Jed Appelrouth

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Iceland

February 23- March 2, 2014

December 15, 2013 while taking an internet break from my PhD writing, after viewing dozens of engaging cat videos, I came across this quote: "With NASA scientists predicting that an 11-year cycle of solar activity will peak this winter, for the first few months of 2014 the Northern Lights are expected to put on their most spectacular display for the next decade." I did the quick calculus….go now or wait until 2025…. Within 30 seconds I had emailed Larry Golson, my Ashevillian world travelling companion: "Trip to Iceland?" Within weeks we had booked the trip.

We decided to go the last week of February to coincide with the new moon, so the lights, if we would have the good fortune to see them, would have less competition for the dominion of the night sky. Larry invited his optometric mentor and close friend, Mark Hinton, who travelled with us to Morocco in 2011, to join the expedition.

We were warned by several travelers and one friend-of-a-friend who had lived in Iceland, that we shouldn't hinge our entire vacation upon seeing the northern lights, for all too frequently, the lights simply don't show up. First you need coronal mass ejections, gargantuan solar flares that launch charged solar particles towards the magnetic poles of our planet. Then you need clear skies, which are not always easy to find given Iceland's rapidly changing climate. If you have the ions, clear skies, the absence of a full moon or city lights, then you have the necessary ingredients to see the dazzling greens, yellows, reds and blues that result when the charged particles complete their 93,000,000 mile journey from the sun. My friend who most recently travelled to Iceland in the winter spent a week in near-blizzard conditions and saw nothing but cloud-covered skies. We knew this was a crap shoot, but if this was our best chance in a decade, we had to take our shot.

From our various points of departure, Mark, Larry and I flew into Keflavik international airport Monday morning, and met up with impeccable timing in the customs line. We dealt with Larry's lost luggage (4 connections proved to be one too many), shuttled to Sixt to pick up our 4WD Mitsubishi Pajero and hit the road for Reykjavik. The sun was slow to rise, taking several hours to fully awaken and illuminate a barren and treeless landscape: rolling white hills in the distance, glinting patches of ice on the side of the road, and cross-patterned ribbon clouds hanging low in the sky.

Reykjavik

Arriving in Reykjavik, we found our way to the frozen Turen pools, the shores of which were dotted with colorful Scandinavian A-frame houses. We checked in to our city apartments, grabbed a hearty breakfast and took a much needed nap to help us recover from a sleepless red-eye flight from the States. That afternoon we made our way through a windy city to the celebrated Baejarins beztu hot dog stand by the pier. We each grabbed a dog with everything; the fried onions and funky sauce really brought it all together. To escape the blistering wind, we took shelter in a downtown coffee shop where we spent the afternoon poring over travel books, finalizing our travel plans, and watching the bundled denizens of Reykjavik make their way through the downtown streets.

Our dinner destination, The Grill Restaurant, was thrice recommended by friends who had visited or lived in Iceland. The prices were noticeably high, but when you factor in that tax and tip are already included, the $18 cocktails seem marginally more reasonable. The restaurant itself was beautifully designed with materials from across the island: giant walls of vertically cut stone from the south, basaltic lava rock lamps hanging from thin wires over wooden tables, walls of stretched, speckled cod-skin, back-lit to create an amber ambient light. The downstairs bar, where we finished out the evening, was particularly stunning.

Tuesday morning I started the day with my first Icelandic shower and was fascinated by the distinct types of water emerging from the hot and cold taps. Cool water comes from the glacier-fed mountain springs and is some of the cleanest and purest on the planet. As you shifted to the hot side of the tap, the water turns sulfury and slick to the touch, mined from the deep geothermal pools of this highly volcanic region; the hot water that heated our showers was the same that powers the steam turbines which generate 99% of Iceland's electrical needs.

Tuesday afternoon Mark and Larry headed downtown, while I took some time to explore the outskirts of the city. I walked down to the frozen pools of Turen and was inspired by the students casually traversing the ice. I tiptoed my way onto the frozen surface before I got comfortable enough to begin sliding/skating around in my hiking boots. I watched a young couple playing with Bella, an overly exuberant ice-skating terrier. Swan-struck, Bella chased a bevy of waddling swans, furiously accelerating as she approached the group. The swans took flight, at which point Bella slid straight into the only exposed patch of pond that was not iced-over. Pond-dunked, and dripping, Bella seemed unphased, and hurriedly returned to play anew with her owners. I watched as they threw hunks of bread to the swans and geese, and every now and again Bella would have an itch and bolt again towards the birds, to the chagrin and distressed cries of her owners.

Golden Circle and Seljalandsfoss

Wednesday morning we packed the car and embarked on the tourist-laden route known as the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle consists of a visit to Thingvellir National Park, the Haukadalur thermal region with its well-timed Strokkur geyser, and the giant, ice-crusted Gulfoss waterfall. Apart from Strokkur, the Golden Circle was largely underwhelming, and we quickly made our way south. Around 4:00 PM we arrived at Seljalandsfoss, the beautiful arcing waterfall, one of the most photographed spots in all of Iceland. I had seen a photograph of a stunning sunset view above the falls, and Larry and I decided to find a passageway up, above the tourists and tour buses that littered the base of the falls.

Through fields, over fences and barbed wire, we found our way up to the top of the plateau and began to hike through golden pastures as we made our way towards the falls. Our first true obstacle was an icy mountain stream, without a clear path across. I took off my hiking boots and socks and waded barefoot to the other side. This system worked fairly well. The second obstacle was a greater challenge, the much larger stream that fed the waterfall itself. Once again I took off my boots and socks, rolled up my jeans and prepared to ford the stream. A bit unsure of my footing, and worried about holding my boots and my camera, I decided to toss my boots to the other side of the stream.

Decent idea. Terrible execution. I tossed my first hiking boot across the river, way atop the embankment. It lands, and then, as if in slow motion, immediately begins to roll back down the hill- ( NO!!!!!) and splash- falls directly into the flowing water. I'm stunned as I watch the boot begin to float down the river towards the falls. Larry snaps me out of my daze, "Get in there!" That wakes me up, and I jump into the icy river- getting soaked up to my waist as I chase the wayward boot. In the end, I retrieved the boot and made it across, but I was soaked, wearing soggy jeans, with a sopping wet hiking boot, in near freezing temperatures.

Despite my sogginess, we carried on and finally arrived at the vista atop the falls with the beautiful view of the valley below. After taking several photos, we found a much easier path down from the falls, met up with Mark, and headed to Hotel Anna, our destination for the night.

We settled into the hotel, and the host was gracious enough to throw my jeans in the dryer. I placed my boot and socks atop the radiator, which dried them out nicely by the following morning. Before dinner, we had time to converse with Nigel, the British astronomer who would play a pivotal role in our trip, and his English girlfriend. With Nigel we jumped immediately into shop talk, the primary topic for astronomers and photographers in Iceland in February — the hunt for the Northern Lights.

For weeks we had been diligently tracking the activity of the aurora borealis on the website: http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/Europe/2014/02/26. We were well aware that a major solar flare had taken place February 25th, and the ions were rapidly heading to earth! The charged particles would arrive over a span of several days, starting with that very night! Nigel gave us tips on how to photograph the lights and where to set up. After dinner Mark, Larry and I headed out to find darkness and a decent foreground.

Larry was the first to spot the aurora. Initially the lights appeared like a stationary spotlight hovering in the sky. In this state, the colors did not fully reveal themselves without a 10 to 30-second camera exposure. But as the ionic activity picked up, the light visibly changed from milky white to neon green. Soon we watched this massive green light snaking its way across the sky. This was incredibly exciting! We had hit the jackpot! High fives were given; congratulatory remarks were exchanged. We spent most of that night, from 9:30 pm to nearly 2:00 am driving around looking for solid foregrounds—mountains, barns, trees— to play against the shifting lights. With the freezing temps and gusts of wind, we migrated in and out of the car to take advantage of the heater. I had purchased a 10-pack of glove warmers which came in quite handy on this trip!

Skaftafell to Jokulsarlon

Thursday morning we ate breakfast at Hotel Anna, where a traveling American couple passed on a highly valuable piece of information. They had managed to book a last-minute tour of the Crystal Cave- a journey inside the belly of a glacier- with a local guide named Thor. I had read that the Crystal Cave was one of Iceland's most spectacular natural phenomena, and I had been unsuccessfully calling and emailing and facebook messaging every tour operator that runs tours into the Cave. Every company was booked solid. But apparently there was one rogue operator who could potentially help us, and Thor was his name.

Thor was a capitalist and was willing to get creative to maximize revenue in the high season. He'd pack in extra people into his van or even add on a whole new tour to make it work. "But how do we find Thor?” we asked the Americans. Go to the Jokulsarlon parking lot, and look for a gargantuan blonde Viking type in his late 20s driving a big van with a boot painted on the side. Most likely he will be drinking coffee.

We knew that the day was ours, but we had to end up at Jokulsarlon in time to connect with Thor and beg him for a tour. With our battle plans set, we packed the car and headed East along the Icelandic Ring-Road. We were surprised how rich the light was, and how unusually long the shadows were at all times of the day, given the sun's humble arc in the sky. We stopped regularly to shoot photographs of the surrounding hills, icy expanses, glaciers, weathered barns, and the surreal white and black landscape that typifies southern Iceland in the heart of winter.

We arrived at Jokulsarlon's parking lot and began to search for a blonde Viking or a van with a painted boot. We didn't find Thor's van, but we did see another van with an ice-cave logo. We walked over to those guides and inquired about Thor. We learned that Thor had left for a tour at 4:00 PM and would be returning around 6:00 pm.

With time to spare, we drove over to the black basalt beach, just across from the glacier lagoon, that was littered with the sparkling remnants of glaciers. We watched the giant pieces of ice flopping about in the surf like beached marine animals. I kept thinking about something I had heard earlier that day: water evaporates from the ocean and finds its way into the clouds. From there it descends to the earth as snow, becomes condensed in the form of a glacier, and spends 100,000 years on its return trip to the sea. With that in mind, I couldn't help but personify these pieces of ice, particularly one lion-like chunk of blue, as I imagined it returning from its 100,000-year journey to merge again with the sea.

After walking the beach for nearly an hour, we returned to the Jokulsarlon parking lot and patiently awaited Thor's return. Rest assured, the linguistic pleasures of Jokulsarlon were not lost on our language-corrupting crew. Jokulsarlon quickly morphed into Joe Carlson and eventually the more formal Joseph Carlson. Along with its wonderful name, Jokulsarlon, literally meaning "glacier lagoon”, had been described by a nature photographer as the single best place in all of Iceland to photograph the northern lights.

As darkness fell, we watched Thor's van pull into the parking lot. I approached Thor once he had unloaded all the participants of his 4:00 pm tour and inquired whether it would be humanly possible for us to join him on a tour the next day. Thor worked his Viking magic and found three spaces for us on Friday's 4:00 tour! We were excited. And we were also tired, having stayed up most of the night before, chasing green lights. We drove back to the Fosshotel Skaftafell to grab dinner and take a much needed nap before the night's activities were to begin again.

The Epic Night

In the dining room of the hotel, we were pleasantly surprised to find that Nigel, our British astronomer friend, and his girlfriend had moved with us from Hotel Anna to Skaftafell. I was so tired that I could barely eat, so I headed back to the room to get a head start on my nap. I hadn't even started to unpack my bag when Larry busted in and announced: "It's starting! And it's epic!” Minutes before, during dinner, Nigel had told Larry and Mark that his magnetometer was suddenly spiking off the charts. The aurora was going to be tremendous, and it wasn't going to wait until 9:30; it was happening right now!

Dropping any notions of a nap, we packed into the car and hit the road in a hurry. Larry had been driving all day, and was as knackered as I was, so I took the wheel. As we were driving, Larry and Mark started going bonkers looking at the window. I kept my eyes glued to road as I tried to keep the Pajero centered, as gusts of wind kept pushing the car around. In record time, we pulled into the Jokulsarlon parking lot.

Once I had parked the car and pried my fingers from the steering wheel, I had the chance to look up to the heavens and see what Mark and Larry had been yelling about during the ride. One glimpse, and Dear Lord!!! Larry and I started yelling and shaking each other. This was completely surreal. The entire sky was aflame with reds and greens—from the mountains to the sea—lit up like a roman candle. This display was so powerful it was visible in London and farther south in Europe and in the US.

We frantically ran to set up our cameras and capture this display. We had no idea how long it would last, or if the intensity would fade. The first hour of the show was unbelievable, and then it eventually began to wane. We positioned ourselves at different places on the hill—moving around to capture different angles—as we listened to seals swimming and snorting in the glacial bay. Perhaps they too were enjoying the show!

By 10:30, the spectacle was winding down. We had seen the fireworks, and we were ready to head home. En route to the hotel, we stopped several more times to photograph the lights, which were simply too impressive to ignore.

Crystal Cave Tour

Friday morning we hiked around Skaftafell Park where we found a beautiful waterfall made of striated stones pouring into a giant bed of ice. After Skaftafell I spent another hour photographing the glacier while Larry and Mark grabbed some coffee. By late afternoon we headed back to the glacier lagoon to meet up with Thor. As we approached Jokulsarlon, the wind increased in intensity and we watched as 12-foot breakers crashed on the ice-covered beach.

Once we loaded up the van, Thor drove to the entrance of the crystal cave at the base of a giant glacier. In summer this cave would be flowing with glacier melt-off, but in February it was relatively dry and safe for us to enter. We spent an hour-and-a-half taking pictures in the cave as we admired the deep blue ice in all its twists, turns and textures. The shapes and textures of the ice reminded me of Antelope Canyon in Arizona- where the force of water molded stone in a very similar fashion. Lao Tzu was right: the way of water will always triumph in the end! Once we stepped out of the cave, we were struck both by the pristine beauty of the snow-covered mountains and equally by the 30-40 mph winds which ripped right into us. We could not wait to give Thor our helmets and get back into the van.

In the parking lot, as we paid Thor for our tour, one of our tour-mates went to his car and came back with a $2,000 quad-copter drone with a portable digital camera. On his i-phone, he showed off some of the crazy aerial shots he had recently taken. Then he proceeded to launch the whirring drone hundreds of feet in the air and showed us an aerial view of the lagoon on his iPhone. Pretty amazing stuff!

Knowing we had a solid 4-hour drive ahead of us en route to Reykjavik, Larry was pressing the pedal to the metal to help us make good time on those desolate roads. Unfortunately, the state troopers had anticipated tourists like us and were waiting in the dark with radars blazing and lights flashing. We had to make a small detour to a local police headquarters, and the cops politely asked Larry to refrain from driving in Iceland for the remainder of the year. I would be our designated driver for the remainder of the trip. As we approached the capital city, we pulled over on several occasions to shoot the aurora, which was blazing for the third night in a row. We arrive in Reyk around 12:30pm and found the fabulous Rey apartments, where Larry's bag was waiting for him.

Snaefellsnes and the night of holy lights

Saturday we grabbed a delectable brunch at the Trip Advisor-top rated Sjavargrillid (Seafood Grill). Carpaccio and Salmon appetizers, Oden's Salad, Linke fish, Arctic Char, Fresh Cod all presented beautifully and seasoned to perfection. This was our best meal of the trip. Following our gustatory extravaganza, we packed up and headed to Snaefellsnes, a volcanic peninsula northwest of Reykjavik. The south-side of the island, with itsmiles and miles of lava fields, was exposed to a crushing wind. As we rounded the western edge of the peninsula, the landscape shifted from black basalt to white snow and ice, and the wind thankfully subsided. We pulled off the side of the road and moseyed our way into a pasture filled with hearty Icelandic horses and a well-worn barn.

Hungry, with hours to go until our final dinner in Reykjavik, we stopped in a small fishing village, Grundarfjordur, where we found a restaurant filled with locals who were fixated on a British Premier League soccer match: Southampton versus Liverpool. Slightly out of place among the locals, we ordered some snacks to tide us over until dinner. I was startled when I received my bowl of chicken soup, which was served with a cream and tomato base. These Icelanders need a trip to a NY deli, stat!

As the sun faded behind the clouds, we took some final shots of the fjords, volcanic mountains rolling gently into the sea. In the darkness, absent good road signs, we became turned around and headed down a long and winding dirt road. We lost an hour or so in the process, and realized we were bound to miss our dinner reservation in Reykjavik. We were bummed. But not for long. That delay was the blessing of the trip, for it kept us outside of the Reykjavik light pollution long enough to settle in for a front row seat to the most intense light show any of us have ever seen.

Saturday night was particularly cold, freezing actually. I had my hat, my gloves, my glove warmers, my ski jacket, and still I was far from comfortable. The wind was blowing so hard it knocked Larry's tripod over, twice. I gripped my camera gear tightly, trying to protect the hardware and prevent camera shake, if I could.

The aurora B. started slowly with some gentle lights arcing across the sky, but the intensity increased and increased. Suddenly the brightest lights we had seen were erupting into the sky, twisting and turning before our eyes. It was utterly surreal. As the sky started to change, with the wind howling, I was simply overwhelmed by the scene. Colors were leaping off of the mountain in these brilliant configurations. Lights shot up to the heavens like angels. The sky was a living organism. I imagined the hand of god coming down and painting directly onto the sky. I stood by the side of the road, wind-blown, mind-shattered, screaming expletives at the night sky.

Eventually I simply put the camera down and just watched as the lights weaved their way across the night sky, undulating, spiking towards the heavens. Later I would discover that at some point during all the excitement, I must have shifted the focus ring on my camera away from the infinity bar, rendering most of these final images completely blurry. But I will personally never, in all my life, forget that vision which is etched in Technicolor in my memory. A still photograph wouldn't be able to capture even a fraction of the experience of a full sky coming to life like that. It was too big of an experience, too dynamic of an experience, to capture in a single still frame.

Just as they had begun, not an hour earlier, the lights began to fade; the sky returned to its usual quiescent state. After all that yelling, and ferocious wind, and insane beauty, I felt spiritually refreshed, though a bit emotionally exhausted. We drove the rest of the way back to Reykjavik and had a few slices of pizza to help ground us back in mundane reality.

The next morning, after breakfast, we headed towards Keflavik and stopped for a dip in the ultimate tourist-haven: the Blue Lagoon. Windy with temps in the thirties, it was way too cold to enjoy the Lagoon. We had to continually dunk our heads under the water to stay warm. Lunch at Lava was tasty, and then we headed to Keflavik, dropped the car, and headed home.

I've seen some beautiful things in my time on this rock, but the lights were the most stunning natural phenomenon I've ever seen. Now that I'm home I find myself looking up at the sky and wondering if it's going to wake up and show off again. Blue… blue is easy….show me some green, some red, some orange! Well, it took 38 years to see the colors the first time, and I hope it won't take 38 years to see them again.

For anyone with a remote inclination to chase the Northern Lights, Go for it! If you catch them, it will be worth all the effort. Thanks for following along.

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