Iceland Adventures

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Since my trip to Alaska in 2014, I've been pretty enthralled by remote areas, mountains and northern lights in particular.  These have led me to and through the mountains of Alberta and most recently to Iceland.  Sure, I've sought northern lights in places like Algonquin Provincial Park, Manitoulin Island and Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve, but none have a genuinely high probability of seeing it - certainly not at it's full intensity when it does appear simply because they appear most often at much higher latitudes.

Websites like Soft Serve News offer information on Northern Lights (I'll just call it the Aurora from here) as well as a real-time forecast of the probability of seeing it.  Of particular use is the ovation map which, in the simplest terms, is a view of the globe and where the aurora is presently viewable.  The hope is to see a fat green or preferably green and red band exactly where you are on it's map.  The greener (or better, redder) that band is, the better your chances of seeing the aurora.  

Having watched this for months, it becomes clear that the aurora is most visible in northern Ontario (ie the northernmost end - not what us southerners think "northern Ontario" means) at it's southern end, and a little north of Hudson's Bay at it's northern end.  

Here is the Ovation Map right now as I write.  As you can see by the green band, there is a thick piece of green at the 4 o'clock area, but it is not nearly as wide as it could be.  A good, strong ovation has a much longer fat, green belt.  Regardless, as you can see, the southernmost tip of Greenland, and to a lesser extent, Iceland have a chance of seeing the aurora right at this moment, but otherwise, unless you're over the ocean in that thick green area, chances of seeing it are very thin.

Ovation Map as of January 26, 2016 8:28pm

What causes the aurora? That's a question people who know I follow this ask me all the time.  DIscharges from the sun which happen constantly impacting and interacting with Earth's magnetic field.  The ovation you see above in the norther hemisphere is also happening in the southern hemisphere where the other end of the magnetic field is.  

Occasionally you've probably heard of an ejection from the sun coming towards the Earth which could jeopardize satellites, the International Space Station and electronics here on the ground.  These little beauties, while risky, mean that if they do hit our magnetic field, can create the strongest auroras.  They would appear on the map above with a thick red band, and are the things that get people like me to drive as far north as reasonable in hopes of seeing and photographing.

Because we're in a time of diminishing solar activity though, studying this map and others work literally put Iceland on the map for me because I could see the ovation hit Iceland consistently, so it would just be a matter of the strength of it and weather.

Day 1

The first day in Iceland was a challenge - it began the day before back at home just outside Toronto with the flight taking off at roughly 8:00pm.  With it being a 5.5 hour flight and a 5 hour time difference, it meant landing in Keflavik, Iceland at about 6:30am where the day would begin and a 90 minute drive to the hotel in Reykjavik.  It was basically Scotland all over again - up all night and then up all day.  Oh well, I'm tough! 

With nothing booked on Day 1, the only real plan was to get the rental car, check in, find some food for the fridge and explore.  For anyone considering Iceland, know this: They drive on the proper side of the road (a jab at you UK people!) , therefore the driver seat is on the correct side of the car and signage is in km/h.  Wonderful! Oh, but they do like their roundabouts/traffic circles.  They weren't a big deal though - two lanes at most and drivers seemed courteous for the most part.  One other curious thing was their traffic light system.  Instead of Green-Yellow-Red-Green, it's Green-Yellow-Red-Yellow-Green.  Interesting.

Anyway, in an effort to make use of the day, exploring was top of the list, but where to? Daylight is in very short supply, and I'd read a lot about how the weather can turn on a dime.  The only fun option seemed to be to get in the car and just go and see where the road leads.  

It took about 20 minutes to get out of the city of Reykjavik and on to more open roads surrounded by mountains like I haven't seen.  To my eye, they were steep walls ending abruptly with a relatively flat top, maybe 3-500 feet high.  Because they were capped with snow, I really didn't know if they were mountains or perhaps construction was taking place on top to flatten them.  Odd to say the least, but still eye-catching.  The drive continued on for some time before the howling wind and blowing snow made the idea of driving too far out seem like a bad one, so it was time to head back.  Grouchiness was setting in as well and that was taking a toll.  Not much in the way of photos, certainly nothing worth sharing.

Back at the hotel, a nap was next on the agenda, but first, a look out the window revealed this beauty just a few hundred yards away.  It is a restaurant named Perlan.  Unfortunately the shot was through the hotel window so it isn't the best, but inside is a highly regarded fine-dining restaurant.  Definitely out of my price range, but the photo was free.

The Perlan Restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland

A nice 2 or 3 hour nap later, I checked Soft Serve News to discover that there should be a good chance of seeing the aurora.  With that, a quick gathering of gear, an extra couple of layers and it was off to find a place away from city lights.  I can't give an address so here's a link to it via Google Maps if anyone is interested. 

The lights were visible before even getting here so I didn't waste much time with setting up before snapping away.  In fact, I hurried, truth be told.  Unfortunately hurrying is one of my problems because I have missed important details thanks to it.  Details such as setting your camera back to your usual settings for astrophotography, rather than for things like hockey games.

The last time I had my camera out was to shoot a local hockey game.  I dialed back the quality of images in order to get more shots during bursts.  Unfortunately I did forget to return the quality setting back to it's maximum, therefore any aurora shots I got that night won't be their absolute best.  What a kick in the butt.  Oh well, here's a few anyway...

Aurora warming up...


Aurora picking up with more activity

Aurora beginning to fade off

The funny thing about the aurora is as quickly as it comes, it can go just as fast.. But they can reappear.  With the ovation sometimes spanning a thousand miles, it takes a long time for the belt to pass over a particular place.  It is for that reason that if you're serious about shooting, you should have one person on watch while you sleep, and take turns because if they do come back, it could be much stronger and go on for much longer.  No such luck - it was a long long day and after about 90 minutes when they faded, it was time for bed.

Day 2

Day 2 arrived and I was pretty much on Iceland time now.  Thanks to shift work, I often don't take too long to switch from one time zone to another, but when I do, it's a nightmare.  I got lucky this time and all was good and the plan was a bus tour of the Golden Circle with Reykjavik Excursions.

This tour was an 8 hour adventure with convenient hotel pickup and drop-off and began with a trip to the Geysir Geothermal Area.  This is not a place for hot-springs bathing though - temperatures are well over the boiling point.  Here, after a short walk along the path, partially ice covered was the Strokkur geyser which would erupt faithfully every 5 to 10 minutes and shoot water nearly 100 feet in the air without any sign it was about to happen.

The Strokkur geyser eruption

The geyser itself was a thing of beauty, but I have to admit, I was very surprised at how close you can get to it.  Water was pouring down just a foot or two away and I'm quite sure it would have been very hot.  Yikes! 

There was plenty of time to walk around, watch several eruptions, enjoy the sunrise (even though it was probably noon by now and the sun was as high as it was going to get now, which is to say, a perpetual sunrise and sunset.  

The time did eventually come to return to the bus and head on to the next destination of Gullfoss which is a breathtaking two-tiered waterfall.

Gullfoss Waterfall

This is one of those waterfalls that makes you glad you're alive and seeing it for yourself.  I have seen pictures while researching Iceland of this waterfall in summer, and it is spectacular, but the winter adds a whole other dimension.

The final step on the tour was to the Þingvellir National Park.  This is the place that splits Iceland in half.  On the west side is the American tectonic plate, and to the east is the European plate.  There is a gap in between of about 2 or 3 kilometres which you can either drive or hike across and it is something that makes you realize what it's like to stand in the place where the earth opens up during an earthquake.

While here, I did make it a mission to find a small piece of rock on the American wall and bring it home. After all, it's a piece of home, thousands of miles away.  Unfortunately, no such luck - that wall was solid.

The hazard of bus tours - tourists are impossible to get away from

Here, the American plate is on the right with an ordinary rock wall to the left.  The European plate is a few kilometers away.  This is just a short path leading up to an area known as The Law Rock - a gathering place in the 900's where for 2 weeks each year, the laws of the land were recited, speeches made etc.  An interesting historical place. 

Essentially, this was the end of the tour and it was time for the long drive back.  

Because sunset takes so long from start to finish, there was just enough time to load up the car and make the quick drive up to another of Reykjavik's landmarks, Hallgrimskirkja - one of the most beautiful churches I've seen.  I'm not a particularly religious person, but you have to admire the architecture and originality of this building.

My goal here was to shoot it during "blue hour" and unfortunately, I rushed and messed up the shot by not nailing focus - just about the worst mistake you can make.  Thankfully Photoshop rescued it enough to show it at least, but as far as hanging it on the wall? No.


While the night was not particularly cold, the sky crystal clear, monitoring Soft Serve News over the next few hours didn't offer any good news at all.  No aurora tonight.  What a shame.

Day 3

Day 3 was essentially the last day in Iceland and it was time for another tour with Reykjavik Excursions called The South Shore Adventure tour.  As you probably guessed, it is a drive along the southern shore of the country, past numerous volcanoes, lava fields, mountains and wide open nothingness.  Perfect.

First stop was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall.  One of the beautiful options this place has is the ability to walk behind it during summer months.  In the winter though? Far far far too icy.  It's probably a beautiful sight in those summer months - during winter though, it's fun to visit but not particularly photogenic.

Along the tour were several stories of eruptions of the active volcanoes - one of which recently shut down air travel to and through Europe.  It was quite interesting to hear about these eruptions and how they affected the people living here and the boom to tourism they created.  I said it before, I'll say it again - Several people indicated one of the volcanoes is overdue for an eruption and when it does, I'll be buying my plane ticket and bringing my mountain bike to get some once-in-a-lifetime photos.

The next stop on the agenda was to the Myrdalsjokull glacier.  As with all of them (or so it seems), it too is receding as the planet warms. Nonetheless it was still a beautiful sight to see.  This is one of those places where you can understand how valleys truly are carved out by the ice.

Myrdalsjokull Glacier

There was just enough time to hike from the bus to the glacier, take it in for a few minutes before it was time to head back.  This tour had places to go and things to see and time wasn't on our side.  After loading up, it was on to Vik, the easternmost destination of the tour.

Black and white may not be the best way to highlight the black sand beach, but at this time of year with the sun so low in the sky, the orange cast the light gives to it doesn't really show the colour properly.  This show conveys the mood better for me.

Reynisfjara is home to black sand beaches

The rocky pyramids in the water are particularly eye-catching.  I have to admit, I did bring back a pretty good sized sample of the black sand.  Hopefully that doesn't have some diabolical effect on our ecosystem.

For the sake of this blog, the final stop on the tour was one last waterfall known as Skogafoss.

Skogafoss waterfall

This is another of those waterfalls that looks spectacular during the summer months, but at this time of year, the sun coming off the water and ice is just other-worldly.  You can walk right up to it if you choose, but as you can imagine, the ice on the ground is extremely slippery and brittle.  I came up to about 30 feet, felt the spray and retreated back for a few more shots.

On returning from the tour and relaxing for a bit in the hotel, it was back to Soft Serve News to see how things were looking.  Right on cue, things looked pretty good.  Unfortunately though, our guide warned us that the night was shaping up to be cloudy so the aurora would probably be a loss.  It was worth taking a shot though, so back to the same place...

Aurora Borealis under cloud

Unfortunately our guide was right - clouds rolled in quickly and by the time the aurora was gaining real strength, they were beginning to get washed out.  I was particularly happy with the amount of reflection in the water.

Aurora over a lighthouse

As quickly as they appeared, they were snuffed out by the clouds which didn't blow over.  Aurora Borealis in Iceland was over for me, but it was worth the trip.

Day 4

Time to go home.  Fortunately, the flight was not until 5pm so there was still some time left to explore.  After checking out, it was back to the rental car and a quick decision guided it back to  Þingvellir.  

On the previous tour, I had seen several places which held lots of potential for photos.  I still hadn't really got the shot I wanted of the beauty of winter here so this was the last chance.  The first stop found this place.

This shot is one that says "Iceland" to me but wait, there's more.

This 6-shot panorama was the one.  The sun at it's full height over a lake just outside of the park was what I had been looking for and I got it and it will be the next one to go on the wall.

For me, it was the perfect way to end the trip.  A few mistakes along the way, but ultimately the trip was a thrill and if I do return, I'll know of plenty of places to re-visit during summer months, if I'm not there first to shoot an eruption.

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