Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Escape to Iceland: A Destinations Essay By Katie Albert

Katie Albert

After three years of savings, payments, exploring and essays, I finished my time in the Girl Scouts Destinations program with by far my favorite trip of all: Escape to Iceland. Iceland, to me, was a trip of many firsts, and many lasts, that would all add up to one amazing experience!

(Editor's note:  Katie has traveled extensively through the Girl Scout Destinations travel program, include to Switzerland, the San Juan Islands, Australia, New Zealand & Fiji, Chile, and China.)

I boarded the plane to New York with another local Girl Scout. This was the first time I had gone on a Destination already knowing one of the other girls attending. Although we knew each other from council events, the two of us had never actually had a conversation, and I was looking forward to getting to know her. The flight was short, and soon we were trying to remember the names of all the other girls ready to explore the wonders of southern Iceland.

We immediately set out on an hour drive to a horseback riding excursion, with Icelandic ponies! Our ponies went trotting through the lava fields in the morning sun. I was surrounded by the beauty of the fields, and amazed by the gracefulness of a galloping herd. We crossed over creeks and streams, passed by tall mountains, and watched the birds dance above us. What an amazing way to kick off the trip: straight from the plane directly on a horse!

The ride was long and tiring, but we all survived long enough for some warm coconut curry soup and sandwiches! After a short nap on the bus, we arrived at our next adventure: white water rafting! This was my first time white water rafting, and I was excited to “dive in”! Our “groovy” instructors loaded us up on their flame-covered school bus and dropped us off at the bank of a glacier river. I learned that every river, stream, and lake within Iceland is completely safe to drink due to the amount of glacier-fed water. Of course, I immediately dunked my face in for a taste! I am not sure I will ever taste cleaner, fresher, colder water in my life. The first rapid we went through was fairly decent, and every one of us in the raft was hit by a splash of freezing cold water. Thank goodness for our wetsuits! We went down about eight to ten rapids, listening to local tales of the trolls and elves that caused mischief in the area. It was eerie and serene all at the same time. Towards the end of the float, there was a large area of still water where we played trust games along the edges of the raft. One girl and I attempted to hold each other up with our connected paddles as we leaned further and further towards the water. We both slipped and fell in to the ice-cold water! If I was tired, I was completely awake after that!

Katie exploring Iceland's countryside.
Our home for the next two nights was a large log cabin, fit with kitchen, living room, loft, and a hot tub! After such an exhilarating day with barely any rest time, it was the perfect way to end the first official day. It was a bit difficult getting to sleep, since we were in Iceland during the “midnight sun”.  Sunset is about midnight; sunrise is about 3 am. The sun never goes below the horizon, so it is never completely dark!

Day two was just as fun-filled. Our first activity: snorkeling in the continental divide. Iceland is a hotspot for geothermal and tectonic activity, and there is a deep crevasse in one of the lakes, known as the Silfra fissure, caused by the shift in tectonic plates. These plates are in fact the continental plates on which Europe and America sit. With a dry suit that made me feel like a wet sausage, and snorkeling gear that made me feel like a fish, I flopped into the clearest water in the world and looked out in front of me at the vast emptiness between continents. In some places, the crevasse was as deep as 200 meters, and the only reason you could not see the bottom was because the sunlight just wouldn’t reach. The water was so blue, and there were lime green creatures floating about. I felt as if I was in some sort of other world. At one point, I stretched my arms out and touched Europe and North America at the same time.

Next, we ventured out into a lava field only a short distance away, and crawled underneath the surface into a lava tube. Lava tubes are caves carved out by moving lava over a long period of time. What is left is a long cave underground that is filled with lava rock and patterns along the cave walls showing how the lava drained and dried. Our guide was very wise about the caves, and told us legends of the land around it. By this time, I realized that the Icelandic culture was filled with a type of ancient magic that could still be felt by the land, the people, and the legends.

Katie's photo of the Silfra fissure

The next day we set off for a small road trip around the southern half of Iceland, visiting many glorious waterfalls and geysers. The first stop was at a geyser park; a very active geothermic area. The air was filled with sulfur, and I was immediately reminded of New Zealand. It is absolutely crazy how nature has its own connections worldwide. The bubbling pools were captivating, and the trail of them lead to a large area with big colorful pools and boiling ponds. And then, suddenly, one of the biggest boiling ponds burped, and a twenty-foot-tall tower of water came shooting out of the ground. I was so close to it I actually had to run away so I wouldn’t be covered in hot water!

Our next stop was the second largest waterfall in Iceland, larger than Niagara Falls! The three story waterfall finished its journey in a deep and sharply carved ravine. It was deafening, glorious, and humbling. The next visit of the day was to a set of three waterfalls that fell just perfectly enough that you could walk behind them. I got pretty wet by the mist, but it was cool nonetheless.

The final destination was an hour long hike to an abandoned plane crash and a black sand beach. The plane had crash-landed late in the 1960s after a foggy flight. No one was injured in the crash; however, no one went to clean up after it either. So the plane sat at the edge of a beach, decomposing over the years and now posing for various pictures. The beach was the most astounding aspect of the hike. The sky was overcast, the sea was a deep grey, and the sand was as black as charcoal. I was so sure I was in a black and white movie, I had to look at myself to remember that there was color in the world.

That night we camped out next to a bird-filled cliff, and I drifted to sleep listening to them chirp to one another. I woke up in a puddle of cold water – it had rained the entire night! In fact, most of us woke up in puddles of water, and many of our sleeping bags were wet for the next few nights. Although we were all a bit cranky in the morning, we quickly cheered up when we arrived at our next adventure. Entering the shack, we were handed harnesses, helmets, ice picks, and crampons: it was time to climb a glacier. Our Swedish guide, Denny, lead the way up the incredibly steep ice mountain, explaining the science behind glaciers. Every now and then, we would take a break to catch our breath and I would look out over the valley. At the highest point we could go, I looked out a realized, “Here I am. Standing on top of a glacier I just climbed, looking out over this green lava valley in Iceland. I am on top of the world.” As we climbed, we could listen to the glacier above us, and underneath of us, shift, melt, and fall. I thought of the Chilean glacier I visited, and again realized how connected the world is. The trek down was even more terrifying than the hike up, and I was skeptical at how well my crampons would hold on to my hiking boots. But the equipment worked flawlessly, and I made it back down the glacier without even falling, which is a huge accomplishment for me!

On our three-hour drive to our next home, we had car trouble. Luckily, we were next to a beautiful waterfall so the girls could take pictures and chat while the adults figured out what to do. Fortunately, it was nothing serious, the van was fixed and we made it to the bus station where we were going to be picked up and taken to the volcano huts we would be staying at. The ride to the huts was slightly less than terrifying. Imagine a big charter bus, filled with people. Now imagine that bus on unnaturally tall wheels. Now imagine this bus-on-stilts driving through a valley with no roads and crossing over shallow rivers with up to class two rapids. Miraculously, we made it to the huts, and were greeted by a teenaged artic fox. One of the owners said that the fox had been with its mother constantly and this was the first time they’d seen her on her own. They thought she might have been on one of her first hunts alone.

The next day we hiked up the tallest mountain in the valley that had a 360 view of the area. The hike was long and hard, especially after the huge glacier hike the day before. But the hike was worth it. At the top, you could see evidence of a great river that once used to rule the valley, and you could see where the water had carved out the mountains. On a neighboring mountain there was another glacier, and I sat and listened to the echoes of it shifting and falling. The afternoon was filled with relaxation and bus rides to our next campout site. We stopped at a few roadside attractions, including a beautiful church on a hill and a field of purple flowers that stretched all the way to the horizon. For dinner, we ate a traditional Icelandic meal. I had breaded lamb with mashed potatoes and vegetables. The dish is very common for Sunday and Christmas meals, especially among older generations. I also tried pony sausage and poached shark, neither of which I particularly enjoyed.

Our final day was one of the most exhilarating. We woke up early in the morning and set out on our final adventure: descending into a dormant volcano. After about a forty-five-minute hike, to which my legs were yelling, “enough already!”, we ate a hearty bowl of lamb stew and then climbed aboard the rickety elevator. The descent was choppy, but amazing. From the opening of the volcano to the bottom is a bit over 200 meters, the entire way lined with different color variations of the rock, all formed from different minerals brought to the surface by heat within the volcano. The different layers and pockets show the movement of lava. I felt as if I was within some sort of hellish rainbow, with deep reds, oranges, and amber covering the volcano walls, dotted with maroons, purples, greens, and blues. Looking up, you could watch droplets of water fall for hundreds of feet before disappearing on the ground. And at the very top was the tiny dot of light that showed the surface. I could not believe where I was, deep underground in a place that once would have been a lake of molten lava.

Katie inside the volcano. 
The rest of the day was spent exploring Reykjavik, the biggest city in Iceland, even though it was only the size of a large town. Graffiti is legal in the city, and the building walls were covered in an array of artwork made by local artists and business owners. The coastline city was colorful and filled with cute shops and small homes. A few girls and I took the time do some souvenir shopping and visited some non-tourist shops as well. We met a Norwegian who told us about his worldly travels, and relayed some of the northern legends of Iceland with us. My favorite was the tale of the Guardians of Iceland, who are depicted on their coin money.

While we were in Reykjavik, Iceland’s soccer team was in England. Iceland’s soccer team was definitely the underdog and was not expected to win. We went to a mass public viewing of the game in a square in the city, where nearly the entire population of the town arrived! It was wild, and the crowd was super excited about the game. In the end, Iceland had won 2 to 1, and the whole city was lit up in red and blue fireworks. The city did not sleep that night, but thankfully our hotel was closer to the airport so that we could get a good night’s rest before a day of traveling home. 

Iceland was by far my favorite trip I have taken with Destinations. Not only was I able to see and do some incredible things, but the country itself was magnificent. The girls who accompanied me on this last trip were amazing and made the trip hilariously fun, as did the ATS instructors that made the trip possible.
Katie in a wildflower field.

Although my time within the Destinations program is now at a close, I will never forget what this program has done for me. First of all, Destinations has given me the opportunity to travel far beyond anywhere I ever dreamed, and partake in some of the most memorable experiences I will ever have in my life. Climbing my first mountain and seeing edelweiss in Switzerland, kayaking amongst wild seals and otters in Washington, eating a traditional geothermic Maori meal in New Zealand, visiting the ancient Three Sisters rock formation in Australia, partake in a kava ceremony with a Fijian chief on an uninhabited island in Fiji, kayaking in the southern Antarctic ice field and seeing penguins in Chile, working at a panda research center in China, and finally descending into a volcano in Iceland. I have been able to immerse myself into these cultures, hearing the local tales, tasting the traditional foods, learning about the history of the land, and listening to the beauty of other languages. Throughout these past few years, I have grown into a more well-rounded person with a greater understanding and appreciation for the world in which we live. This program has ignited a fire inside me to continue exploring the world, and to encourage others to do the same. In a previous essay, I said “I used to think that the world was so much bigger than my backyard, but now I realize that the world is my backyard”.  That is still true, and there are so many rocks left to overturn, so many paths still to take. I am extremely grateful and appreciative for this opportunity that Girl Scouts, and the Destinations program, has given me.