Elizabeth Bourne

writer & photographer

Category: Travel

Iceland in Winter

Iceland is lovely every time of year, but I find it particularly beautiful in winter. The landscape is pared down to its bones, and what magnificent bones they are. White snow, black and red lava, turquoise glacial rivers. It’s truly a winter wonderland. And it’s completely safe – as long as you’re not an idiot.

Clear roads straight ahead

Clear roads straight ahead

Almost a million people visited Iceland in 2015. Three times the number of Icelandic citizens. And in the years between 2000 and 2015, 138 people have died in Iceland, most of them in traffic-related incidents. That’s combined Icelanders and tourists. Washington state has 450 traffic deaths a year. California has around 3,000 traffic deaths in a year. That’s bigger than most Icelandic towns.

While I was in Iceland, a tourist drowned.

80 mph winds off Eyrarbakki, waves over 10' high

80 mph winds off Eyrarbakki, waves over 10′ high, photo taken from the sea wall far away from the actual sea

The winds blowing off shore were 60-80mph. Sneaker waves were announced as a public danger on the Icelandic travel sites, and at road.is which gives current road conditions for all of Iceland. Is it sad? Yes. It was also stupid.

Last year, 100 people drowned along Washington beaches. I’ve lived most of my life in the west, close to the Pacific where not only are sneaker waves common, but the ocean will throw entire damn TREES at you to crush you and pin you down so it can drown you more easily. Walking near the waves in a gale force storm is stupid. You never turn your back on the ocean. It has nothing but contempt for your puny human swimming skills. Fortunately, where I live and in Iceland, the sea water is so cold, likely you’ll die of hypothermia first, so small blessings, eh?

 

4WD Dacia Duster by side of road

4WD manual transmission Dacia Duster by side of road

If you’re a tourist, have respect for your environment. In a place like Iceland, rent a 4WD. Even in summer, because some roads are more like guidelines. If the sign says the road is impassable, believe it. Familiarize yourself, as best you can, with Icelandic road signs. They are not the same as US, and it helps to know the difference between DO NOT ENTER and PEDESTRIAN CROSSING. Check out road.is which tells you all the road conditions in Iceland, and updates them every 4 hours. If it says there are hazardous conditions, believe it. I love that website. It became my night time entertainment watching as roads went in and out of drivability (at least for us foreigners).

 

Gravel road winding into mountains

Gravel road winding into mountains

To be fair, Icelanders are far more phlegmatic about their roads than I. Although the maps indicate two types of roads – paved and unpaved – really there are four. Paved, used to be paved but not so much anymore, gravel, rutted track or maybe it was really a stream bed hard to tell. On our way to Gullfoss we saw a 2WD off in a ditch on a road that a 2WD car had no business being on. Perhaps they thought that because it was part of the Golden Circle, the road would be clear. They were wrong. They were in that situation because they were dumb. When they reached the point where they should have turned around, they didn’t. Instead ending up in a ditch with three cars trying to haul them out. When we came back from Gullfoss several hours later, they were still in the ditch.

Nothing in Iceland is interested in hurting you.

Impassable road, we didn't try it

Impassable road, we didn’t try it

I’ve been stalked by a cougar in the North Cascades (because I had Kai with me – tasty, tasty dog, so my fault entirely). I’ve taken pictures of grizzly bears salmon fishing, and been deeply glad I was at the top of the waterfall, and they were too busy to check me out. Sea lions have threatened my kayak hoping to frighten me into giving them my non-existent fish. Raccoons have chased me off the sidewalk. You think raccoons are cute? Wait until it’s night and two of them are lumbering along the sidewalk like a couple of Mafioso. You give them the road. Trust me.

Icelandic horse who could not be bothered

Icelandic horse who could not be bothered with us

Every animal I took pictures of was either uninterested in us, or ran away. Sheep, horses, swans. Mostly they wanted to be left alone. If I’d been an idiot and chased the swans, maybe one of them would have flown at me, and I’d have bruises. But I’m usually not that particular kind of idiot.

Reykjavik is the safest city I’ve ever been in. From my US perspective, no crime at all. Drivers drive pretty slowly. People are nice. It’s not like Paris, where pick pockets work in teams to size you up and seize what they can. It’s certainly not like any US city where if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you may be physically harassed or attacked. Maybe killed.

Single lane wooden bridge over geothermal pools

Single lane wooden bridge over geothermal pools

I love Iceland. It’s the safest place I’ve ever traveled. I love the landscape, and the people, and the food (but not the fermented shark, no). Next year I hope to go in a different season, and travel more extensively. And I promise, I won’t do anything obviously stupid.

The Empire Builder

I am now on my second day on the Empire Builder, and this afternoon will disembark in Chicago for a welcome overnight hotel stay and a shower whose floor does not heave under me. I will have ridden the entire line, start to finish, from Seattle to Chicago.

MT mountains

This morning, all the Montana cowboys and oil men (everyone of whom seemed to have a hint of Jake Gyllenhall about him) had disappeared. They were lean, quiet men, though even at my age, I’m pretty enough (or they’re desperate enough) to get them talking. They’ve been replaced by families of Scandinavians in Norwegian sweaters. I have never seen so many fair-haired people in one place. There are more women on the train as well. For awhile it felt like I was the only one.

House on prairie

In summer, the Empire Builder would travel during the long, long days, taking you through the Rockies and Glacier Park in daylight. In winter, it’s dark, and the sun comes up late. What you see is beautiful but very bleak. A rancher (Jason) explained to me over a glass of wine they only get one crop of wheat, so it’s cut so there’s plenty for the cattle to graze on over the winter. They don’t want to waste a grain. And indeed many of the stubbled fields were full of black angus.field at sunset

I didn’t sleep well the first night. The bed is narrow, and the train lurches like a drunken sailor as it picks up speed through the empty places. It feels rather like trying to sleep while you’re falling a very great distance. Last night, I was tired enough I slept late, through the sunrise and through Minneapolis which surprised me for surely that generated a great deal of noise.

When I pulled the curtains, we had left the clouds and snow of Montana and North Dakota behind. Minnesota is blue skies with thin wispy clouds, lakes crinkled with ice, and the brown Mississippi runs alongside the train. The earth is sere, and the trees barren. There may once have been evergreens here. Not any more.

At breakfast, I sat with a Minnesotan family. Mom (Ingrid) was a comfortable matron in a black and white Norwegian sweater, her blond hair mostly hidden by a red hunter’s cap. Beside her sat their blond daughter (Jennie) who played Hangman all through breakfast. I sat next to her husband (George), a robust man with thinning silver-blond hair and pink cheeks. His Nordic sweater was grey and black with hints of red, and altogether manly.

IMG_1299

Ingrid told me they’d spotted two bald eagles this morning, and that you can see fossils in the bluffs we were passing. She added that the green stones were green because of ancient lichen poop. She said this with a sideways glance at her square-faced husband. He didn’t seem to notice her indiscretion, keeping his pale, pale eyes fixed on some distant horizon none of the rest of us saw. Ingrid chatted away through the meal, with occasional interjections of “Oh mom” from her daughter. George never said a word, not even when she asked him a direct question. I gathered this was usual, since she continued her talking whether he answered or no.

And now the sky is blueing. The sun has a yellow winter light, and is turning the brown grass to gold where it pokes through the little bit of snow. We are traveling through what I would have called mountains in my younger years, but now know are rolling hills, blanketed with deciduous trees that long ago lost their leaves.

The Empire Builder is the busiest of Amtrak’s long distance trains. In summer, there are park rangers on board who narrate the section through the Rockies and Glacier Park. It’s a life line for Montana and North Dakota. Two brothers I talked with (Dan and Kerry) take the train between Havre, MT and Fargo, ND often to see their brother, who has a ranch outside of Fargo. I was told it’s too expensive to fly, “Costs as much to fly in North Dakota as it would to fly across the country,” said Kerry.

Dan is a railroad guy, Kerry is in IT, and swears that any second now Montana will see a computer boom just like Silicon Valley. They were heading to Fargo where their nameless brother would pick them up, then from there to see a Bears game, and maybe get in a fight with a Viking fan, though Dan admitted his wife told him she’d be pissed if he did. “Over the line, she said that’d be.” He said it with some satisfaction.

Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll take the Southwest Chief down to Kansas.

© 2020 ELIZABETH BOURNE.