Touring Iceland During a Pandemic Window

By Jessica Shepherd

Back before the last presidential election results rolled in, we toyed with the idea of fleeing to Iceland - a land not so different from our beloved Alaska. This trip was a belated ground-truthing of sorts.

In mid-July Hal and I flew to Iceland for an eight-day camping trip. Several Homer friends had spoken wistfully about recent visits to the island, and when the country opened to vaccinated travelers in March, we booked flights on Iceland Air via Seattle. Despite being vaccinated, we didn’t feel confident staying in hotels or eating in restaurants, so we reserved a small Volks Wagon van. Moreover, tent camping in the rain for a week isn’t my idea of a good time, and glamor-camping or “glamping” in a van fit the bill. 

Flying north and east into the glow of the midnight sun, we were afforded an expansive view of the Greenland ice sheet and massive bergs bobbing in the Iceland Sea. While most of the other passengers slept, we leaned our foreheads against the window, awed by the radiant white landscape yet sobered by how rapidly the planet’s icebox is warming. 

We arrived at Reykjavik’s Keflavik Airport at 6:15 am, maneuvered through security, flashed our vaccine cards, and hooked up with a driver who delivered us to our van. Over the next several days we would explore the city of Reykjavik, drive the famed 130-mile Golden Circle, and make a clockwise loop around the 830-mile-long Ring Road which circumnavigates the island. 

What follows is not a blow by blow of where we stopped and what we did, but rather, our birds-eye observations of a country that is purported to be a shining example of environmental sustainability. Back before the last presidential election results rolled in, we toyed with the idea of fleeing to Iceland - a land not so different from our beloved Alaska. This trip was a belated ground-truthing of sorts. Consequently, our observations were informed by our focus on ecosystems and climate change. 

Things They Get Right (By Happenstance or Design):

For starters, because the Island sits atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates diverge, the country is rich in geothermal activity. This gives rise to active volcanos (the plume of the newly-awakened Fagradsfjall was visible from our aircraft), a plethora of hot springs, and a network of geothermal power plants that provide heat for 90% of Iceland’s 369,000 people. Additionally, Iceland has stepped up their agricultural production through the use of geothermally heated greenhouses. As campers, we took liberal advantage of the municipal swimming pools and hot showers that can be found in nearly every town, regardless of size. We also stopped to buy strawberries, cherry tomatoes, and farm eggs from a tiny market adjacent to an expanse of greenhouses along the scenic Ring Road.  

Recycling is easy in Iceland. There were receptacles for plastic, glass, and paper at every campground and grocery store along our route. And litter was nearly non-existent, even at well-traveled trails and tourist stops. This contributed to an overall sense of a pristine and untrammeled wilderness. To this end, “wild camping” in Iceland is prohibited by law. Instead, campers must camp in designated campgrounds with facilities to accommodate them. Costs ran about $14 per person per night, but that bought you a hot shower (most of the time), a kitchen area for meal preparation, and sometimes the use of a coin-operated washer and dryer. 

As an aside - the campground we stayed at in Myvatn had a unisex bathroom and shower house, which was a new one for us. We parked our little van among others near the edge of the lake and headed to the adjacent farmhouse to pay, walking past a section for tent campers amid a smattering of mature trees. The park-like grounds looked newly established, with two sets of outdoor sinks for washing dishes, and a row of built-in grills, but only one slim building with three stalls for showering and six for toilets. The sign on the door displayed both a man and a woman. Maybe this is the wave of the future, or maybe tourist season began before they could build a second shower house. 

Speaking of infrastructure, Iceland has worked hard to provide for the needs of the roughly two million tourists who descend on this northern Shangri-la each summer. The roads are well-maintained and free of pot-holes or frost heaves. On the other hand, they are narrow, have few passing lanes, and no shoulder for the dare-devil bike riders that abound. Apart from driving through downtown Reykjavik, which was tricky, traffic was never heavy. Because the great majority of Icelanders live within 100 kilometers of the capital region, the balance of the island has a rural, pre-21st Century charm. The northern landscape felt familiar to us, but with a European flavor.  

Iceland has lots to see and do if you’re outdoorsy people like we are. Well-marked hiking trails abound, waterfalls of all sizes delight, while Moonscape lava fields and jagged mountains create the backdrop for apocalyptic movies. We stuck mainly to the touristy route and didn’t shell out for Icelandic pony rides, whale cruises, or snorkeling, and quickly saw that we were only scratching the surface of all there was to see and do.    

Happily, for us campers, Iceland is without mosquitos.  Even the gnats, which are an occasional nuisance, don’t seem to be the biting kind. And, as with most other island nations, Iceland is devoid of large carnivorous mammals, which, oddly, takes some getting used to. The niggling worry that you’ll round a bend and find a moose or bear blocking the trail seems to be hard-wired after 30 years in Alaska. 

Interestingly, in 1000 AD, when the Danes first sailed to Iceland, they found heavily forested slopes of birch and aspen but no indigenous populations. Settlers proceeded to cut the trees for ships, houses, and firewood so that now most of the island, at least that portion not covered by glaciers or lava, resembles our northern tundra.  Sheep (which outnumber human inhabitants four to one), endearing Icelandic ponies, and purported reindeer wander in small clusters over knoll and swale. 

Recently, an effort to reforest hillsides in the native birch, as well as a variety of pine and spruce, has resulted in a new flush of growth on the slopes above grazing and agricultural lands. According to one camp manager who pointed us toward a hiking trail among the trees, 5% of the island is now forested. 

As an avid birder, I found opportunities to observe arctic tern, white wagtail, redwing thrush (similar to our robins), barnacle geese, and Eurasian oystercatchers. However, Atlantic puffins evaded us until our last full day. We had pulled off to walk a black sand beach on the south coast, following the tracks of Icelandic ponies on a trail ride. There, in the swell of waves, we saw sixty or so of the little birds and watched them fly to and from rugged bluffs above the bay. I had assumed we would only see them if we took a ferry out to their nesting grounds on the Vestmannaeyjar islands, and was delighted to observe these colorful cousins to our horned and tufted puffins. 

Of course, no travel narrative would be complete without a word about the food.  While we mostly subsisted on groceries (paying roughly Alaskan prices) and cooked at our campsite, we stopped each day en route for a freshly baked danish and strong European coffee or a bowl of lamb stew and salad. Halfway through our trip, we splurged on a dinner out in the quaint, coastal hamlet of Seydisjorur. In each case, the food was well-prepared and often utilized local meat, fish, and vegetables, plus barley for their dark bread. Cod and Atlantic salmon were readily available but, being Pacific salmon snobs, we didn’t partake. Rumor has it Atlantic puffin is served at some restaurants, although we never came across that particular delicacy, fortunately.  

Lastly, on the things they get right, Iceland has very little crime. We locked our van out of habit whenever we went to the grocery store or for a hike, but there was apparently little need to do so. I noted that bike locks are rare and I’ve read that people don’t generally lock their doors. On a parallel note, the island has a prison population of only 200, and two of the five prison facilities are open, meaning no razor wire or locked doors. Inmates shop for food in the village with a guard in tow and cook together in a communal kitchen. For comparison, Alaska, with twice the overall population, has some 5,100 people behind bars and spends more on prisons than it does on the university system. Something to ponder. 

Because Iceland’s population is very homogenous, (mainly tall, blond, and blue-eyed), and 80% are members of the Lutheran church, they lack the fracture lines of race and religion that so divide the United States. With most people related by blood or marriage, and a population smaller than any state in the U.S., things like mask mandates and Covid vaccines are not contentious. In fact, 85% of Icelandic residence over the age of 16 are vaccinated. The day before our departure, we stopped in a grocery store and found everyone masked up for the first time on our trip. When I inquired with a checker, she explained that Covid case numbers were on the rise, and a nationwide mask mandate was scheduled for midnight. Yet, here were people complying even before that deadline! 

Things They Can’t Control or Could Improve Upon: This is a short list because we were, after all, starry-eyed tourists. 

Iceland is all about glaciers with their waterfalls, and dramatic fjords with their sinuous beaches. But climate change is shrinking the iconic glaciers which cover 10% of the landmass at a rate only exceeded at the poles. In addition to losing a key source of fresh water, the current weight of the glaciers acts to suppress volcanic and seismic activity. As for the beaches, despite their remoteness, some act as catchalls for the world’s plastic. One beach we walked north of Reykjavik was littered with a confetti of tiny plastic pieces along with tangles of fishnets and other debris. At the water’s edge, a pair of female king eider ducks taught their fluffy chicks how to forage, doubtlessly ingesting plastic in the process. 

And, despite an extensive geothermal system to heat homes and businesses, along with nascent carbon sequestration efforts, Iceland emits more carbon per capita than any other European country. Like Alaskans, Icelanders like to drive big, gas-powered cars and trucks. This may be justified given their harsh winters and gravel roads beyond the paved tourist routes, but it does little to reduce a carbon footprint of 11.8 tons per person (which sounds paltry compared to Alaska’s 47 tons per person). Additionally, they maintain a robust fishing industry and accommodate ever more flights to disgorge tourists and serve as a stopover for intercontinental trips.

Speaking of tourists - tourism threatens to overwhelm Iceland. In 2019, Iceland hosted two million visitors - akin to doubling the number of tourists visiting the Kenai Peninsula each summer. (I shudder to imagine the Homer Spit accommodating that uptick.) The influx is both the life-blood of local businesses and a nightmare when it comes to accommodations, traffic, and parking. In addition to the crush of crowds at key attractions, tourists boost the carbon footprint of Iceland due to the cars, busses, and boats required to get around, as well as the shipments of goods to feed and maintain them. 

Our flight home took us over Greenland once again, though it was obscured by clouds. Those clouds, we later learned, were part of an atmospheric low pressure trapping warm water over the island. The following day, Greenland experienced a massive ice melt, with enough flow pouring into the ocean to cover the state of Florida with two inches of water. 

We came home to the first blush of fireweed and a garden cornucopia of strawberries, broccoli, and green beans. After our return, on a morning walk with the dogs, we stopped at a point overlooking Kachemak Bay and the glaciers beyond and agreed that there’s nowhere we’d rather live. Every country has its charms and challenges, but we will remain here, helping where we can, and enjoying all Alaska has to offer.