Ever since Austin and I went to Ushuaia and failed to see the Southern Lights, we’ve wanted to see the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis. It’s been this secret dream we’ve coveted. And we knew that we were closer to the more northern countries here in Spain so it would be easier to get to them, but boy are flights expensive! When we found cheap flights at the end of October to Iceland we jumped on the chance to go. We figured the end of February was supposed to be a good time to see the lights, and if we didn’t see them we’d console ourselves with glaciers and geothermal baths. And then we did our best not to get our hopes up.
In an attempt to distract ourselves from constantly thinking about the Aurora, we planned other fun things to do in Iceland. Our first day was our day in Reykjavik, we went shopping for tourist items, wandered around the city, checked out the sites, and at the end of the day we headed to the Blue Lagoon. Here’s a nice view of the street our hostel was on, as you can see there was a tiny bit of snow on the ground, but nothing that stopped traffic.
Being from the coastal part of California, my opportunities to see snow are few and far between so I danced around in the little flurries while my New Englander companions grumbled about the cold and laughed at my excitement.
Here all of us are on the northern edge of the city next to a giant metal sculpture of a viking ship.
We had some extra time so we hiked out of the city a little ways up to the Perlan, a massive building that they are turning into a Natural History type museum for Iceland. It’s supposed to open this summer and it looks like it will be excellent, but we were there mostly for the excellent views afforded from the top of the building.
Such as this view over Reykjavik.
Reykjavik has one huge church in the center of town, it positively towers over the city. Here you can see it without snow, with the statue of Leif Eriksson in front. On a side note: Viking culture is huge in Iceland and it’s super cool.
Inside the church you can take an elevator to the top of the bell tower which has amazing views, but the line was ridiculously long so we went in and admired the organ and the architecture since we didn’t have time to see the tower.
While similar to the pipe organs all around Spain, and as you all know pipe organs have a special place in my heart, this one is far less ornate than those seem in Spanish cathedrals. Despite this it still looked incredibly sophisticated to me and a nearby plaque told us that it has 5,275 pipes in it.
Here’s another photo of me all bundled up on the coast of Reykjavik, as you can see, it’s hella cold there. Luckily, my jacket kept me incredibly warm! In the evening we drove down to the Blue Lagoon, a luxury geothermal spa near the airport, about forty five minutes away from Reykjavik.
As you can see, we’re all in our swimsuits and behind us the volcanic rock is covered in snow. It began snowing pretty hard on us when we arrived so we were happy to stay in the water the whole time (there are platforms and bridges to walk around on and sun bathe in during the day). The water ranges in temperature from about 98-104 degrees fahrenheit so we were always super warm!
After a couple of hours of relaxing in the water it was getting pretty late and we planned to have an early morning so we dragged ourselves reluctantly from the pools and dried ourselves off. As we headed out to the car it was still snowing pretty hard, at that point the car had about an inch of snow on it which we brushed off and then I drove us back to Reykjavik with the New Englanders talking me through how to safely navigate slushy/snowy roads and low visibility.
Originally the storm was set to drop a couple inches on us, by the time we made it back to the hostel and found a parking spot the forecast had changed to 14 inches. When we woke up early the next morning, all set to go on our day trip to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the North, the storm had dropped 20 inches of snow on us breaking the record for snowfall in February and closing all roads in and out of Reykjavik. I told my friends to enjoy their beauty sleep since there was no way we were going to be able to leave as early as we wanted and when we finally made it out of the hostel a few hours later I promptly threw myself in the snow. It was deep enough that Austin had to help me stand up again because I was stuck….
Reykjavik was now fully covered in snow and only the main roads had been plowed. We decided to take a walk to town to the Northern Lights museum while we waited for them to plow our streets so we could get out and do a half day trip around the Golden Circle instead.
Reykjavik is equipped to handle light snow, they are not equipped to handle twenty inches of snow all at once so the sidewalks were not plowed and the streets were sort of plowed, this meant everyone was walking in the streets and everything became a one lane road.
We walked back past the church from yesterday, now beautifully topped with snow.
Here’s another semi-plowed street with the church in the background.
This is probably one of my favorite pictures from the aftermath of the storm. A man had picked up the stroller with the baby in it, carried it over to the road and left the baby there while he went back through the snow to shut the door, leaving the baby watching him as he fought to get through the snow.
There’s a huge pond behind city hall where all these birds were hanging out, people were walking around the pond enjoying the view, the picture below was particularly picturesque. Unfortunately, due to my haste and limited dexterity with my gloves on, I managed to drop my lens cap somewhere on this street in the snow, not to realize it until we were already back at the hostel. Someday the snow will all melt and my lens cap will still be lying there abandoned, or it will be crushed by a passing car. But the picture is great!
Our little Kia was not the ideal car for twenty inches of snow, and due to our lack of foresight, parked about ten feet away from the edge of the road. We borrowed some shovels and, in addition to digging the Kia out of the snow, we dug out a path to get the Kia back onto the unplowed street as well.
But all that digging only got us onto the unplowed street, larger cars had been able to drive through no problem because of their high chassis. The Kia rode pretty low down and with some assistance from other travelers and Icelandic neighbors we often had to push it through the snow, until we made it out onto a main street. I had planned to go across the street to the gas station and park there, near the main road so we wouldn’t be stuck but missed my turn in and we ended up driving around Reykjavik without a GPS, having no idea where we were, and praying we wouldn’t accidentally turn onto unplowed roads and get stuck again. I found the whole situation hilarious. Luckily, my sense of direction is quite good so I was able to get us back onto the main street with the gas station and this time I successfully turned in, and got stuck on snow. A nice icelander pulled in behind me and jumped out to help my friends push us the rest of the way to the gas station. When we pulled in there was a plow working on the parking lot, so we got gas, since we were there anyways, but couldn’t stay since we didn’t want to be in the way of the plow.
Eventually I pulled back into the neighborhood and parked on the one street that had been plowed. And we decided to get our things and get out of town, the handy Iceland road conditions website had told me that the roads needed for the Golden Circle Route were re-opened and while we didn’t have time for the whole thing, we all wanted to get out of Reykjavik.
Once upon a time I would have told you that soccer was the great equalizer between cultures. That soccer brings people together and crosses language and cultural divides with ease. I’ve played soccer with so many people with whom I didn’t share a language, but we bonded over soccer. The rules are (mostly) universal and we could all have fun together with only a few words like “I’m open!” and “Help.” There are NGOs in Israel that bring Israeli and Palestinian kids together to cross their cultural divide by playing sports together and bonding over a shared love of soccer. But after experiencing that snowstorm, I think snow might be on par with soccer. So, so many people helped us when we dug the car out, when we were stuck in the snow, and in return we also helped so many people. We didn’t always speak the same language, one Italian guy who helped us we mostly spoke to using one or two words and lots of miming. When we passed an old lady trying to get some printer toner out of her car, but unable to get off of her doorstep because the snow was up to her thighs, Austin and I borrowed her car keys and unburied her car enough to find her printer toner and bring it to her so she could continue working, I assume she was a writer. She thanked us profusely, saying she didn’t know how to thank us enough, and I told her that so many people had helped us today that we were happy to pay it forward and help another. And that was sort of the attitude, when a record breaking storm hits Reykjavik we’re all in it together, and instead of being angry and stressed out, everyone laughed and got behind the cars to give them one more big push.
Anyways, after digging out a bunch of cars, getting lost in Reykjavik, trying to figure out how to work a gas station, and then finding a new parking spot that wasn’t six inches deep in snow, we gathered up our jackets and cameras and drove out of Reykjavik in search of good views, geysers and waterfalls.
Driving through the Thingvellir National Park was an incredible sight just after the snow storm. The entire landscape was buried and made us feel as though we were driving through Antarctica. There was snow for miles and miles and really nothing else.
The first stop on our shortened Golden Circle Tour was the Stroker Geyser. This Geyser erupts pretty reliably every six to ten minutes and is in a huge field of steam vents, so walking through it you feel pretty epic. Signs everywhere warn you that the water running along the ground can be closing to boiling temperatures so don’t touch it. The geyser spends the first five or so minutes refilling and heating up, bubbling merrily. Right before it’s about to blow, it bubbles up like the above picture.
And then with a huge whoosh and a loud sound, the water explodes from the ground and scares the shit out all the bystanders who weren’t paying attention. We were there around sunset so we only stayed to watch it erupt twice before getting back n the road to Gullfoss.
We made it to Gullfoss (Gull Falls) as the last light was leaving the sky so I wasn’t able to get any particularly good pictures. When you visit during the day, if the sun is at the correct angle, the falls appear to have a rainbow over them so I was a little disappointed not to see that sight, but it was amazing just seeing the falls. They reminded me a lot of the falls in Igazu, even from such a distance they were incredibly loud. The main difference being not only the length of the falls, but also the freezing temperature outside. The closer to the falls we were, the worse the wind and the cold became.
After that we drove home, the index for the aurora that night was pretty low, so despite the clear skies we didn’t see anything on the drive home and headed back to the hostel to get some sleep. Now that the roads had re-opened we planned on doing our Snaefellsnes Peninsula tour the next morning and needed to leave early to ensure we’d be able to see everything we wanted to while we still had daylight.
The drive up to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula was breathtaking, more than once I slowed down on the empty roads or pulled over so we could get good photos.
Our first stop was the Eldborg Crater (meaning: Fortress of Fire). On a non-snowy day there’s a hiking path that will take you up to the edge of the crater and you can peak inside. I was looking forward to that hike, but with the snow there was no way to see that path and it wasn’t well marked. We admired it from a distance and then drove on to our next destination.
The Gerduberg Cliffs are very cool Basalt Columns were the rocks have naturally formed into hexagonal columns. I have no idea why, but it’s a super cool phenomenon. We climbed up to the top of the cliffs which gave us an excellent view of the Eldborg Crater way off in the distance and tried not to get blown over by the wind on top of the mesa.
Petting Icelandic ponies is a must-do according to almost every website that talks about doing driving tours of Iceland. They say that one of the many tours of renting your own car to drive around Iceland is that you can stop and pet Icelandic ponies whenever you feel like it. Upon spotting this group of ponies hanging out right next to the road, we pulled over and made some new friends.
For the most part, the weather on the peninsula was beautiful, because of the high winds, occasionally we would go through “foggy” parts where so much snow was being blown onto the road it was almost impossible to see. On other parts of the drive, the snow was blown off the mountains and as it blew through the air it melted – because it was a warm 35 degrees outside – rewarding us with this spectacular rainbow.
Once we officially made it onto the peninsula, our first stop was at this church near Hotel Budir. It’s the oldest church in Iceland and is located right next to a beach. We enjoyed both locations, all of us finding small volcanic rocks to take home as souvenirs from the beach.
After Hotel Budir, we drove to Anarstapi, a very small fishing town where we had decided to eat lunch (sandwiches that we packed to take with us). The main attractions in Anarstapi are this giant statue (Bardar Snaefellsass) and a very cool arch rock formation called Gatklettur.
While the statue is rather new, the folklore behind the giant is pretty old. The photo above show the statue from the front, where you can see the face, the photo below shows the statue from behind, in much better lighting, with another national park in the background.
So here’s the story behind Bardur Snaefellsas as told by the nearby informational plaque:
“Bardur’s story is told in the Saga of Bardur Snaefellsas. He was descended from giants and me. Border was the son of a king from Northern Hellaland [northern California readers please acknowledge that there’s a place called Hella-land, I obviously need to go there] in Scandinavia. He staked claim to the land of Laugabrekka by the Glacier at the end of the 9th century. Late in life Bardur’s giant-nature because ever more apparent. In the end, he disappeared into the Snaefell Glacier, but did not die. Border became a mature spirit and the local folk around the Glacier petitioned him in matters large and small.”
Fun fact about Bardur: He’s pictured on the 1 krona coin.
And here’s Gatklettur, this one doesn’t have any interesting folklore around it. Onward to our next stop at the Malaria Lighthouse and Londrangur Beach!
Those rocks are near Londrangur Beach and are super picturesque. We enjoyed this area for it’s outdoor playground equipment which included a zipline. We don’t have those out in the open because someone might actually really hurt themselves and then sue someone, but the rest of the world isn’t as litigious and appreciates having a little mildly dangerous fun every once in awhile.
As you can see it was a beautiful day so we spent quite a bit of time on the beach relaxing. I even took off my gloves, coat, scarf and hat and pretended to sunbathe in my long sleeve shirt and leggings for awhile as we relaxed on the beach. This was a rock beach and the lighthouse was built right next to an outcropping of volcanic rock which I enjoyed climbing over.
After relaxing for long enough we continued on to Djupalonssandur (pictured below), one of the sports I was most looking forward to seeing. Djupalonssandur is a black sand beach, so the beach itself looked much like the beach pictured above, though the above picture is actually the beach next to the Malariff Lighthouse. The picture below was taken with my back to the ocean, the national park rising in the background and my friends all waiting for me to join them as we walked back to the car.
Djupalonssandur is known for the Black Pearls of Djupalon. Because of the way the ocean turns the rocks at this beach, a very high percentage of the rocks are perfectly round pebbles that look like pearls, hence the name. Obviously I had to find myself the perfect pearls so I took my time searching through the rocks for the right ones. This beach historically was also where the vikings would lift stones to prove they were strong enough to row boats to greenland. A plaque near the stones tells you how much they weigh and challenges you to try and lift them yourself, the lightest stone weighs around fifty pounds. I decided not to break my back on that challenge.
Our final stop of the day was Mt. Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss (foss = waterfalls). This mountain is incredibly famous and very photogenic so I had been warned that I wouldn’t be the only photographer trying to take a picture of it. Sure enough, a whole army of photographers was lined up at each level of the waterfall waiting to get the perfect picture of Mt. Kirkjufell at sunset, and, if they waited long enough, of Mt. Kirkjufell with the aurora behind it.
We took the opportunity to take a selfie with the mountain behind us, the fourth member of our group had decided to admire the view from inside the car for this trek.
As with Bardur, Mt. Kirkjufell also has its own folklore associated with it which I’ve faithfully reproduced from the informational sign below:
“Kikjufell river has its source in the east part of the mountain ridge Helgrindur. The river flows through a canyon past cliffs called Throskuldar. The lowermost waterfall in the river is located just above the highway and is called Kirkjufellsfoss. A folktale preserved by oral tradition tells of a woman who lived on Kirkjufell farm. She had two sons who both drowned in the waterfall while fishing. The woman therefore cast a spell saying that no fish would ever caught in the river and no one would drown there. Neither has come to pass.”
We finished our evening by tasting shark in a local restaurant by the water and discussing our plans for Northern Light hunting that evening.
The Aurora Borealis
As I said, we were doing our utmost best to not get our hopes up. But before I continue let’s talk about the Northern Lights for a little bit.
Every website site about the lights will tell you that to see the lights you need to be lucky. Most of the tours that take you out to see the lights will give you a couple tries for the price of one on the off chance that you don’t see them. Locals will tell you that they see them a couple times a week in the winter and look slightly embarrassed as they admit they don’t get too excited about seeing them anymore. So let’s define exactly what it means to be lucky.
Essentially you need three things to see the lights: clear skies, no light pollution, and geomagnetic activity/solar winds. Light pollution and solar activity work on a balance, if you have more of one, you need less of the other. So if there’s a very large solar storm with a lot of geomagnetic activity , aka a high KP index, you don’t need the sky to be as bright because the aurora will be so much brighter. On the other hand, if your KP index is low you need a very dark sky to see it because the lights will be dim. There’s no working around a cloudy sky, however, it doesn’t matter how high the KP index is if there are clouds in the sky. While telling myself not to get my hopes up I downloaded three different aurora apps that monitored conditions so I would know what our chances were of seeing the aurora. One app provided incredibly detailed information on the geomagnetic activity (Aurora Fcst). It told me the KP index at various altitudes and had a nice little global that gave a rough percentage chance of seeing the aurora around the world. The second app, simply called Aurora, let me set my location and provided more forecast information based on the KP index, unlike Aurora Fcst, this second app didn’t provide the details behind the data, so if you don’t care about the science behind it, this one is a little easier to use and has an easier interface to understand. The third app, Northern Lights Alerts, just sends alerts when anyone nearby says they see the aurora, from what I can tell it’s not very popular because when we saw the aurora my app was silent and I doubt we were the only ones who saw it. I also used one of Iceland’s governmental websites that gives real time information + a three day forecast on cloud coverage over Iceland.
Throughout the trip I had been watching, for two weeks leading up to the trip I was watching the weather forecast. I was telling myself not to get my hopes up. The first two nights of our trip, the KP index was low; we weren’t going to see the lights. Add in a huge snowstorm and we really weren’t going to see the lights. Monday night, our last night of the trip, the KP index was 5, which is right in the middle. Unfortunately the best night to see the lights based on KP index was the following night, but we would be back in Spain at the point. The cloudless night had held and I watched all throughout dinner as my apps told me we had a 13% chance of seeing the aurora, then a 20% chance, and as the sky grew darker and we were on our way out, it jumped to 50% chance.
We told ourselves not to get our hopes up.
We decided to drive back to Thingvellir National Park. At the time we were about two hours away from Reykjavik and the park was a forty five minutes drive away on roads I had already driven.Plus we knew there was a huge lake in the park and I wanted to see if I could get a shot of the aurora reflecting in the water. So we filled up the tank of our trusty little Kia, put the guys in the back on aurora duty, my friend up front was on navigation and aurora duty and we headed out.
We had been driving for about twenty minutes when Austin said he thought he saw something in the sky. It was so faint. We kept driving. We couldn’t imagine that it was actually the aurora, there was still light in the sky. But Austin kept watching and after another five minutes he called attention to it again. Everyone except me looked at it again, and this time they decided it was definitely green looking and it was definitely growing and it was definitely the aurora. Everyone began yelling. But we were on a high way in the middle of nowhere with a Kia that couldn’t pull off into the snow for fear of never getting it out again! Finally I spotted a turn off onto a side road that wasn’t plowed, but enough cars had gone through I was certain I wouldn’t get stuck. I grabbed my camera and we jumped out of the car staring at the sky as the aurora grew above us, we were yelling and dancing and jumping, we could not believe that the aurora borealis was above us. Austin and I couldn’t believe that we were actually seeing this. That two years ago we’d said we wanted to see them, and then, in the middle of nowhere, to actually see them. So as we danced around on the ground, we watched in amazement as the Aurora Borealis danced above us in the sky.
But before you continue, in order to be utterly clear about the Aurora Borealis, I have to let you in on a bit of a secret. Cameras TOTALLY lie about what the aurora looks like. Or at least, they lie about what a medium sized light storm looks like. In the above picture, if you look really closely, you can see a single streak of green light going through the sky. To the naked eye, that’s about what the aurora looks like in terms of brightness. It’s not the bright green so commonly seen in pictures. It’s distinct from the sky, and as our storm grew it became easier to see, but the neon green lights in the photos below come from long exposure and don’t reflect what’s seen by the naked eye.
In some ways, the snow storm was a good thing. Because of it, we went to the northern lights museum which collected folklore about the lights from around the world in the parts of countries where the lights are commonly seen. I’ve reproduced my favorite stories below.
“The Northern Lights were believed to be the reflection of the shields of the Valkyries racing across the sky on their way to their resting place, Valhalla. Another Norse myth is a bridge named Bifrost connected Earth and Asgard, the home of the gods. Most likely it was modeled after rainbows of the Northn Lights, and was guarded by the god Heimdall. The Norse people also linked the Northern Lights to dead women, especially to dead virgens.”
Finland (Home of the Revontulet: the fox that sparked the Northern Lights):
“The name Revontulet comes from an ancient Finnish myth. The story about the Revontulet explained those mystical lights that appeared in the sky on dark winter nights. When the fox was running around his tail would sweep across the snow causing sparks to fly into the sky and generate what we know today as the Northern Lights. Another myth stated that the Northern Lights were a reflection of the great number of fish in the Arctic seas. The large number of fish reflected the sun rays into the sky creating the beautiful Aurora.”
Iceland has relatively few myths about the Northern Lights, but it is said that it’s unlucky for a child to be born under the Northern Lights because they’ll be born cross-eyed, other cultures say that it’s incredibly lucky to be born or conceived under the Northern Lights.
A last note on photographing the lights before I go:
Plenty of stores around Reykjavik will let you rent a DSLR camera so you can photograph the lights. As a general rule, it’s impossible to take a picture of the lights on a phone or some other point and shoot camera that doesn’t have manual settings because you need to be able to manually adjust the exposure and shutter speed to take good photos. A couple near us at Thingvellir had rented a camera and ruined a few of my photos because their camera hadn’t been set correctly and kept trying to use the flash to take a picture (which then ruined my pictures). Eventually I got frustrated enough that I walked over and helped them set their camera to the correct settings so that it would stop flashing and made sure they got at least one good photo of the lights. They had a tripod so their photo was taken at a much better angle than mine and looked excellent, I was once again somewhat limited to the roof of our rental car.
If you are taking photos of the Northern Lights and want to fool everyone into thinking they’re much brighter than they are, it’s best to change your camera’s settings to an ISO of 800, though you can go a little higher if necessary, F-stop of 3.5 or less, and shutter speed around 13 seconds. My photos were taken with a shutter speed of 20-30 seconds because the lights were so dim, so that may need some adjusting. Also useful was switching my focus onto manual so that the camera didn’t shine its light to help it focus before taking a shot. In general it’s just better if you get there while it’s light and focus the camera while you can see, and then don’t change it. And if you’re going to rent a camera, make sure you know how to use it. Trusting the people to set it correctly for you is fine, but if it’s set incorrectly, you need to know how to fix it. If you have your own camera, the Northern Lights museum has a whole section dedicated to teaching you how to photograph the lights and they have a person on hand to help you change your camera’s settings and a box to try it out on. Luckily for us, we had accidentally stumbled upon that earlier in the weekend so I already had my camera preset and didn’t need to fumble for the settings in the dark.