Once you've been to Iceland, it's hard not to get hooked. After my first trip in May of 2014, and the start of a personal series of self-portraits (the Red Dress series), thoughts and wishes of returning to this magical country with the magical landscapes have plagued my mind ever since. Almost 3 years later in late October of 2016, I was able to make a return happen in collaboration with Happy Campers to experience the low light and long nights of winter (as opposed to the endless daylight of my first visit). During this time I was able to continue the series I started 3 years ago... which without delay, I shall share below:
We arrived on Oct 19th, stepping outside the airport doors shortly after 6am to be immediately bombarded by violent winds and icy sideways rain. Hello Iceland. With me was Shane Black, an incredible photographer/timelapser and first time Icelander, and also personal chauffeur for those like me who are nervous driving large manual vehicles on strange roads (thanks Shane!). After picking up our camper van and promptly napping in a grocery store parking lot, we took off for the great landscapes.
With the exception of a couple waterfalls and coffee shops, we ended up spending most of the first 3 days hiding inside the Happy Camper as it rocked incessantly against the nonstop raging rain and windstorms across the country. Some people *coughShanecough* ironically may not have been the happiest campers in the situation, though I couldn't help feeling awe listening the thundering rain against the van and watching waterfalls blow upwards as we drove past. With no real plan, we checked the weather forecasts persistently and made our way north to where supposedly an opening in the sky could happen. Sure enough, the rain stopped and things were looking up as we approached Goðafoss, where we got lucky with dry weather and our first glimpse of aurora through the clouds that night. Here we met up (one of several times) with good friend/incredible photographer William Patino, super kindhearted fellow who offered us the luxury of hotel showers every time we crossed paths (not sure whether out of generosity or no tolerance for smelly van-living hippies, but deeply appreciated nonetheless). Also thanks to Will for stepping in as human tripod for the red dress shot of this location!
The next day Shane and I made our way to Dettifoss, dubbed the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Standing at the edge of the roar, feeling the mist on my skin and looking down into the raging abyss left me feeling awestruck at the power of nature. Being the only place in all of Iceland with semi-open skies, we stayed here for the day and into the night with high hopes for another aurora show.
Well holy hot toddies and jumping jackrabbits, this night had me frognoggin' fangirling all over the place! The rest of the clouds cleared away and the sky EXPLODED with dancing beams of greens and whites with hints of reds and purples. I've seen subtle auroras many times before, but nothing like this. The whole sky danced and twirled and flashed and lit up the surrounding land, making it easy for me to dance, yes dance, along the pathways with no headlamp, shooting the sky and singing to invisible elves for company until 4am (...I lost Shane for a few hours there, somewhere across the expanse timelapsing the sky of his dreams).
Honestly, that one night alone was worth coming to Iceland for. Even if I had forgotten my camera, lost all my chocolate and had no internet service for a month, it would have all been worth it to spend a night standing in awe under the colourful bursting sky. So how do I even describe how lucky I feel that the next 4 nights were all equally mind-blowing?! We ended up staying in the north/east of Iceland several days longer than we anticipated, following and waiting for the random forecasted clear patches of sky every night... Waiting out rainstorms and getting stuck in mountain-top blizzards, we'd stay awake for hours holding onto good faith that the skies would open up even if for brief moments at a time. And they did. And we were not disappointed.
To give a little idea of the nightly experiences, here's a short video I filmed of the aurora at about 3am, just moments after a snowstorm finished blowing through. The roads had become ice, so we pulled over to wait out the night in this beautiful mountain-top pass with a 360 degree view of the aurora all around. It was windy, it was freezing, it was beautiful, and I probably cried. Please excuse the number of times I say "wow" in this video:
With over half our time in Iceland gone already, we wrapped our way down south through my favourite landscapes of glaciers and mountains, happy that the consistent rain down there was finally clearing up for us (for the moment). Stopping frequently to soak in the scenery, and creating some of the new red dress images along the way, my mind felt like it was continually bursting with wonderment. I don't think I could ever tire of seeing these places... I'll let these snaps along the way speak for themselves:
We were gradually making our way towards Seljalandsfoss, where we would meet up with talented photographers Benjamin Hardman, Jarrad Seng and Bec Williams for our last few days of adventure... which incidentally, turned out to be one heck of an adventure. The plan was to park our camper van for a few hours and all pile into Benjamin's hefty rig for a "day-trip" into the highlands, crossing through many rivers along the way. The rainstorms had come back with full force, and the rivers were rising. The last river before reaching Thórsmörk was the deepest, but with Ben's proficient off-roading skills and experience we went for it nonetheless. The rest of us may have held our breath all the way across, but after a few seconds that seemed like forever we were safely on the other side. We continued on to Volcano Huts where we would have lunch before heading back into the rain for a hike up one of the nearby mountains.
No more than a few minutes had passed since we arrived when the couple of hut staff received a call that there was a vehicle stuck in the river we had just crossed, stranding about 7 middle-aged women and their driver who needed immediate help as they swam across the freezing river to the other side. Everyone promptly took action, driving back and forth to the scene to bring the people back to the hut. Thankfully everyone was okay with the exception of one woman with an injured leg (which I hope she's recovered from by now!). The hut became a bustling center of excitement, everyone stripped down to our underclothes trying to dry off from the rain/river and warming up with soup, coffee and cake. It took several hours before help arrived in the form of the biggest off-roading trucks I've ever seen, taking the women back out of the highlands and attempting to drag the stranded vehicle out of the river (which, after many hours and two snapped cables later, was finally successful... poor vehicle was done for though).
Realizing the river had grown too dangerous for our own vehicle to cross back over, we came to the conclusion that we'd have to stay in the highlands overnight. Volcano Huts was super kind and accommodating, keeping us fed and giving us beds to rest. The next morning we braved the rain again and finally hiked up the mountain outside of the hut. I was completely blown away by the view, rivers upon rivers all intertwining across the valley floor while winds carrying rain, hail and snow swept across the landscape.
*Last photo by Jarred Seng. Ben, me, Shane and Bec all passing time in the hut.
Unfortunately the rivers were still only getting higher, so upon our return to the hut Ben started making phone calls to find a way to get us out of the highlands. I happily would have been stranded there forever, if it weren't for the fact that Shane and I had flights leaving the next day. We spent the rest of the day in the hut waiting to hear news of our rescue, watching the rain and arctic foxes outside, consuming coffee and then cake and then coffee and then more cake to keep ourselves entertained. By the end of the day, just as we were feeling defeated, we heard the legendary river-crossing Stefnir of Midgard Adventure was the only person willing to brave the rivers to come for us (even with a couple hiccups and a flat tire along the way). Late that night, after stuffing our faces with more cake in case it was the last we ever saw, we set out to hike through the rain and darkness to a different section of river further up where we hoped Stefnir would be waiting for us. He was. Our immense gratitude could not have been greater as we clambered up into the safety of his massive truck and made the journey out of the highlands.
Once out of the highlands, Shane and I jumped back into our camper van and drove through the rest of the night to Reykjavik, where we were able to grab a shower (thanks Will) and a couple hours of sleep before heading towards the airport, catching one last sunrise at the beach along the way. Our Iceland experience had come to a close, but I was (and still am) greatly looking forward to the next visit.
Big shout-out to my favourite Vancouver local company Westcomb for supplying the trip with the best, warmest and most ethically-made winter coat I've ever had, as well as the rain-proof (or waterfall-proof?) jackets.
Massive thanks to Good To-Go foods for supplying us with all our meals (best all-natural dehydrated real food I've ever had).
Also big thanks Shane for your help with human tripod and driving skills, and generally for being a pretty dang good adventure buddy!
And lastly, an enormous thanks to Happy Campers for the home on wheels for 10 days. If anyone reading this is thinking about taking on Iceland camper van style, I seriously can't recommend this company enough. The staff were super kind and humorous and our camper van was a delightful comfort as we traveled around the country. I really couldn't be happier, would definitely go with this van again.
If you made it to the end of this post, thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed. Now get out there and have yourself an adventure!