23 Mar 2016

Iceland #10 - Day 4: Some Icebergs and Some Lights!

I woke up in my tiny room at Hali and pulled the curtain back to check out the weather. The window was covered in condensation, but I could still make out that it was decidedly grey out there. From the kitchen window - making my tea in the enormous mug that Johannes had lent me - I could see that it was still snowing lightly, and that there was some fresh snow on the ground overnight.

I had a lazy morning, eating my granola and mixed berry Skyr (I never remember my favourite flavour until I've bought both and tasted them; note to self - it's the blueberry that I prefer). I looked through the photos from the previous few days and eventually geared myself up to head back to Jökulsárlón beach, hoping desperately that a few icebergs had miraculously appeared overnight (and I know that they can, as the conditions have been very different each day on each of my visits). I was hopeful. The road was snowy, and the ploughs hadn't yet been past, so I drove in the middle of the road in the least snowy tracks. It was still snowing, but it was forecast to all day, and I didn't want to waste the whole day sitting around reviewing photos and weather-forecasts.

As I drove parallel with the east beach I could see that there was nothing there - icebergwise, but I could make out a few SUVs on the far side of the bridge, suggesting something there instead. The track down to the parking area was even more treacherous than the previous day on the other side, with the car going all over the place. I didn't drive as far as I usually do, but instead parked next to a couple of other vehicles. I did not want to get stuck!

The beach was busy with visitors, and immediately I noticed a large chunk of blue ice, half covered in snow, sitting in the choppy surf.

I could see a man with a tripod in the distance and what looked like some small chunks of ice in the surf there too. I headed west along the snowy beach and a small cluster of icebergs became visible. What a relief! There weren't many, but they were blue and a couple of massive ones rocked around in the waves. I also noticed that at the top of the beach, hidden by snow, were hundreds of small chunks of ice. As it was snowing I had to protect my lens from the elements, so I'd put the rain-cover on, securing it around the hood (I did not want a disaster with water-damage like on my last trip). I was also trying out the step-up ring and filter plan too, and just managed to screw the filter on enough to hold on.

The black pebbles looked pretty with a light covering of snow, and I wandered down the beach past a few people and icebergs to see if there were any more further along. There weren't, but I captured a few shots of the snow-covered beach instead, before heading back to concentrate on my beloved bergs.

The big bergs were challenging as almost every wave moved them slightly, and I didn't want a bunch of shots of blurred icebergs. I knew that some would need to be deleted, as those bergs just kept on shifting!

After just over two hours of shooting my second battery was dying and I was so cold that I had to call it a day. It was still snowing lightly. I headed back to Hali for lunch along now-cleared roads, and sat down in the kitchen at my laptop to do the usual review of the session's shots. I was quite pleased, especially compared with the previous afternoon, but hadn't captured anything particularly spectacular or unique.

The forecast for the northern lights was definitely on for the night, with the short-term forecast and 4-hour forecast looking very promising indeed (with a proper solar G1 storm due, and Kps of 5+). The only problem was the weather. I incessantly checked the Icelandic Met Office (vedur.is) site and yr.no, hoping for positive updates, but it seemed that the clear sky was at least 100km west of me, and would possibly move eastwards before the clouds increased at midnight to 100% cloud cover everywhere. The only thing for it, I decided, was to drive west. I couldn't risk missing this, just because I was a little out of the way of clear skies. And so later on, all fed, batteries charged and geared up in all my warmest of clothes I drove west, unsure of where I'd end up. As I drove past Skaftafell and approached Lómagnúpur I could see the promised clear sky in the distance, much as I'd seen in the other direction driving east the previous day. I stopped just before the mountain to take a few shots and it was incredibly windy and cold. There was no way I was getting the tripod out, so used a high ISO to get a shot in focus. Not easy conditions, that's for sure.

I drove on, and the bright patch neared as the skies darkened. I passed by Dverghamrar and thought about setting up there, but there was too much light around (the nearby waterfall at Foss a Siðu is illuminated at night), so I continued west. I kept an eye out for aurora and began to see the first faint lines in the sky - even visible from the car - as it got a bit darker. I ended up driving almost as far as Kirkjubæjarklaustur, but stopped at a turn-off (Prestsbakkavegur) where there was a view of the ridge of hills a little way away to the north and a big white field in front of me. A couple of SUVs with noisy Chinese people were also parked there, so I headed up the road a little towards some lights of dwellings nestled beneath the hill.

It was still extremely windy, so I had the tripod low to the ground to avoid being caught by the wind. As the western sky finally darkened the lights began to show properly, and it was clear that the forecast wasn't wrong - it was going to be a big one! The lights were different from others I'd seen, with a different variety of colours visible. Usually there's green with a bit of pink or purple just visible (at least to the camera), but this time there was red and orange too (even visible to the naked eye!) and a whole array of pinks and purples too.

Cars passing along the main road would add a light trail to my shots, and the lights from the settlements at the foot of the cliffs helped me to focus and ensure my horizons were straight, as well as adding a bit of scale.

The lights were all around - to the south too, and oh so colourful! That's the benefit of a high Kp number - as they're visible further south they'll be all around when you're in Iceland, not just to the north, giving you more opportunities to capture them and composition options too. From time to time I'd point the camera into the sky to capture the corona. The lights were dancing like crazy, swirling around like mad, and on a couple of different occasions it was like the first time I'd ever seen the corona again, with shafts of light dropping down towards me, feeling as if they were going to drop out of the sky altogether and hit me! I think I may have whooped out-loud.

But they just danced onwards on their journey east, for other lucky people to witness the same. I lay in the snow for a bit enjoying the spectacle, but mostly sat on the ground next to the car, using the car to shelter me from the incessant wind. My neck was aching massively from crouching down and looking up and my feet began to get really chilly. A few clouds came and went, but mostly I'd found the clear skies I'd been looking for.

After almost 2 hours I decided that I should head home, partly as I was so cold, partly as I had to drive 120km, and partly because the lights had become a bit less distinct (the whole sky was full of them and it was difficult to make out any individual streaks). My feet were frozen and didn't seem to be thawing in the car, in spite of bumping up the heating towards the floor. The heated seats helped ease the coldness of my bottom! As I drove I'd pass huddles of SUVs at turn-outs and could see a few figures and tripods. From time to time, when there were no other cars around, I'd turn my headlights off for a few seconds to enjoy driving beneath the lights. Then I'd get nervous that I was being a bit dangerous so would put them back on, only to repeat the same thing a few minutes later. I wanted to stop and get out again to take more shots - didn't want to waste the opportunity - but my feet hadn't thawed and the wind was still horrendous. I stopped just past Lómagnúpur and could barely open the car door as it was so windy, so carried on instead.

My feet finally felt okay, so I stopped to fill up with petrol at Svínafell and realising that the wind had died down and it wasn't too cold there I decided to stop to take some more photos a little further on. I took a few shots of the now pink lights above some pointy mountains behind Skaftafell. The lights were bright when I stopped, but gradually faded; I still managed to stay there and watch them for about 50 minutes.

By the time I left it was midnight and I was cold, thirsty and exhausted. I drove the last 65km home, thinking I hadn't needed to have bothered driving so far, given the clear skies, but just as I passed Fjallsárlón the cloud cover increased and I drove into heavy snow that followed me all the way back to Hali. I had a couple of beers and looked over the photos, slightly disappointed that I hadn't had a better foreground or backdrop, but still thoroughly pleased that I'd found the clear skies I'd desperately needed (and that the light-show had been impressive). And, of course, I was also very pleased that there were some icebergs on the beach earlier in the day!

Click here to see the blog from Day 3 - Heading East, Alone, to Disappointment
Click here to see the blog from Day 5 - No Icebergs, Again!

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