Iceland 2000

Part 4

The nearest attraction to the guest house I was staying at was the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and since I didn't want to drive more than necessary, I just went there and spent the day there.

The glacier lagoon is at another glacier tongue of the Vatnajökul glacier. The glacier is retreating and the melting water formed a lake. From time to time, bits of the glacier break off and fall into the lake, filling the lake with icebergs. Since the lake is not too big and there's only a small river running out of it, the icebergs can't float away and the lake/lagoon is filled with them.

Since I like icebergs, it was a perfect attraction for me. Even better was the fact that, after a bit of morning fog, it turned into a fine, sunny day and that the lakeshore is virtually empty except for the area immediatly around the parking lot. So I walked for an hour along the shore, got me a nice comfortable spot near the lake shore, sat down and just enjoyed the view.

Fog lifting from mountains near Jökulsarlon Morning fog lifting from Jökulsarlon Morning sun over Jökulsarlon Jökulsarlon at noon Jökulsarlon at noon

Just what I needed. A lake full of icebergs, a great view and a quiet place all to myself. After sitting there for some time I walked back, had a coffee at the shop and walked along the shore in the other direction. Walked for another hour, found a nice hill with a bit of a grassy patch which had a great view over the glacier, the mountains, the icebergs and another small lake nearby with grazing sheep. Perfectly idyllic place, soft, mossy grass, warmed by the sun. Just the place to lie down, read a book, doze in the sun, forget about the car troubles and just relax.

Small lake near Jökulsarlon Grassy spot overlooking Jökulsarlon - the perfect place

I knew that I'd be at the glacier lagoon again about a week later, because I had booked a tour then, but since the weather was perfect, I decided to take the tour among the icebergs, since the weather might be worse the second time around and then I'd probably regret not having done it now. (A wise choice.)

The tour among the icebergs starts at the parking lot. There isn't any landing place for boats at the lake (well, actually there is, but that's at a shallow place and only used for the rescue boat), so they use ex-us-army amphibian vehicles. So you board it on land and then they drive along the shore to a convenient place and enter the water there. I assume that they don't have a ship landing place build in deeper water, because that won't survive the first iceberg hitting it. So they drive along the shore to an access that's not blocked by icebergs and drive in there.

Sightseeing vehicle emerging from Jökulsarlon Sightseeing vehicle emerging from Jökulsarlon Sightseeing vehicle emerging from Jökulsarlon
Early afternoon at Jökulsarlon Early afternoon at Jökulsarlon Early afternoon at Jökulsarlon

And then you see the people with the weirdest job around. Iceberg pushers. Since the amphibian vehicles aren't iceberg proof and the icebergs swimm around the lakes, driven by wind, there is always the risk of an iceberg swimming in the way of the tour vehicle. To avoid that, there are three teams with Zodiacs (small, powerful inflateable moterboats) whose job it is to drive among the icebergs all day and push them aside. For the bigger ones, all three of them are converging towards the iceberg and push from one side.

Looks silly.

And I wonder how their CVs look after that summer job. It must be odd to have to explain to a new employer that your previous job was pushing icebergs around...

Iceberg pushers at Jökulsarlon

After the tour I walked around some more, took some more pictures, decided to call it a day and drove back to the guest house.

Late afternoon at Jökulsarlon Late afternoon at Jökulsarlon Late afternoon at Jökulsarlon Fog closing in on mountains near Jökulsarlon again

Next day I had to drive back to Reykjavik. Since it's a bit of a drive and I wanted to drive to Grindavik instead (which is an hour farther than Reykjavik, but that's where the car rental company was located) I started early and didn't stop much, so there are few pictures from that day and there is little to tell.

I arrived at Grindavik, went to the rental agency and told them, that I had problem with the second car as well. They took it surprisingly lightly and just said "so we have to find you yet another one for the next two days", and gave me the next car. After that it was back to Reykjavik.

Next day I got up early. I had a tour scheduled in the early afternoon and that was sort of halfway back to the Vatnajökull glacier, and I did not want to miss that tour.

There were also a couple of interesting places on the way which I had seen the previous day, but didn't want to stop then.

The first stop was Seljalandsfoss. Another waterfall. The great thing about this one was that you could walk around it, since there is a natural path behind it.

Seljalandsfoss Seljalandsfoss Seljalandsfoss (back view) Seljalandsfoss

Next stop was Skogafoss. Yet another waterfall. Not much to say except that it looked good and photographed well.

Skogafoss Skogafoss

And then, a bit further down the road the left turn towards the Myrdalsjökull glacier. Once again the road turned into a collection of rubble, but this time also steeply uphill. Determined not to damage this car as well, I drove the seven miles very, very carefully. I got to the end of the road without damaging the car. Phew!

There was a little wooden house next to the glacier and a handful of snowmobiles, since this is one of the places where they do snowmobile tours on the glacier. What they didn't have were any dogs. So I went in and asked about the dog sledge tours. They told me that the dogs were further out on the glacier itself and that they would drive me there with a snowmobile. I was the only one for a dog sleigh tour that day, so they gave me a snowmobile suit and drove me to the dogs.

After a while we arrived at the 'base camp', which was basically a bright red camping trailer with about two dozen dogs on the ice nearby. They started putting eight of them in front of the sledge and told me that I could pet the dogs, since they were friendly.

I didn't get close to the dogs before that because of all the stories about greenlandic sledgehounds, or specifically the note "Greenlandic sled dogs bear little resemblance to the drippy tongued, tail-wagging pooches most visitors probably associate with the breed. These seem to be only a generation or two removed from wolves and their perchant for snarling and howling - and their generally ill tempered demeanour - should be taken seriously. To approach them or try to pet adult dogs would be to court disaster."

When I was in Greenland five years ago, they did put it like this: "If you want to pet one of the dogs, make sure you use a hand you no longer need."

Ok, I was in Iceland, not in Greenland, but since there aren't any native to Iceland (actually dog sleigh travel is virtually unknown there, since the traditional mode of transportation are the Icelandic horses, the two dozen dogs on that glacier were probably the only sledge dogs in Iceland), I wasn't sure where they came from. Being told that most of them (except for the huskies) actually were Greenlandic sledge dogs didn't get me any closer to the dogs...

But they were quite friendly. The "only a generation or two removed from wolves" is mostly hyperbole and they aren't half-wild. The problem in Greenland is that the dogs are kept only as 'beasts of burden' and they are intentionally kept half-wild and agressive, because that makes them 'more efficient' and also a possible protection against polar bears if the need arrises. But if they are handled with care when they are puppies and if they are petted and played with as adult dogs, they are about as friendly and playful as any other dog.

Dog sledge home base Dog sledge tour - greeting the dogs

Then they had finished putting the dogs in front of the sleigh and off we went. Finally I was on a dog sledge tour. On real ice with a real sleigh (and not a VW beetle on a road as in Spitsbergen :-)

We started out in perfect weather, blue sky, bright sun, great view over the glacier. Perfect day for a tour.

The arrangement on the short tours (they offer one and three hour tours, I did take the three hour tour) is that you sit on the sleigh and the tour guide is on skis beside or behind the sleigh. The sleigh is supposed to seat five people, but I think it would be getting uncomfortable when you have more than three sitting there. But I was the only customer that afternoon anyhow, so I got the whole sleigh for me.

On the longer tours (they offer two and three day tours where you spend the night in a tent on the glacier) you have to be able to ski, since the sledge is filled with equipment. [I would have liked to do a two day tour, but since I can't ski, that was not an option.] But nobody does the longer tours anyway. I've been talking to the tour guide and he told me that most people just do the one hour tour, just to get a feeling for the experience and that's all. Even people taking the three hour tour are rare and they didn't have any bookings for any of the longer tours this year.

It seemed to me they had a bit of a PR problem. While they can handle about 45 people a day (they got three sledges at four people capacity for the short tours and three people capacity for the three hour tours, so they can do three one hour tours and one three hour tour with all sledges), they only had one customer that day: me.
[Update Spring 2002: Fortunatly that was only an start-up problem. They were only for a year in business at that time and travel agencies like to wait and see how things develop before they add tours like these to their travel brochures.]

Which I didn't mind at all, because I had a very relaxed tour, since the dogs wanted to run and the tour guide also seemed eager to get out of his caravan trailer for a change. Especially since the weather had just improved in the glacier and the preceeding week was just bad weather, storm and rain and they didn't get out of the trailer at all (except the few steps outside to feed the dogs).

The tour guide I had wasn't from Iceland. He was from Denmark and this was his summer job. He introduced all of the dogs, but only ones I remember are Zippo, Grizzly and Batman (the last one is the easiest to spot on the pictures, since he has a sort of 'bat sign' fur patch on his nose). What surprised me a bit is how often the dogs need rest. I usually seen dogs as a bit of long distance runners, but actually they're more like sprinters. They run about 15 minutes, then it's time for a five minute break (always good photo opportunities) and then off for the next 15 minutes.

At the start it was really 'dog sledding the picture postcard way'. Looks like I had picked the perfect day. Some time later, we got into a foggy bit, which was, surprisingly, equally great. While it may seem odd that dog sledding in the fog was as good as doing it in the sunshine, it was sort of 'out of this world'. Suddenly all there is in the world are you, the sledge, the dogs and the tour guide and an impenetrable whiteness all around. Feels a bit as if the outside world had ceased to exist...

Then it was already time to turn and go back to the 'base camp'. We had to take same way back that we went going up, since the dogs were basically untrained (like I said, Iceland is not typical dog sledding country) and they didn't even know commands for left and right, so the sledge couldn't be steered. What the dogs could do was to follow the snowmobile tracks. So we could only go where the snowmobile tours had gone before. (I wonder what they do on the two day tours, but I assume that the other dogs they have are more experienced.) [Note: what they actually do is to take a snow scooter on the longer tours as a safety backup, which they also use to lay the track. For soft snow they use one person walking in front, preparing the track.]

[Update Spring 2002: If you're trying to find them, please note that they've moved to Langjökull glacier. Their web site is here..]

Dog sledge tour with danish tour guide - ready to go Dog sledge - on the run Dog sledge tour with danish tour guide - rest in the fog Dog sledge tour with danish tour guide - rest in the fog Dog sledge tour with danish tour guide - rest in the fog View over Myrdalsjökull Dog sledge tour - dogs at rest Dog sledge tour - dogs, well, being cute... Dogs on the run

Dogs on the move video clips:
(These are admittedly a bit dull, since they mostly show, well, dog backsides, but at least they give a bit of a feeling of movement.)

Dog Sledge MPEG
10 Seconds
Dog Sledge MPEG
11 Seconds

Side remark: About a year after I went to Iceland, I did see the movie "Tomb Raider". When the story moved to the 'Death Zone' in 'Siberia', the scenery felt strangely familiar. They used the glacier lagoon in Iceland for those scenes. They even used the amphibic vehicles (although painted grey for a more 'military' look) in the movie. When I saw them using sledge dogs, I figured that they were probably using 'local talent' instead of importing the dogs to Iceland. So I wondered, whether I might recognize one of them. The most obvious dog to look for was 'Batman' (called that way due to the rather distinct 'mask' like pattern around his eyes). And yes, for a split second I thought I spotted 'Batman'. I had to wait for the video to make sure. The picture to the left shows 'Batman' having a rest during my dog sledge tour and the picture to the right is a screenshot from the 'Tomb Raider' movie. And while there is little positive to say about that movie, at least it probably qualifies for the movie that I have the weirdest connection with.)

Dog sledge tour - a dog named Batman Tomb Raider - a dog named Batman

Finally I drove down the moutain track carefully again (didn't want to damage the car on the last off-road bit) and drove back to Rejkyavik. Had a good view of the Vestmannaaeyar islands on the way.

Vestmannaaeyar in the distance
On to part 5