Dateline: July 8, 2013 – Selfoss, Iceland
Fine. Marta’s fish was bigger. Are you satisfied now?
After two days of being pounded on the merciless, gray North Atlantic, I wasn’t ready to stop fishing, but I was certainly ready to stop getting the crap beaten out of me. Little did I know that would merely be trading the physical abuse for mental torment, and that it would be coming from none other than Marta, who would have invited Jaime Hamamoto along if it hadn’t been a school day.
With a couple of days respite from the open water, we got to focus on playing tourist and exploring the rich and ancient culture on the island. An anthropologist would need go no further than a doorway to prove that these people are descended from Scandanavians, because most interior entryways feature the diabolical tripping device. (Details here)
The diabolical tripping device. The traditional Icelandic greeting upon entering a room is “Oh #$&%!! My toe!!”
But this is not all that demonstrates their common heritage – Icelandic is also replete with comically complex words, the pronunciation of which rarely bears any relation to the written form.
Foolishly, I tried to fake my way through a few words, which resulted in us going to the wrong town and in a tragic misorder at a restaurant. This can be serious business – these people think putrefied shark is a delicacy. Other words are just impossible. For example, the name of the volcano that trashed air travel in Europe for the summer of 2010: Eyjafjallajokull. Sure, it looks easy, but see below:
Eyjafjallajokull. This picture is on the dart board of every airline in Europe.
We saw all kinds of wonderful things, the two most interesting of which were thermal steam vents and puffins. Steam vents are an amazing thing. They pop up in all sorts of random places, like people’s back yards, and along with the occasional geysers found throughout the country, they made the place seem strangely alive. It is completely primeval, like New Jersey but colder.
Steam rises from random spots on a hillside. I was constantly on the lookout for lava, even in the living room, but we didn’t see any.
Vents can hiss out fumes like this …
Or they can gurgle like my aunt’s intestine. And these things are EVERYWHERE. For video, see http://youtu.be/yIPx3U5nLCc
We were also determined to see a puffin. These curious, orange-beaked sea birds nest by the millions on certain islands, and we would be unsatisfied unless we visited them. Following the advice of Marta’s guidebook, we drove to a small port in southern Iceland and took a ferry to Heimaey island. And we did see a cute animal almost immediately.
Random child on the ferry ride over to Heimaey.
As we sailed into the harbor, the cliffs on either side of us, carved out from countless years of savage weather, were jammed with nesting seabirds. But no one had mentioned that they nested rather high up the cliffs and were not exactly easy to spot.
The cliffs of Heimaey. There were thousands and thousands of puffins there, not that we got even remotely close to them.
Some of those white specks are puffins.
I did not take this picture. These are puffins. They are adorable. But no one ever sees them very close up because they live in cliffs, and sane people do not climb up cliffs just to see a bird.
They always look worried. I didn’t take this picture either, but whoever did had no fear of heights.
The harbor at Heimaey.
We wandered the town for an hour or so, then found a local restaurant and sat down for lunch. Marta was just commenting how beautiful the birds were when we noticed they had puffin on the menu. And whale. Of course, I’m sure that many cultures would find our diet disturbing, as I would if I ever actually researched what’s in a Cheese Whopper.
It was also in this town that Marta found her Icelandic sweater, which she insists is more attractive than mine. That’s the sweater just below – we’ll let you be the judge.
Many of the women looked like this, which shows us that the Vikings were no fools when it came to who they carried off from Ireland.
Nowhere in Iceland is it more evident that the volcanic activity is a part of daily life. The entire port here was nearly wiped out in 1973 when local volcano Eldfell (pronounced “Cleveland”) erupted. The port was saved by pumping millions of gallons of seawater onto the oncoming lava wall, but dozens of homes were destroyed. Walking on the hill above the current port, Marta found what she thought was an old cemetery, but the markers turned out to be for the houses that were destroyed – a graveyard of homes.
This was someone’s home.
This flower grows surprisingly well out of the lava.
Only a few hundred feet above the town, the landscape makes Iwo Jima look lush.
Of course, there had to be some fishing. Icelandic freshwater has limited species, but they do have Arctic Char, a trout cousin that I had never caught. We found a guide based in southern Iceland, about 90 minutes from Reykjavik. We made the drive early in the morning, passing through patches of dense fog, then areas of bright sunshine where we could see anything from mountains to green valleys to steaming moonscapes.
Our guide was Arni Skulasen, an impossibly-tall 17 year-old who had grown up fishing char, trout, and salmon on the rivers in southern Iceland. We had some trouble finding the village of Selfoss, as it turns out that Selfoss is not a village, it’s a farm.
A farm quite similar to Arni’s home, taken in a rare moment of sunshine. I got photos of the Selfoss farm, but it was raining then, and I liked this photo a lot better.
Arni suggested that we first try the river right in front of his home, which has a population of both char and salmon.
How’s that for a front yard?
As you know, Marta lives to catch species that I have not. She takes great pride in this, and has trashed several vacations with this thoughtless behavior. Jordan, where she caught a six-spot grouper on purpose and I did not, was especially painful.
The only six-spot grouper ever shown in an article about Iceland.
So it is completely understandable that I forgot to invite her for the morning fishing session. She went hiking while Arni and I cast the river. The location looked like it was out of a travel brochure, but alas, no char were biting. I had one hit from a salmon, but as we have covered, Atlantic salmon and I do not mix well. (Click HERE for the sordid details.)
Fishing the falls about a mile from Arni’s house. What a great place to grow up.
When the morning session didn’t result in a char, Arni was perplexed. “I am perplexed.” he said. “They are not biting. I don’t know where to take you now, unless you want to catch a really small one.” Needless to say, I jumped all over that. A species is a species. His idea was Lake Pingevillir, which apparently is full of smallish char, but as we covered, I have fished in hatcheries when circumstances dictated.
We got into the car for the drive over to the lake. We passed scenic vistas and bewildering road signs.
The top word means “Men’s Restroom.” The bottom word means “bad music.”
I thought about going in here and praying for an Atlantic halibut.
It was on this journey that Marta and I gained a closer understanding about the close but awkward relationship that the Icelanders have with Denmark. As is often the case where a remote colony has separated from the motherland, there is a bit of friendly abuse thrown back and forth. Arni explained to us that Icelanders can understand Danish, but that the Danes have a strong and comical accent, which sounds like, and I quote, that “They are speaking with a hot potato stuck in their throat.” There are also Danish jokes, just as there are Polish jokes, like “How many Danes does it take to bake a potato?” (Two – one to bake it and one to put it in the back of their throat. I didn’t get it either.)
The lake was gorgeous, and it managed to not rain for a couple of hours. The rocky beach we walked to was comfortable and shielded from the wind, and I was soon set up and casting. It didn’t take long to hook up – on perhaps my third cast, I connected with a char, and tacked another species onto the list. It certainly wasn’t a huge char, but I was very pleased. I kept casting and got several more.
Granted, not a beastly char, but a new species nonetheless.
Arni wades out into the lake.
Then Marta just had to say those two awful words – “My turn.” Things had been ideal until then, but if Marta started fishing, there was the possibility she would catch something rare and wonderful. Arni offered to teach her to fly fish, which would make it worse if she actually caught something. (No one likes a smartass, Arni.) So I gave Marta a fishing rod and a spoon. Predictably, on her first cast, she hooked into something. It was immediately obvious that it was larger than the fish I had been catching, and after a minute or two, she landed a char that was roughly twice the size of any char I had gotten.
Marta shows off her char. Well la-dee-da. It’s still a small one, even if it was slightly larger than mine.
Arni couldn’t help himself. “Now that’s a proper char.” he announced. I reminded him again that no one likes a smartass. Marta got in on the act. “Do the juveniles count the same as adult fish?” Ha ha ha. They continued this juvenile abuse all the way back to the farm at Selfoss, but I maturely ignored them, partly because my fish was indeed smaller and I had run out of comebacks, but mostly because I was deep in what passes for thought in my case. In just 24 hours, I would be 50 years old. Would I celebrate with a halibut, or would it be the worst birthday ever?