Hikers approach one of Icelands many waterfalls.

Hikers approach one of Icelands many waterfalls.

Traveling Outside: A landscape of hidden folk

After my daughter and I returned from a recent trip to Iceland, I began thinking about how Icelandic alpine is different from Juneau’s. I knew it was, but when a coworker asked, I couldn’t immediately explain why. In Southeast, when I’m hiking on top of a mountain, the landscape is so sweeping and broad that I often link it to the emotional landscape of a movie. Think “Sound of Music” when Julie Andrews is whipping her arms around as if it’s the only way she can possibly embrace the scene. In the Alaskan alpine, I often find myself singing a few bars about the hills being alive and twirling in an ungraceful circle over uneven ground.

In Iceland, the movie analogies are different. As we were hiking from Skogar, there was a rock labyrinth that reminded me of Frodo and Sam’s travails. In Thorksmork, my daughter commented that the woods reminded her of Narnia. Immediately, I thought of the scene where the trees come to life. It’s a magical landscape where rocks can transform to thwart travelers and the flowers on the trees become figures that illuminate.

Iceland Air broadcasts snippets on their screen of why Iceland is unique, one of which says that 80 percent of the population believes in elves. The Reykjavik tourist booklet explains that when the poll was done, people were asked if the possibility of huldfolk (hidden folk) existed. The tourism office believed the reason there were so many “yes” answers was because people didn’t want to say for certain that there weren’t any. Their argument was that you might not believe in ghosts but it’s another thing to say they don’t exist. I disagree. I can understand why you wouldn’t want tourists to condescendingly look down at a quaint populace that believes in old folk, but there is something magical about the topography that causes you to imagine the possibility of elves, jotuns (giants) and sprites more than any place on Earth, including Ireland, which has its fair share of fairy stories.

One interesting topographical feature is the abundance of waterfalls. I’m a bit of a cynic after traveling with my parents, who felt they needed to document every tiny bit of water falling over rocks. I love the power of Nugget Falls and enjoy the cascades we have in Juneau, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see a waterfall. In Iceland, though, I wanted to fill a memory card with photos. Every waterfall is amazing and unique, and there are hundreds of them. Some you can walk behind, some you can watch stream out of rocks, some fall from the tops of mountains, and some cascade between rock pillars shaped like bears and trolls.

On our last day in Iceland, sitting in Blue Lagoon talking to other people about their adventures in the country, a couple told us about a particular waterfall. All of us sitting around in the hot springs nodded our heads in that knowing sort of way. Ahhh, yes, waterfalls. We know waterfalls. But, when one guy said it was the best waterfall ever and his partner nodded in agreement, I mentally took note so that I could travel to the northeast side of the island next time to see it. Never say never until you’ve traveled to Iceland.

Not only does it have over the top waterfalls, but there is volcanic chaos. Iceland sits on top of the separating Eurasian and North Atlantic plates. When I moved to Juneau, I was struck by how you can see geology happening. You can see the aftermath of glaciation. In Wisconsin, where I lived previously, everything is ten thousand years after the fact. Eskers and moraines are so disguised by time, they’re barely visible. Not only does Iceland have glaciers, but you can pick up rocks and tell how they left the center of the earth. Did the lava remain viscous as it splattered on the ground, forming a cow pie bomb? Or did the outside cool and then split into cracks as the hot inside expanded, forming a bread crust bomb? Or was it merely a spherical bomb?

Southern Iceland contains fields filled with sheep and horses, but the landscape is also dotted by jagged lava fields covered in moss. You can see mountains with strange knobs sticking out of them and realize that they are lava plugs: rocks that cool and harden as the volcanic event recedes.

Out of 130 active and extinct volcanoes, 18 of them have erupted in Icelandic history. Volcanoes not only create their own problems, such as ash that rises up to 30,000 feet, interrupting air traffic, but they have jokuhlaups. I know Juneau has jokuhlaups, but in Iceland they mean more than walking to Skater’s Cabin to see how high the water has risen. At various stations, wardens are prepared to shoot maroons into the air if there is a slight eruption on Katla. People don’t necessarily need to worry about lava flows, but even a slight eruption can melt the glacial ice and cause a major jokuhlaup. The shot fired by the warden should cause you to head to high ground immediately. However, because it is also Iceland, beware of the magnetic rocks from the Katla eruption, which create intense lightning strikes. So head to the hills, but don’t go up too high.

In this jagged enormity of a place that is relatively small, you find a populace that displays its own style. Icelandic clothing has a particular flair, as does its edgy contemporary music. After trying really hard to speak a few words in Icelandic, I’m convinced that it can’t be done by outsiders. Yes, they are nice enough to give you a simple word, tak, for thank you, but the real way to say thank you is tak plus something no one should be able to say. Their rhubarb jam does not even taste like rhubarb, and if you’ve tried to make rhubarb into something that doesn’t taste like rhubarb, I’m telling you it can’t be done. Everyone we met was kind, if focused on correcting my words. If they tell you that there are no trolls, elves, or fairies in Iceland, nod your head and say something unpronounceable.

• Corinne Conlon is a freelance writer based out of Juneau. In the growing months, she writes a column, “Dirt Girl,” for the Juneau Empire Outdoors section. She can be reached at dirtgirlgardening@gmail.com.

In an Icelandic landscape, keep an eye out for hudfolk (hard to see elves and other hidden folk.)

In an Icelandic landscape, keep an eye out for hudfolk (hard to see elves and other hidden folk.)

A path winds into the trees in Thorsmork.

A path winds into the trees in Thorsmork.

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