Under The Midnight Sun – Two Weeks In Iceland In June

where the sun never sets

The first thing I noticed was the lack of trees. Growing up at the base of the rocky mountains, I had grown accustomed to the sight of Pine, Fir, and Aspens surrounding me. But as the plane that had been my home for the last six hours started to descend and the island came into view, the mossy rock stretched out to the horizon dotted by groups of beautiful purple flowers. I was prepared for a lot of firsts during this trip. First time camping in a new country. First time out of the country since the pandemic. First time joining fellow photographers on a tour of somewhere new. But I wasn’t prepared for something so… alien. Where were all the trees?

I flew on what most people, including me, would consider a “red-eye.” I took off from Minneapolis just before 9:00pm. I can’t sleep on planes, never have. Instead, the black sky of the New England, Canadian, and eventually Pacific night was my companion. Except it was only three-ish hours into the flight, somewhere over the Pacific near Greenland, when my eyes adjusted to an orange glow far off on the horizon.

As we progressed, Greenland came into view. The beautiful Ice floes and glaciers gently floating near the shore – and the endless white landscape of one of the most rugged places on Earth. Eventually, it was too bright to keep the window open. Reykjavik time, it was five in the morning, but Minneapolis time, it was just after midnight. Where we were, it was probably somewhere squarely between 2 and 3am. So what was the sun doing getting up so early? We were just under the arctic circle at that point, the invisible line that signifies where, if you’re above it, the sun does not set. It was June 14, seven days before the summer equinox. It was also the last time I saw natural darkness for a full two weeks.

A bus driver named thor

Something that is incredibly easy to miss on your first trip to Iceland is some key info about Keflavik International Airport. It’s 45 minutes away from Reykjavik, the Capital and almost certainly where you want to be. There’s a myriad of bus and taxi services that can get you where you need to go, but there’s nothing quite like pulling up the address to your hotel and seeing an eta almost an hour away while you’re tired and in a country whose language you don’t speak. For all the stress of that, though, you quickly learn one of Iceland’s defining and terribly underrated features: just how friendly the people are.

Iceland’s economy is built on tourism, and everyone in the tourism and travel industry you talk to is just absolutely elated to have you there. Even as you get into the northern and eastern part of the country where these tiny little villages with hardly any people live and work, they’re still just so happy to chat.

My bus driver was named, appropriately, Thor. A large, blonde, bearded Icelandic man whose voice combined Icelandic, New England, South African, and Kenyan accents, making up the bulk of where he said he had grown up. From climbing mountains in Africa, a cross-country motorcycle road trip mainly through the American Southwest, and his robust collection of vintage guitars, he had moved back to Iceland at the start of the pandemic to be with his aging family. Thor had joined the tourism industry out of necessity, and fallen in love – a story most travelers can relate to in one aspect or another.

A better introduction to Iceland you could not have, and we chatted about photography, travel, music, and anything else on our journey to Iceland’s Capital. Thor dropped me off on the literal doorstep of my hotel before speeding off, no doubt to show more tourists how incredible his people and this country are.

At this point I had been awake for damn near 30 hours, but it was 9 in the morning. Don’t get me wrong, I was exhausted, but I wasn’t looking forward to the groveling I was about to have to do to be given an early check in. Mercifully, the two women working the front desk were equally as elated to have an American not put up a fight about being put in a room nearest the hotel’s new construction as I was to be given an early check-in for no extra cost, despite my objections to pay for the extra service. I walked into my home for the next two days, dropped my bags, took a quick shower, drew the black out curtains shut, and was almost certainly unconscious before I hit the pillow.

reykjavik, iceland

I am not a napper. Never have been. For me, napping involves waking up in a daze with a splitting headache, no idea what day or frankly even year you’ve ended up in, thirsty as all hell. Waking up in the middle of the afternoon (I think it was the afternoon) after 4 or 5 hours of sleep was decidedly not refreshing. Nevertheless, Delta’s three bites of curry and fruit 12 hours before had left the building and hunger was a more pressing issue than the grogginess I felt.

A hazy wakefulness and 20 minutes later I found myself in a Nettó, a 24 hour semi-convenience semi-grocery store and my first foray into Icelandic chocolate and $10 fresh produce. Generally I struggle to eat somewhat healthily when I travel of my own accord, but it appeared Iceland was also going to be the land of carbs, at least for me. I’d slowly refine my taste from random assorted wafers and chips to one of the three types of sandwiches they offer as the trip went on, but I walked back to the hotel flush with the macros I’d need for at least 12 hours. An hours walk was herculean to my tortured circadian rhythm, and I was back asleep before the clock struck 6. My first day in Iceland came to a close with me sleeping for the majority of it.

In addition to not being a napper, I’m also not a morning person. So I was just as surprised as you when I woke, refreshed and ready to take on the day, at 4 in the morning. The sun low in the sky but still mid-day bright, there was no chance I was sleeping any longer. Another quick trip to Nettó later, I found an electric scooter and was off to explore this incredible city.

Reykjavik is full of incredible places to see, a cultural and tourism hotspot unto itself. The National Museum of Iceland, Hallgrímskirkja, Hot Dogs of all things, and so much more. My recommendation is to find a few places before you come so you have an idea of where you’ll be and where you want to go, and then let the incredible sights and storefronts draw you in as you explore. In particular, though, we ended the day at The Sun Voyager, a beautiful sculpture on the shore of Reykjavik’s rocky coast.

There are so many incredible places to see in Reykjavik, but here’s a few in particular you should definitely not miss out on: Reykjavik Roasters for the coffee lovers, The National Museum of Iceland, Hallgrímskirkja, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, and The Sun Voyager.

The Westfjords

We didn’t spend nearly enough time in Reykjavik to really appreciate it, but I think I could safely say that about the entire country and the entire trip. One place I know for certain I didn’t experience enough, despite three full days exploring the literal cracks in the landscape, were Iceland’s mighty Westfjords. Situated in the northwest part of the Island and basically cut off from the entire country, you would do well to take all your necessities with you. There are very few places I’ve been in my travel more remote.

I was with 11 other photographers exploring this amazing place, and our first bonafide photo location was Látrabjarg, the westernmost point in Iceland. Here, day and night mean little. Extraordinarily close to the Arctic Circle, the Sun setting was a brief goodbye, and it’s brilliance never really went away, sliding along the horizon until “sunrise,” some 90 minutes later. At Látrabjarg we also got our first taste of Puffins, adorable little migratory seabirds nesting on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story.

Our time at one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever been to came to an end, but the Westfjords hide some incredible secrets. Everywhere there are little nooks, crevices, and off-the-beaten-path places you can find. Some of the most incredible sights you’ve ever seen, and one that blows the previous out of the water just down the road. It’s a sensory experience, and honestly somewhat overwhelming. Rugged and remote, they’re underrated and ready for exploration.

The Horse and the girl

Our camping spot for the night after leaving the Westfjords was a little village named Varmahlíð. I’ve had my REI Half Dome 2 Tent for many, many years, which meant I was done setting up well before everyone else in the group. This time, I took a little stroll through the camp area, eventually finding my way outside of a horse pasture, where half a dozen beautiful and very pregnant mares (and a few foals!) were grazing. We were well into golden hour, but considering at this time of year golden hour lasts half the day, the light was always beautiful. I spent some time scratching the horses that came up to me, trying to convince the foals to get close, and just enjoying the moment of quiet after a few very busy days.

I’m not sure which deity blessed me with such perfect conditions, but I was grateful. After a time, I was joined by a young girl and her father, also enjoying the scenery and not-so-wild-life. The pure joy of connection with her new friends was tangible, and all three of us were brighter because of it. I was lucky enough to get evidence for an evening that I’ll never forget, something I don’t often have, and what resulted is one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken.

fosslaug

After our fairytail experience with the horses and fey-touched Nordic girls, we spent the rest of our wonderful evening at Fosslaug, a mighty and extraordinarily underrated waterfall near Varmahlíð. At the outset, there is really only one place to photograph it from, despite our photographer desires to shoot from a different angle to be unique. We arrived just in time for sunset, before the sun slid behind the incoming clouds, and you might recognize the photo from the homepage of this very blog!

As the clock struck midnight, I was also fortunate enough to have cell service (it’s actually really good in Iceland, surprisingly) and called my Dad to wish him a happy American Father’s Day. It’s certainly one of the more picturesque places I’ve ever Facetimed from, I’ll tell you that.

While we waited for sunrise, my curiosity and desire for a different angle got the better of me, and before I knew it I was up on an outcropping, 10 or 15 meters above the river and the roar of the falls, trying to decide if jumping the last two meters down was worth it. In the end my better judgement won out, missing the jump just barely or slipping once I landed would spell a 10 meter tumble in the rocks and white water below, and the only thought more horrifying than my untimely demise was the potential for a water-logged camera. In the end, I opted to follow in my friend’s footsteps and slid along a steep section of hill for a gorgeous view downriver. Perhaps it was the fact I had just considered jumping to my doom minutes before, but sliding along the hill, praying for the dirt to not give way (despite my guide knocking some rocks from under him and almost falling moments before) seemed like a much better decision. The result is the first photo in the gallery below (also featuring the outcropping I decided to not jump down to).

Dettifoss and the breakdown

The day after Fosslaug, we arrived to our only hotel of the trip, a converted boarding school in, quite literally, the middle of nowhere. Skúlagarður Hotel is an hour off of the Ring Road (the main highway in Iceland), and a 30 minute drive from the nearest amenities and services in Húsavík. It was almost certainly the fact we hadn’t showered in almost a week and had all but forgotten what hotels were like, but it was a 5 star oasis in the desert. We were treated to a Michelin Star meal of Mashed Potatoes, Lamb, and a Rosemary Lamb Sauce that would make Gordon Ramsay shake in his boots. Not seeing the inside of a bedroom for a week also had all 12 of us charging our depleted batteries at the same time. I hope we didn’t cause too much of an increase in their electric bill, although I’m certain you’d be able to plot our arrival and departure on a graph.

Never the type to let time go to waste, after dinner we struck out for Dettifoss, one of the most powerful waterfalls in all of Europe. For this trip we chose to approach from the east, the rocky, rugged, less-developed side with, in my opinion, better views of the the mighty falls. Despite parking half a kilometer away and uphill, you could hear and feel what you were walking up to. The mist caused by the mass of water had nowhere to go in it’s tiny canyon, and it shot up and out well over twice the size of the falls themselves, drenching our excited selves as we approached.

Never have I been witness to so much power, it was awe-inspiring. Standing so close to the falls you could see the bottom of the canyon it had carved, you could feel in your bones the strength of the water before you. I hope I was able to capture it in some small way, but the experience of what I felt will stay with me forever.

With such an incredible evening so far under our belt, Murphy’s Law came knocking at the door. This time in the form of a rock the perfect size to not be seen from the drivers side of the van, but large enough to break all sorts of sensitive electronics, tubes, and whatever else at the vehicles base. A loud crack later, and we were stuck in 1st gear, limited to just above the speed of a jog, leaking fluid from a handful of different holes. The lesson of Iceland is always that it is still wild and rugged, in addition to being beautiful, and it demands respect. If respect isn’t given, you’ll be forced to reap the consequences.

A phone call to one of the photographer’s daughter’s boyfriend later, our strange version of phone-a-mechanic had cleared us to at least get back to the hotel, albeit at the pace of a lethargic, arthritic tortoise. The main worry was overheating as a result of losing our coolant (the leaking liquid mentioned before) and bricking the engine, certainly a more expensive repair than the few tubes that had been broken. Thankfully I was able to assuage the fears of our guides, as I have killed not one, not two, but three vehicles in my short life as a driver from that very issue (if your engine starts smoking white, it’s already too late). I knew there was no way we were overheating in the balmy 5 degree Celsius (40 Fahrenheit) weather we were experiencing, and I sat back to enjoy the methodical carnival train ride we were on for the next hour and a half.

Never has there been a better poster child for insurance on your rental car than us, as we limped back into the hotel’s parking lot near 2 in the morning and went to bed. For our guide and the unfortunate driver of the van, Greg, though, a journey had only just begun. As I was peacefully sleeping after an eventful day, Greg drove the van to Húsavík, almost an hour and a half away at the pace he was required to go at, arriving to the lone auto shop just as they opened at 8 in the morning. A quick inspection and report that basically said, “What the hell did you do to this thing,” later, the insurance claim was filed and a truck was sent from Reykjavik carrying our replacement van. The ETA: 8 hours.

Our main guide Brendan picked Greg up, and back at the hotel we split into two groups: The group led by Greg that would stay at the hotel, relaxing and editing photos, and the group led by Brendan who would continue on to the next night’s camping spot. I joined Brendan’s group, and off we went, deeper into the next stage of our trip: The Eastfjords.

Davy jones’ signature

Ever gazed upon the green flash, Master Gibbs?”

“I reckon I seen my fair share. Happens on rare occasion. The last glimpse of sunset, a green flash shoots up into the sky. Some go their whole lives without ever seeing it. Some claim to have seen it who ain’t. And some say—”

“It signals when a soul comes back to this world from the dead.

Hector BarbossaJoshamee Gibbs and Pintel

I’ve always loved the ocean. From faint flashes of memory as a child seeing the Atlantic and Pacific for the first time, to today where every time I fly international I choose the window seat – just so I can watch the ocean as we pass over. There’s something deeply beautiful about it. A feeling of solidarity with your ancestors who stood on shores and beaches and also wondered what adventures awaited them on the other side of the unknown.

After a three hour drive and a stop at the cutest coffee shop in an expanse of nothing, we arrived at Borgarfjarðarhöfn, land of the Puffins, on the Eastern coast. Thousands of Puffins nest here each year, and it was peak season. We arrived at the exact perfect time as well, just before sunset when the fish start to get more active – and the Puffins go out to feed. Straight from a Disney movie, we were surrounded by Puffins. We spent the next 5 hours around and among these amazing little birds. Watched them feed, fight other birds, and enjoyed the scene around us. But as the title of this section suggests, tonight’s sunset would be one to never forget.

I’m a big fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (the first three, anyway), so I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass by without adding that quote at the top of this section from Barbossa. I’m sure you’ve already guessed what’s coming, but we were treated to one of Mother Nature’s rarest and magical surprises: The Green Flash.

There’s a lot of science around when and where and why it occurs (which I’ve all read because I’m a wealth of surface-level knowledge), but it’s much more fun to think of it as the lore of old, as the old English proverb says, “Glimpse you ere the green ray, Count the morrow a fine day.

Considering at this time it was a few minutes to midnight, I took it as a sign of the wonderful evening we still had ahead of us, and the incredible days still to come.

Photo by Dan Mayer

clouds that move like water

The Eastfjords will require their own visit some day. The long, winding roads through the fjords and mountains made for some of the best views of the entire trip, but Vik and Vestrahorn were calling our names. As we entered this stage of our journey, there was a sudden uptick in the amount of people we were seeing. We had been spoiled for the last week, having been in extremely rural areas for the duration so far. But as we entered the south coast of Iceland, the tourists started to appear en masse.

Another area we had been extremely lucky in was weather. Iceland is notorious for it’s summer weather – torrential rain and hurricane wind gusts are the norm. Since we had set off from Reykjavik, though, there had been only a handful of hours of light drizzle, mostly while we were driving, and soft breezes everywhere we went. As with Dettifoss, the rock, and Murphy’s Law, though, we were about to be reminded what Iceland is capable of.

As we worked our way south, thick, dark clouds began to roll in from the Pacific. Low on the horizon, they swallowed us up and plunged us into the darkest environment we’d seen since we had landed in Reykjavik. We pulled up to Vestrahorn, the two proud peaks and top 2/3s of the mountain hidden by the clouds. I had never seen black sand beaches before, and I eagerly left the safety and warmth of the van to explore this alien landscape – only to immediately be buffeted by winds so strong I could hardly breathe. There would be no photography until those winds died down, and we took refuge inside our vehicles to wait out the storm.

Growing up at the base of the Rockies, I am very familiar with the statement, “Don’t like the weather, wait a few hours!” A statement so common to anyone living near mountains you can almost vividly see the minion meme your grandparents shared on Facebook with it.

With that oh-so-common affirmation fresh on my mind, I was witness to the might of the Gulf Stream. The clouds that had covered us in totality not two hours before, were boiling. As we watched our forecasts and followed where the sun would be if we could see it, the dark, angry clouds above us were literally churning like the waves a few dozen meters beneath them. They slammed into Vestrahorn, flowing over the top of the cliffs and out of sight.

About an hour after we arrived, the first glimpse of sky showed itself on the horizon, moving quickly toward us. Like a god peeling back the fabric of reality and revealing our small selves to the sky above, the might of Vestrahorn came fully into view.

Photographer Chris Burkard once told me that the difference between an amateur and a professional photographer is how they will treat a location. The amateur will set up the epic, incredible shot and wait as long as they can, afraid to miss the perfect lighting and conditions, and will walk away with an incredible photo. The professional will take the same photo, and maybe won’t get it at the exact perfect time, but will then move all through a location looking for every angle, every opportunity for something that no one else has seen. While the amateur may walk away with 1 otherworldly image, the professional will have dozens of equally incredible images, and the story of taking them all.

That’s all to say that as soon as the wind died with the clouds, we were out of the van and finding every angle we could to tell the story of what we had just seen. Our patience was rewarded, and some of my favorites images I’ve ever taken were made.

a church on the hill

We left Vestrahorn and the quaint little town of Höfn to head to Vik and the Diamond Beach. Vik is a much more visited city than any we had been to since leaving Reykjavik, despite being one main street and a singular (well stocked) grocery store. Standing proudly above the town is Vik’s main attraction, a small white church with a red roof that you can find in any Icelandic town (they’re literally everywhere, they must have gotten a bulk discount or something). The churches you’ll generally find, though, are not nearly as picturesque as Vik’s, sitting proudly atop the central hill.

Vik is also right on the coast, and beautiful sea stacks nearby make for a wonderful background to the frame. You can also get right up next to the sea stacks, and taking photos from Hálsanefshellir Cave is something I’d highly recommend. Just watch out for the sneaker waves, quick moving waves that don’t seem threatening that pull far too many tourists out to sea each year.

On a happier note, Vik’s church is also serendipitously surrounded by gorgeous fields of lupines and other flowers. Even if you aren’t a photographer, taking a stroll through the hills surrounded by purples, yellows, and oranges is something you absolutely have to make time for.

the yoda cave

This is a tiny little section that absolutely deserves its place here. It’s actual name is Gígjagjá, and it barely needs an introduction, as you can see below.

Kvernufoss

As we approached the last leg of the trip we stopped at Kvernufoss, Skógafoss’ lesser known neighbor. While Skógafoss is certainly majestic, impressive, and striking, Kvernufoss is nestled deeper into the cliffs, but boasts a short, idyllic nature walk as you approach. While most waterfalls in Iceland you can drive right up to, Kvernufoss is 1.5 km (1 mile) walk down a lovely unpaved path right next to the river Kvernufoss feeds into. Hundreds of people visit Skógafoss (for good reason), but we were sharing Kvernufoss with maybe a half dozen other adventurers.

the last waterfall

When I talked about Vestrahorn, I had to mention how windy it was. And don’t get me wrong, to that point those had been the strongest winds I had ever felt. Imagine my surprise as we then found ourselves being blown over at the last waterfall of the trip on our last day of being together: The Mighty Haifoss and it’s smaller neighbor, Granni (no literally). Haifoss was the farthest we had been in the interior of Iceland, about an hour and a half away from Selfoss, the largest city south of Reykjavik.

Up to that point (and so far since), I’ve never experienced winds that will keep you standing while you lean at impossible angles. I’d seen videos and photos of people doing such things in places like Florida during hurricanes, but to experience gusts that strong was an experience unto itself.

The best angles to photograph Haifoss from are also right next to the edge of the canyon it has spent the last however long carving out. 120 meters from top to bottom, it is not something you’d have fun falling from. Hilariously obtuse as we photographers are about very recognizable danger, we took some incredible photographs. Let’s just not talk about how close we actually were. Besides, the wind was pushing us backward, making it completely safe… right?

a new perspective

Haifoss and the return to Reykjavik marked the end of the 12 of us touring Iceland together. We had successfully made it entirely around the country with only one broken van as a casualty. It was a trip of a lifetime, spent with some incredible people, having unbelievable experiences. While I do love traveling alone, half a trip is who you’re with.

I, however, still had two more days in Reykjavik. Due to some not-so-great planning on my part (don’t book hotels without knowing that the airport is 40 minutes away from your destination, people), I spent the first day on my own traveling back and forth from Reykjavik to my AirBnB in Keflavik, and back to Reykjavik for a memento of the trip to be inked into my shoulder. Despite the session only being 2-ish hours, total time with travel included made for a 10 hour journey to Narnia and back.

But we still weren’t done with the wonderful Keflavik Airport bus system, and the next morning I was up at 5am to meet my friend from the trip Martin Godwyn, and join him on what would ultimately become my favorite experience of the entire two weeks.

You see, I love to fly as much if not more as I love the Ocean. My flying experience, however, has been limited to large Boeing and AirBus jets from major international Airports (except for one trip in a tiny helicopter in Alaska). So getting into a tiny, four seat (really three), bright red Cessna with Martin and Halldor Jonsson as our pilot was significantly outside my comfort zone.

I like to read as much as I like to take photos and travel. The development of my ADHD in adulthood has made it difficult for me to sit down and read a paper book, which means I’m mostly relegated to audiobooks (which I love). One of my favorite print books and a prized gift from my mom one Christmas is Chris Burkard’s At Glaciers End. It’s a documentation of Iceland’s glacial rivers from the skies, and now a memory of the pilot Chris went with for most of the photos, the late Heraldur Diego, known as the Volcano Pilot, and one of Halldor’s best friends.

The book is one of my favorite possessions, and it sits in my office where I see it every day when I walk in. It’s the perfect example of seeing things in a different perspective, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

So we took to the skies in a tiny, bright red prop plane, flying over the likes of Hallgrímskirkja and Reykjavik as a whole, before heading southeast toward some of the more popular and beautiful rivers that are close by.

I live with anxiety on a day to day basis. Worries about nothing in particular are just something that I’ve come to deal with as part of my existence, and I think I’m quite good in managing those fears. Every once in a while, though, I’ll have an experience that every nerve and bone in my body tells me is a bad idea as a result of my anxiety.

In an effort to combat my monkey brain telling me something shouldn’t be done that I know is safe and will lead to incredible experiences, I live by three words:

Do it scared.

There’s nothing quite as freeing as taking hold of your fears and anxieties and saying to yourself that despite the alarm bells ringing, you aren’t a slave to them, and you control your life and your experiences.

That all lasted up until we were in the air and Iceland’s ever-present wind started roaring. While there’s nothing as freeing as controlling your own life, there’s also nothing quite as disturbing as feeling your plane fishtail while you’re in the air.

Jokes aside, it was a transcendent experience that I cannot wait to have again. As we flew over Iceland’s southwestern coast, I really began to appreciate the landscape I had just spent two weeks on the ground of. The long, glacier-carved plains that extend from coast to mountain, the small buildings standing in a hostile environment that the Vikings of old and their ancestors anew build and remain out of sheer tenacity and stubbornness, the mountain range that marks the beginning of Iceland’s interior and the ferocious volcanoes that lie within, and the rivers that pour from that same interior, carrying with them the glacial and mineral deposits that create their beauty out to the waiting ocean.

There’s not many people who have ever seen Iceland from above, especially at this mid range not as fast or as high as the planes we are used to, but much more intimate, a few hundred meters above the ground, at the mercy of the wind and the weather. It was the perfect capstone to two weeks in a new place and a new experience. Under the midnight sun with new friends in new places,

Under the midnight sun, I found a new perspective.

Thanks for reading,

Brax

If you’ve made it this far, I’m incredibly grateful for you sticking around. I mostly write these articles for myself to remember what an incredible experience I was lucky enough to have. As a reward for making it to the bottom, all I can really offer is my thanks and a link to the gallery where I keep all the photos I kept from the trip. I hope you enjoy!

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