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Inside the Volcano

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After hiking through a field of lava, donning a helmet and harness, and climbing to the top of a perfectly conical volcanic crater, we gathered our courage and stepped onto a cable lift… the kind normally used to wash the windows of skyscrapers. Then we were lowered four hundred feet underground into the magma chamber of a long dormant volcano. A little scary, but visiting Þrihnúkagígur was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we couldn’t resist.

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The Þrihnúkagígur (“Three Peaks”) volcano southeast of Reykjavík has lain dormant for over 4000 years, but it wasn’t until 1974 that a team of local adventurers led by Árni Stefánsson discovered the cavern which is accessible through the mouth of one of the craters. Here was a perfect magma chamber, without any of the magma. Immediately recognizing it as a place unique in the world, Árni labored for years to open the volcano to tourism, finally succeeding in 2012.

Tours inside the volcano are run exclusively by 3H Travel. A bus picked us up in Reykjavík and brought us to the Blafjoll Mountain Ski Resort. From here it was an hour-long hike over a lava field to the camp at the foot of Þrihnúkagígur, where we met the team, examined diagrams of the magma chamber and played with an injured arctic fox cub that had taken refuge there.

Although it doesn’t look like much from the base camp, the underground dimensions of Þrihnúkagígur are impressive. It’s spacious enough to comfortably fit the Statue of Liberty and taller than Reykjavík’s Hallgrímskirkja. But these are just facts and figures; we weren’t able to truly comprehend the volcano’s size until being lowered into it.

Þrihnúkagígur is unique in that it has managed to retain its conical shape even after the release of its magma. Scientists believe this is because the magma drained out the bottom, instead of exploding out the top… “It’s like somebody came and pulled the plug,” said Haraldur Sigurdsson, the volcanologist who founded Stykkishólmur’s volcano museum. The lift takes about seven minutes to reach the floor, and the tour allows a half-hour to explore, before the ride back up.

It’s an amazing feeling, crawling around the jagged rock, peering up at the tiny crater now 400 feet overhead, feeling the walls which have been either scorched black by the lava’s heat, or are still vividly colored by the earth’s minerals… yellow, red, orange. It’s exactly how you always thought the interior of a volcano might look, and the experience of simply being there is unforgettable.

There’s no denying that at 37,000kr ($310) apiece, the tour is prohibitively expensive. But turning people off is partially the point, since this is the kind of operation that simply can’t support large numbers. Still, after you’ve paid $310, driven an hour out of Reykjavík, hiked an hour, and then waited at camp for your turn, it’s a little frustrating to have only 30 minutes inside the chamber.

But this is a petty gripe. In the grand scheme of things, these were probably the only 30 minutes I’ll ever spend inside an actual volcano. Overall, it’s an experience we can’t recommend enough.

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September 16, 2013 at 1:47 pm Comment (1)

Snorkeling at the Silfra Fissure

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Floating on your stomach in near-freezing water is normally an experience one has only after being murdered by the Mafia. But in the right circumstances, it can be enjoyable. When you’re alive, for instance, and looking through crystal clear glacial water at the Silfra Fissure.

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All the underwater shots in this post are courtesy of Dive.is

As the North American and European tectonic plates drift away from each other, Iceland is being stretched apart. The island is growing at two to three centimeters a year, and the rift valley near Þingvellir provides an incredible view of tectonic motion in action. Silfra is just one of the many fissures in the valley. Deep and narrow, it’s filled with glacial water that’s been filtered through miles of volcanic rock, and is of absolute purity.

We went on a Silfra snorkeling excursion with the folks from Dive.is, and had an amazing time. I had been worried about getting into such freezing water (around 2°C / 35°F), but we were wearing drysuits which kept the cold out and the warmth in. After driving to the site and suiting up, we hopped into the water. In addition to keeping you dry, the suits also keep you bobbing on the surface, making it easy to float… or rather, impossible not to. We popped the snorkels in our mouths, flipped onto our stomachs, and the show began.

What a show it was. Silfra is heralded as one of the best freshwater dive sites in the world, thanks to the flawless visibility of its water. Even though the sky was a bit overcast, the rift was colored a rich, dark blue, and we could see clearly for hundreds of feet, as we floated with the current. The initial section was fairly shallow, but then we entered into Silfra’s “Cathedral”: a chamber over 60 feet in depth and about 300 feet wide, ringed in by walls of lava. It’s breathtaking… especially when your breaths are being taken through a snorkel tube.

Dive.is provided a top-notch experience. We had an excellent guide and the equipment was flawless. The company also offers diving excursions into the fissure, which I would have loved to do. Snorkeling was nice and, considering the water’s perfect clarity, might even offer the better views, but scuba diving into the rift between two continents must be an amazing adventure.

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August 3, 2013 at 1:25 pm Comments (9)

Jökulsárlón: The Glacial Lagoon

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Our first excursion out of Reykjavík was a day trip to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon on the country’s southeast coast. With its powder blue icebergs floating, bobbing and flipping atop the water’s surface, Jökulsárlón has become one of Iceland’s most famous sights. Justifiably so.

Jökulsárlón

Our trip to Jökulsárlón was organized by Iceland Guided Tours, a company based in the heart of Reykjavík which concentrates on the southern coast and the capital area. The drive out to the lagoon was long, about five hours, so it was nice to be traveling with a knowledgeable guide who could point out geographical features along the way and answer any questions we had.

Jökulsárlón’s icebergs are supplied by the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, which looks unfathomably huge looming behind the lagoon, but is actually just a small part of the much larger Vatnajökull Glacier. Although it’s been retreating since the late 19th century, Vatnajökull still covers 8% of Iceland and is Europe’s largest glacier.

As Breiðamerkurjökull shrinks, giant chunks of ice break off and tumble down into Jökulsárlón, where they float listlessly about the water’s surface. By a quirk of nature, the icebergs don’t melt, nor does the lagoon freeze over. This is because a natural river connecting Jökulsárlón to the Atlantic creates a mixture of salt and fresh water; cool enough to keep the ice mostly intact, but salty enough to prevent the water from freezing. Eventually, the icebergs do melt away, but the process can take years.

Boat Tour Jökulsárlón

The view of the lagoon is spectacular from the coast, but a reasonably-priced boat tour can provide a close-up look. The icebergs come in a variety of styles, from white streaked with charcoal-black soot, to crystal-clear formations resembling glass, to gorgeous chunks of powder-blue. The colors vary in accordance with the age of the ice, and where on the glacier it originated. The most dazzling are those formed of the densest, oldest ice; blue is the only color in the spectrum which water doesn’t absorb, which means that the most compressed ice has the bluest hue.

A completely unique location, Jökulsárlón has proven irresistible to filmmakers, appearing in movies like Tomb Raider and Batman Begins. Most spectacular was its appearance in Die Another Day, the otherwise awful 2002 Bond flick. At an enormous expense, and for less than a minute of footage, the filmmakers blocked off the river for months, preventing salt water from reaching the lagoon which caused it to freeze over.

Across from Jökulsárlón, where the river empties into the ocean, there’s a black-sand beach which is also worth a look. Here, some smaller ice chunks have floated down the river and come to rest on the sand. Also nearby, though only accessible with your own transportation, is a second glacial lagoon called Fjallsarlón. It’s less colorful than Jökulsarlon, and lacking access to the ocean, but the glacial flow behind it is even more dramatic.

If you’d like to visit Jökulsárlón, either rent a car or get in touch with the guys at Iceland Guided Tours. It’s a long trip from the capital, but worth the effort. In a country full of unbelievable scenery, this lagoon is among the top highlights.

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July 31, 2013 at 10:24 am Comments (9)
Inside the Volcano After hiking through a field of lava, donning a helmet and harness, and climbing to the top of a perfectly conical volcanic crater, we gathered our courage and stepped onto a cable lift... the kind normally used to wash the windows of skyscrapers. Then we were lowered four hundred feet underground into the magma chamber of a long dormant volcano. A little scary, but visiting Þrihnúkagígur was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we couldn't resist.
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