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Arctic adventure

Nov 1, 2012


By Elaine Rohse
News-Register Contributor


Why would anyone go to Iceland, up there on the edge of the Arctic?

Never having been there is reason enough — so off we McMinnvillans went.

And, we discovered that Iceland is no ugly stepchild.  Rather, it’s a traveler’s gourmet lunchbox, packed with geysers, volcanoes, glaciers — and such sights as 2,000 puffins on a seacliff. 

“Sheer stunning beauty,” one writer noted, “with some of the most impressive natural wonders in Europe.”

That European country, once known as “Snowland,” has snow from September to May, as well as the continent’s largest waterfall, its largest glacier — the largest ice cap outside of the poles — and its largest desert. 

As we left our hotel, swarming with tourists speaking many languages, we boarded a bus to the Reykjavik Excursions’ Depot. The lined-up buses are remindful of Yellowstone National Park.

In Iceland, fishing is the most important industry. It represents 60 percent of its economy.  Early on, the trawlers that put out from Iceland’s ports transformed the island’s economy. During the Cod Wars, British and Icelandic fishermen fought over fishing rights in the North Atlantic.  Iceland’s menus today suggest such entrees as stuffed seal, fish kabobs, and whale steak, none of which were popular with Yamhill County folks. 

But travelers who love leg of lamb will be pleased. Sheep represent the main meat source and Iceland’s green hills and fields are polka-dotted everywhere with sheep, singly and in little flocks, with no shepherd nearby. Our guide says that, occasionally, these sheep become stranded on rocky cliffs or escarpments, necessitating their removal by helicopter. What expensive mutton that must be.

Wool from the island’s many sheep is put to good use here in this cold clime, as per this slogan of the maker of woolen outer garments: “Geysir Island Wool Garments Worn Out for Centuries.” And lucky for the sheep, Iceland has no predatory animals, such as the coyotes that prey on Eastern Oregon’s flocks. Nor do Icelanders welcome newcomer predators.  If a polar bear arrives on an ice floe, no welcome mat is out. Care is taken to send that critter on its way.

Another valuable Icelandic resource is its water. Water, water, everywhere — and how California would cherish that. Iceland’s bottled water may perhaps become an important export to other countries. 

Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital, has no skyscrapers. The country has no trains, but a two-lane highway encircles the island. Despite sometimes fierce driving conditions — there are 10 different words to describe the winds — the country had only seven traffic deaths last year.

Perhaps that’s, in part, because of horses, horses, horses — sturdy animals with shaggy coats that were originally introduced by the Vikings and now are popularly ridden by tourists to explore Iceland’s hinterland.

So what do you do here, upon arrival?

Go hot-pot hopping in geothermal pools. Take an ice climb, a glacier walk, a winter outing by Jeep or snowmobile. Walk through lava fields where you may feel volcanic warmth after 20,000 years. Go tube caving, sea kayaking, Minke and humpback-whale watching. Snorkel in Silfra fissure — atop the separation between Europe and America — often rated as one of the world’s top dive sites, offering 100 meters of underwater visibility and famed heavenly shades of blue.

Another Icelandic claim to fame is its literacy rate — perhaps higher than any other country.  A suggested reason for why all adult Icelanders can read and write is its long winter nights — 4 p.m. until 10 a.m.  More books are written, printed and read in Iceland than by the same number of people in any other country.

And, oh, the history accrued by that island, settled by Vikings who left Norway to go there about 870 A.D. We stopped at the National Park site of the first Iceland parliament, established in 930 A.D. It is now the world’s oldest known still functioning parliament. The site is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage list of 800. There in Iceland in 1986, President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met.

Icelanders are said to love hot dogs with a passion. President Bill Clinton added to Iceland’s fame by partaking of a hot dog from a fast-food van and relishing that frankfurter, complete with crunchy onions, mustard and ketchup. 

There, too, you may find northern lights. Prime time for viewing a cold, clear winter’s night. Tours are offered with a guarantee — no lights on your first go-round, and you get a second tour free.

As our Icelandair flight approached Keflavik Airport, and I peered out the window at that country, I immediately noticed the absence of trees. Not a tree was in sight.  Our guide later explained that long ago, 40 percent of Iceland was forested.  Then came abusive cutting, almost wiping out its forests.  With much effort that is continuing, 1 percent of the country is now reforested. And 12 percent of the population is engaged in agriculture.

Icelanders, who have letters in their alphabet not found in ours, are willing and able to speak English with scarcely an accent. Whereas I, a thick-headed American, even at the end of our stay was scarcely able to correctly pronounce or spell “Reykjavik” — much less “Landmannaugar,” “Neskaupsstadue”  or “Hljodkletter.”

Of vast importance to amazing Iceland is its use and application of geothermal power, which presently provides heat for some 95 percent of all structures on the island. About 1920-25, Icelanders started researching geothermal power, and in 1930 put it to use. Iceland abounds in volcanic areas, and  water in these zones becomes heated to high temperatures, with the resulting steam then powering turbines. The Iceland Geothermal Energy plant we visited was an impressive state-of-the-art facility that surely the McMinnville Water & Light manager and commissioners would have enjoyed as much as we did. Iceland has become a showcase in this respect, and visitors travel from around the world to learn about its operation. Those pipelines carrying steam across Iceland’s countryside are a bit reminiscent of Alaska’s pipelines.

So now, having been to Iceland, if I am asked why anyone would go there, I shall say, with assurance, “Let me count for you the whys.”

Elaine Rohse can be reached at rohse5257@comcast.net.

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