NA­TURE’S ART ON DIS­PLAY IN ICE­LAND

LIKE VIS­IT­ING A HUGE GALLERY SPREAD OVER AN EN­TIRE COUN­TRY

RSWLiving - - Contents - STORY & PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY GLENN V. OS­TLE

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.

WWhen 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.

Get­ting There

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.

For­tu­nately, af­ter that things picked up.

Af­ter a walk on Sv­inafell­sjökull glacier, the largest in Europe and a tongue of the mas­sive Vat­na­jökull ice cap, we vis­ited an ice cave, a tun­nel lined with sculpted ice formed dur­ing win­ter by wa­ter run­ning through or un­der the glacier. Sv­inafell­sjökull glacier also gained fame af­ter it was se­lected as a lo­ca­tion to rep­re­sent “north of the wall” for the TV series Game of Thrones.

Early one morn­ing we vis­ited Glacier La­goon at Jökul­sár­lón, and a beach un­like any we had ever seen be­fore. Black vol­canic sand was cov­ered with large chunks of ice­bergs that had bro­ken off and washed ashore. It was as if huge jew­els had been strewn across black vel­vet in a gi­ant’s jewelry shop. Many of the icy trea­sures had bril­liant blue cen­ters, the re­sult of be­ing formed un­der tremen­dous pres­sure.

In the north­east part of the coun­try, we spent time in the Mý­vatn area where we vis­ited dark lava fields as well as the thun­der­ing 100-foot-wide Goðafoss wa­ter­fall (“wa­ter­fall of the gods”), which cas­cades four sto­ries. Again, pho­tograph­ing fall­ing wa­ter in freez­ing con­di­tions proved to be a chal­lenge be­cause spray from the falls would freeze upon con­tact with cam­era lenses.

Chas­ing the Danc­ing Lights

One of Ice­land’s most pop­u­lar win­ter attractions is the north­ern lights, which are best viewed from Oc­to­ber through March. They are a ma­jor rea­son why travel to Ice­land is on the rise.

Sci­en­tists ex­plain that the phe­nom­e­non is caused by so­lar winds that push elec­tronic par­ti­cles to col­lide with mol­e­cules of at­mo­spheric gases, cre­at­ing emis­sions of bright light. But to the av­er­age viewer it is sim­ply a mag­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. Green and white lights sway in slow mo­tion across the night sky, grow­ing brighter and of­ten mor­ph­ing to red and blue. Even­tu­ally, the lights seem to tire of the dance and grow weaker and start to dis­ap­pear, only to pop up brightly in an­other place.

Hors­ing Around

One of our fa­vorite photo sub­jects in Ice­land turned out to be one of the last w e would have ex­pected: Driv­ing through the snow-cov­ered coun­try, we would see horses hud­dled in groups. When we stopped, we

We went to Ice­land for the land­scapes but had our hearts cap­tured by the horses.

found that these weren’t just any horses.

Brought to Ice­land by Norse set­tlers in the 9th and 10th cen­turies, the Ice­landic horse is one of the purest breeds in the world and is men­tioned in lit­er­a­ture and his­tor­i­cal records through­out Ice­landic his­tory. They are so pro­tected that Ice­landic law pre­vents any horses be­ing im­ported into the coun­try, and ex­ported an­i­mals are never al­lowed to re­turn.

But it is their ap­pear­ance that makes them such great photo sub­jects. Small in stature—al­though call­ing them “ponies” elic­its an­gry stares from Ice­landers—they make up for it with large per­son­al­i­ties. Ice­landic horses spend all year out­side and have adapted to their en­vi­ron­ment with a dou­ble coat that pro­vides ex­tra in­su­la­tion against the cold. They come in many dif­fer­ent coat col­ors and have full, rich manes and tails of silky hair.

Each time we stopped to ex­am­ine them, the herd would typ­i­cally trot over for a close en­counter. Early one morn­ing we came across a white pair frol­ick­ing in a snow­storm, which was mag­i­cal and akin to watch­ing two leg­endary uni­corns at play. Con­sid­er­ing the many pho­tos taken at each herd stop, it could be said that we went to Ice­land for the land­scapes but had our hearts cap­tured by the horses.

An End Too Soon

As we ap­proached the out­skirts of Reyk­javík, as a group we were dis­ap­pointed that the trip was end­ing. We had seen some e xcep­tional places but uni­ver­sally felt that we had only scratched the sur­face.

Trav­el­ing in Ice­land was like vis­it­ing a huge art gallery, this one spread over an en­tire coun­try. As in any gallery, the light­ing was ex­cep­tional. Skies were of­ten a bril­liant blue. On over­cast days, sun­light fil­tered through clouds pro­duc­ing a warm glow. The sun­rises and sun­sets were spec­tac­u­lar, as were the nights full of danc­ing north­ern lights.

Our trip was at an end, but it had cre­ated in all of us a de­sire to re­turn to photograph what we had missed, in a coun­try that is truly a can­vas for na­ture’s mas­ter­ful art.

Glenn Os­tle and his part­ner, Pam Had­field, live in Char­lotte, North Carolina. They are long­time con­trib­u­tors to TOTI pub­li­ca­tions. More of their pho­tog­ra­phy can be viewed at: featherandfins.smug­mug.com.

The sun­rises and sun­sets were spec­tac­u­lar, as were the nights full of danc­ing north­ern lights.

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.

From the top: A white Ice­landic horse poses for a por­trait; Ice­landic horses of var­i­ous col­ors nuz­zle one an­other ; two white Ice­landic horses frolic in a snow­storm.

Clock­wise: The north­ern lights are one of Ice­land’s most pop­u­lar win­ter attractions; the black vol­canic beach of Glacier La­goon, with chunks of ice­bergs that washed ashore; look­ing out from in­side a cave formed of solid ice in Sví­nafell­sjökull glacier in the Skaftafell Na­ture Re­serve.

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