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Vail Daily travel: Have you cycled a fjord lately?

Matthew Cull
Vail Daily travel correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Vail Daily/Matthew CullVail Daily travel: Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, on the Jokulsa A Fjollum river in Iceland
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My journey east across the north of Iceland followed the coast through a succession of fjords. The road hugged the shoreline with birds dotted across the level blue expanse on one side, and steep tundra covered slopes leading up to long high cliff lines on the other.

The blue skies hid the chill of the air that blew down fresh off the Arctic. I had tailwinds going into the fjords and tailwinds coming back out. Across the water, smooth white Drangajokull ice cap sat on the range as a cloud-like apparition hugging the horizon; snowbanks streaked the hillsides and reached as far down as sea level.

With each fjord, the landscape calmed and the slopes became more gentle and rounded. The cliffs shrank and the plateau lost some of its lofty altitude. I left the coast and climbed onto the plateau.



Far from the world of vertically sided fjords, the plateau was an undulating plain, a soggy world of squelching tundra, hundreds of lakes and snowbanks contributing to rushing streams. In the distance, the plateau rose to rounded high points completely white with snow.

I returned to the fjords and continued south. The many arms of the Westfjords narrowed to a thin isthmus and joined onto Iceland’s mainland. I collided with Highway 1, the ring road that circles the island, and I lost my almost traffic-free roads.



I battled north into the wind and cut across ever-widening and lofty peninsulas between huge fjords that were mere funnels for the wind. Under sullen gray skies I climbed to mountain passes surrounded by steep slopes that rose into the clouds.

This was horse country. The short sturdy Icelandic horses with bushy tail and long mane flowing in the breeze gave me steady stares of curiosity at my passing, then occasionally, would run beside me across the tundra.

Around the fjords it was also, like most of coastal Iceland, farming country. Farm buildings, always with white walls and red roofs, sat among smooth green fields that contrasted with the brown bumpy tundra around them. Ewes and their clean white or black lambs dotted the fields, huge stacks of plastic-covered hay balls sat nearby and water birds helped themselves to the grass. Above, steep slopes rose to peaks, plateaus or snow – the intimidating awe of nature was never far away in Iceland.



I came to Akureyri, at 17,000 folks, Iceland’s second-largest town. Clean, spacious and modern, it sits beside a fjord surrounded by peaks. A wonderful place to live, it wasn’t so cold and/or dark so much of the time.

But it is this cold, dark and wind that is Iceland’s savior. In a country rarely less than spectacular, it would soon be overrun by year-round admirers if it didn’t have something domineeringly miserable in it’s favor. As it is, I will be glad to be off the roads when July comes around.

I left the coast and fjords and continued east. I came to Myvatn, a large shallow lake sitting squarely on the rift zone of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. I hiked to volcanic cones and peaks, past steaming fissures, crater lakes, caves and cliffs. A geothermal power station put all this cheap energy to use and made electrical power and hot showers for the locals.

I came to the canyon of the Jokulsa A Fjollum, a huge gray slurry of a river that drains from the Vatnajokull ice cap to the south. The canyon was cut by cataclysmic floods resulting from volcanic eruptions. Even these days, the river can fill a large house with water in four seconds and dumps a house-load of sediment in the Atlantic every hour.

It warmed. I hiked all day in shorts and shirt, something I had thought to be physically impossible in Iceland. I walked above and below the cliffs of columnar basalt, past streams of clear, cold water erupting from cliff faces and scrambled around huge bulbous forms of rock. Flowers were beginning to bloom in the tundra, and short twisty birch trees were bursting into leaves.

I cycled down a nasty gravel road to a series of three waterfalls – one, Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. As the wall of water descended, the spray rose into the air, drenching the canyon walls and leaving a double rainbow hanging in the middle of the canyon.

I rejoined pavement and cycled east, across a high plain where tough grasses made a hardscrabble existence from the barren, undulating land of dark grey rock and sand.

I am now in Egilstadir, on the eastern side of Iceland. From here I turn south and follow the coast. Big glaciers and more fjords entice me along my way.

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