August 10, 2006
Iceland has always been a land of extremes in my eyes. There are active volcanoes buried beneath hundreds of meters of ice, lush mossy canyons and expansive black sand flats, sharp salt-encrusted sea cliffs and bubbling mud pots, the constant burning of summer’s midnight sun and the heavy shroud of the dark winter. And of course, each day I take sunscreen, raingear, and thermal gloves and a hat out to each worksite. Often I’ve needed all three in the course of a day. That so much diversity is packed into such a small country (less than the size of Virginia, I believe) simply means that change happens fast.
Last week I had the opportunity to hike and mark a very well-known trail called the Laugarvegur. It’s a 4-day 50 km trek from Landmannalaugar to Þorsmörk (sounds like “Thorsmerk”) and many people come to Iceland only to hike this path, sleeping in the secluded mountain huts along the way. We had food dropped at the huts so that we wouldn’t have to carry it, which was a huge relief. I had three volunteers with me (one English, one French, and one Dutch) and an Icelandic park ranger from Landmannalaugar who counted as our map, since we didn’t have one. At least this time we had sticks! Although I think calling them sticks is misleading. We’re not talking about chopsticks here. These were 2×2 pieces of lumber, and each was about shoulder-height on me. Basically I strapped my sleeping bag and extra clothing layers to the outside of my biggest pack, and I could still only fit in 15 sticks. Aside from the weight, the sticks also jutted out above our heads a solid two feet, which meant our center of gravity was much higher than usual and walking was rather unsteady. Each of us needed two people to help lift our packs onto our backs once they were full. At this point the enthusiasm about walking the trail faltered just a bit, along with our smiles…
The first day of walking was by far my most discouraging point in Iceland, both mentally and physically. The hike was one of the steepest I’ve ever done anywhere, the sticks were heavy, and the weather was dreadful. The wind was so gusty that it would knock us a step or two to the side, and the rain hit our faces with such velocity that it stung. When the rain began and I told my ducklings to put on their waterproof jackets and trousers, my French guy pulled out a poncho that probably cost about $1.99. It snapped under the armpits and was completely useless, so of course I immediately started planning on dealing with hypothermia in at least one of my volunteers. At one point my hands got so cold and swollen from the weight on my shoulders that I couldn’t touch my thumbs to my pinky fingers. All of us had burning and wobbly legs, unused to the demands we were putting on them. Some of the paths are just a narrow ridge along steep scree slopes on both sides, so a slip or a stumble meant falling a long way. In the geothermal areas, at least we could be comforted in knowing that after shredding our bodies on the loose bits of rock and scree on the slopes, we’d careen down into steam vents and instantly cauterize all of our wounds. Silver lining, indeed.
We staggered along like drunks, putting in sticks where needed, which unfortunately was not very often. The ranger had been told that the path was not well-marked at all, and that the frequent sandstorms and harsh winters had all but decimated whatever sticks were still standing. We found the path quite well-marked, which meant our payload stayed with us. At one point, as I was trying to get up a steep gravelly slope (take two steps forward, slide one step back, that kind of thing) one of my feet slid out from under me and I pitched forward. Now under normal circumstances, one would fall forward onto hands and knees, sustain a few scratches, etc. But when one has half of a tree strapped to one’s back, that extra weight whacks the back of one’s head and pushes one’s face in the dirt like a gradeschool bully. I lay there with the weight on my back and the gravel against my cheek for a few seconds, telling myself that I’m the leader, and leaders mustn’t cry.
It was a really rough day for all of us, and I spent a lot of time reassessing the situation and trying to decide if we were in over our heads, and at what point it was my responsibility to stop the ranger and tell him it was too much to ask of us. It was a very uncomfortable position to be in, as we all really wanted to walk the trail, but also were quite fond of the whole “living” thing.
But within two hours of arriving at our first hut, we were sitting by candlelight eating warm food. The wind outside was howling and the hut shuddered on occasion, and extra people who had planned to camp in tents outside had squeezed into the hut as well. It was an extraordinary potporri of languages and foods and degrees of exhaustion, all wrapped in the warmth of shared space and contentment. The five of us squeezed around the kitchen table, talked and laughed in our five different accents, and befriended two Americans, two Irish, and two Danish people late into the night- it seemed our table could always accommodate another hiker. We sipped shared whiskey mixed with hot water and comfort from the hard day. It was amazing. We would run into many of these same faces throughout our walk, and we became known as The Stick People. In a few short hours, I had scraped the very bottom (with my face) and then transcended to one of the most spellbinding evenings I’ve had in this country. Truly, it is a land of extremes.
Earlier this week a man disappeared in Skaftafell National Park, where I’ve spent nearly half of my time here. It’s a gorgeous park that includes the largest icecap in Europe and the black sand flats that stretch out to the sea, created by the devastating floods that occur when a volcano erupts beneath a glacier. The man had been at a bonfire, generally the mark of a big and rowdy Icelandic celebration (the volunteer coordinator, Chas, said he’s never been to a bonfire here that didn’t eventually have someone joyfully throwing diesel fuel onto the fire), last seen at 1 a.m. His family woke in the morning to find him gone. The details are fuzzy, as we haven’t been directly involved in the search. When I arrived at Skaftafell late the next night, a strange, low fog smothered the mountains, like a pall cast by bad news. The usual buzz of activity at the campground seemed subdued and slow, and we all felt a little guilty going about our lives when a person was lost and a family was facing an uncertain future.
Two days later, the searchers found the man alive. He’d somehow wandered out onto the sand flats and become lost and disoriented. The flats stretch about 35 km to the sea, and sometimes the lights on passing ships can be seen from land, appearing to be a distant town and enticing people to walk in the wrong direction. But the whole situation made everyone consider our situation a bit. When the wilderness is beautiful, it’s easy to mistake temporary indifference for benevolence. The fact is, it’s dangerous out there, and a few seemingly minor factors can combine to create a deadly series of events. A little extra respect for our fragility and the power of the world around us will help us see another sunrise.
Newsflash! It’s starting to get dark at night, at least in the south. This week I saw the first stars… strange how something so beautiful can also be sort of sad, a bell tolling to signal the end of the summer. But I still have about 5 weeks left, so I’ll be seeing more stars soon. I think I had more stories to tell, but time is running short and my email is running long. It would appear this computer doesn’t recognize my camera, so I can’t attach any photos this time, but I’ll try to send some soon.
Before stickmarking the Laugarvegar, we did some trail work in the campsite area. The problem with narrow trails, while they seem to have less impact on the area, is that people don’t stay on them. This trail in particular is the beginning of a loop trail that gets heavy two-way traffic, so people are constantly stepping off the path to let others pass, and eventually they just don’t get back on. This work involved moving and shifting gigantic rocks so that we could widen and level the path. The difference between the before and after pictures might seem inconsequential, but it felt monumental.