28 Feb 2015

Iceland Feb 2015 - Day 3: A Day in Jökulsárlón

In spite of a forecast of total cloud cover the sky was a beautiful purply-pink when I got up. I hadn't expected it, so wasn't down at the beach to take advantage of the morning colours, so had to be content to snap a few shots of the bay at Hali. A lesson learnt: get up for sunrise regardless of the weather forecast, just in case.

Feeling annoyed with myself over the missed opportunity I headed back to Jökulsárlón, arriving at a tardy 9.25am (twenty-five minutes after sunrise). There were only a couple people on the beach already - it's rarely empty these days. The west beach was empty of icebergs, as the tide was coming from the south-west, depositing huge chunks of ice on the east beach. The light wasn't great, with overcast skies (all the pink had gone by the time I arrived), and I struggled to find compositions that I was happy with, which sometimes happens there; the icebergs just didn't speak to me. I was using my old trusted 24-70mm, and there was no rain, so at least I didn't have to faff around with a rain cover or worry about the focusing problems of the previous day.

Half an hour later and the skies began brightening up a little, with some colour and contrast on the clouds above. Quickly the sun was peaking through and the clouds were dissipating. The light was definitely improving and I found an iceberg with a dirty stripe to capture in the changing light.

The sun came out just above the horizon, before clouds crept across the sky, giving some magnificent crepuscular rays for a while. A big storm cloud came across, dumping a quick sprinkling of hail, producing more spectacular rays, before moving away. In its place were a few solitary clouds on the horizon, with the sun passing in and out, creating more rays and shadows. I was in crepuscular ray heaven!

The clouds quickly returned, and in spite of the intermittent sun it was still extremely cold, with a typical harsh Icelandic wind. In the distance I noticed a couple being photographed - the woman in her bridal outfit, the bright white dress blowing madly in the wind. I'm amazed at the lengths people go to in search of the perfect wedding photos, but at least it was dramatic. A shower would come and they'd rush back to the car, before dashing out again for another session between the icebergs.

I tore myself away, my feet ice-blocks, and had a coffee in the café on the other side of the road. I nursed my frozen toes, which were acheing worryingly, and chatted to a couple of Dutch guys, as we enjoyed the view of the lagoon through the steamy window. The sun came and went and occasionally poured out onto a blue iceberg in the distance. A party of English school-children came in - it seems to be a popular place for geography field trips these days. I rested for an hour, until my toes had thawed, then headed out for a little wander around the edge of the lagoon. I didn't normally love the lagoon, but the blueness of the icebergs this year endeared me to it more than usual! More picturesque large storm clouds passed by, dumping the odd shower, but I didn't bother with the rain cover again.

I had another quick break in the café before heading back to the beach - I can never stay away for long. It was around 1pm by this time and teeming with visitors. More storms hit, including another sudden sharp dump of hail - okay if you were facing away from it, but painful if not. I gave the 100-400mm lens another try, being more careful to ensure I was focusing properly. The wind still meant it was challenging to get a truly sharp shot, especially when extended or when doing long exposures.

After a particularly nasty bout of hail I decided that I needed a proper break, so I headed back to the guesthouse for a rest. I wandered along the track near the guesthouse to see the resident horses, who only seemed to be interested in eating hay, until another couple came along. I then took a little nap and headed back to the beach at 4.30pm, hoping that there might be a spectacular sunset, given the interesting skies. After half an hour with the long lens I nipped back to the car to get a wider lens, as there were some impressive huge storm clouds above the beach.

The light and colour soon faded as the sun set (no sign of it behind the clouds) making way for the blue hour, my favourite time on Jökulsárlón Beach.

I headed back to the guesthouse, cooked some pasta, and then did the usual obsessive checking of weather and aurora forecasts every few minutes. The aurora were due to be low, but there was a chance of some clear skies - at least I could try some shots of the stars, if nothing else. I drove back to the lagoon at around 9.30pm, parking on the far side of the bridge and tried out a few long exposures across the lake. From that side I could just make out the glow from the Holuhraun volcano in the distance. I got a couple of okay shots, with the Milky Way slightly visible, the volcanic glow, and a green glow from the distant northern lights, but unfortunately a dense bank of cloud covered the area just above the horizon, otherwise it might have been a wonderful night. There was a constant bustle of activity by the café, with endless car lights shone across the ice, which I found a bit irrirating, but at least it added a little light from time to time, which was otherwise severely lacking. The aurora forecast was far better for the following night, so after an hour I called it a night, went home, skyped hubby and enjoyed a nice cold beer from the car.

Click here for Day 2 - A Drizzly Drive to Jökulsárlón
Click here for Day 4 - A Blue & Green Day in Jökulsárlón

26 Feb 2015

Iceland Feb 2015 - Day 2: A Drizzly Drive to Jökulsárlón

One reason to go Iceland in February is the reasonable sunrise time, meaning that you can get a decent night's sleep without having to get up ridiculously early and still get up for that hopefully magical light.  On this trip, my earliest sunrise time was 8.41am (towards the end of my trip, in Vik) which meant that the earliest I really had to be out and about was at around 8am, 40 minutes before sunrise for civil twilight. When I go in late March, sunrise is a lot earlier and I get really exhausted. One reason not to visit Iceland in February, however, is the weather.

On my second morning in Iceland the sunrise wasn't until 9.19am, so I had a little lie in; the weather-forecast for the day was still pretty terrible, just without dangerous winds, so I didn't feel the need to rush. I had a lovely breakfast of waffles with delicious rhubarb jam at Nonni's Guesthouse, chatting to an English couple who'd driven west the previous day through the gales I'd avoided. They recounted how scary it had been, with driving snow and wind so strong that they couldn't see the next yellow post ahead of them. They'd managed to damage one of their car's doors when opening it - the wind had yanked it out of the hinge; they weren't looking forward to returning it to the rental company.... I had definitely made the right decision, even though I was still annoyed at having missed the ice cave trip (especially since they'd only refunded 80%, even though they'd found someone else to fill my spot).

I set off at 9am, still keen to get to Jökulsárlón in good time. My first stop was Seljalandsfoss, a pretty waterfall that I've visited a few times before, and now barely bother with unless the light is great (which it's usually not, as it faces south-west, so you have to be there late in the day to catch it at its best). I drove up the short road and took a quick shot from the car; the light was dull, as expected, with flat overcast pale grey skies. I was impatient to get to my favourite destination, so I quickly continued on my way.

One of the benefits of having visited Iceland so many times, and retracing similar routes, is that I don't feel as if I have to stop everywhere now. As a result, driving across the country in bad weather is a lot less disappointing than it might otherwise be! If the weather's really bad, I just won't bother stopping at a site, because there's no need. I've usually seen it in better weather on one trip or other, so feel happy to just carry on past it. Plus if I'm driving back the same way I can always stop on the way back. As a result, I drove past Skogafoss, and Vik, places I usually stop at for at least half an hour if not a lot longer.

Having said that, there are a few places where I always stop, as a sort of tradition. One of them is where there are small piles of lava dotted across the landscape, in the Myrdalsandur, between Vik and Kirkjubæjarklaustur (Klaustur), before the hilly moss-covered lava field. It's not even particularly interesting, but there's a small car-park and for some reason I always pull in; it always seems to be snowy there too. Each trip I try to explore a couple of new places, and this time one of the places on the list was the Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, just before Klaustur. Given the ever-worsening weather I decided to visit it on my return journey, when hopefully the weather would be better and I'd have a bit more time.

My next stop, then, was on the other side of Klaustur, after a quick stop for a little top-up of petrol (I'm now paranoid about running out, so rarely go below about a third of a tank). There was a pretty line of leafless birch trees running parallel to the road which caught my eye, with the dark skies contrasted against the snowy ground.

I never stop for long, especially when the weather's so nasty; there was a constant cold drizzle in the air which wasn't enjoyable to be out in for more than a couple of minutes. I carried on along the ring-road, with patchy slush and ice on the road, passing practically no-one. Along the road between Klaustur and Lómagnúpur are jagged low cliffs off to the north, from which various waterfalls pour. Next stop was the waterfall at Foss á Siðu, which sometimes seems to flow upwards. The wind wasn't bad there today, though, so the waterfall cascaded gracefully downwards to the snow below. The place looked a bit miserable, with the rain having washed away most of the snow to reveal the browny-yellow grass. A light mist fell over the crest of the hills behind the village so it did look quite atmospheric.

The mountains further east of Foss á Siðu were also shrouded in a light mist which looked rather lovely - at least I could see something! I tried out the heavy zoom lens that I'd rented (the mammoth
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM), to try to capture some detail in the mountains. It weighs just over 1.6kg, so using it hand-held for any length of time is not all that comfortable. I took a few shots from the car, with the engine off and window down, feeling a little lazy in doing so. Snow and icicles nestled in the nooks of the steep-sided cliffs.

The next place that I always stop at to enjoy the view is at Lómagnúpur, my favourite Icelandic mountain. It sits high above the landscape and marks the beginning of the stretch to the glacier region. Sadly, a view of the imposing mass was not to be today. I still took a shot of where the mountain should be... The grasses still looked quite pretty in the snow. No glaciers to be seen either.

With the lack of decent views I stopped a lot less than I usually do, and was making good time. I sailed past the turn-offs to Skaftafell and Svinafellsjökull, and pulled into the carpark at the lagoon at Jökulsárlón at 1.15pm. It looked much as I remembered it, with the mountains and glacier only vaguely visible in the murk, but the icebergs were far bluer than I'd seen before, massive blue chunks clogging the lake. I had a slice of stodgy apple cake and machine coffee in the café before heading out to walk along the edge of the lagoon, still armed with the large zoom lens. I tried to capture some birds flying over the ice, but lack of practice with the big lens meant that my hit rate was not very high - it took me a long time to get the lens to focus on the gulls, which were unhelpfully skittish in their flight patterns. In spite of the drizzle, the place was still thronging with tourists (again, the fact that it was Valentine's Day probably didn't help).

I didn't stay all that long, as the beach - my goal! - was beckoning. I drove across to the west side of the bridge (for once there were icebergs on both beaches), parked and prepared my camera equipment for the rain. The beach wasn't too busy, the driving rain putting people off, I guess.  Again I was using the long heavy zoom, this time protected with a cheap rain cover I'd bought. Again I had trouble getting sharp shots - this is not a great lens for doing any long exposure with, I learnt - even 1/5th second - as any slight movement from the wind catches it as it sticks out so far (especially with the hood on, which is necessary to protect it from raindrops). I found a beautifully-sculpted iceberg and took quite a few of that, but I only lasted an hour and a quarter out there, before the rain and the rain cover irritated me too much. I couldn't see the shots I was taking through the clear plastic, nor review them easily. I ended up deleting a lot of the shots, which was disappointing; I'd have to be more careful with the focusing next time. 

I dragged myself away and headed to Hali, the guesthouse that I always stay in, 13km from the beach. I was allocated the tiny single room where I usually stay (last year I had a big double), which made me feel at home, and settled in for the night reviewing the photos, manically checking the aurora and weather-forecasts every ten minutes in case there was some miraculous break in the clouds. I cooked some pasta, had one of my few beers, Skyped hubby, and had an early night given that the cloud cover forecast was 100%.

Click here for Day 1 - A Meander Around the Golden Circle
Click here for Day 3 - A Day at Jökulsárlón