Sunday, July 1, 2012

Iceland – Day 4: Húsavík

Our fourth day in Iceland was spent in Húsavík without the need to travel onward to another town.  After our marathon day of travel on Thursday (day 3 of the trip) it was good to have some time not to feel the pressure of having to reach a new town.

Back in May I had made reservations for us to go on “North Sailings” Puffins and Sails excursion.  This is a daily trip that leaves at 9:30AM and 1:00PM with an expected time at sea of 3 – 4 hours.  Unfortunately for us, despite the fact that I worked diligently to get my butt out of bed at a reasonable hour, I didn’t end up making that happen until 8:40AM, which at the time didn’t seem like we would have enough time to make the departure.

After kicking myself and continuing to lie around in bed for another 5 minutes, I decided “what the hell” we can still make this trip if we want.  So at 8:45AM I swung into action – brushing my teeth, making myself look presentable and stuffing all the things we would need into my backpack.  Once I got Zack awake and out of bed, we were on our way to the hotel dining room for breakfast by 8:55AM.  Stuffing down a quick breakfast was easy as I thought for me it was probably going to come right back up on the boat.  (I have been known to suffer from sea sickness in rough seas and given the cloudy, windy nature of the morning, I figured the seas were going to be rough and hence I would be puking.)

After breakfast we jumped into the car and sped the short distance to the harbor and our awaiting boat.  Our reservation was still valid and I paid the ticket fee.  Before we ran off to the boat, I complimented the woman selling the tickets on her lack of an Icelandic accent.  In reply she said – “yeah, kind of hard to have an Icelandic accent when I am from Wisconsin.”   I was amazed to find an American living and working in this unbelievably small, off the beaten path place.  But this followed a general theme as in the town of Suðureyri we had met the chef for the restaurant at the small hotel in which we stayed.  She too was American and had been living in Iceland for the last 4 years.  Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to ask her from what state she was.  Both of these people seemed very happy with their choice to make Iceland at least their temporary homes.

With our tickets in hand we made a beeline towards the ship on which we would sail.  It was a three mast sailing ship called the Hildur.  At the gangplank to get on board we were each given a set of heavy duty overalls to put on.  These overalls would keep us very warm in the cold and damp air of the bay and if we fell overboard they would also keep us afloat.

One other group got on board the boat after us but as soon as they were settled we pushed back from the dock and began our journey.  Though the ship was primarily a sailing ship it also head engines that allowed it to make way against the wind and manuveur in the confined area of the harbor. 

We set off under engine power with a first destination of “Lambley” Island also know as “Puffin Island” for all the puffins that make the island their home during breeding season.  As soon as we approached the island you could see why it was called “Puffin Island” as there were puffins everywhere.  Iceland is home to about 60% of the world’s puffins – somewhere between 8 and 9 million of them.  This little rocky island is home to over 200,000 puffins during breeding season.  Talk about a lot of puffins!  We learned other remarkable facts about these unusual birds.  They are ungainly in both the air and on land.  Water seems to be there native element as they spend ½ of the year living entirely on the water without ever touching land.  They can do this because they have uniquely adapted so that they can drink sea water.  Additionally, their skills in the water are fantastic as to catch their food they can dive to down to over 70 meters deep!

The captain spent a considerable amount of time taking us around ¾ of the island to see all the rookeries and all the countless birds that made this island their home.

After our encounter with the birds of “Puffin Island” we headed out to the open waters at the center of the bay and the open ocean itself.  Within 20 or so minutes we had our first contact with a whale.  At first all we could see was the water spouts from when it surfaced to get a breath of air.  As we got closer to the spot in which the whale was it seemed to disappear.  We were all focused looking to the one side of the boat when I happened to turn the opposite way and caught a sight of it breaching the surface.  I gave out a shout and almost everyone was able to turn and see it raise its fluke as it headed for a deep dive.

We stayed in this spot for another 15 minutes seeing the whale breach the surface numerous times.  Then we headed to another spot to the west in which whales more commonly gather to feed.

This second spot was very remote and very far away from any kind of civilization.  You come to realize as you are out in this remote and isolated environment that there is little to no back up in case things go wrong.  There are not Icelandic coast guard vessels on 24x7 call to come to the rescue of every single boat that gets into trouble.  This is definitely not like some calm coast waters of the United States in which there is constant radar surveillance of all the boats and ships on the water.  Only in Reykjavik did we see any evidence whatsoever of a Coast Guard presence.  This is an absolute world in which the crews of boats/ships live and die by their own experience.  If a boat or ship gets into trouble here, the only help that is going to come will be from other vessels in the area – that is it.

 (The tail of a humpback whale disappearing under the waves.)

Maybe because it was more remote and less frequented by whale watching ships we got to see 3 different whales.  Or perhaps the food source in the waters below was just more plentiful than in the other spots of the bay/ocean.  I don’t know but it seemed that there were whales popping up to breath all the time.  We saw 3 or 4 different whales in this spot.  Due to the unique nature of their tails the ship’s guide was able to identify each of them as humpback whales.  How unique was this for Zack and me to see so many of these wonderful yet endangered whales!
The crew of our ship was a unique group.  There were 3 of them – the captain who appeared to be of a long seagoing background based upon his ruddy checks and thick mustache and two much younger men who did all of the physically hard work to run the ship.

When I speak of physically hard work to run the ship there was a lot of it!  After we spent an hour or so in the second spot, we turned back to Húsavík to return to port.  It was at this point that the captain had his two crew men raise the sails and he cut the engines.  There were a total of 5 sails that were used to sail the ship.  I can’t remember the names of all 5, but the first 3 at the front of the boat where gibb sails and one of two large sails was called a schooner sail.  Our two crew men spent a considerable amount of time and effort getting those sails raised and in place.  It was a remarkable feat that they performed to raise these sails all by themselves.  It seemed that it should have taken 4 different men to raise them all.

 (Here we are as happy sailors.  No sea sickness for us!)

What was really interesting about watching these men raise the sails was the unique way they each did their job.  You could tell that they had probably learned sailing skills from their fathers or older family members because the each did the job slightly differently.  They had obviously learned how to do this from different people.

The other amazing thing about the work was how hard it was.  By the time the sails were finally raised both of these very in shape young men were red in the face, sweating like no tomorrow and huffing and puffing.  I gained a true appreciation for the work that is required to sail a boat. 

 (The two guys in black were our intrepid crew who raised and lowered the sails.)

I am sure that any of these three men could out do any Olympic sailing team or any America’s Cup sailing team.  These guys had obviously seen times in the past where their lives depended upon how well they could sail a boat.

Once the boat was under full sail, it seemed to leap out of the water and into motion.  When it was under engine power it was hard to tell how fast we were moving.  Once the sails were hung, it was obvious that the boat was moving fast.  Due to the direction of the wind, the boat was riding low to the stern side and the port was high.  I estimated the deck was at a full thirty percent slant as it made it’s way through the waves.  Every time we hit a wave the boat would bounce up and down by at least 4 – 5 feet.  For those of us inexperienced in sailing ships it made it hard to move around.

 (The boat under full sail!)

The sensation of sailing didn’t agree with everyone on board and one woman ended up puking over the side.  Unfortunately for Zack and me and several other people sitting next to her, she was puking into the wind and a lot came flying back at us.  Oh well – that was the worst thing that happened – so it was no big deal.

As we approached the harbor the sails were brought back down and we made our way past the breakwater and into port on the engines.  Exiting the deck we took off our overalls and say a fond farewell to the crew.  From my conversation with one of the two crew men, it turns out that he is originally from Húsavík, but now only lives there from May – September.  During the rest of the year he is studying at a University in Alabama and also plays for his school NCAA soccer team.  It was funny because I would have guessed that just looking at him.  He is shorter than me and looks like an Icelander who is more comfortable on the water than on land.  He certainly knew how to handle the sails and took a lot of risks to unfurl the gib sails. 

Departing the ship we returned to the hotel so that I could grab a quick shower before we went about the rest of the day – since I had essentially run out of the hotel in the morning.  After I showered we returned to the harbor to get some lunch – which in this case was fish and chips from a take away shop.  Though this fish and chips were good, they still didn’t beat my all time favorite Fish’n’Chips.  I had those back in 2002 from a greasy little take away shop near the beach of a small little town called Pecton on the South Island of New Zealand.  Even 10 years later, I still remember the taste of those fish’n’chips.  Part of it was the experience of getting to Pecton – crossing the strait between the North and South Island during particularly bad weather.  It made it all worth while!

After lunch we hopped right back in the car and went to see seek some further adventure.  Our destination for this trip was two fold.  First we wanted to see the Jokulsargljufur National Park and then secondly we wanted to experience the waterfall that is know as “Europe’s most powerful waterfall “Dettifoss”.  Both of these attractions were located to the east and north of Húsavík.  Jokulsargljufur is an amazing collection of high canyons of volcanic rock. The gem of the park is the horse-shaped canyon of Asbyrgi.  The origin of this gigantic canyon seems to be from a massive onetime out flow from a glacier, perhaps as result of a volcanic eruption underneath it.  No matter how this natural beauty was formed, it is an unbelievable specimen of nature at the work of creation.

Dettifoss on the on the other hand is a nature work in progress.  This waterfall is over 44 meters in height and a massive quantity of water flows over the edge every second.  Even standing far away there is an awe inspiring fear introduced into you that you could some way slip and fall into this raging torrent.  Yes – I am usually pretty fearless about this but I kept my ground as there are no guard rails, there are no life ring to toss into save some one.  Basically you get too close and go over, the Icelandic authorities might send some on out to try and find your body.  But hell, they would not attempt a rescue effort in the craziness of Dettifoss.  They are pretty smart about not doing stupid and crazy things.

After hiking all around Dettifoss and getting wet and cold from the spray we decided it was time to head back to our comfy beds in Husavik.  But the time we reach Husavik it was going on 8:00PM so we quickly decided on getting some dinner.  There was a nice looking restaurant right down on the harbor.  We decided to go there.  Zack in keeping with his desire to eat only American food got a cheeseburger.  (I didn’t have the heart to tell him it is either seal burger or horse burger – LOL! Let me clarify – I am just joking!)  I got a dish called Icelandic Meat soup.  I am not sure what exactly was in it – mutton, beef or something else, but it was very good.

After that we headed back to our hotel for some much needed rest.  And that wrapped up our 4th day in Iceland.

Thanks and peace to all! ~ J.


Johanna said...

Looks like you're having a wonderful time!!

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