Popular Science Monthly/Volume 72/January 1908/A Trip Around Iceland IV

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A TRIP AROUND ICELAND
By L. P. GRATACAP

AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

IV

THE Almannaja formed the western boundary of this sunken land, and for one mile this extraordinary and unique face of rock extended in a straight line like some artificial creation of masonry. A moatlike trough at its foot held the waters of the Oxara river, which leaped in a high waterfall from its northern extremity.

In the canon of the Almannaja, from whose eastern edge the road descends to the hotel, every imaginable phase of dislocation and rupture of the surface of igneous rock was seen, and for long distances, beyond the immediate edge of the high palisade, the ground was upheaved and depressed, alternately, by the occurrence of small deep fissures, in whose obscure and hidden recesses the snow lay. These minor rips and tears in the ground were very interesting. Slaggy looking, ropy, circular mats of the original viscous lava were seen everywhere. The complete demonstration of the viscous pasty flowage was most significant and authentic. The falling masses, blocks and columns choked up the chasms in many places, and made bridges across the rifts. This whole plain is confusedly cracked and opened, the main lines of fission running the length of the valley. The crevices thus formed showed every imaginable state of tumbling—in walls, splits and chaotic rubbish of stones and columns, quite hopelessly attacked by plants and lichens in an effort to straighten out and soften its rugged and gaunt confusion.

Our next stop was to be Geyser, where the hot-water fountains are supposed to play with commendable constancy and where—for truth's sake—we venture to affirm, they don't.

The ride to Geyser was made in two parts. We stopped half-way at a farmhouse, where I saw something of the domestic life of these people, and where—God save the mark—I ate skyr. Skyr is a curdled sheep's milk, peculiarly sour and preposterously unpalatable. It is eaten with cow's milk, and is thick, pasty and—intolerable. It would require a Mark Twain to do it justice. With the skyr went a tray full of dreadful bread of two varieties, one a sour black bread, looking like leather flakes, the other whiter and only a little less propitious for the appetite. A third gastronomic enormity was an awful dark brownish yellow granular cheese in a tin. It smelt like old hay and only Providence knows how it tasted. The saving relic of this feast was crackers and coffee. Still the hospitality was sincere and appreciated, though for the honor of its recipients it may be stated that it was paid for. The guide and myself bunked in the room where the above banquet was displayed, each on a feather bed with another one on top of that as covering.

After leaving Thingvallir we followed a rude trail over stony ground in the rifted country. The ground rose, until we dominated the broad expanse of the Thingvallir vatn, the superb and enormous expanse of water lying between hills and mountains, with some steeply slanting wedge-formed mountains shooting out of its placid waters, as if partially submerged by the eastward tipping of its basin. The view backward in the clear air, in which no trace of contamination lingered, was indeed beautiful, and the little red-roofed church as a spot of color in the scene brought with it the needed suggestion of some sort of human occupancy.

We stumbled along up natural steps of rock, near the edge of the lake, sharply rising, and later crossed the dry and contorted lineaments of the Hrafnagja (raven's wing); another rift, companion to the mighty Almannaja, less august, and more rudely formed. We were now in the "lava beds," a tangled barren region strewn with fragments of rock and thinly invaded by soil and flowers. It seemed almost as if we were on the back of the land, and looking off to its dispersed members below us. The rocks about us were vesicular, slaggy and scoriaceous. Some blistered pieces might have come from a shaft furnace. This region was most desolate, marked also by low shafts or irregular prominences of rock, while with festive hopefulness cow-berry and plantain, grass of Parnassus, ground pinks and other flowers decorated the niches or clung charmingly to the ledges and interstices of the rocks.

All the while the superb pictures north and south changed and developed. We were now approaching a most congruously strange and sterile cinder range; crater-like peaks deeply disintegrated, with long absolutely bare slopes of black and red palagonitic fragments, piled up at the limital angle of rest like the slack from a mine, or the slag from a furnace. We seemed to be in a burnt-out world, as if we might be traversing the surface of the moon. The original palisaded structure of these mountains was destroyed, until they had become heaped-up cones of rubble with very dark cavities. They were the Kalfstindar in which Thoroddsen found intrusive basalts.

We descended from the "lava beds" by a steep path to a broad

grassy flat meadow that skirted the very foot of the sinister Kalfstindar. The coloring, in brown, black and purple was extremely fine, and the sharp points of some hills falling away in long slopes of debris, with, here and there, remaining bulwarks of the parallel

PSM V72 D085 The kalfstinder ranges.png

The Kalfstinder Ranges.

interbedded igneous rocks, and with others broken down into broad mounds of flowing stream-like pebbles were wonderfully strange.

Iron oxide was significantly present everywhere, in the water and marshes, and, later, as we crossed peninsulas of outstretched combs from the mountain sides, it glistened as an iridescent film on the mirrors of the mountain streams. Heckla now came gloriously in sight over another arm of the immense plain, beginning in the Thingvallir vatn, and was superbly gleaming in its icy mantles, while removed from it to the south were the Tindfjallajökull and the Eyjaffjallajökull.

The beautiful Laga vatn spread its mirrory surface below us, imbedded in prairies of meadowland, and all radiant with unchecked sunshine, while along its edges and up its arms rose columns of snow-white steam from its hot springs. Here we stopped for rest at the farmhouse mentioned above, after skirting the mountains by an excellent narrow road winding through a shrubbery of dwarf birch, and huckleberry bushes.

The farm was characteristic. It consisted of five or six structures

PSM V72 D086 A little oasis in a lava field.png

A Little Oasis in a Lava Field.

in contact with each other, three with wooden fronts, and one with glass windows, the rest with doors entering dim vault-like chambers between immensely thick walls of stone, interleaved with turf. Behind the central wooden house, with the windows, was a high rick-like roof composed of turf and green with grass surmounted by a small square chimney, and this roof covered a crypt-like kitchen. This extraordinary troglodytal abode was entered over a stone pavement which, rising slightly, conducted the sightless visitor to the penetralia of gloom and cooking. Inside of this semi-subterranean passage, forming its walls, was a formidable structure of stone and turf. Turf and stone houses for sheep and cows and horses were scattered about. The walls of these buildings are five or six feet thick, and, once sealed in them, it seems likely that the heat of the imprisoned animals would maintain a very comfortable temperature, even in the dreadfully severe winters.

One peculiar feature of these farm colonies is the enclosure, like a wall, which marks them. In the farm I visited, this wall at one point was twelve feet thick. Within it the farm houses, a kitchen garden.

PSM V72 D087 The kalfstinder mountains.png

The Kalfstinder Mountains.

hay ricks and outlying folds are embraced, and curiously the floor of the enclosure around the houses is raised with turf, so that the whole resembles a low diminutive fortification. It seems probable that this is done to give stability to the "living unit," and enable it to withstand the mountain streams which surge around it in the spring freshets, when the mountain snows melt and to them is added the burden of deluging rains.

When we left this ideally placed homestead, in full view of the remote jökulls, of Heckla, of the Lagarvatn and its boiling caldrons, we followed the trend of the mountains, descending also to the plain below, crossing streams and zig-zagging over misleading trails. Gradually an intervening range on the horizon shut off Heckla, all but its steely cap, and over a soggy morass—the footing in such places is perilous from buried quicksands—we passed around a low mountain and found ourselves on the inclined plain of the Geyser basin, the steaming water holes emitting white plumes of condensed vapor over its verdureless tract. Long before we reached this expectant point where the object of our long journey revealed itself, we crossed one of

PSM V72 D088 Icelandic farm.png

Icelandic Farm.

the most picturesque of the Iceland rivers—the Bruaau—or, at least, seen under the splendid blaze of the noonday sun, its snowy tresses and leaping crested waves appeared so. Formerly the dismayed tourist crossed it at a ford higher up than the present position of a very reassuring bridge, and the passage could not have been always easy. The water pours into a long medial crevice—splitting the basaltic floor of the stream—from either side, and, though the fall is slight, the concussion of the opposed tides is vehement enough to drive it up into turbulent waves that rush down the polished slope, below the crevice, in tumultuous disorder. At Geyser the visitor has arrived at a silicious ridge, undermined by tortuous passages, tubes and chimneys, which issue on the surface in a great number of holes, and, as Kuchler remarks, make a sieve of the ground. Some of these holes are gasping out a little sulphuretted steam, others are sputtering hopelessly with no results, others are quite lifeless, but present warm edges and yellow-stained throats; still other large circles are full to the brim of a pale green, beautifully clear, hot water, and you look down into chambers veiled and curtained with creamy geyserite. Many of

PSM V72 D089 Palagonite between laganvatn and geyser.png

Palagonite, between Laganvatn and Geyser.

these latter are most fascinating. The larger, deeper pools are near the "hotel," and the Geyser itself is the center of a mound of sinter, about a stone's throw away. It forms a large circular pool, whose floor shelves off to a wide descending pipe, into which one eagerly strains one's eyes for a possible glimpse at the infernal machinery which works them all. It keeps its opaline eye staring wide open, sheds a few tears from time to time, which pour in little cascades down the slant outer sides, but never, by any chance rewards the tired spectator with an explosion. Still Geyser is an exciting sort of place, and what its bigger brother fails to do a much smaller fountain meritoriously endeavors to perform. In the morning and afternoon this industrious steam-pipe gets to work, and shoots up a column some fifteen to twenty feet high, and what is missed in magnitude is made up in the number and continuity of its emissions. It makes a very commendable restitution for the patience lost on its big somnolent companion. There is a very wide and profuse deposit of geyserite at this place which may extend a mile or so outward to the south from the hills north of the "hotel." Above the geyser plain on the hillside, about one hundred

PSM V72 D090 On the way to the geyser.png

On the way to Geyser.

to one hundred and fifty feet, and below the trap of the Laugafjall are extinct geyser sites forming six to seven well-marked craters. The geyserite broken and disintegrated builds up these mounds, and they slope down to the upper active geyser tract by narrow fissures or defiles (water courses), between rounded low backs of red or white ochreous soil. The source of the heat apparently lies towards the north and probably below the trap-hills.

It seems also likely that a deposit has choked up the various channels of a few larger geysers, which have thus become dissected into a number of smaller ones which by tortuous passages now are probably connected with the original larger conduits.

Then on to Gullfoss, across a "bad" river, the Tungufljot, and ever a rolling country in which there are farmhouses, bogs and singular desert-like tracts of stony fragments and sand, which latter has been sculptured and heaped up by wind. On the way the glorious high back and silver surfaces of the Bläfellsjökull are seen shining against an icy blue sky, and behind an effective frame of serrated peaks—the Iarthettur—which blackly show up in minarets and saw-tooth outlines against its frigid sides. It made a supreme picture.

PSM V72 D091 The bruaau on the way to the geyser.png

The Bruaau on the way to Geyser.

The climax was the Gullfoss. For half a century travelers who have reached this waterfall have given it their enthusiastic esteem, and as a "show card" for Iceland it's a winner. It is not so large, so immense; it does not possess mere physical dimensions, but it is a spectacle of astonishing beauty, and is so set in the loneliness of nature as to produce an astonishingly strong and thrilling impression. You come suddenly in view of it after the gallop over the sand plain, and its roar, the distant confused movement of the water and the shooting spires of spray fairly daunt you. Here the waters of the Hvitaau pour over one palisade of rock about forty feet high, and turning a right angle tumble about one hundred feet into the whirling resounding gulf of a narrow, deep canon that is cut southward between walls about three hundred feet high, which again farther south become almost one thousand feet in height. The upper fall is broken by intercepting partitions of rock. The falls are in process of recession, and the upper, by the more rapid removal of the possibly more easily disintegrated middle bed of rock, has slipped away from its lower companion. As the water boils and surges over the descending shelf between the upper and lower falls, it makes a very turbulent display.

PSM V72 D092 The laugafiall mountains near geyser.png

The Laugafiall Mountains near Geyser.

Then it dips and drops into the hidden crevice somewhere below your feet, reappearing in the constricted throat below in awful commotion. As it drops, the dashed, splintered, pulverized masses of water send up sheets of vibrating particles from which the sun evokes a galaxy of rainbows.

The basalt rock is here seen in two series—an upper and lower—and these seem separated by slaty material. This last is, however, igneous in nature, though, peeked at from the overhanging cliff, it curiously resembles a conglomerate in spots, becoming, however, near the falls, columnar. There are curved heavy columns, and parallel and converging columns, in the rock at upper points of radiation in the lower flow. The top flow is divided from the lower by an interbedded formation, which also has a sedimentary appearance. The flows are well marked and the basaltic columns well developed.

We turned our ponies backward. It really seemed as if the great wonders of Iceland were only beginning. Heckla was abandoned for want of time, and we returned regretfully to Reykjavik.

The present-day Icelander has felt the stirring agencies which

PSM V72 D093 Clay and geyserite in ravine geyser.png

Clay and Geyserite in Ravine, Geyser.

everywhere in national life are advancing ideals, improving methods of living and awakening commercial ambition. This is more marked now since, after long years of almost fruitless agitation, the home government—I mean the governmental functions exercised in the island itself is placed in the hands of Icelanders, and a practical sympathy with its needs has already established useful changes. It would seem dangerous to go too far in an effort to separate the island from Denmark, as a parental supervision implying support and protection is indispensable. The maintenance of banks, a more general utilization of a medium of exchange, increased facilities of obtaining manufactured articles, internal improvements, in the extension of roads, building of bridges, telegraph connections, have all sensibly contributed to awaken the Icelander, given him new satisfactions, stirred the desire for accumulation, and introduced to his attention new projects for the development of natural advantages, as, for example, the possible use of water power for electrical and manufacturing ends.

There is a strong mentality in the Icelander that is not inappositely united with imaginative power, and combined with distinctively religious propensities; such a nature under the stimulus of education develops strong and helpful personalities and remarkable powers of acquisition. Scholarship is far from uncommon, and skill in composition is admired and displayed. A slight social segregation is perhaps becoming evident as competency, educational opportunities and self-indulgence separate an upper from the more peasant classes. Yet the traditional democratic instincts remain and will always assert themselves at any national crisis. At present, political agitation for some sort of hegemony should be discouraged, and every energy bent towards the processes of amelioration by which transit over and through the island will become facilitated, more of its interior occupied, flocks increased, manufactures laid down and comfort disseminated.