The Northern Lights Hockey Tournament – 2 October 22, 2014

Step out of the change rooms and it’s laid out before you: a giant turquoise pool like a silty stretch of the Caribbean. Black lava surrounds it. Steam rises into a blue sky, and men and women with grey mud masks on their faces paddle blissfully by.

blue lagoonThe Blue Lagoon is actually an after-thought, a by-product of the geothermal Svatsengi power plant opened in 1976 to produce electricity and hot water for nearby villages. People swimming in the newly-formed lagoon soon noticed health benefits—your skin ends up as soft as a child’s—and the area was opened as a spa in 1987. The water comes from 2,000 feet down, where sea water mixes with fresh water at high temperatures under great pressure. Holes drilled for the power plant release the water to the surface, which it reaches at a perfect 38 degrees. You’re a baby and it’s bathwater.

In a very big tub.

Still lagged from the overnight flight, our intrepid hockey team decided to spend our first afternoon in Iceland at the Blue Lagoon, not least because we were incapable of doing anything else. With Iceland promoting tourism heavily these days, we were able to grab a shuttle from our hotel to the bus terminal, where we took one of the hourly buses to the lagoon, nearly re-tracing our route in from the airport. The spa lies a short distance from Keflavik, and many people stop there on the way out of the country.

“Is the first sight of it going to blow us away?” asked a teammate.

Um. I was last there almost exactly nine years before at the end of a two-week trip to Iceland, and nearly got blown away in a different sense. I had come to Iceland with my friend Judy Koonar to visit the set of the feature film Beowulf and Grendel, which her husband Sturla Gunnarsson was directing, and the weather was half killing the production. Gale-force winds blew trucks over sideways, star Gerard Butler came close to hypothermia in an ocean scene, and ash from a volcano erupting nearby lit the sky beautifully at sunset but threatened the film’s delicate cameras. (You can read an article I wrote about the making of Beowulf here.)

The path to the Blue Lagoon in colder times

The path to the Blue Lagoon in colder times

Driving around Iceland afterward, I chanced on a couple of beautiful days, 15 degrees and sunny. But the night before I was due to go to the Blue Lagoon, the temperature plummeted, snow began to fall and the wind gusted in hard off the north Atlantic.

It was worse the next morning. Dressed in nothing but a bathing suit at 3 or 4 below zero, I raced out of the change room and toward the lagoon, ice pellets blowing horizontally across the lava fields and straight into my eyes. Laughing to myself, I plunged into the lagoon. Fortunately, the ice pellets were melting a couple of inches above the surface, and I quickly found I could escape the sting by hunkering down with only my nose and eyes out of the water, like an otter.

A half-blind otter. The melting pellets raised clouds of such thick, billowing fog over the lagoon that I couldn’t see more than a foot in front of me. And although the fog made the spa seem empty, there were quite a few other human otters present. As I drifted around, I kept bumbling into other people, or they bumbled into me. Occasionally someone stood up, looming out of the fog before tumbling back down, clumsy from the heat and the Dead-Sea-like buoyancy of the water. Zombie otters. That bad.

So was my team’s first sight of the Blue Lagoon going to blow them away?

It did. The weather was perfect, sunny and mild, with a high blue sky above the turquoise water. Heading out of the change rooms, hurrying down the stairs into the water, we formed an amoeba in the warmth, 13 of us drifting together around the lagoon, going first where the water was warmer, near vents, then back where it was a little cooler, constantly seeking consensus.

Amoeba, let’s find the vents. Hey, it’s warmer over here! Yes! Over here! Or is it maybe too warm? Maybe a little. Let’s try over here. Here. Amoeba! This way!

We found a station of the silica mud you can use for  do-it-yourself facials. Picture 13 women with mud plastered all over their faces. The lagoon’s opacity comes from the therapeutic silica, and the way it reflects sunlight makes the water look blue. Add the other natural minerals and algae in the water, and the mud is a medically-approved therapy for skin diseases, which are treated at a clinic set apart from the public pool. For us, five minutes of a non-medical silica mask and we were done, laughing some more as we tried to wash it all off, bits speckling the sunglasses that many of us wore against the glare.

Since my first visit, they’ve added a swim-up bar where you can get beer and smoothies, a lava cave where you can rest in cooler water, and a powerful waterfall that pours very hot water onto your tight shoulders, forcing them to relax. Who would have predicted? That after only three or four hours, we were so relaxed, we were ready to leave, showering and conditioning the minerals out of our hair before getting back on the bus.

Yoko Ono's peace tower

Yoko Ono’s peace tower

Dinner that night was at the Sólon Bistro on Laugarvegur, where I can recommend the  seafood soup. Sensible people might have gone to bed after dinner when their day was already more than 36 hours long. Yet how sensible is it to leave Canada to play hockey? It was also only 3 p.m. Toronto time, and after arriving back at the hotel, we considered two possibilities for the evening ahead.

On the one hand, we could take a northern lights tour into the cold, windy and deserted countryside. On the other, we could spend the evening with Yoko Ono. Or at least, with Yoko Ono and a few thousand Icelanders, who were gathering that evening on the island of Ví∂ey, not far from Reykjavik. There, Ono was planning to inaugurate her latest art installation, the Imagine Peace Tower, a beam of light she would switch on at 7:30 that night to honour her late husband, John Lennon.

My friend, Jon Gustafsson, had told me on the phone after dinner that Ono was very kindly providing free ferry rides to and from Ví∂ey. She wanted people to join her in celebrating the tower, which would shine every night from October 9th, Lennon’s birthday, until the anniversary of his death on December 8th. She was also offering free music and hot chocolate, hoping to host a big party.

“Be spontaneous,” Jon urged. “Be like Icelanders.”

Unfortunately, it was already almost 7 p.m. Rush, and we might make it to the bus station in time to catch a shuttle to the ferry terminal, and maybe we’d catch the last ferry to the island, where we could possibly join the dregs of the party. We’d also booked a northern lights tour before hearing about the tower, and although we could have cancelled, one member of the team had another concern.

“Yoko Ono isn’t going to sing, is she?”

Northern lights it was.