Big, blond and bearded, our proudly Viking guide, Armann Smarason picked us up from the Akureyrarflugvöllur for our tour of the area around Akureyri, Iceland’s “Northern Capital.” Before he arrived, we ordered a coffee in the airport’s coffee shop. If we had wanted to order anything else, we would have been sorely pressed – kaffi was the only recognizable word on the posted menu. The Icelandic language is indecipherable. It was the first time I understood what it must be like not to be able to read. Although the alphabet is mostly like ours, there are only a few words that have common roots.
When Armann helped us into the spacious SUV, I assumed we must be collecting other customers from lodgings in town, but he informed us Bonnie and I were the only guests.
It was just-spring. Patches of brown earth poked through the snow in the sometimes flat, sometimes undulating, but always-treeless landscape. The raw lunar-like look drew me in, at once forbidding and hypnotic.
“Do you know why this road is in such poor shape?” Armann asked as we hit a stretch of broken asphalt. I’m ripped from my reverie. “It was built by a company from Reykjavík.” He laughs. The northerners and southerners are locked in a friendly antagonism.
We pulled into a parking lot across from a pretty yellow two-storied farmhouse, the first signs of life we had seen in an hour. Our first stop, Goðafoss, is advertised as Iceland’s most beautiful waterfall.
As we walked toward the falls, our guide explained that in the year 1000, Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, a Lawspeaker in Iceland’s legislative assembly decided that Iceland should be Christian, although pagans could practice in private. He was a pagan priest, but Ljósvetningagoði reinforced his decision by throwing his own pagan idols into Goðafoss.
Wooden stakes strung with metal cable marked the pathway to the falls. “Please do not step off the path,” Armann warned. “The spray from the falls makes the surface slippery.”
We had come from 12 weeks in Paris, where Bonnie had been studying art and I had been finishing my writing course. Our city wardrobes were almost warm enough. As we stood admiring the force and beauty of the two horseshoe falls, from behind us, we heard Armann’s voice. “Shit.” We turned. He pointed to a tourist in a red puffer jacket who had stepped over the wire and climbed down the rocks on the far side of the falls to take a photo.
“Hey. Hey. Get back from the edge,” he screamed, but his voice couldn’t compete with the crashing water. He tried again, waving his own bright red-jacketed arms.
“Do you mind if, when we go back to the car, I drive around to the other side? I need to see if I can get this guy. I’m the one who will have to go in and rescue him if he slips.”
What could we say?
Armann’s face was a thundercloud when he returned to the car. Although he gave the tourist a good lecture with the full force of his Viking rage, he said the visitor mostly ignored him.
Of course, his first concern was the man’s safety. Armann is a member of the Search and Rescue team and he wasn’t kidding when he said he would have to save the fellow.
But he’s also an environmentalist. Iceland is fragile. Its sparse vegetation, especially in remote areas can be torn out or trampled by those of us who don’t understand its importance to the health and sustainability of the soil. Footpaths are clearly marked for safety but also for the conservation. I’d like to think that tourists who ignore the paths are unaware that the delicate lichens and other small plants that cling to the rocks and shallow earth need to be protected. Of course, we all want to get the most spectacular photos of Iceland’s incredible landscapes, feel up close the force of their unharnessed waterfalls. But in so doing, we disrespect the natural beauty that drew us to Iceland in the first place. And we disregard our hosts, saying with our behaviours “We know better than you.”
If not for the 2008 banking collapse and the subsequent two-year economic depression, Iceland may not have come to rely on tourism so heavily. But it has. Iceland Air offers free stopovers for travellers flying from Europe to Canada and the States. Currently, it’s cheaper to fly to Iceland from Vancouver than to Toronto. Iceland is the place. And Icelanders welcome our Kronas. To a point. Iceland, like many tourist centres in the world is suffering from too little and too expensive accommodation for the locals who work in hotels, bars and restaurants. It was a complaint we heard over and over when we chatted with servers, hotel workers and guides in Reykjavik. Outside the city, the complaints changed with the region.
We parked at a cafe across the road from Lake Mývatn, a natural beauty created by a volcano 23,000 years ago and surrounded by mountains. Although we had stood for only 30 minutes at Goðafoss, our feet were freezing. While our guide got coffee, we bought Icelandic wool socks.
Armann informed us that, unfortunately, the Lake was currently a film set for Fast and Furious 8 and we weren’t officially allowed to trespass on the lot. But of course, he knew the security guard, and we were permitted to hike up to a ridge above the lake to take in the view.
First, however, we walked through all the vans used for filming. There were huge studded tires lying around and fake Russian army vehicles. The area was a sea of muck.
But from the top of the rise, a magical topography greeted us. Several small craters – geologically, pseudocraters – pocked the landscape. According to Armann – who knew this landscape in so many ways – through schooling, from conducting searches and rescues, and personally from growing up on the land – they were rootless. No lava had ever erupted from them. Snow capped mountains, some pointed, others flat-topped created a spectacular backdrop to the ice-covered lake.
The only blight was the helicopter buzzing over a car chase scene with a Lambourgini, snowmobiles, military jeeps and a tank. That was cool – but what a way to spoil a natural view.
Armann assured us that in order for the film company to use the lake, they had to erase any evidence of being in the area. As well, they agreed to install a proper parking lot so tourists would have a safe place to pull off the highway.
Famous films attract even more tourism. New Zealand is still a magnet for Lord of the Rings fans. In Iceland, other than the Fast and Furious location, you can follow numerous Game of Thrones tours. Lake Mývatn is one of the stops on that tour. Fortunately for us, the Game of Thrones groupies were nowhere to be seen.
Dimmuborgir, also on the tour, is a spectacular grouping of odd volcanic formations reaching up from the earth like hoary, crippled bones. Armann explained the geology (which I didn’t quite understand and even looking up the information now I’m not entirely clear on) and then gave us the option of three different walks, clearly marked.
Unfortunately, he was distracted by someone tramping up a hill not meant for visitors. This man was not the first to go off-piste. There were several sets of footprints in the snow.
“Carry on.” Armann said. “I’ll meet you back here.” And he took off after the fellow. Who knows. Maybe someone in Game of Thrones was killed up there. Whatever the attraction, the three alternative walks were not enough for this guy.
Our guide was strangely quiet about this encounter. Was the person a local? He didn’t say.
We spent six hours in the north, just the two of us with Armann. I’m delighted we had him as our first guide, with his background, knowledge and love of the North. For the rest of the trip we were much more aware of our responsibility as tourists to respect the rules and protect this fascinating and fragile country.
Two days later we started with a sumptuous breakfast at our hotel, Alda. Catering to North Americans and Europeans, the buffet included hot cereal, eggs and sausages as well as smoked salmon, skyr (Icelandic yogurt), cold meats, cheeses, fruit and our favourite, beet and ginger juice shots.
We were picked up by our guide, Bjarni, for The Circle Tour, one of the most popular trips out of Reykjavík. Toward the end of the tour, our guide dropped off our little group of six at a café where we picked up some soup to warm us after our glacier snowmobiling adventure and before seeing Gullfoss – two waterfalls that plunge dramatically from different heights into a deep gorge. Warmed and sated, having visited the immense gift shop and taken advantage of the public toilets, we walked down toward the falls. A paved walkway runs alongside the gorge out to a point above the falls. We walked beside the gorge, the sun warming our backs, to a chain across the path with a sign warning “Do not pass this point.”
As we stood there, seven people stepped over the barrier and joined the other approximately 25 people who were heading out to the point where another 25 were standing on the unprotected edge looking over the rushing water. The sign was in English, granted, but I think the chain across the footpath might have given a strong enough indication that the area was closed. Where was Armann the Viking when he was most needed?
The unfortunate impact of tourism was reinforced for me in another popular Icelandic attraction. We were fortunate enough to visit three hotpools – the Nature Baths near Lake Mývatn, Reykjavík’s Laugar Spa and the Blue Lagoon.
At the Nature Baths, there were supervisors sitting at the exit from the change rooms to ensure all bathers had showered. We had done so in the typical North American fashion – stand under the water for 16 seconds, grab our towels and head out. We passed inspection.
It wasn’t until we went to the Laugar Spa – a community gym and spa – that we realized how serious Icelanders are about washing before entering the pools. Graphics posted in the shower area emphasized the cleansing of armpits and pubic areas. Women, without their bathing suits were lathering themselves all over, scrubbing under their arms and giving their nether regions a good soaping, washing their hair with shampoo, all before putting on their suits and entering the outdoor pools. We took our clues from them, scouring ourselves top to bottom. It makes sense. While the water circulates, it is not chemically treated.
The next day we went to the Blue Lagoon, a huge commercial operation catering to tourists — judging by the number of busses and the variety of languages in the change room. We were given a towel and robe. Lockers opened with electronic bracelets and our coloured elastic band entitled us to an underwater massage. The majority of the women twirled in the shower, but did not wash before they ventured out onto the deck. Just like us at the Nature Baths, they had no clue that showering meant cleansing, not just getting wet. I’m assuming that, of course, not wanting to entertain the idea that they were simply ignoring the suggested routine.
The Blue Lagoon’s water is milky. At the swim-up kiosk, we were given silica mud, which we applied to our faces as a mask. When we wanted to try the next treatment, an algae pack, we simply rinsed our faces in the water, as did everyone else. And that’s when it struck me. How many tourists use these pools without washing? What is the effect of the algae and silica along with the oils and skin sloughed from thousands of tourists a day? Spas are Iceland’s equivalent to the local pub. Icelanders go to the spa after work and on weekends to meet up with friends and spend time with their families. I didn’t hear any Icelandic speakers the day we were there. If I were local, I too would leave the Blue Lagoon to the visitors and frequent the many spas off the tourist track.
One of the reasons we went to Iceland was to attend the Iceland Writers’ Retreat. We were fortunate to add on five days of touring prior to that three-day conference. While we saw parts of the island we wouldn’t have seen otherwise, both of us felt there was so much more to this place.
We’re returning to Iceland to drive its perimeter in 2018 – once again contributing to the island’s blessed curse. This time, I’ll be more conscious of the stress we put on the 340,000 (give or take) residents and the sights we will be visiting. I’m going to read up further on the ecology and the geology of the places we’ll stop, arming myself with some facts about the country, about what’s beneath my feet. I’ll scrub before going in hot pools. I won’t stay in any Airbnbs. I can’t change the behaviours of the thousands of others who will be there at the same time, but I can make myself a more responsible tourist.