Day 4, July 9:
We gather our freshly-cleaned bathing suits and towels from the bathroom and retrieve the thermal wear from our bags. There will be another long drive ahead – about 5 and a half hours from Akureyri to Þingvellir.
Today, we are off to try something new. My mom booked us a snorkeling tour through the clear waters of Silfra, starting at 5:30 pm. She hopes to arrive about 45 minutes early, to gather our bearings. Our aquatic travel endeavours continue. This time, however, we’ll explore Iceland’s waters on the opposite end of the thermometer. From 38 to 2 ° C. This explains our need for thermal wear.
In the morning, we stroll through town to grab breakfast at a nearby cafe. On display are some of the most oddly-shaped pastries I’ve ever seen.
My mom buys two sugar “donuts” and for the remainder of the morning, we find ourselves amused by Iceland’s strange fascination with phallic-shaped objects (see: Icelandic Phallological Museum).
Before hitting the road, we stroll along the boardwalk to take pictures of Akureyri’s various boat sculptures. One, in particular, is similar to a Viking ship seen in Reykjavik. The bright clouds from behind emit perfect shots of it as a dark, hulking shadow in the foreground.
After dodging traffic both ways, we get back to the car and begin our journey down south.
As previously mentioned, the beauty of Iceland is encountering new sights on familiar routes. Just like this little, flat-topped rock sticking out of the water:
Once again, we make numerous pit and photo stops, carefully timed to adhere to ETA.
We drive through the bottom end of the same peninsula as Day 2, approaching Varmahlíð to the south of Skagafjörður (a bay that runs along the western side). We find a drive-off point, which leads to a curious stone monument.
The pyramid-shaped memorial is about Stephan Stephansson, a famous poet who was native to Skagafjörður.
A large sign in the parking lots greets fellow tourists. An excerpt reads:
“The inhabitants of Skagafjörður will only consider underground cables as the means of transmitting electricity in the future. The Icelandic National Grid’s plan to erect 30m high steel pylons with overhead lines capable of transmitting 560MVA of power through Skagafjörður. This will not be accepted.”
Apparently, Iceland generates the most energy per capita in the world.
When we drove out of Blönduós two days ago we climbed to a high elevation with an incredible glimpse of the landscape from miles ahead. This time, we see it again from the other side, instead of looking back.
Today in Blönduós, we once again find the infamous N1 gas station and hot dog counter. It’s a little less chaotic this time around. We avoid the hot dogs and just grab a Pepsi. My mom brings up the possibility of visiting the Textile Museum. But as per usual custom on this road trip, we have a tight schedule ahead.
After fiddling around for probably the thousandth time with the reverse, my mom backs out of the station, gases up and we continue on.
We push back down highway 1. For the first time in three days, the sunlight returns, and the temperature climbs back to about 16 degrees. Only three hours south really makes a difference in this country.
To our right lies the same crater that we hiked before. If we had time, we could have attempted the larger one behind it. But my mom is also feeling inquisitive about the strange rock formations lining the roadside, covered by a layer of taupe coloured moss. She pulls into a nearby hotel parking lot to take pictures.
Around 3 pm, we make our final stop at a gas station outside Borgarnes to stretch our legs, soon to approach Reykjavik where we’d turn east towards Þingvellir National Park (pronounced “Thingvellir”).
It’s Borgarnes for the third time, and back across the same tunnel underneath the inlet that we took leaving Keflavik. By 4 pm, we’re almost there, and the traffic increases. The highway fills with camper vans heading towards the same destination.
One final stop for some more pictures before meeting our tour guide:
After finding the right lot, we park at Þingvellir and gather our belongings. At this point, I stow away my camera in the trunk (hence the lack of photos here), due to its obvious unsuitability for snorkeling.
If you could mark one place on a map to define Iceland’s coming-of-age story, it would be right here.
A huge rift is currently taking place and has been for ages. I don’t mean a political rift, but an actual rift, in geological terms. Þingvellir marks a boundary between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates – 4 km wide, and 40 m deep. And it’s expanding by about 2 cm every year. Immediately towering over us, is the North American plate, easily accessible for visitors to climb. The Eurasian lies in the distance, like a scar in the landscape.
Can you also believe that the world’s oldest surviving parliament began right here?
In the early 10th century, Iceland’s 36 chieftains gathered at Þingvellir to form a national government called the Alþing (“General Assembly”). Held for two weeks every summer, chieftains and even citizens came to settle disputes in court, trade, gossip and mingle with one another. It’s like one giant picnic or annual summer music festival, but with important business to discuss. Adopting Christianity was also something the Alþing brought about. Even into the 19th and 20th centuries, the site remained historically significant, housing a hotbed of Icelandic nationalism. In 1944, half the country gathered to declare independence from Denmark.
As evident, this place is a pretty big deal. But today, we’d remember it as the spot where we snorkeled in the coldest water imaginable. And lived to tell the tale.
Close to 5 pm and we find our tent to register and get into our suits. Knowing we’d be exposed to water for 45 minutes in a dry suit, I make one final bathroom stop for preventative measures. We put on two layers of socks – one pair of thermal ones – leggings and two warm shirts. On top of that (literally), we slip on a black thermal onesie for extra protection. The dry suits are where it gets interesting and very uncomfortable.
Our tour guide, Lasse, instructs us to only put on the bottom half ourselves, and wait until the debriefing is finished before he zips up the rest. Otherwise, we would overheat.
During the instructional, Lasse shows us a map of where we’ll be swimming, and what to look out for. We’ll likely see no fish at this time – but other odd wonders. He warns us in advance that the part most exposed to water will be the lips.
“In Iceland when it’s cold, the usual saying is to ‘just let them go numb,'” he says matter-of-factly. So that’s what we gotta do.
Time for stage two. As we hold out our arms in a T-shape, Lasse begins yanking on the sleeves. Made of rubber or elastic, they tighten at the wrists. He then fastens a zipper along our backs to secure the torso.
But the worst part is the neck. It feels like I’m barely being choked. With each swallow, I could feel the lump pushing against the collar. And the collar itself wasn’t even tight enough. After inspecting each one, Lasse wraps an extra piece like a buckle to further tighten the neck. I take deep breaths to ease my anxiety – knowing I could still breathe normally.
By this point, I stiffen my body completely to offset the discomfort. This must be what astronauts feel like. Not surprisingly, the black flies are out in full force. But to make it worse, it’s nearly impossible to move my arms quickly enough to swat them away without choking myself. Therefore, opening the mouth is kept to a minimum. I feel like poor Randy from A Christmas Story, overdressed in his red winter suit.
He slips on our headgear and gloves (which look like oven mitts). Both pieces are designed to allow the body heat from the head and hands to warm up the surrounding water inside. Thus, as tempting as it may be, Lasse explains that it’s best to keep our hands still. Clenching your hands would pump out the warm water, and allow cold water back in. Then afterwards, it’s time for the flippers.
There are six of us in total all suited up: me, my mom, Lasse, a couple from Minnesota and a girl from China. We waddle along like ducks in a single file towards the entry point. Once there, a crew member helps us with the final piece – goggles and breathing tubes.
Before stepping into the water, Lasse takes a few pictures of us all snorkeled up. The hood and goggles make it nearly impossible to smile. It doesn’t help that the hood keeps covering my mouth, so I have to flip it down.
And then the immersion begins. I take my first step into the chilly water – but the layers and dry suit prevent any physical reactions of shock as icy water normally would. It simply feels like stepping out into a cold, winter day.
Lasse tells us to take a little sip of water. It’s just as clean – maybe cleaner – than your average filtered water bottle. I lower my face and cup it with my hands. I could feel a fresh, crisp wave filling my throat and lungs. It is invigorating.
With one leap, I lift my flippers from off the stairs. First, we practice our emergency pose before setting off. Then it’s time to reverse onto our stomachs – and I instantly feel my lips starting to sting. But I remember the old saying. The discomfort of the suit goes away entirely once floating horizontally.
The water is so clear that I could see every crack in the rock, every spot of moss, and speck of floating organisms below. The maximum depth of Silfra is about 200 feet. The area of optimal visibility, called Cathedral, extends along a fissure of over 300 feet.
All I could hear is the rhythm of my breathing through a vacuum. I’m barely swimming right now, allowing a light current to drive me forward. I let my hands go still to contain warm water. We are wedged tightly between two rifts jutting down, sometimes into narrow crevices. Then it widens again.
At one point the land bottlenecks, and we have to swim past in a single lane. I look up to keep a flipper from the snorkeler in front from hitting my face. I’m glad there are only five of us – which already feels like a crowd in some spots.
At times the sun peaks through the clouds and shines ripples on the smooth surfaces below. I occasionally flip onto my back to catch sunlight and view my surroundings. Lasse takes out the camera, encased by a clear waterproof case to take some action shots. When it’s my turn, I dip my head below the surface and awkwardly crane my head up to find the lens.
The last turn required some moderate physical activity as the current intensifies against us. Being a strong swimmer, I enjoy stroking through the waves to obtain my exercise for the week. Surprisingly, I only just begin to feel a minor chill. But the cold really starts to creep through my hands. Just like wearing thin gloves on a cold day – my fingers start to sting.
However, I can’t resist exploring a bit more. We reach the exit and have the choice to swim to the left side for a few minutes.
It becomes very shallow – rocks are barely grazing my hands. I try my best to resist contact, due to its fragile environment. I’m entranced by the bright green moss splaying over the rocks like spider-webs, illuminated by flickering sunlight. To my surprise as Lasse helps me out, I was one of the last to exit.
After we regroup, Lasse takes one final post-swim shot of everyone. We take off our flippers and waddle back to the trailer.
Removing the suit is just as awkward – perhaps more awkward – than getting it on. One by one, we bend forward as Lasse yanks off our hoods and suits from our arms. It feels like your friend helping you pull off a dress two sizes too small in the fitting room.
We sit on a bench and stick our feet out as he removes the suit entirely. I hold onto a pole to prevent being dragged off from the force. Miraculously, once the suits are off – everything is bone dry. The only dampness is in our hair, which dries fairly quickly.
After removing our extra layers, Lasse invites us for a hot beverage and cookies. My mom and I down a hot chocolate and prepare for our final drive. We thank Lasse and say good-bye to our fellow snorkelers.
I never felt so physically and spiritually refreshed from the experience as I do now. All the tension I felt previously was relinquished. The persistent chill that I had for days is gone. This is precisely what I needed, and I feel like I can do anything.
At approximately 8 pm, we park and check-in to our guesthouse in Hveragerði, about an hour south of Silfra. Initially, we thought we wouldn’t make our dinner reservation, but luckily, an open table still awaits. We cap off the day with more Einstök, a salad for my mom, a homemade vegan “steak” for myself and a Snickers meringue pie for dessert – deciding to splurge for our final night in Iceland.
Since it’s our last night, we finally hold out to see the midnight sun – albeit lazily from our own beds. Not to mention, some kids still running around nearby and screaming outside kept us up anyway. My mom catches up on her journal, and I conclude mine.
I’m grateful that we chose to be adventurous and try something new. It’s not every day you can say that you snorkeled in 2° C water between two massive tectonic plates. The experience was remarkable. However, I’m glad to be out of those suits, and back to maximum comfort in bed.