This Backroads Life

At Backroads, I´m called a leader. I much prefer chasing sheep on horseback, but that job doesn’t pay as well, and I’m deathly allergic to hay, so I’ll stick to Backroads leading.

Skaftafell National Park for a Backroads day

You can also call us glorified tour guides, where we’re capable of acting as babysitters or bus drivers just as well as we get to shine in the spotlight, but Backroad’s leaders are really one of a kind – a rare and spectacular breed of individuals that are capable of so much. There’s benefits to being an Icelandic leader in Iceland, but actually it means I get to spend extra time defending Backroads in Iceland, and doing extra work for the company since Im the local language expert and live here anyway, so I’m not really that special, on the Backroads global scale kinda measurement.

on Fjallsjokull glacier

The trips I lead are called multi-sport: we do sports, different kinds, one for every day. Its a 6 day trip, and we hike, bike, glacier walk, and sometimes, horse back ride. We go from Hofn to Reykjavik, in our Backroads vans, and are always atleast 2 leaders working together. We sleep at Iceland’s best hotels; Hotel Ranga and Ion Adventure hotel, to name a  few, and eat like kings and queens. It’s hard to stay fit, even as an active tour leader, since the food weighs me down, day after day, in addition to all the snacks we’re meant to offer guests, but really just end up eating ourselves, out of boredom, or guilt, or satisfaction, or all of the above… I don’t know.

biking around Thingvallavatn

The Iceland season is short, beginning at the start of June and ending at the start of September. I start and end the season, with a few weeks off in between, and our groups are anywhere from 9 to 26 people, almost always only Americans. They tip, so I love them, and speak English, which makes my job easy, but the few weeks I get off from Backroads to lead horseback riding treks are also a blessing. I may be surrounded by middle-aged German women, who were expecting a Chris Hemsworth kind of Thor as their guide, and barely speak english, but the horses are always worth it.

horseback riding in Hella

A couple of nights in the highlands, in mountain huts without running water or electricity, sharing bunk beds in one big room, and I’m immediately ready to go back to Backroads leading. My Fosshotel glacier room feels more like home than my own bed in Reykjavik does, and I’m not sure I remember what life was like before Backroads… *sigh*

my well-worn hiking boots at Hoffell

This Backroads life was meant to be, the dream job I never had and the perfect lifestyle to enjoy Iceland and traveling. If only my midriff agreed.

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The start of a real summer

Most people can agree that summer in Iceland isn’t much of a summer event. I’ve always said that my annual winter season is June-September in Iceland, and summer happens the other 8 months of the year in warmer, tropical countries south of here. But lo and behold, June came as a surprise.

the last of the snow hanging on after an early onset of a warm summer

Compared to last year, when it rained basically every single day of the month of June and the recorded sunshine hours for the whole month had already been surpassed in May this year, this June was hot, warm and dry, day after day. It was so dry the bugs didn´t make it out – there were no midge flies to be seen – and the dust clouds in the highlands would blow all the way to Reykjavik. We’re also talking about 24 hours a day of this – the sun never set so it went on and on and on and still, I woke up every day with a rain jacket and woollen lopa peysa ready to put on when the weather would finally crack.

Thingvallavatn

June saw the highland roads open early, but an emptiness remained on the well-beaten tracks of tourist trails, since tourism was still reeling from Wow air going bankrupt in April. Hotels and restaurants were still not at 100% operation, but finally there was breathing and playing space for Icelander’s to enjoy the best summer on record in over 40 years. The number of hotel rooms and tour operators may actually have been enough, for the first time since 2008, this June.

a beach day, under the glacier

However, there are always 2 sides to a story, and June was the worst month in 40 years for the salmon rivers. The most popular, productive fishing rivers had no water, and thus, no fish, and men who had paid over $1000 per day in fishing permits had resorted to just sitting in the fishing lodges drinking fine wine and smoking cigars on the patio. Some didn’t even bother to go, and fishing lodges all around Iceland sat empty for days at a time. But think about the salmon – where did they all go? Or didn’t they come at all? I hope they managed to spawn… or at least I hope they didn’t all die.

oh the places you’ll go… in a nice Icelandic summer!

I have to admit that the best part of the summer wasn’t the weather, but my life in it. I finally have a home I can call my own. It’s a wonderful place to keep all my stuff,  although I still feel very little need to be there with it all. That’s why I bought a second home on wheels – a Ford transit connect that used to be rented out as a campervan, fitted out with a sink, water pump, solar-powered fridge and a  couch that folds down to a double bed.

my home on wheels, the plumber car!

It kind of looks like a plumber’s car from the outside, a non-descript grey with no windows except at the front and back. I’ve added a table and chairs, a permanent stash of drinks and food, a yoga mat, hiking shoes and poles and a bathing suit and towel to make the car travel ready at the drop of a hat. I have probably spent as many nights in the car as in my own bed, and I’m still not sure which I prefer. Perhaps the winter will bring me back indoors a bit, we shall see.

Glacier Walking & Ice Climbing

I went on a tour offered by Arctic Adventures called “Blue Ice” and had my first intimate encounter with one of Iceland’s glaciers, Sólheimajökull. I´ve seen lots of glaciers, touched a few and chewed some ice off one, but never really played around on one.

arriving to the Glacier

It was pouring rain and grey, but the ice was actually glowing blue. Our tour guide, Valdi, explained that it takes 7m of cubic snow to form 1 cm of blue ice. That´s alot of snow. And Sólheimajökull, “Home of the Sun glacier” is one of the fastest moving glaciers in Iceland, receding about 75 cm and growing 65 cm every year. It is decreasing in size rapidly, mostly from a 10 cm annual height loss, and every day the glacier surface changes dramatically.

cramp ons

New moulins and cones form, with melting ice and lava gravel constantly shaping the topography of it, and lagoons of water and underground streams always thinning the ice layer.

We walked with cramp-ons over the glacier, which makes you feel like a small person with oversized feet, and you never quite trust the ground – the ice looks slippery, and the cramp-ons are supposed to give you adequate grip, but you’re always half-prepared to fall flat on your face. The ice is also transparent, sometimes for a meter or two, and you see the ice bubbles below the surface that could or could not be a thin layer of soon-to-break ice.

Sólheimajökull

Once you get used to stomping around, and figuring out the right angle to place your feet when going up or down hill, you realize you’ve been staring at the ground forever and remember to look up. The view is impressive – a scene from the movie Ice Age. Just blue ice, white ice, and black sand forming a massive landscape as far as your eye can see, disappearing into the grey horizon into what you know to be another, larger glacier.

the ice wall

We did some iceclimbing too, clumsily using two ice picks and the cramp ons to try and crawl up a wall of ice. We went one by one, each attached to our guide by a safety line, and awkwardly tried our best to reach the top while the other 8 tourists looked on. Most of us made it half way or more, but you could see the exhaustion in every person when their legs began to shake (“Elvis legs” our guide called it), and the point when one just had to give up, as they couldn’t muster up enough strength to get the ice pick lodged into the wall for another step. I barely made it to the top, and my hands and toes didn’t feel like they were there anymore. Repelling back down was much easier, and on the walk back to the car, I realized walking on ice seemed like a much simpler task.