30 Jun 2015

North Iceland by adamandheather


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The Mývatn region is famous for its midges, small insects that swarm in such high density that they can appear like mist or smoke. Most of the t-shirts in the souvenir shops include depictions of them, and the campground has an enclosed shed configured as a cooking and dining area sheltered from the swarms. The cold and wind keeps the midges down today, and the shed provides a merciful break from the chilly air.

In the contest for best-named lava field, Dimmuborgir ("Dark Castles") wins. It feels like a strange sculpture garden. A footpath leads through a forest of tall, jagged magma formations that reach up to 10 meters high, including arches, tunnels, caves, towers, and a big vaulted room named Kirkja ("The Church").

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The Mývatn region features astoundingly different landscapes in close proximity. A short walk from Dimmuborgir is Hverfjall, a tephra cone volcano formed over 2000 years ago.

A trail gradually leads up the gravelly side slope of the cone and leads to the rim. On reaching the rim, we realize that we've climbed the shortest side of the cone. The opposing side is a kilometer away and, at 420 meters, seems twice as high. A well-traveled path leads around the entire rim and takes an hour to walk.

To the south and east is flat, barren earth, leveled and devastated by millennia of lava flows. To the north are hills of vibrant colors, huge steam columns rising from the earth, and numerous volcanic cones looming over the landscape.

And that's where we're headed.

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Recent drilling found magma only 2.1km below the surface. The geothermal plant was nearly scrapped in the planning stages when they found far hotter vents than expected. Patches of earth steam and bubble with unnaturally vibrant color. The nearby volcano of Krafla has erupted 29 times in recorded history.

The Krafla lava fields are intimidating. In Iceland, many eruptions spring from fissures, tears in the surface of the earth through which magma escapes. We cross many of these still-steaming fissures and come face-to-face with lava cones that are only decades old. The cooled lava around these cones is smooth and flat, and looks much like broken-up pavement. It's eerily flat and easy to walk on. The violence of these eruptions becomes practically tangible as we stand at the foot of a lava cone, and we quickly move along.

The nearby crater of Víti ("hell") is filled with an eerie green lake.

In between, the tundra takes on an odd texture, assuming a pattern of small mounds that stretch for kilometers.

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You stand at the doorway of the locker room, dripping wet from the mandatory pre-swim shower. Between you and the hot pools is a 30-yard outdoor walk in the 45°F air. There is a 25 mph wind, so be sure to tie your towel to the railing so that it doesn't blow away. The tile is slick, so walk slowly. The sun is well-hidden behind the thick clouds.

And... go!

The Jarðböðin Nature Baths are located in the center of the Mývatn volcanic area, and glow bright blue due to the mineral content. There are three bathing areas: the hot tub, the warm pool, and the tepid pool. The tepid pool is empty. You learn where the hot water enters the warm pool by noticing where people are clustered. When a space opens up in the tiny hot tub, you judge whether the trip through the open air is worth it.

Caveats aside, a few hours in the hot pools here are just what we need. The water is soothing and mitigates the soreness we're still carrying from backpacking in Hornstrandir. The mineral-rich water makes our skin soft and feels wonderful on our aching, blistered feet. For the first time in a long time we build up significant body heat, and it feels like a dream.

At least until the sprint back to the locker room.

Bonus feature: the guy in the black-and-yellow trunks in the photos illustrates the running-centric out-of-water experience.