Iceland in Winter 2015 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Apr 01, 2015

The amazing intensity of otherworldly Iceland was on full display during our 2015 Iceland in Winter tour. In March, the weather can be almost unimaginably varied and unpredictable with snow squalls, driving rain, thick clouds and sunbreaks giving rise to a black and starry sky—all in the same day. From the beginning, our photo group experienced this forecast to the fullest on our recent winter landscape shoot. Most of the participants arrived in Reykjavik during a blustery “horizontal” snowstorm. The ground was a solid blanket of white that softened the edges of the ubiquitous harsh black lava fields that lay below. It was an Iceland in Winter trip after all.

We loaded our two four-wheel-drive vans (with a luggage trailer as well) and traveled east following the southern section of Iceland’s Route 1 Ring Road. Our first overnight stop was “Vik.” Vík í Mýrdal is the southernmost village in Iceland, and due to its location on the windward side of the Gulf Stream, it is the wettest village in all of Iceland. Vik’s black basalt sand beach has been described as one of the ten most beautiful beaches on Earth. Offshore rise the basalt Reynisdrangar sea stacks that legend says were trolls turned to stone after being caught out in daylight while attempting to plunder a schooner during the night. Vik’s photogenic church, built in 1934, is situated on a commanding hill above the town. It is a classic Icelandic design and its bold position against towering crags provides exceptionally graphic images. During previous spring and summer trips—where there may be 24 hours of daylight—we’ve never photographed the church in the “dark.” But on this trip we found the floodlight-lit church in pre-dawn light dramatically juxtaposed under the impressive dark cliffs.

Continuing eastward to our next stop in Vatnajökull National Park provided several enjoyable photography highlights—and just about all of them involved ice. One of the best was the area around the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. The spectacular ice-choked lagoon continually flushes truck-size icebergs into the sea through a narrow channel with the change of the tide.

When we first arrived the sun was shining beautifully, but the volume of “sculptural” ice in the lagoon was low and the wind was exceptionally strong. It was disappointing at first. However, huge waves were breaking on the beach, their crests sheared by the wind, creating photogenic curtains of back-blown spray that reached into the blue sky. Small flocks of Iceland gulls (Larus glaucoides) cruised amidst the spume, plucking bits of food between the churning waves. Ironically, “Iceland” gulls visit the island only in the winter and breed in Greenland and the extreme northeast Canadian Arctic. Huge turquoise blocks of ice lay in the intertidal zone. Higher on the beach, natural glass-clear and crystalline ice sculptures drew photographers like a magnet. As the tide receded, using slow shutter speeds, we were able to depict these static beached aquamarine ice blocks surrounded by the slow-speed, velvety, milk-white pulses of the waves.

A fabulous blue ice cave, created by the seasonal flow of “rivers” beneath Vatnajökull (translated as Vatna glacier) was easily one of the two finest photo ops the group experienced on this trip. We drove in 4×4s over a rough, icy makeshift track to the periphery of the glacier. As we donned non-skid boot spikes and safety helmets, the rain and wind became quite strong. But once into the mouth of the cave, this glowing blue cathedral was quiet, calm and sheltering. For a while it seemed like the outside world had virtually disappeared.

Swirl patterns made by water flowing along the cave walls gave the impression of Arizona’s picturesque red slot canyons—only in blue. Light of varying intensity penetrated from above creating a glowing world that could have been straight out of the planet of Pandora in the movie, Avatar. Line, pattern, color and texture were all easily captured with our cameras as we explored this crystalline work of art. Amazingly, we were among the last groups to enter the cave (at least for a time unbeknownst to us)—the next day it flooded with water.

Following the Ring Road we swung north along the east coast. The weather was “bad” and not very conducive for photography. Locals said they had never seen winter weather like they were experiencing this year. (We hear this everywhere!) Yet spirits were high since between the squalls of wet and gray weather we were usually able to squeeze out something interesting to shoot. That, and the good food served at mealtimes, was also a morale builder. It’s said that an army marches on its stomach. And I can tell you that the quality of the meals that today’s stomachs march on in Iceland is a vast improvement over that of the first groups I brought to the island 20 years ago! Due to geothermally-powered greenhouses scattered throughout the country, wonderfully fresh salad greens and vegetables are now readily available year round. And it seems in 20 years the Icelanders have learned how to cook! Back then, you could have boiled potatoes and cod—baked cod, boiled cod, fried cod, cod cakes, cod with (tasteless) white sauce, pan-seared cod, cod with lemon and cod sautéed in butter. Repeat that with lamb. The menu used to read like the shrimp dialogue in Forrest Gump.

Our final destination was Reykjahlíð, a small town whose location allowed us to explore the region around Lake Mývatn. We were in the north, not very far from the Arctic Circle. This area is punctuated with hundreds of lakes and small ponds, geothermal features and several large thundering waterfalls. We had several shoots at Dettifoss and Godafoss (foss translates to waterfall). Both of these cataracts flow exceptionally heavily in late winter and their rocky substrate is covered with ice walls and long spear-like icicles. We “played” long and hard at these two places creating images of stitched panoramas, abstract section selections, slow shutter speed water blurs, and shots of interesting ice and rock patterns found between the car parks and the falls. However, the shoots were challenging. There was a lot of mist at both falls making clear sharp pictures relatively hard to achieve. Because the sky was often heavily overcast, many of our photos lacked the snappy shadow contrast that a brighter sky might have provided.

On the last of these overcast days we had finished our final afternoon shoot at Dettifoss and were heading west toward our hotel looking for something to shoot. Because of the coming darkness and the overcast, it was a good bet that shooting would be over for the day. Then a thin golden crack of sunset light appeared on the western horizon. As we drove toward the hotel the crack got bigger and bigger until it was obvious we would end the day with good light. Now, what to shoot? The question was quickly answered as we passed several glass-calm tundra ponds whose reflected images of shrub and sky were the perfect shoot until, finally, a light breeze rippled the mirrored water as the sun dropped below the horizon.

But that night, and by complete accident, we had saved the best for last. At dinner we checked the Icelandic Meteorological Office website for their daily aurora borealis forecast, as we did every night. (http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/) On a scale of 1 to 9 with 9 being the strongest aurora, the prediction for that night was a 9! It was going to be the strongest solar storm in 11 years and among the strongest recent aurora displays!

For days the aurora forecast had been relatively low (2 or 3)—and due to heavy cloud cover, no matter what the forecast, it wasn’t worth trying for a shoot. (On our only clear night I stayed awake most of the night in order to awaken the group for a display, but with no luck.) We now had a great aurora forecast—but one big problem. When we went outside we saw nothing but solid, thick cloud cover overhead. We were not happy campers! We went back to the “Met” website and had a look at the current Iceland cloud cover chart. In doing so we discovered that the sky was relatively clear to the west—100 miles to the west! So what was our next move? To load our gear into the vans and head west at 8:30 PM. There was an aura of disbelief among the trip participants that we would drive that distance at that hour to shoot the aurora.

 

About 75 miles west of Reykjahlíð on the northern part of the Ring Road we could see a crack of multi-colored light on the horizon. It got brighter and brighter as we headed westward as the clouds thinned overhead. After 100 miles, at 10:30 PM, we were far away from area villages—and we had clear sky and incredible northern lights dancing above us! Another 10 miles west and we found a side road with a suitable foreground of hills and jagged mountains. And we began shooting.

This aurora was like none I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen many. Explosions of light burst overhead like a fireworks display. Curtains of red, green, lavender, yellow, blue, orange and magenta waved like flags cross the star-filled sky. Fingers of twisting light reached high into the blackness. The sheer scope of the aurora that filled the sky in all directions, was breathtaking. We had found the aurora mother lode!

We changed locations several times and by 2:30 AM a thin layer of clouds was building and the aurora appeared dimmer because of it. It was time to make the 2-hour drive back to our hotel. This night was the perfect way to end the Iceland in Winter tour!

Photographing in Iceland is exceptional at any season. I could spend the rest of my life happily photographing landscapes and wildlife here! We will repeat the Iceland in Winter trip next year (Mar 16–27, 2016) and are offering an early fall trip, “Iceland Revealed” (Jul 29–Aug 9, 2016) which will travel deep into the island’s photogenic, rugged highlands that are impenetrable during the winter. Join us as we explore the otherworldly wonders of Iceland.

Related Tags:  aurora, borealis, glaciers, iceland, "northern lights"