Iceland in Winter 2017 Trip Report

By John Shaw on Apr 10, 2017

Weather.  That was the big challenge on this year's Iceland in Winter trip.  "What's the weather forecast?" was a laughable question, as conditions changed so fast, and so often, that the answer was easy:  it would be either sunny or cloudy, windy or calm, rainy or dry, warm or cold, or snowy or not. Or all of the above, over the course of one day.

Our group of nine met at a downtown hotel in Reykjavik for our first night's dinner.  Early the next morning we loaded our custom-built four-wheel drive Mercedes Sprinter, and followed the ring road southeast toward the small coastal town of Vik. This was the start of our weather adventure. Gale warnings were up for the southeast coast, exactly where we were heading. Light mist turned to hard rain, and by mid-afternoon our truck was moving slowly down the road, rocking in the strong wind.

By the next morning the rain had stopped, and the wind was quickly dropping. The seacoast near Vik is well known for its many basaltic sea stacks, including the Reynisdrangar group. Legend says that these were formed when two trolls tried to drag a three-masted ship ashore, but when daylight broke both trolls and ship became needles of rock. After photographing along the beach for several hours, and with the weather turning better, we made the short hike into the nearby Kvernufoss waterfall.  While we photographed the waterfall, within a span of fifteen minutes we experienced bright sun, rain, a snow squall, and a return to bright sun conditions.  After lunch we headed across a causeway to the Dyrholaey peninsula, but came to a quick stop when we saw the reflections in the calm waters of the tidal flats. As we photographed, the tide continued to drop, exposing rippled areas in the mud. We ended the day by catching the sunset light from the end of the peninsula, with views of blowholes and sea arches.

The next day was the start of three days of "glaciers and ice" photography. We were headed toward the famous iceberg lagoon at Jökulsárlón in Vatnajokull National Park. The park is named for the largest glacier in Iceland, covering a bit more than 8,000 square kilometers. Jökulsárlón itself is a glacial lake at the head of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. Icebergs calved from the glacier gather in the lake and then slowly drift out a narrow exit channel to the ocean. The amount of ice in the lake at any one time varies. While we were there the lake was positively jammed with ice. We photographed the icebergs from several locations around the lake at different times of day, including one pre-sunrise shoot where the first warm light of day was mirrored in the lake's waters.

As the ice drifts from the lagoon to the ocean through the only exit channel, tidal currents, wind and waves throw blocks of ice back onto the black sand beach. This creates a great photo opportunity of sculpted ice floes at the sea edge. Combine a short lens with a slow shutter speed and the resulting image shows long streaks of rushing water around the ice. But the beach is relatively flat, which creates a problem when it is covered with a lot of large ice chunks: if you don't pay attention to sneaker waves and  plan a quick exit route, you and your gear can be easily knocked over in the churning water. I watched two tripods rolling in the surf—with cameras firmly mounted to them—while their owners struggled to their feet, now totally soaked. Forewarned, our group had no accidents except for a few wet feet when waves went over boot tops. The beach is a super location, especially on a storm sky morning at low tide—conditions we experienced—but it is not a place to be complacent.

From the hotel near Jökulsárlón we had our one and only opportunity to photograph the aurora borealis.  Ideally you want a spectacular display, no clouds, and limited moonlight. While we had a decent display, we also had clouds blowing in fairly quickly and an almost full moon.

Continuing east on the ring road we went past the fishing town of Hofn to photograph  the Vestrahorn peaks from the black sand dunes at Stokksnes.  As we photographed the sharp peaks of Eystrahorn a bit further on, the weather turned again.  By the time we reached out hotel at Breiðdalsvík on the coast of east Iceland, it was back to rain changing to snow.  Blowing snow continued all the next day on our northwesterly drive to Lake Mývatn—we were definitely back in winter conditions.  We made several visits to Godafoss, one of the larger waterfalls in Iceland, and a trip to photograph the Bakkastakkur sea arch near Husivik. But all too soon our trip was over.  We flew from Akureyri, the largest city in north Iceland, back to the international airport at Keflavik for our journey home.