Day 2: This LightOpt Series is a photographic journal of 12 days in Iceland.
Back in Iceland. A volcanic desert plain above the Tungufljót River.
Boarding a plane on any airline, it’s hard to tell one flight from another. It’s the same rows of seats, banging of carry-on, and hoarding of overhead bins. But when that first intercom announcement hits my ears in a foreign language, I know this plane ride is different. This happens every time; I perk up and relax in the same moment. It’s time travel. I’ll jump out somewhere else, in some other time zone, and things will be slightly beyond my control. In fact, call me strange, I love airports and planes. They are possibilities.
And yet, my romantic notions of travel don’t get me out of sitting bored for seven-plus hours, Seattle to Keflavik. At least I had the row to myself. Nick also had two seats to himself, having scared his seatmate off to other parts of the plane at the slightest mention of illness. He also had a pile of blankets, a dysfunctional overhead light that was permanently on, and emergency access to the lavatory (access that under the circumstances still required the occasional and grueling 15-minute wait). Oh, the romance and intrigue of being a globe-trotting, professional photographer.
We arrived at Keflavik International in the pre-dawn of Wednesday morning. Of course, at the on-set of winter near the Arctic Circle, pre-dawn is anything before about 10:45 AM. Anyway, it was early and very dark. Although I’d lugged all my camera gear (minus tripod) as carry-on, my warm and waterproof field gear, and everything else, was in baggage. Navigating passport control was simple and we soon wandered over to baggage claim. Once there, we enjoyed those few moments of nervous waiting, when you’re sure your bag has dropped onto the carousel, but it’s a carousel in Cleveland, not Iceland, because it is taking forever, and hundreds of other bags have come and gone, but there it is. Finally.
I’m here a couple days ahead of the workshop start. Nick and I parted ways. He to recoup and meet up with Thor, and I to hire a rental car and escape the airport. I made the short drive to Vogar, up the road toward Reykjavik, to see if I could check in to my hotel in the early morning. Bill is already there and said my key is waiting in the foyer. Sure enough, I find the small Hotel Vogar and drop into the lobby. My key rests with a nice note, otherwise no one is around. Bill seems the only other occupant.
The forecast looks grim—big storm rolling in and strengthening off the southwest coast. It will mean harsh northwest winds and bring rain and snow. Foregoing sleep until the evening, Bill and I decided to head north for the Golden Circle, a day of driving to hit some of the tourist spots—Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss.
Moss (Cetraria islandica) and volcanics, somewhere on the Golden Circle.
We made a few stops, hiking a bit while I tried to shake off sleep. In addition to circumnavigating the globe, Bill’s been around this loop before, staying in guest houses and hiking deeper in, so he shares stories about several places off the beaten path. The roads are relatively quiet. Our stops at popular vistas and trails are not crazy-crowded, but there are plenty of tourists, until we finally reach Gullfoss. It’s large parking area looks almost abandoned. It’s getting late, folks scurrying back toward Reykjavik now that the wind has picked up and the effects of the storm are growing. The light is receding, and I’ve learned my first Icelandic photography lesson: the winter Golden Hour lasts a long time here—because the sun remains low on the southern horizon at this time of year, sunrise and sunset last all “day” long. You don’ t need to “chase the light”, something I’m guilty of at home. However, scudding clouds and dusty mist plumes can alter things quickly. As lenticular clouds stacked the sky, we drove right past the Gullfoss tourist building and continued north—not another car in sight.
We pick a random pull-out as I gawk at distant, pink-hued mountains framed by lenticulars. Wind-driven glacial dust provides a warm glow in the slowly fading light, a verification of my purpose for being here. Conditions beautiful, inspiring, and challenging. We hiked across a sandy, boulder-strewn plain to overlook the valley of the Tungufljót River backed by distant mountains and glaciers (Eystri-Hagafellsjökull). We followed sheep trails and a few random vehicle tracks, and yet we occasionally post-holed through the indurated crust—a local reminder of the freeze-thaw cycles affecting this boulder-strewn landform. There’s little vegetation on the wind-swept surface, a beautiful glacial desert of volcanic boulders. I captured images of the distant range but shooting into the wind I get sand-blasted, especially when lowering the camera’s perspective for foreground interest. No worries, the lenticulars to the south were blooming in post-sunset hues, I turned around to shoot with the wind.
The coming storm, on the bouldery steppe above Gullfoss. Troll fences ready.
With the light fading, we still wanted to visit Gullfoss, so we turned back to the waterfalls. Once we’d parked, while grabbing my camera and locking it into my tripod, the lens cap popped off. I watched it roll, at about 30 miles-per-hour, across a few acres of mostly empty parking lot. I figured it would stop at a distant set of gravel berms and calmly pursued it. It was there, among various other detritus gathered by the gale. But now we could barely make forward progress; we leaned into the wind as the few other visitors were stumbling toward shelter.
Little did I know, this would be good practice for the coming days. I framed a couple images sitting on a lonely cliff-edge looking down the falls with my back to the wind. As I adjusted the camera, trying to compose a shot and judge the exposure between wind gusts, Bill belayed me by clutching my jacket. It wasn’t dangerous, really, but several gusts had us reconsidering our precarious position—if I had let go of the tripod it would surely have been lost to the abyss. The shot doesn’t do Gullfoss much justice, and there are plenty of better ones on any social media, but it was such fun and a seductive reintroduction to Iceland.
Gullfoss by gale.