Sunday, August 14, 2016

Bikepacking Iceland Week 2: Water Fever


We woke to a dull orange pallor filling the tent and a glance out the vestibule door revealed a veil that blotted out any hint of sunlight. Thinking at first that the valley had filled with geothermal steam, my caffeine starved brain was quickly roused when cold, numb fingers fumbled the lighter. After two beautiful days, the cold and wet had returned.




We enjoyed a leisurely morning, making coffee and breakfast while lounging in the comfort of the hot river beside our tent. Packing up, we continued our ride down the valley. After the few days of sunny recovery, we were able to appreciate the beauty of the hide and seek being played by water, land, and cloud. A few miles descent of double track interspersed with rock gardens and speed was engaging and fun. It was mountain biking. It ended at the pavement too soon, like any other great ride. But instead of loading our car and heading home, we had another two weeks to spend on our bikes.



Turing south, we rode the Ring Road for seven long and terrifying miles. Being Iceland's only highway and only road circling the country, the Ring Road is like most other highways in the world. A high volume of cars, semi trucks, hordes of tour buses, tractors...etc travel it at 60+ mph. There's a caveat, however. There are only two lanes and little to no shoulder. Add in cold, wind, rain and it quickly becomes a harrowing experience. Those that choose to ride the full circumference of the island on the Ring Road have a different mindset from us. Or perhaps they have more wine!



Seven miles was our limit this day. We hopped on a bus and cruised south to a point where we hoped to travel inland on the many 4x4 roads transecting the country.



Gravel crunched under our tires while we rode, taking in the massive glacial valley. I counted 14 waterfalls from a single rise in the road and the glacier could be seen spilling over cliff edges in between drifting clouds. When the time came to cross an earthen bridge over one of the many braids of milky river, a herd of wild horses grew curious and in moments, we were surrounded by nearly 20 of the inquisitive animals. One of the horses almost pulled Keri from her bike by munching a loose pack strap, earning it a smack on the nose. Another nudged the side of my face as we nervously pushed through. For a second, it seemed like we'd been adopted into the herd as they followed us down the road for 200 meters before being distracted by their stomachs.



Heavier than normal snows and a cool spring had delayed the opening of many interior roads and reports didn't seem to agree on which were or were not passable. Traveling on fatbikes, we'd easily pass through mud, snow, etc...but fording a fast, cold, and deep glacial river would be difficult if our chosen road was closed on the far end.

Typically, if one waits long enough, cyclists can hitch a ride over the rivers with a passing Super Jeep and continue on. If the roads were closed where we were headed, there would be no passing Jeeps and no way to cross.


Lonely Sole
You don't know till you go.


We pushed up steep grades until the clouds were draped around our shoulders and crossed trackless banks of snow. That didn't bode well.


Untracked snowy roads meant the road was closed and no Jeeps would be coming our way. And a river proved to be the end of this excursion. We reversed our route, fighting chattering teeth and a cruel headwind. The following morning we decided to buckle down and ride south on the Ring Road to Skogafoss for a hike and rest day. We hid from the ceaseless rain and mist in a nearby restaurant, sampling Icelandic beer and watching Euro Cup soccer.





We continued towards Vik, doing our best impression of drowned rats, stopping to see whichever sights sounded interesting and bypassing even more due to the dismal conditions.





Meeting her first glacier
Checking out an enchanted cave
I vividly remember Keri's fist pumping in the air while riding past the "Welcome to Vik" sign in pouring rain. At some point in between a hot shower and hot food, while crowding around a laptop watching Iceland beat England, some fellow travelers mentioned how they'd really enjoyed the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar). A day later, with a favorable forecast, we rode into the bowels of  a ferry and were spat out onto a new shore less than an hour later.




Hiking over a ridge rising steeply above our tent, we suddenly had the island to ourselves. The steep, grassy hillside faded into crashing blue water and we found what we'd hoped to see. Scores of Puffins had made their homes in the grass and we were just in time for their dinner show. We sat laughing while they zipped through the sky, went crashing into the ocean, and occasionally tumbled beak over tail upon their landing. I wish I'd had a longer lens...A cold wind and our own grumbling bellies chased us to our home for the evening. 





A few laps in the local playground warmed us up!


In 1973, a volcanic eruption resulted in the evacuation of the island. Once the eruption ceased there was a newly formed mountain, Eldfell, marking the event. Now, volcano looms over town and has become a popular hike for visitors. We decided to put our fat tires to good use, because why hike when you can ride?

Each hiker we passed had a perplexed look on their face. We just grinned and tried not to get blown over by seeming hurricane force gusts and staked our claim for the first fatbike ascent and descent of Eldfell. 




We ended our day with some further exploring and a local soccer game. At some point, we both decided that we'd done all we could on the island in little over a day and were in an early phase of island fever. Rainy weather enforced our decision to speed back to the mainland.


As driving rain hammered the bus' windshield, I felt rather smug passing by drenched cyclists knowing that we could easily be in the same spot. But we weren't. This time. 



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