Iceland Day 12: Kirkjufell Denouement

Iceland Day 12: Kirkjufell Denouement

We were down to five – Erno, Bob, Ken, Nick, and me. Nick and I had commandeered a rental van early in the morning, then we loaded up the rest of the small team at the guesthouse, dropped Thor at some random roundabout near his home, and headed back to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. A stop at the Hotel Rjúkandi was required, we’d hit this café for coffee a few times already, stopping here on our first foray to the peninsula.

We had the highway to ourselves all the way to Grundarfjörður, the small harbor town below the most photographed mountain in Iceland, Kirkjufell. The wizard-hat or arrowhead peak rises from the peninsula’s north coast, and with its paired waterfalls—Kirkjufellfoss—it basically composes images for you. We were too late for sunrise, but the clouds were interesting enough that we headed straight for the carpark at the falls. Well, all but Nick; he dropped us and cruised away, having earned some alone-time after a week and a half of shepherding the workshop around. The workshop was over and I think the need for independence spoke to all of us. The trails around the falls were basically empty and our little four-some dispersed, one-by-one, to deal with the icon.

Grundarfjörður sunrise. The other view from Kirkjufellfoss.

I had seen 100s of images of Kirkjufell, we all had, but there is definitely something about capturing or trying to capture, one of your own. Only seven or eight days ago Ken had confided to me his disappointment in having a storm prevent our initial visit, and now he was here, gleefully hitting the trail, undoubtedly prepared to capture a long-exposure featuring the towering peak. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I checked the popular spots around the falls—the iconic perspective, but snow and ice draped the small cliff and in the subdued light the scene lacked the impact I sought. It was beautiful but not in my skill set to really capture it.

I would move higher. It felt good to hike and climb a little; I travelled cross-country, traversing crunching snow and finding traces of sheep trails along a fenceline. I liked the higher perspective. It wasn’t particularly original, but it was different enough to feel creative. I worked on images using snow-filled drainages as leading lines between mossy volcanic rocks. For awhile I simply sat in a rocky swale and watched the clouds skittering above Kirkjufell, enjoying my last few hours of daylight in Iceland.

Kirkjufell. Hiking the frozens swales and streams in the mid-day light.

As the sun crept low, we retreated to our guesthouse overlooking the small port town. I know Iceland can seem crowded with tourists, but right now, it seemed we were alone on the peninsula. We settled into the quiet, multiroom guesthouse. Dinner was found at an establishment that was either the city library that happened to have a comfortable café and museum attached, or it was a café that was also the city library. A perfect combination if only folks could put their phones down long enough to remember that there are books to read.

The Kp index was in our favor, there would be aurora at Kirkjufell tonight. We geared up for the dark and cold, powered by dinner beer and desert coffee—the nutrition of night photography. Nick suggested we use the bay to get reflections of Kirkjufell glowing in the lights of the port. We scurried along the rocky beach and scattered to set up our images as the first aurora peeked from behind the mountain. With the false confidence of not using my headlamp, I stumbled into an unseen creek in the dark. Ok, the feet would not know warmth again tonight.

Kirkjufell townlight. Watching the aurora build in long curtains behind the front-lit peak.

Using some high ISO images to get the mountain and reflections working, we waited for the aurora to build. It came and went in long glowing curtains, but with little drama. Our patience failed. Someone mentioned moving to harbor to possibly get artistic with some boats and maybe the aurora backdrop would return. The harbor lights proved a definite nuisance and we quickly abandoned that idea. But I recognized the fishing port from the Walter Mitty movie—a bonus. Our evening was over, it was time for the warmth of the guesthouse. We turned north, everyone lulled by the van’s movement through yet another roundabout, but then Bob said something. What? The quiet man who spoke in the most efficient terms, as in, one word a day for the duration of the workshop. A truck driver, the kind man was used to no one being there to hear him, I guess. Hell, I drive alone a lot, uttering all kinds of oratory to no one but the bugs on the windshield. Bob’s cut from very different cloth.

But what? “Turn around, Nick, it’s coming. Turn around now.” When Robert spoke, we listened.

Parting light at Kirkjufell. Sitting back with new friends, I could enjoy the last show of a wonderful journey.

The aurora danced around Kirkjufell as our tripods skated on the clear, glassy ice in the meltwater pools below the ponds. We hooted and laughed as we lay prone on the ice, getting wide-angle images as light beams shot from the clouds on the horizon. The aurora’s green and magenta reflections swirled at our feet as our eyes (and cameras) took in the mountain and its awesome sky. Once again, I had to stop photography and simply watch. This was why I came.

Back to Day 11. Click here for Iceland Gallery.

Epilogue: Endless thanks to Nick and Thor. I would not think twice about doing it again, and I would recommend one of their dynamic-duo adventures to anyone. But most of all, thank you to every member of our workshop team. It was a great environment to learn in, to share, and to laugh about. The latter came easily and often. I hope each one of you enjoyed our Iceland Winter Adventure 2018 as much as I did.

 

Day 5: The Light Begins

Day 5: The Light Begins

The van was stuck. We walked from the hotel in the blue light of pre-dawn mid-morning to find Thor shoveling and sweeping a deep, wind-blown drift from the half-buried van. Even four-wheel drive would not get it out and the wind was howling, the piles getting deeper. In the shadow of the guesthouse the snow was deep, but beyond the building’s wind-shadow, the gust could only blow it to the sea. Away from the van, the parking area was almost bare. Some more shoveling, a quick tug with the smaller rig, and the van was free.
It was difficult to recognize individual team-members dressed in their cold-weather gear. Gortex colors became identifiers, and the variety of hats important clues. The temperature wasn’t unbearable, but the wind-chill bit at anything and everything exposed. We were headed down the coast, peering into the horizon as the clouds thinned and the dawn teased. By the time we turned into Búðakirkja (black church), the clouds lifted and the sun greeted us—the wind would remain our compulsory companion for the day. We gathered around the back of the van, excited to be at our first location. Nick talked about capturing the icon, while also reminding us to consider the variety in the location – from lava flows, to the seascape, giving the dark church building some context. Expose for the sky, consider your foreground. Let the wind add character. Although the church sits in a picturesque location, its construction of dark wood (shipped in long ago, of course) sets it apart from the typical white and red church buildings that pop up all over Iceland.

The Rock, The Church.

The group scattered once we adjourned the huddle at the van. Nick and Thor wandered between participants and composed shots from their own perspectives. Almost immediately one could start to sense the personalities of the group. Some sought one-on-one instruction, some gathered in small groups to compare and share, and others wandered independently. On the first days, I was in wandering mode. I wanted to take it all in. The iconic shots are seductive, but I didn’t feel that interested in shooting buildings. I convinced myself of disinterest in the church, but that only lasted until the sunrise started to play on the contrasting dark building. Here’s a regular, common shape—a church any child would draw—rising from treacherous black lava flows and getting bashed by the wind-blown snow. We were soon all lined up to capture the gaussian sunrise as backdrop to the strong little building.

First Light at Búðakirkja.

After an hour or so, we clambered into the calm warmth of the van to move west to an abandoned building on Dagverðará. A setting similar to Búðakirkja but with appropriate drama created by the backlit blowing snow and the lonely shape of the worn structure. The wind was deafening and, if anything, increasingly so. We huddled on the banks of a frozen, snow-covered stream and just about everyone composed a similar shot. Once in place, it was almost too much effort to move against the wind for something different, and this just looked so good. While the composition was static, the lapping clouds and glowing gusts of snow made each exposure different. It was perfect time to plant the tripod deep in the snow, let the wind blow, and watch what happened, capturing shot after shot.

Abandonment at Dagverðará.

Catching Light at Dagverðará.

A side trip for some lunch and coffee led us to brief stops at Hellnar and Arnarstapi. The skies continued to clear and the new lack of clouds seemed to free up the wind. I’ll stop mentioning the wind when it drops below 50 mph; this won’t come soon. In the Iceland winter, the slow transition from sunrise to sunset happens without an intervening day, allowing us to take our time, watching perfect light dance around us. The mountain-front to our back, including the prominence of Snaefellsjökull remained hidden, while the seascape drew us onward. A short hike took us to Lóndrangar where volcanic plugs eroded from surrounding rocks remained perched as seastacks, black pedestals in the stormy seas. We found a precarious perch to watch the sunset and the few remaining sea-side clouds. It was almost impossible to talk to each other now, even though we were huddled together on a steep spit of land and a small viewing platform. A few pieces of equipment, lens caps, remotes, hats, gloves, and the like, threatened to or actually did get lost to the wind and sea. We were, however, awarded with another highlight stop on a singular day on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

False Land. Sunset at Lóndrangar.

We had only been “on location” with the workshop for six hours and we already had stunning conditions. It took some effort on the part of each participant—the wind can kill patience and composure—but Iceland was serving up her best and it was only the beginning. In fact, the “day” was far from over.
Iceland Day 5.5: Aurora at Black Church

Iceland Day 5.5: Aurora at Black Church

It had been a successful and demanding first day of shooting. With the curtain lifted, we had taken full advantage, leaning into the wind and reaping rewards. Upon returning to the guesthouse, we did not have time to relax, as the Kp-index for the evening rekindled excitement. I downloaded and backed-up my day’s images and joined the growing table for dinner. All chatter focused on the wind and atmosphere created around our recent locations, but soon our talk shifted to aurora. Icelandic photo tours and workshops promise* aurora. There is always an asterisk, only Nick and Thor deliver aurora (read-on). The Kp-index is an index of global geomagnetic activity derived from measurements from ground-based magnetometers at high, northern and southern latitudes. Based on real-time measurements, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center provides a Kp-index forecast helpful in protecting sensitive technology. This is important stuff. But, even better for photographers, the Kp-index is also a predictor of aurora. Several of us had mobile apps loaded for alarm notifications of indices, say, greater than 4.0. The scale is 0.0 to 9.0. I’d need an index greater than 7.0 or 8.0 to have any chance of seeing aurora in Nevada (it happened once), but when it’s 4.0 in Iceland, you get ready for some night photography. Nick, walking the hallway between after-dinner recons on the snow-buried porch, said to the be at the van at 9 PM. Then he said, “8:30”. Then, “8:00… Um, no, let’s just go now!”, a green glow leaking beyond a low, receding band of clouds in the northern sky above the guesthouse. With or without the predicted index, aurora activity remains elusive. The sky can light up at any moment and with the storms of the past few days, we knew the clouds could mask everything without any warning. A few team-members had decided by dinnertime that the day had been plenty fun. The wind and blowing snow can drain motivation—the wind had yet to let up and we were headed back into the gale, and jet-lag may still been wearing on those that just arrived. Six of us climbed back into the van, ready for a long, cold night.

The Building at Búðakirkja.

We returned to Búðakirkja. The northern lights need a foreground, awesome colors dancing over a dark, featureless horizon is awesome, once or twice, but the images really work best when they accent a subject. Of course, I was still in the “once or twice” stage and hoping for awesomeness. I didn’t care if there was a church, a cathedral, or a unicorn in the foreground, I just wanted to experience the lights. I’d seen a white veil of aurora as a kid on a canoe trip in Minnesota and again as an enigmatic red blob over our house in Reno. I’d seen some nice waves of aurora on the plane, booking a port-side window with that hope in mind—so the precedent was set. According to plan and hope, we were the only ones at the church (others soon arrived). We talked a little bit about ISO settings and cautions of exposure times that could be too long. You can blow out highlights and green blobs can overwhelm the interesting waves. We stepped back into the wind, oh, the wind, and then stumbled to get a composition. I only stumbled because I was dumbstruck by the shaft of green light leaping from the horizon. This is what I was here for. My fingers seemed to freeze in minutes, I didn’t care, and we kept shooting for a couple hours. I could hear myself laughing at the images on the back of my camera. I could hear coincident laughter and cheers coming from those next to me and from beyond the little cemetery in the churchyard—or was it the subterranean residents commenting on their nightly view. Only Thor said, “I’ll give it 2 out of 10. Maybe it’ll be better tomorrow.” Sometimes I just watched, this was perfect.

The Archway at Búðakirkja.

The Last Pillars of Búðakirkja.

I can’t say I nailed the images. I barely have experience getting daylit landscape images to cooperate; this is completely different, but so much fun. Buffeted by the wind, Nick crouched with me for a while and we talked about learning from our previews and setting the camera to provide good feedback. There are a few keepers in my collection, and they’ll forever be memories of this first night. As I saw in the morning, the darkness of the black church adds weight and mood to the spectral sky. My first attempts with the multi-colored waves, pillars, and streaks building above the church and the distant mountain range was worth the entire trip. How can Thor say this is a 2 out of 10?  For me, this was 11. Spoiler, tomorrow I re-calibrate my scale. Although the Kp-index remained promising, the aurora faded. And the long day was taking its toll, our group dimmed with the lights. Time to pack it in. We pondered not sharing our images with the portion of the group that hadn’t joined us, downplaying our gobsmacked adventure. But that wasn’t at all possible. The morning’s breakfast table was alight with the tales and contagious excitement of the previous evening. From now on, it was all in—none of us would make that mistake again.  
Back to Day 5. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: Moving to South Coast
Iceland Days 3 & 4: A slow build to Snaefellsnes

Iceland Days 3 & 4: A slow build to Snaefellsnes

Day 3: Sheltered in Vogar

The storm arrived. Northwest winds of up to 50 m/s (about 110 mph) shut down roads and local gusts pummeled the hotel window. We decided today’s Vogar adventure consisted of a walk to a convenience store and then waiting for the nice folks at Gamla Pósthúsið to open for dinner. I highly recommend this unassuming, excellent dinner house; it is perfectly located across the quiet street fronting Hotel Vogar.

The driving rain paused only for a few moments, here and there, during the day. In mid-afternoon, as the grey light faded, I walked the harbor and the few residential streets. As I packed and re-packed my gear, charged batteries, and cleaned lenses, I had growing concerns about how the storms would affect our workshop plans. Did all the participants arrive? Would the one highway to Snaefellsnes be open tomorrow?

Thor emailed a few times during the day, strategizing about how we would meet up in the morning. I had the rental car and planned to return to the airport to join anyone arriving on morning flights. It seemed a few participants, if their flights made it, where staying tonight at a guesthouse near the airport in Keflavik, and maybe some were already in Reykjavik. But nothing to do now but wait out the storm. There was plenty of beer across the street.

Day 4: The Sheep go to Snaefellsnes

Iceland in winter is not as cold as most people think. This is especially true, I think, on the south coast where the relatively warm Gulf Stream moderates things. Always seemed like a high of 2° and a low 0f -1° (that’s Celsius, by the way); not really any more variability than that. Certainly not as cold as western Nevada. However, the windchills get absolutely crunchy cold. And today, Iceland’s first winter storm of 2018-2019 dished it out.

But no worries, Thor and Nick were on schedule (via email) and I left Bill to head to the airport for the workshop’s opening rendezvous—Bill flies back to the States later in the day. Returning the rental was easy and after the usual forensic check for dings and scratches—Iceland roads can be rough on rentals, and the final inspections are clinical, I was back in the terminal and wandering like any other newly arrived photo-tourist. The arrivals area isn’t that big and I quickly noticed a couple guys sitting with tripods and sporting that experienced backcountry look. Robert, Jeremy, and I loiter near the exits. “Where ya from?” “Been on any other workshops?” The early banter of a growing team. Quinn arrives. And soon Thor is there with the van. Spot-on, on-time.

We have a couple stops to make. A guesthouse in Keflavik where Erno, Randy, Mike, and Ian loaded in. Nick, to his and our relief, appeared just about human and had commandeered Thor’s smaller 4×4 Nissan. Into Reykjavik downtown where Cindy and Ken seemed to wait on random street-corners. That was it. Now we were ten sheep and two wolves, as Thor immediately clarified the taxonomic workshop hierarchy. The captive barnyard of new friends turned into the storm.

The plan was to drive toward the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the western region. The benefit of having Thor, our native Icelandic co-leader, was readily apparent. He can call friends at the road service and has mobile connection to several obscure but locally significant weather assets. He contacts the night’s hotel and gets conditions on their porch, nothing lost in translation. On Iceland’s ring road heading west, scudding clouds blocked the horizon and our van leaned into the wind. We took a lunch break at a truck stop where the burger and sandwich selections had names of US cities. Do I order the Reno?

As we traveled along the southern coast of Snaefellsnes, with the ocean curtained by blowing snow and low clouds, the volcanic scarps of the sudden mountain-fronts reminded me of the northern Basin and Range. In the stormy twilight, the dispersed groups of small buildings could be mistaken for Oreana or Beowawe, Nevada. Tan pastures and haybales, mossy lava flows skiffed in snow, black, stratified uplifts backing every winter scene—it did not seem too far from home. But as darkness of the afternoon lowered, the storm intensified; this wind and driven snow had teeth that where somehow sharper than any Great Basin gale. The stout 4×4 Sprinter rocked and drove forward.

We passed occasional structures that slowly transformed into cold, blue-white drifts. They looked abandoned for the season, or maybe forever. In a momentary lull, our leaders, communicating by two-way radio, thought maybe we had a location worth shooting. With that suggestion made, however, a white-out gust blocked any forward movement. We turned around. The once-talkative van was silent.

None of us had any notion of our next move. Where was the guesthouse? Was there lodging available now that we turned back? But after a very few minutes, Thor steered us into the driveway of a lonely cluster of buildings shrouded in blowing snow. A thick frosty rime had developed on the simply gabled structure. “We here,” Thor exclaimed. “Everyone out.” A door on the encrusted building cracked open as bright light streamed out, and our eyes began to focus on a lengthy, low-slung guesthouse, one that looked nicely warm on the inside. Langaholt.

Walking ice after dark, Langaholt Lagoon. 

Langaholt Evening. Difficult conditions for hand-held photography, but I needed the walk.

Closing the Veil. The mountains of Snaefellsness at Langaholt.

We settled in for the night—a good time for introductions around dinner and beer. The roads were all closed now. We’d beat the storm to Langaholt, but would it allow us a sunrise tomorrow?

Back to Day 2. Click here for Iceland 2018 Gallery. Up next: The Light Begins…