Iceland Day 3

Iceland’s newly formed (geologically speaking) south west coast was our destination today. The same moody weather accompanied us throughout the day, finishing with a glorious sunset over the western isles which include Surtsey, created by a volcanic eruption in the early 1960’s. Surtsey has been a living laboratory since then with the most recent finds being two new species of beetles.

image

We started traveling through lush farm areas supporting Icelandic sheep and horses. Iceland ponies descend from the founding group brought to Iceland by the original Viking settlers. Due to their long isolation in this land they are extremely vulnerable to many diseases that affect horses world wide. Protection from disease for the ponies is achieved by a complete ban on the importation of any horses or ponies from outside Iceland. If a pony leaves Iceland (and many are exported to other countries to form breeding colonies) it is a one way trip. The Iceland pony is famed for its comfortable trot – a smooth gait – unlike the trot most of us are familiar with. The are hardy, multicoloured and prolific. We saw them being used as stock horses (rounding up sheep) and pleasure horses.

image

The land quickly became more dramatic as volcanic basalts, waterfalls and the sea appeared. Our first stop was the Skogafoss waterfall, a magnificent cascade of water down black basalt, green moss covered rocks.

image

The next turn brought us into the valley which holds the dying/receding Solheimajokull glacier. A rough path took us right up to the glacier following the intertwined streams of melt water, basalts and dying autumn vegetation – magnificent, somewhat sad vistas.

image

image

We continued south towards our destination, the most south western town in Iceland – Vik . Vik is an interesting beach side town that is a model of how using strategic planting has stabilized the black sand dunes in front of the town. Before grasses, lupine, yarrow, yellow dock, cow parsnip and other species were planted to stabilize the dunes, wind erosion dumped massive amounts of sand yearly onto the houses in the town.  The combination of sand stabilizing vegetation, together with the rock sea wall has saved the town. Overlooking the town is one of the countries numerous Lutheran churchs – most built on the same plan – white walls, red roof and a spire.

image

image

Vik is located at the south end of the famous black sand Reynisfjara beach which features some incredible basalt columns. Arctic poplar hangs on to a precarious existent amount the black sand and boulders, while Icelandic sheep graze up on the hillsides above the beach.

Carol with basalt columns
Carol with basalt columns

 

 

icelandic-sheep

After a walk on the beach we headed for our final stop of the day which was the amazing Seljalandsfoss waterfall. A walkway extends behind the waterfall – outstanding !

image

image

All in all a wonderful day and a fitting way to say goodbye to Iceland. We fly out tomorrow afternoon. It has been a trip of a lifetime that will take some time to completely digest. Thank you all for following our adventures! Until next time……….

image

Iceland Day 2

An early morning pick up and we were on our way to see some of Iceland’s stunning scenery. Our first stop was a UNESCO world heritage site – Pingvellir National Park. This park is home to Iceland’s largest natural lake and is where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia split and drift apart. Iceland is the worlds youngest country. Situated over the slowly spreading Atlantic ridge, it was formed 18 million years ago and is still growing at about 2 cm per year. The deformation in the rocks as well as the rifts we saw were amazing. We crossed from the North American to the Eurasian plate as we left the Park. This is one of the two places on earth where you can walk from one tectonic plate to another. Our walk into the park included a deep valley created millions of years ago by the spreading continents. This is where the first Icelandic parliaments were held, beginning in 930 AD. The Icelandic peoples would come together for two weeks each year at this site until the 1700’s when parliament was moved to its current location in Reykjavik.

image image image
image

Gullfoss waterfall was our next stop. An original plan to dam the river for hydroelectric power in 1907 was thwarted by the daughter of the farmer who owned the land the waterfall was located on. She is now honoured as Iceland’s first environmentalist. The waterfall was stunning. Guard ropes were a bit lacking and some folks taking selfies just about took an unexpected plunge – but it all worked out.

image image

image

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iceland’s geothermal power is evident wherever you look here. One of the main Geysers – at the Stokkur hot spring – put on an impressive show for us. Our guide warned us not to stand downwind of the geyser, some other folks did and got a warm sulphur shower.

image

Iceland is self sufficient in power, between hydro-thermal. geothermal and some solar. Greenhouses powered by geothermal heat are used to grow peppers, lettuce, other warm weather crops, as well as housing the only banana plantation in Europe.  Who knew 😀 Root vegetables and hay are grown out in the fields, the hay is baled in round bales with the plastic covering – as we do. An interesting touch is some of the baling plastic is pink. That colour costs the farmers a bit more but the extra spent is donated to breast cancer research. The plan is to introduce blue plastic next year for prostate cancer research.

image

A final thoughtful touch are pipes that carry hot water under the sidewalks and walkways of Reykjavik, keeping snow and ice from building up in the winters.

The land itself here is mostly barren. Iceland was forested when the first people arrived here. Between logging, goats and pigs, as well as way too many sheep the land became quickly depleted. The Icelanders recognized the problems occurring with the environment and implemented changes which included drastically reducing the goat and pig populations, as well as controlling sheep numbers and planting trees. The mountains are craggy black rocks, often covered with brilliant green moss, huge boulders and dwarf northern trees. The day was alternating sun, mist and rain. Perfect conditions for a changing landscape and in keeping with the feeling emanating from the countryside.

image

A good day. We are looking forward to exploring the south coast tomorrow.

Reykjavik


Some of the worst weather I have ever encountered on the ocean blew up suddenly yesterday afternoon as we reached the coast of Iceland. The 50 knots plus winds closed Reykjavik port with the result being that we travelled back and forth along the Icelandic coast throughout the night. The wind peaked from 1:30-3:30 am. When it hit us abeam we were almost thrown out of our bunks. Everything went everywhere in the cabin. Everyone looked tired and a bit sore this morning after the pounding. The weather did abate enough to let us dock this morning. After farewells to some new friends we caught a cab to the Hilton where Carol has an Executive membership. We have a lovely 8th floor suite overlooking Reykjavik and the harbour, plus all the free food and alcohol you could ever want in the Executive lounge. I could get used to this 🙂

After we checked in and had a rest we went back into town to explore and check out the local arts and crafts scene. We started at the Church of Hallgrimur, had a look at the amazing pipe organ inside the church

image

……. and then drifted down the cobbled streets of the main shopping area in the city.

image

A new friend
A new friend

Reykjavik is a cosmopolitan city which is home to 200,000 plus people. The population of Iceland is around 300,000. The city was founded in 870 AD. The shopping areas are home to the famed icelandic wool sweaters. It is also home to some amazing artists – I got into serious retail trouble in a wonderful co-op run by 7 Icelandic artists to showcase their work.

Tourism is booming in Iceland, increasing by 30% a year. Last year they had 1.3 million visitors, this year they expect 1.8 million.  Our shopping trip and walk about was rounded out with a visit to Baejarins Betzu pylsur – roughly translated it means the best hotdog in town. It is a little 5 X 5 foot shack on a street corner where people line up to buy their hotdog. It was selected as the best hotdog stand in Europe in 2006. We stood in line for 20 mins in the rain for a hotdog with the works. They did not disappoint.

image

image

We plan an early night tonight as we have a day long Golden Circle trip tomorrow. Many thanks to Carol for the photos today 🙂

Greenland Day 4-6

Day 4

Todays landing and hike were probably my favourite of the entire trip. Zodiacs took us to the leeward side of Rode Island though a sea of grounded icebergs.

image

Our hike up to a vantage point on the island led us through a true Greenland forest – 4-6 inches high and dressed in its autumnal colours of red and gold. Four inch high arctic willow with catkins shared space with the gold of 3 inch arctic poplar. Green lycopodium (club moss – a plant that hasn’t changed for millions of years), miniature saxifrage, bilberry and lichens were everywhere we looked. A late blooming arctic hairbell greeted us at the top of our climb.

image

The hillside was like a gleaming carpet.

 

After winding our way through the icebergs back to the ship, we enjoyed an excellent lunch and now the ship is headed deeper into the fjord system, carefully picking her way through fields of floating and stranded bergs produced by the surrounding glaciers. Our destination is Eilse Glacier part of the Greenland Ice Cap.

image

 

image

 

image

Amazing zodiac cruise of the glacier front which culminated with two ice bergs calving off as we watched. Eilse glacier is one of the many glaciers here originating from the Greenland icecap. The ice is very old here, probably thousands of years. Our day ended with a barbecue dinner in the open air overlooking the glacier. Magic.

Day 5

Ittoqoorttomitt is a tiny town of 452 at the mouth of Scoresby Sound that we visited today after breakfast. It is one of the youngest and isolated towns in Greenland, established in 1925. Residents are primarily subsistence hunters. The colourful little houses hang on to the hillside of small bay on the northern side of Scoresby Sound. Hunting and fishing sustain the community, together with a flow of tourist dollars. Dog sled and skidoo are the primary forms of transportation in the winter. Our company makes a donation to the school in the settlement and they are very gracious in letting us land and walk around. There is a beautiful little church in the village which was open to us as well.

 

 

.

Because of the bad storm and heavy weather moving down from the north. the captain decided to head south hugging the Greenland coast. The high winds out to sea blew a lot of the cloud cover of the last couple of days away – the resulting sunset was spectacular. We plan to stay on the south west coast of greenland for another 18 hours or so before heading across to Iceland.

 

Day 6

The mornings sunrise found us down the east side of Greenland entering Nansen fjord. Fridtjof Nansen was an early Norwegian polar explorer. Nansen and his team established that ice in the arctic firmed on the ocean and that ice drifted over the pole. He also believed that a strong enough vessel could be constructed to withstand the Arctic ice and travel from Siberia to Greenland. Nansen built the Fram which left on her maiden voyage in 1893 and accomplished just that. Nansen was also a humanitarian who supplied food aid to Russia. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Christian IV glacier at the end of the fjord was stunning, as was the trip in and the zodiac cruise among the ice bergs and brash ice.

 

It is now early afternoon and we have set sail for Iceland. White beaked Dolphins led the way out of the fjord and bid us a farewell from Greenland. A large group of fin whales then met us about 5 miles out into the Greenland sea. We could see their blows all around us. The day was capped off with a celebration of Carol’s birthday in the dining room, following with a viewing of the northern lights from the stern of the ship.

We dock in Iceland this evening. Internet access has been non- existent on this trip so hopefully I can get these sent off once we are onshore.  The company that we traveled with, G Adventures, has been outstanding. Everything from food, organization, landing logistics and flexibility in destination due to inclement weather has been handled seamlessly. The crew of Naturalists, doubling as zodiac drivers, range from PhD’s in Geology and Biology, a retired Aerospace engineer, professional botanists, a cetacean biologist, glaciologist and all around ecology specialists, plus a Polar Historian . Other staff members included an X Marine who had 4 tours of duty in Afghanistan (he is in charge of the firearms on board). A singer song writer, naturalist in training rounded out the group. Very diverse community of people speaking 1/2 dozen languages between them. The ship is what I believe people call a “happy ship” – which is a direct reflection of management. The style is casual but safety is rigidly adhered to. Different activities occur all throughout the trip. Big screen movies, concerts in the polar bar, lectures on polar wildlife, geology, polar history etc. Often landings would be followed by a short talk and slideshow about what we had seen.

this is my third G Adventures trip and certainly won’t be my last.

image

We have three days in Iceland before traveling home. Stay tuned for more photos and impressions

.

 

Greenland Days 1-3

Musk Ox have been spotted on shore at our first stop in Greenland. A zodiac landing is planned for tomorrow at Wordie Bugt and Claveringoya  to see if we can get closer with our cameras in the morning.

Another Arctic sunrise  greeted us on our first day in Greenland.

image

The mornings landing went well. A large musk ox male let us get within about 500 yds of him. Our zooms could just pick him out at that distance. Although this is a national park, he was wary of us and 500 yds was his limit.

image

The scenery was stunning – a moonscape dotted with small arctic plants gone to seed and colouring before the onset of winter, mountains and fjord in the distance .

image

image

image

The glacier that had once been here left traces of every imaginable variety of rock. The afternoon turned into a zodiac cruise. Some interesting light.

 

Day 2

A nights travel brought us to the end of King Oscar fjord to Blumsterbutka. Despite grey skies the trip down the fjord in the early monochromatic light conditions was amazing past floating icebergs of all sizes tinged with pink from the morning light. A group of us are waiting to be transported onshore for a hike to a glacial lake back from the fjords end.

 

 

The lake was spectacular with pink tinged water and jaw dropping geology.

 

Arctic plants are in their fall colours of red and yellow. The forests here are tiny. Poplars and willows predominate at heights up to 4 inches. The saying is if you get lost in a forest on Greenland all you have to do is stand up….

image

Very few birds about, the smell of oncoming winter is in the air. Following the 3 hour hike to the lake we visited the small cabin on the fjord which is a stopping point for the Sirius patrol – a group of men and seven dog teams who patrol East Greenland National Park

 

The ship left anchor just before dinner and we headed for the open ocean to continue our journey south along the coast of Greenland. The predicted 40-50 knot northerly winds and accompanying swells hit us abeam as the ship exited King Oscar Fjord around 11:30 pm. We had been warned to secure all electronics and breakables in our cabin before turning in. Our lack of attention to securing paper products resulting in us waking in a veritable blizzard of books, papers, pens and miscellaneous pieces of clothing as the ship took the first heavy swells broadside. we had a fitful night after that. The swells have calmed considerably this morning – the wind is fresh from the southwest now. Our entrance to Scoresby sound was incredible, clouds and rain scudding in front of the winds, it may turn into a fair day if the wind keeps up.

 

 

 

image

Scoresby sound is the largest and deepest fjord system in the world, covering more than 14,500 square miles, with fjords extending 100’s of km into Greenland. We are headed deep into the fjord, hugging the southern coastline and hope to attempt a landing at VikingbutKa. The time before the landing was filled with an hour of the history of the area from paleo-peoples to the 1400’s when the Vikings disappeared from Greenland. The Polar historian on this cruise is very knowledgeable and her presentations are extremely well done. A talk on botany followed her lecture and then we were in the iceberg field.

The landing went off smoothly and a steep scramble up snow covered rocks gave us some outstanding views of the Fjord. Some of us have named this Sound Iceberg alley – they are everywhere, calved off the numerous glaciers that feed into the sound. Fresh snow had fallen the night before and tracks of arctic fox as well as geese meandered across the slope. Arctic sorrel and some arctic poplar were the only plants still in evidence – they had taken on their fall hues and were a nice contrast adjacent the partially snow covered rocks. We even found a midge (small chironomid fly) – it didn’t look very happy – who could blame it.

 

 

 

The recap of the day included an excellent short talk on night sky photography, as well as a recap on the botany and some of the geology we have seen. Once all were aboard the captain weighed anchor. Following a 4 hour navigation through narrow ice berg filled waters towards yet another glorious Arctic sunset,  we are now in the deepest reaches of the Scoresby sound fjord complex at Rode Island where Rodefjord and Fonifjord meet.

 

 

Not many people get this far in. Red sandstone is the predominant rock of Rode Island, which makes a spectacular contrast with the glaciers, icebergs floating by and the dark rocks in the mountains surrounding us. We hope to make a landing here.

The Fram Strait and the Greenland Sea

Days 1 and 2

Leaving Svalbard in the late afternoon we woke the next morning to rain, snow and rough seas during our first day crossing the Fram strait towards Greenland. The Strait is up to 2600 meters deep and is a seemingly endless expanse of ocean. Even the seabirds have left us. The dining room is noticeably less populated than in the previous days – many people are sick and have stayed in their cabins. News Flash – take your sea meds every time you go into open ocean!!!! Today was a day of lectures – birds, geology, ecology – reading, sleeping and generally catching our breath following the hectic schedule of the week before.

The second day of the crossing greeted us with brilliant sunshine and little wind as we completed our journey to Greenland and entered the Greenland Sea. Our entourage of birds (gulls, Fulmers ) rejoined us as the highest mountains of Greenland appeared on the horizon when we were 50 km away. We all watched mesmerized as the coastline slowly emerged in the distance. Mountains and valleys framed by icebergs scattered over the sea. It was an amazing approach to Greenland, based on stories heard from other travellers about the weather here – which is often foggy and closed in. The ship skirted the northern pack ice and entered East Greenland National Park, the largest park on the world (972,000 sq km, created in 1974 by the Danish govt) where we anchored to enjoy a spectacular Greenland sunset. I hope the photos tell something of the grandeur of this place.

IMG_4012

image

 

image

Svalbard Days 1-4

 

We plan to make our first landing on Smeerenberg on the extreme north west coast of Spitzbergen this afternoon. The area was a major whale processing plant of years ago, the remains of the blubber boiling areas are still there and at its peak 200 people made there home in this desolate place. The ship will send a scouting party ashore just after lunchtime to check that the beach is safe. If polar bears are near or on the beach, the landing will change to a zodiac cruise. Fog would possibly prevent a landing if it is too thick and hinders visibility for the scouting party.

getting ready for our first zodiac cruise
getting ready for our first zodiac cruise

Grey, white and blue – the colours of the Arctic. All were apparent this afternoon which turned out to be too foggy for landing because of the polar bear danger. The snow squalls come through at 30 min intervals bringing fog and mist with them. Apparently the bears can cover a mile in about 8 minutes. The rule for visibility is 2 miles or no landing. All the guides carry rifles for the protection of the people they are guiding, but with such a large group it is next to impossible for them to keep track of us all and the bears would be too close before they were sighted for an orderly evacuation back to the ship if they moved in during a squall. We opted instead for a zodiac cruise after a family of walruses were spotted in a neighbouring beach. Photos were hard to get due to the constant movement of the boat and the blowing snow. At one point a big male walrus surfaced in front of the zodiacs, pulling himself nearly 4 feet out of the water into the driving snow as he blew defiance at us. We all sat mesmerized watching him. I didn’t even think to pull out my camera. A moment that will stay with me forever.

image

 

The Arctic is unforgiving and is littered with the detritus of the mistakes and miscalculations of the past. The remains of the air hanger that was home to the airship of the ill fated Wellman expedition attempt to cross the North Pole was in a bay we passed. Another spot on White Island is marked with a cross where Swedish explorer Saloman Andree and his expedition members perished after their airship crashed out on the ice in the late 1890’s. Their bodies were found 30 years later. The consensus now is that some were killed by polar bears and one took his own life. He was found sitting up against a rock with a rifle beside him – in a pretty good state of preservation state when you think of how long he had been sitting there.

image

A visit to the northern most harbour seal group in the world rounded out the trip and we climbed back on board into the Expedition vessels mud room where we disinfected our boots, signed in and got changed into warm dry clothes. We are fortunate to have Paul Teolis as the expedition photographer and he has made himself available to help anyone on board during the voyage. He gave his first lecture this afternoon on composition and shooting in snow conditions which was excellent. I am looking forward to his next lecture which will be more technical in nature. During his presentation the ship raised anchor and began its journey north with plans to cross 80 degrees in latitude and explore the pack isle north of Spitzbergen. The captain hopes to spend a few days in that area, weather conditions permitting. One of the animals we may be fortunate to spot is the Blue Whale.

We did it! Not the blue whale but crossed 80 degrees north 😀at just before 11pm local time.

I will leave you with an Arctic sunset.

image

 

Second Day Svalbard

The absence of engine noise woke me around 2:30 am as we anchored in a small bay at the extreme north western end of Svalbard off Phippsoya. the sky was brilliant with the dawn so I went out on deck to take some photos. The entire ship was deserted except for a few of the crew on watch. What a glorious sky !

image

Our morning landing was a short one. No sooner had our zodiac landed on the beach when the polar bear alert was sounded by one of our rifle welding minders. Turned out there were three bears within a couple of miles of us. Back into the zodiac we got and had a cruise around the bay instead We watched the Bears meander around – they were several miles away – and then headed along the coastline. . It turned out to be a VERY good turn of events. As we turned from photographing three large walrus on the beach, our zodiac was surrounded by swimming walrus. They were so close we could have touched them😀😀😀 what am amazing experience going eyeball to eyeball with them!!! Got a photo this time!

image

The day only got better. A two hour run north and east took us to a sheltered bay off Virgohamner – northern side of Danskoya where we dropped anchor and took the zodiacs into a a large walrus colony composed of 60-80 males. What a sight – and smell 🙂 Two-ton bodies all in pile, burping, passing gas (who knew they have such bad digestive systems ), occasionally quarrelling over space and just generally being walruses.

image

 

image

All this plus brilliant sunshine, calm seas and drop dead gorgeous scenery. I will let the photos tell the story.

image

 

image

image

Third Day Svalbard

Above 80 degrees north.

We are now above 80 degrees north. The first pack ice was encountered around 2 am and it is steadily becoming thicker.

image

We are seeing mainly first year ice here. Ice that formed last summer and has grown for a year. The second and third year pack ice is larger and by the third year pressure ridges have developed which the ship needs to avoid. Flocks of birds follow the ship, mainly gulls, kittiwakes and Fulmers. The ship does not throw any garbage overboard. Apparently why they are here is they are feeding on small fish (polar cod juveniles) that live under the first year ice feeding on algae and plankton. When the ship disturbs a piece of ice the cod scatter out from the area and then the birds have breakfast. So I guess in a sense we are a moving buffet. The skies are amazing today!!!

image

A few bearded seals and then – just as we passed 81 degrees north – the announcement of a whale spout to our south !!!

image
YES !!!! a blue whale – the largest mammal on earth. An animal I never thought I would see. A younger animal – around 60 feet long – completely unconcerned with us, going about his business! What at a privilege !!! He surfaced a number of times right by the boat (spraying us with whale breath 😀) – it seemed he was examining us just as we were examining him as he went about feeding. He was followed by groups of birds – kittywakes and gulls – all feeding on the krill and other small creatures brought to the surface by the whale. Blue whales are baleen whales. They generally surface three times or so in succession before diving. When they surface the final time before diving they show their tiny (relative to body size) dorsal fin.

1SEP2016_Slideshow8

The day closed with an excellent traditional Norwegian buffet and an Argentinian Malbec – hard combination to beat .

Fourth Day Svalbard

After another overnight voyage to the northern most part of Svalbard, we woke up to the unbelievable scenery of Woodfjord and Liefderfjorden plus Monacobergen glacier. The Captain pulled right in close to the bay and we enjoyed the incredible vista from the dining room during breakfast.

image

image

 

The zodiac run today was all about glaciers. We were surrounded by small pieces of ice up to medium sized berg. Apparently pieces of ice 1-5 m in height are called “bergy bits” – who knew. Highlights including watching and hearing the glacier calve off pieces of ice. A crack and then deep roar of the ice falling and hitting the water, pushing out a swell into the bay. Flocks of kittywakes and gulls cruised the edge of the glacier, swooping down to grab small fish that swarmed to the surface after a calving event. The small pieces of ice around us were full of air bubbles, which burst as the small ice pieces melted creating a popping, hissing sound as the background. Our naturalist scooped up pieces of ice for tonight’s cocktails 🙂

After lunch we landed at a bay about 7 miles south of Monacobergen – known by the colourful name of Texas Bar – apparently the name derives from a small trappers cabin in the bay. There were a number of walks scheduled for this afternoon. Botany, geology, birds, beach and photography. We are going on a photographic walk with the ships professional photographer scheduled for this afternoon.

image

image

Wonderful, wonderful afternoon. Beautiful scenery, gorgeous weather – photography really coming along 😀 also got an introduction to the plants of the Arctic. The worlds smallest willow lives here. It is 4 inches high. There is a saying that if you get lost in an Arctic forest all you have to do is stand up……. Interspersed with the tiny vegetation are all ages of rocks – from the very old (granites and what looked like marble) to newer. (Shale and limestones). The glaciers that once covered this area left a tremendous amount of rock debris scooped up and carried here from other places.

This was our last day at Svalbard, the captain has started back down the fjords and we are headed for Greenland. We will be two days in transit in what sounds like reasonably rough seas. The hurricane season is in full swing in the south and the swells make it up north – reduced but still significant