing the sky light up and dance above you! Truly a one of a kind experience. Thank you Iceland for being awesome!

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GOOD TO KNOW:

For more info on what causes this phenomenon, go to: Northern Lights. Since Icelandic summers bring 20+ hours of sunlight, your best bet is to visit in the fall or winter when the nights get longer and clearer making it ideal to see the Aurora or Glacier hiking.

GEAR: Canon 5D Mark II, tripod, using a slow exposure for the Aurora Borealis and the night shots of the plane.

NEXT WEEK: A Reykjavik City Guide! 

IMG_1856rtlWAbandoned turf house
Abandoned turf house on the drive back from Vatnajökull Glacier. Road 1 South Coast, Iceland.

Article available in Portuguese. Click here.

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