Thursday, July 7, 2011

What are the chances...?

...that I would run into the only other Fund for Teachers Fellow who was in Iceland at the same time that I was?  Well 100%!  I was in my final hours in Reykjavik walking the streets before I needed to get back to my hotel room to pack up to leave for home the next morning.  You could imagine my surprise when someone stops me in the streets of downtown Reykjavik and says - "you're the Fund for Teachers grant winner from Vermont!"  Well that was exactly what happened when Kristie Long spotted my Fund for Teachers hat and remembered the Facebook post by Fund for Teachers that a Vermont teacher was heading to Iceland a few days before she left.   
Pictured are Chris Shaffer, science teacher from Newport, Vermont, and Kristie Long, mathematics teacher from Houston, Texas.  This picture was taken about 3 minutes after running into each other on the streets in downtown Reykjavik. 
It is amazing how quickly one bonds with another person when they are traveling far away from home and you find someone that is sharing a similar experience as you.  We are both Fund for Teachers grant winners traveling solo to Iceland for over a week.  When we met, it was as if we had known each other for much longer and we spent the next couple of hours walking the streets of Reykjavik talking about our experiences in Iceland.  Kristie is from the Johnston Middle School in Houston, Texas and her grant was to study the geology, history, and culture of Iceland and Greenland and relate these areas to mathematics and the other core subject areas. 

Kristie asked me if I had tried the Greenland shark yet?  I told her no I didn't and that I was willing to try it, but I hadn't gone out of my way to seek some out.  Greenland shark is an Icelandic delicacy that needs to be buried in the sand for 6-12 weeks in order for the toxins that are present when the shark first caught to be pressed out of the body.  Basically if you ate this shark (known as Hákarl) as a "catch of the day", you would get sick (if not die), so instead you have to wait until is has rotted a bit allowing the toxins to exit the shark.  From all of the explanations of this dish, I have yet to find one that has a flattering description.  Ironically, we were in search of this at the local markets while we caught up on each other's trip details.  In a bitter-sweet moment, we were unable to locate any at the two stores that were supposed to have it.

Kristie had a back-up plan to get an iconic Icelandic hotdog (pylsur) from the stand that is mentioned in the travel guides as the best hot dog stand in Iceland.  I have not eaten a hot dog in over 8 years, but I was willing to try one from here (especially considering the alternative options in Iceland - there is always the half sheep's head in which you are supposed to eat the tongue, eyeball and cheek).  It was a good hot dog considering I don't eat them.  Afterwards, we exchanged contact information, said our goodbyes and wished each other luck.

Eating a hot dog at the famous Icelandic hot dog stand in downtown Reykjavik.  Icelanders love their hot dogs - I ran across stands like this one out in remote areas as I traveled through Iceland, but this was my first taste.


Our next    

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Last day in Reykjavik

The lava tube entrance which was a tight fit to say the least.  It required that we took our packs off and passed them down to the first person into the opening.  Then we needed to drop through, feet first, to a ledge and then shimmy down through another hole about 3 feet lower down this one. 
 As I intended from my last post, I wanted to send along some more pictures of my trip into the lava tubes.  The opening was the biggest hurdle to get into the tubes since it required that you shimmy through a hole (that was cleared away - said the guide).  The opening shaft was about 10 feet long, requiring one to reposition themselves half way into it in order to slide all of the way through.  The pictures show the start and finish of this opening. 

This is the other end of that trip through the opening hole.
 Iceland is covered in moss since it likes to grow on this hostile terrain.  Moss seems to grow everywhere and it is doing a better job of growing than most other vegetation here.  Imagine the most plush carpet and thicken it by about 5xs and you will get the feel of walking on this moss.  It makes the hardest of rocks feel soft underfoot.  And it rebounds quite well with light traffic on it (which is what we put it through on our walk down & back to the lava tube). 

The moss was very thick leading down to the lava tube entrance.  We needed to walk across a field of it to get there.  I was hoping this picture would capture the sponginess of the moss. 
After a morning and early afternoon spent with the trip to the lava tubes, I went back to Extreme Iceland to say goodbye and thank you for help with my trip itinerary.  Next, I dropped by my hotel room to get cleaned up and headed to Reykjavik for the last time for dinner, shopping and sightseeing. 

The next morning, (July 3rd), I head out first thing in the morning to fly directly from Keflavik (airport about 45 mins to the west of Reykjavik) to Boston.  From Boston it is a 3.5 hour car trip back home to Vermont where Sarah & the kids are anxiously awaiting my return.

This ship is sailing - my last night in Reykjavik at the Viking ship sculpture along the water front. 
The other side of the camera view would be downtown Reykjavik.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Caving in the Lava Tubes

Today, I was up early to meet a group to go caving in one of the lava tubes just outside the Reykjavik city limits.  It is one of the largest lava fields in Iceland.  Some of the pseudo craters that were formed nearby were excavated for materials during World War II, so good examples were hard to find.  These craters, which are formed when hot lava encounters a wet area (swamp, marsh, small lake), can grow to be quite large in some areas depending on the amount of water and lava mixing.  The escaping gases (in the form of a steam explosion) cause these craters on top of the land.  They can also be referred to as rootless craters. 

In the lava tube taking a break.  Notice the walls and how the rock was melted forming the lava tube.

It was a home coming trip, since I was joined by a family of three from San Diego and a couple from New York City.  A local from Reykjavik also joined our trip to round us out at 8 including the guide Peter.  Interestingly, Peter is a computer software programmer during the week and he helps lead these trips on the weekends when available.  This particular tube was located just up the hill from the Icelandic Glacial water company.  Icelandic Glacial drill down into the earth to extract the water that has peculated into these deep wells. 

After a very bumpy and rough ride up the side of one of the hills, we got out of the van and put on our helmets.  (Maybe we should have had them for the van ride too...)  We grabbed two flashlights (large light and smaller back-up) and then hiked down across a mossy field.  The lava tube opening was about 1/2 mile away.  Basically this spot is where the ground has collapsed exposing the lava tube and giving us an opportunity to enter it. 

After a tight squeeze into the cave, we entered a chamber with large chunks of ice.  These were formed by the cold air entering the cave and freezing the moisture within the cave.  The cave was about 1 degree C and a high humidity.  As we clambered over the rocks that have fallen loose from the ceiling, we were all sweating from the effort and not noticing the cool temperatures. 

The lava tube is dated to be 4,600 years old and at various points you can see the different levels that the lava took as it shaped this tube.  The lava basically moves across the land and the edges of molten rock eventually collapse over forming a tube.  Over many years of sediment deposit and plant growth, the lava tube gets deeper and deeper as the surface rises above it.  This tube we were in was about the size of a subway tunnel, but due to rock fall some areas were no taller than us on our bellies crawling through.  The tunnel ended in a 15m (~ 50 foot) drop, which was said to be where the lava must have taken a different route.  After experiencing complete darkness when we turned off all of our lights, we had lunch at that spot before making our way back out of the lava tube. 
My last afternoon & evening in Iceland will be spent touring and shopping in Reykjavik and readying myself for my trip home tomorrow.  Sorry for not including more pictures, the Internet connection is not allowing me to down load any more pictures.  If I can, I will include some more in my next post...

Back to Reykjavik

This morning, I left the town of Vik and headed about 140 km east to the town of Stokkseyri.  Imagine driving for 2 hours in the pouring rain with heavy winds blowing the car all over the road with the ocean on one side and large fjords/glaciers on the other side.  Now you have my driving experience today. 

View into sea from Vik with an iconic rock structure.
An interesting stop happened along the way today.  It was not fully planned, but I knew I wanted at least a glimpse of the "famous" Eyjafjallajokull that erupted from last year.  This eruption was the fuse that lit my Fund for Teachers proposal idea to go to Iceland.  The eruption happened at a time that I was first teaching plate tectonics to high school students, so I was more aware of the eruption and I incorporated it into a couple of my lessons.  In addition, the ash cloud affected European travel in April and I was paying attention to it for the Boston Marathon.  I was running Boston last year and I had been following the news that some of the European runners were having a very difficult time getting over to the US for the race.  There were many stories and issues that were caused by the ash cloud that poured out of Eyjafjallajokull. 

Farm at the base of Eyjafjallajokull (snow covered in the background).

Today, I got to meet a member of one of the families directly affected by this eruption.  This farm family erected a visitor center complete with pictures and a movie starring their family around the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull.  The daughter of the family told me that her father's friend came as soon as the first eruption struck and asked if he could film from their farm (which was on the south slope of Eyjafjallajokull - the eruption took place on the north slope).  During the course of the couple of months that Eyjafjallajokull was going off, the family needed to evacuate a couple of times.  Their biggest concern was the animals that were being left behind.  These animals needed enough food to survive several days without care in addition to making sure the ash did not come into the barns.

Side of the visitor center for Eyjafjallajokull.

The video that was created was originally supposed to be a private home movie.  After the eruption quieted down, there was still a lot of media attention, so they made the visitor center and included the 20 min video to be shown to the public.  She said to date (just over a year later), they have had over 6 thousand visitors which they keep track of in a log book at the cash register.  Their farm and family are doing fine (probably more than fine with the extra revenue from the visitor center - which was pretty full when I was there.

After that stop, it was straight to Stokkseyri on the shores of Iceland for a sea kayak trip.  It was one of those trips that was billed one way and turned out good, but not as advertised.  We did not end up in the fjords, but instead a sheltered bay along the flats & marshes.  It was fine since I got a chance to find out more about the area because I was the only one on the trip.  Sanni (pronounced like sunny) was my guide and her family have been running these kayak trips since 1995.  They lead trips in the ocean and a nearby lake throughout the summer and then spend most of the winter somewhere other than Iceland.  
Sanni & I dressed and ready for kayaking.
We donned rubberized splash suits, rubber boots, hat and gloves and then walked across town to the boat ramp.  The bay ran about a mile along the shore with a protective barrier of rocks about 400 meters off shore that cut the waves down.  The lava rocks in the bay (souvenirs as Sanni called them) were the result of an eruption from Hekla 35-40 years ago.  We saw an abundance of birds from swans to ducks to terns and then we came across a very curious seal.  This seal would watch us then duck under the water and reappear in another location nearby.  A couple of times, it got too close to us for its comfort and hastily splashed back underwater.  This family runs the kayak trip out of the local swimming pool, so after the kayak I was invited in to use the hot tubs to warm back up.  That was needed after a 40 degree day in the drizzle on the water.

Once I dried off, I headed back to Reykjavik to complete the circle around Iceland!  Tomorrow morning, I head out to Buri Lava Caves for some caving and then I hope to make it over to the geothermal plant for a tour in the afternoon.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Take a hike...on a glacier


Sev our glacier hike guide from Finland
working in Iceland this summer.
After an exciting morning finding puffins, I went to where I was supposed to be in Skaftafell at the glacier hike.  I arrived in Skaftafell to rainy and cold weather - I was starting to get used to this drill.  Luckily, I had a day of dry weather to let my gear dry out.  I met up with my guide, Sev, got fitted with my crampons and picked up an ice axe.  I loaded into a van with Sev and 4 other hikers to be transported the next canyon over.  We were going to this location because the glacial ice was more stable and the weather was typically nicer.  The sun appeared, as if on cue, shortly after we started hiking to the glacier and the ice was easy to navigate with our crampons.
At the base of the glacier falls - and the turn around for our glacier hike.
This is unfortunately my fierce look while wielding an ice axe
 – not very fierce with a smile.  The glacier is covered in ash (grey)
from the Grimvoln eruption in late May. 
We hiked about a mile on dirt trails (deposited by the glacier as it receded) to the edge of the glacier.  At this point, we put on our crampons, climbed a short ladder onto the terminus of the glacier and started our hike.  You will notice in the pictures that the glacier is gray with some white showing through.  The glacier is covered in ash (grey) from the Grimvoln eruption in late May of this year.  It is only a thin layer (I could scrape it free with my ice axe), but enough to take away the white & blue hues.  Most of the ash cloud from the eruption of Grimvoln blew west, but some of the ash came south-east to this area.  The ash fall lasted 2 days in this region, but today if the winds blow hard enough in the lower fields it will kick up some ash into the air. 
Ahhh...the taste of glacial springs water - several hundred (if not thousands) of years in the making.  I am drinking from a side channel overflowing out of the pool behind me.  Normally, you can drink the water anywhere running off of the glacier.  With all of the ash covering the glacier, we needed to drink from large pools like this.  The ash/silt has a chance to settle to the bottom of the pool and the overflow is again fresh glacier water.
 While we walked on the glacier, Sev showed us different features on the glacier.  He was able to tell us about how different features are formed on the glacier and show us various stages of some of these features.  An example of a feature he showed us were moulins, which are vertical shafts in the ice formed by the water flowing into that crack.  He even showed us the one that his cell phone is in from when he was adjusting some gear and it squirted out of his pocket and hole in one.  (Pretty good shot since the hole is pretty small – you would have trouble getting a basketball into it now – and it has been growing for the past month.)

"Glacial mouse" is the term used to describe these moss covered rocks.  The moss spores come from the surrounding hillsides and find a nice exposed rock of the glacier to land on.  As the moss spreads on the rocks, it causes the ice to melt down around the rock giving more area for the moss to grow.  Eventually, the rock will tip over allowing the moss to completely cover the rock...and a glacial mouse is created.

Sev is a lot like probably half of the tourist guides and informational staff that I have met throughout Iceland.  They are not Icelanders, but they have transplanted here during the tourist summer season.  Most of the folks that are not from the area tend to be from Sweden and Austria in my experiences.  I have met folks from all over Europe and one American who is married to an Icelander.  This couple spends the summer half of the year in Iceland and the winter half in the US.  The come to Iceland for the landscape and activities that are unique to them and they are able to enjoy them while getting paid. 

After a night in Vik, I head to Stokkseyri for an ocean kayak through the fjords in that area.  Unfortunately, the weather forecast is looking very wet and cold again, so we’ll see if they are able to run the trip…  Of course, I’ll keep you posted.  J