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On to Newfoundland and Labrador

On the last night of my first-ever trip to Iceland, we stayed at an airbnb in the hamlet of Vik. Rising early the next morning for the long drive to the airport, I opened my bedroom window and saw the Horn of Vik loom over the breaking dawn. 

As the nighttime shadows lifted, a white church appeared against a verdant mountainside.

Later, through the living room window, I spied the Reynisdrangar sea stacks, said to be the petrified remains of shipstealing trolls (here photographed from another vantage point). What I saw on one morning through the windows of one house made me want to return to Iceland again and again. And I have.

Most visits to Iceland start in Reykjavik, admiring the Hallgrimskirja Cathedral first from a distance,

And then from close up.

Nature-minded visitors to Iceland often make a beeline out of Reykjavik, but in doing so overlook a hidden gem. This is the Grotta Island Nature Reserve, with a skein of male eiders beating their wings against a fierce gale that has thrown up towering surf.

In Iceland the Ring Road encircles the country, and from it you will see greens and reds, lush in the frequent rain.

You will see farms backdropped by mountains,

and farms in the shadow of mountains. 

Iceland was founded by Vikings. Notwithstanding their reputation as fierce marauders, the Viking go-to profession was agriculture. The horses the Vikings took to Iceland have given rise to the small and hardy Icelandic breed, which is now protected from foreign diseases and genetic intrusion by a complete ban of horse importation. 

Icelandic horses are known for their friendliness, to each other and to any visitors who happen by. Curious folk might wonder what happens to all the horses, which are too numerous for every one of them to be ridden. In the interest of diplomatic discretion, it is perhaps better to pose this question to Google than to an Icelander. 

Iceland can also be experienced from small expedition ships. Here, the National Geographic Explorer, part of the Lindblad Expeditions fleet, ferries guests ashore in the remote Westfjords Peninsula.

Very late at night, when all were safe abed other than bridge and engine room watchkeepers, I slipped onto the deck of the NG Explorer and took this photo. This is Eldey Island, where, in June 1845, collectors killed the last known breeding pair of great auks. Like the former auk outposts in North America (see Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador pages), Eldey has become a fortress for northern gannets, but will never again be frequented by the only flightless seabird of the northern world.

Genetic analysis suggests that this stufffed specimen is the male of the pair that was killed on Eldey Island in 1845. Photo from Genes 8(6)10.3390.

Cruise guests also visit remote and tiny Flatey Island, in medieval times a renowned centre of higher learning. The Saga of the Greenlanders, which recounts Norse exploration of the New World, was preserved here.

The Icelandic word for waterfall is foss. There are fosses everywhere. Valagil Foss is on the left and Rjukandafoss is on the right.

The Glymur Trail leads to a spectacular gorge with cascading fosses. But first you must descend through a cave, and then teeter across a log bridge.

Here's one of the fosses you'll see near the top.

Sometimes it's better to walk right past a foss that's crowded with tourists. If you climb the 400+ steps above Skogafoss (under the spray plume in the photo), you can follow a trail for miles upstream, and watch the water tumble down dozens more fosses and rapids.

In southern Iceland, glaciers reach for, but don't quite touch, the sea.

But at Jokulsarlon, a glacier calves mini-icebergs into a seaside lagoon. Some of these strand on the ocean beach, posing a slippery challenge for climbers.

A harbour seal surfaces in the ice lagoon. Why is the seal foraging in frigid glacial meltwater, and not in the warmer water outside? For the answer, read my paper in Marine Ecology Progress Series 356:239-250.

Let's close with some geology. Warring tectonic plates meet under Iceland, causing the earth to spit, gurgle, and hiss vapour. 

Those warring plates also blast up volcanoes of many shapes and sizes. The Hverjfall Crater, in northern Iceland, was thrown up 2,500 years ago when molten lava turned liquid water into explosive steam.

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