NATURE’S ART ON DISPLAY IN ICELAND
LIKE VISITING A HUGE GALLERY, SPREAD OVER AN ENTIRE COUNTRY
Writer and photographer Glenn V. Ostle travels to Iceland in winter to capture its frozen beauty through his lens. From icy rivers and waterfalls to dancing skies, this European island nation surprises with its own version of winter wonderland.
When it comes to creating breathtaking works of art, it is hard to beat Mother Nature. And few places are more proof of that than the tiny island country of Iceland.
When my partner, Pam, and I told our friends that we were off to photograph on an island, we could see the envy in their eyes as they envisioned us escaping the cold winds of February, to a place with sun, sand and drinks with tiny umbrellas. But when we said the island was Iceland and temperatures would hover well below freezing most days, we could see them mentally revising their opinion of our decision.
As photographers, our preference has always been for subjects that are under water or in the wild. We had never given much thought to photographing landscapes in Iceland, and certainly not in winter. But as we had a trip to Scandinavia planned, we thought a halfway stop would make sense, so we signed on for a 10-day photo workshop to visit some of Iceland’s most spectacular natural wonders.
Situated in the middle of the Atlantic just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland straddles a major seam between the European and North American tectonic plates. The size of Ohio, it is the second-largest island in Europe after Britain, yet has only about 345,000 people, many of whom are descendants of Norsemen and Vikings who came to the island beginning around A.D. 800.
After a quick five-hour flight on Icelandair from Washington Dulles, we landed in the capital of Reykjavík, a sophisticated city founded in A.D. 874 and home to about two-thirds of the entire country’s population. It has an active nightlife, and displays a wealth of literature, music and art based heavily on the country’s Nordic roots, replete with myths of elves, ghosts and trolls.
Reykjavík is also conveniently situated on the southwestern coast, within close reach of some of Iceland’s most spectacular natural sights. One of the most popular is the 186-mile Golden Circle drive that features the impressive Gullfoss waterfall.
During dinner our first night, we met our fellow photographers—an international bunch hailing from places including Singapore, Taiwan, France and Israel as well as the United States—and met our tour guide, Skarpi Thrainsson. He owns Arctic Exposures, which specializes in photographic tours.
Skarpi, an exceptional photographer in his own right, provided an overview of the trip. It would begin with us leaving early the following morning and traveling east along the coastline Ring Road, eventually circling the island in a counterclockwise fashion. He said we had come to Iceland at an excellent time because winter was one of the best times t o photograph—as long as we were up to the challenges.
Although Iceland’s summer attractions are many, from glorious waterfalls to cute-as-a-button puffins nesting and feeding along high cliffs, the addition of snow brings a new dimension to the land. Vistas that can appear muted during summer, in winter are trimmed in white—as if by an artist’s brush—as snow settles in nooks and crannies of the soaring mountains and covers homes with a thick blanket.
One distinct challenge to photographing in winter is the cold. It means heavy, waterproof clothing, spiked crampons for walking on slick ice, and gloves that must keep hands from freezing while being flexible enough to work camera controls. To deal with icy conditions, we would travel aboard a specially designed off-road vehicle. Upon seeing it the first time, with its 46-inch studded tires and beefy, jacked-up carriage capable of carrying 17 photographers and their gear, the group quickly dubbed it the “Vikingmobile.”
We quickly discovered how unpredictable Iceland’s winter can be. Some roads were unexpectedly closed, and high winds and icy conditions occasionally prevented us from getting to some sites. But we persevered and, as Skarpi promised, the rewards were worth it: Every bend in the road seemed to reveal another breathtaking landscape crying out to be photographed.
Snow-capped mountains seemed to surround the entire country, framing a palette of stunning waterfalls, vast glaciers, ice caverns, and high fiords where cliffs tower over the Norwegian Sea. In contrast, other parts of Iceland bubble with geothermal activity, complete with volcanoes, geysers, steaming hot springs, lava fields, and rock vents that spew superheated steam. It is easy to understand why Iceland is often described as a country of fire and ice.
A Rough Start
Our first stop turned out to be inauspicious and gave us a taste of the type of weather we could expect. As we carried our gear down to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach to photograph basalt columns that rise from the ocean like sentries just off shore, the weather turned ugly. In the face of quickly worsening conditions, our group decided to call it a day and returned to the vehicle in a somewhat subdued mood.
The iconic black church known as Búðakirkja, located on the south coast of Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Below: Water from the Skjálfandafljót River cascades down 40 feet over the 100-foot-wide Goðafoss waterfall, or “waterfall of the gods.”
Tour guide Skarpi Thrainsson hikes up Svínafellsjökull glacier, which serves as “north of the wall” in the T V series GameofThrones.