After only a few days I think of our Icelandic guide Sigurdur as more of a friend than a guide. We take our meals together at breakfast and supper in the hotels, and there we discuss everything from our families to the geology of Iceland, from hiking and camping to the social and economic history of the country, from jobs we have had in the past to childhood experiences. At one stop Sigurdur purchases a packet of dried cod. When the seal is broken the fish smell fills the bus, to some mild and mostly whispered complaints, but my daughter Stella and I tear off big chunks and enjoy the gamey flavor. He has given us wild plants to taste and taught the students to drink from running streams. One night he alerts us to the Nothern Lights that will be visible later in the evening, and comes outside to make sure we find them. Another day, he spots a sheep sorting in progress and leads us to watch. On Day four of our tour, Sigurdur says he is taking us to his favorite place in all of Iceland, the place where he goes to camp with his family on his days off. “To me, it is the most beautiful place in all Iceland,” he says. The sky is overcast and most of the way we drive in a light rain that ranges from a fine mist to a heavy drizzle. The temperature is in the low fifties, maybe a little colder. The first part of the drive is over ground we’ve covered a few times over the past couple of days, so most of the students sleep or listen to music on their earbuds. I doze a few minutes at a time, but then we drive off the pavement and everyone wakes up and pays attention.
We are in a wide glacial valley, mostly rock, on a rock road that is only distinguishable from the rest of the valley because it has been shaped by a number of vehicles agreeing to follow the same path. A good sized creek—averaging 20 – 30 feet wide—weaves down the valley, running fast with silty water the color of cement.
The mountains on either side are green with an occasional touch of color due to advancing Fall. The valley is named Porsmork, named after Thor, the Norse god of Thunder (In Icelandic, the P letter makes the th sound). It is a wild place, and the weather accentuates the atmosphere. In the seat behind me, two girls who are heavy into Comic conventions and superhero movies are beside themselves. Porsmork sits at the base of Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that erupted in 2010, causing an ash plume that stalled air traffic over northern Europe for over a week. We drive in and out of rain and sun, providing several full rainbows for our pleasure.
We come to the first creek crossing, little more than a wide puddle, and Sigurdur slows and plows right through. We are still in an 18 passenger van, what we would use for a church youth group in the states, though this one is jacked up and runs on big truck tires. It is also pulling a trailer with luggage for 15 people for three months abroad. We plow on through, but as we proceed further up the valley, the creeks become wider and the current faster. At some point I anticipate having to turn back, or at least getting the chance to climb out of the van and accompany Sigurdur as he scouts the crossing, much like a white water raft guide would scout a difficult rapid. This, Sigurdur does not do.
I’ve crossed plenty of creeks in four wheel and two wheel drive before, back in the South and later in Colorado. In Mississippi, where the soil is dirt and the biggest challenge is mud, the trick is speed, because once a car bogs down the wheels just spin and dig a deeper rut. I had no experience with rocky ground until I drove a passenger truck for the Tennessee Valley Authority while building powerlines. All I knew was what I saw in the truck commercials on television—no matter the terrain, hit it fast because “our trucks are tough.” The first time I came to a creek crossing I charged across, only to be met with cursing and death threats from the back seat. My foreman, a tight-mouthed East Tennesseean named Bill Ray (first and last), after cussing me pretty good, told me “if you hit a rock in there you’ll throw us through the windshield.” The point is, if you’ve got enough truck, it will do the work, and if you do get stuck, there’s probably a bulldozer somewhere on the job site to pull you out. Also, in the South we are constantly warned against the danger of crossing flooded roads wherever there’s a low place. It’s not uncommon to hear about someone drowning while driving across a flooded road after an extraordinarily heavy thunderstorm. Needless to say, Sigurdur’s driving was impressive.
After several crossings that I would have turned back from in my four wheel drive Chevy Blazer, we came to a wide crossing with a lot of volume. The road bed actually cut at an angle across the creek, so the actual crossing was a good fifty to sixty feet or more, the current was whitewater-rapid fast and three to four feet deep, and the lips of the bank were sharp with a four foot drop to water level. I thought for sure Sigurdur, even if he tried it, would at least drop the trailer. Instead, he swung wide to get the downstream angle to catch the road, put the van in low-low gear, and crept across the river and up the opposite bank to a thundering round of cheers.
Porsmork is part of a hut to hut hiking trail system maintained by the Icelandic Hiking Society. It is the southern end of a 55 kilometer hike that begins at Landmannalaugar, a four day hike with four huts and tent camping areas in between. The anchor huts offer bus service with regular summer schedules. The huts accommodate hikers in sleeping lofts where you can rent 24 square feet of a long padded sleeping space alongside your friends and strangers. There is a kitchen and
communal space for cooking and cleaning, and at least at the anchor huts, hot showers (500 krona for five minutes), and toilets. The huts are overseen by wardens. Because Sigurdur knows the warden (he camped here a few weeks ago) we were able to use the kitchen and eat out of the rain before taking our hike. After another spectacular creek crossing, Sigurdur took us into a short side canyon. It was very narrow, no more than 15 feet wide at its widest, with sixty foot walls that sometimes overhung the floor so that the sky was not visible. We crossed and recrossed the creek trying to stay dry. At one point several people turned back. We climbed a short ledge and then skirted the water by holding on to a chain bolted to the wall and leaning back while we walked the chain. We used a secured rope to pull ourselves up a second ledge. The canyon ended in a little waterfall plunging 40 feet into a shallow pool.
It was a nice moment, working our way up that canyon to what felt like a very special waterfall. What made it special was that the side canyon was not part of the planned itinerary. It was something Sigurdur didn’t have to show us, especially considering he’d been on the road with us for four days and three nights, and after he dropped us off at our hotel that evening, he was heading home to his own family. The canyon wasn’t exactly a secret—there was a picnic table and an informational sign at the mouth of the canyon, and a road led right up to it—but it was definitely off the beaten path, and it was a special place for Sigurdur. To me, it meant that Sigurdur liked us, a conclusion I arrived at because he wasn’t in any hurry to get rid of us. We were more than customers. Perhaps we had shown through our enthusiasm to climb trails, endure wet and cold, ask questions, be curious, and share our meals, that we could be trusted with the experience of this small, private canyon. At least that’s what I like to think.
Sigurdur drove us through the tricky river crossing again, earning our applause, and on the opposite bank, stopped to offer advice to a couple in a small four wheel drive who were turning back. He drove us to our hotel and dropped us off in the rain. I was sad to shake his hand and say goodbye, knowing that I would likely never see him again. Sometimes I am not happy with the way the world works.