The Northern Lights Hockey Tournament – 4 October 30, 2014

The next morning, I woke up shocked to realize we’d only been in Iceland for one day. Not that I had time to dwell on the fact, rushing through my shower before they cruelly removed the breakfast buffet, scrubbing away under the sulphurous water of Reykjavik’s geothermal supply, which would smell better than I did after the hockey tournament began the next day.

Þingvellir

Þingvellir

Our team was planning to head out of town that morning, busing it northeast of Reykjavik on a circle tour to take in geysers, the splendid Gullfoss waterfall and the continental rift at Þingvellir, the site of Iceland’s first parliament. I’d driven around the so-called Golden Circle on my first trip to Iceland, bumping my little car along side roads and shortcuts I really shouldn’t have taken, and having a few mild adventures after repeatedly getting lost. But it had been cloudy and cold that day, and when the weather in Iceland is bad, it can give you as little as a chilly blond.

Now the day was beautiful, sunny and 15 degrees, summery for Iceland. With driver Andrea at the wheel, we left Reykjavik on the same route we’d taken with Roni the previous night, this time able to see the mountains and the rolling golden grasslands outside town. The air was so clear, so beautifully free of pollution, that we could see long distances, and understood why so many people in Iceland look enviably young and healthy.

Þingvellir is a national park, a rift valley protected because of its historic and geological significance. The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet here, the juncture clearly visible in the many faults—cracks—throughout the park, which includes Iceland’s biggest lake, Þingvellirvatn. The Alþingi, the national parliament, was held here from its founding in 930 until 1798, with farmers for walking up to 17 days each year to pitch their tents and take part in its deliberations.

The drowning pool at Þingvellir

The drowning pool at Þingvellir

We lollygagged through the tourist walk through the central rift, passing signs explaining where the farmers pitched their tents, and where every year the parliamentary Lawspeaker recited the laws of the land. Also the pool where women judged guilty were drowned for their crimes, the country advanced for its time, but the times still early and brutal.

Looping out of the more heavily-touristed area, we headed across a low hill, passing a few redwings still flocking in the crumbling lava of the rockface, and moss growing bright green in the hollows. The ground was speckled with heather and blueberries, both in fall colours, and the few native birch trees shook yellow leaves against their white trunks in the lightest of breezes.

Earlier that summer, one of my friends had gone on a 10-day horseback expedition deep into the Icelandic mountains, and it was tough, but I envied her the long days outside. We had so little time in Iceland. After a few hours at Þingvellir, we ate our picnic lunch and moved on, Andrea herding us cheerfully. She proved to be from Switzerland, but was married to an Icelander and long settled in Reykjavik. Athletic and casual, Andrea volunteered to tend goal for us in the hockey tournament if our promised Icelandic goalie didn’t materialize, even though she’d played hockey only once in her life.

Stokkur erupting

Strokkur erupting

Our next stop brought us to the Haukadalur geothermal area, a field of hotsprings that is home to the ancient Geysir, which gave its name to the phenomenon in English. Geysir hasn’t been erupting lately, but still blasting away is the smaller Strokkur, which began erupting in 1789 after an earthquake. Strokkur went quiet at the turn of the twentieth century, but was re-opened in 1963 by local worthies and has been erupting every four to eight minutes ever since.

Whoosh: almost as soon as we arrived, we saw Strokkur gush for the first time. Boiling water hurled 20 meters into the air, falling like hot rain, and leaving a cloud of sulphurous steam to drift slowly toward the tourist buses.

Haukadalur proved to be crowded for the season, with two or three dozen other tourists positioning themselves to take selfies whenever the geyser blew. Wandering among them was an Icelandic fox, plentiful throughout the country but the first one I’d seen. Lame in one paw, it seemed to have grown used to eating garbage left by visitors, and drinking from the cooling run-off from the geyser.

Icelandic fox

Icelandic fox

Foxes are the only mammals native to Iceland, subsisting mainly on birds, eggs, carrion, the plentiful ground berries and small rodents like voles and lemmings. Outside a small protected area, they’re hunted by farmers, given their foxy liking for the occasional side dish of lamb and chicken. As the lame fox wandered toward Strokkur, teenage girls screamed and ran, making the morose-looking creature charge them and snap at their legs. The poor thing remained quiet when no one moved quickly, and as the other buses left, I watched it lick dropped food off the brick pathway, and limp restlessly around the hot springs.

Our final stop that day was Gullfoss, a great waterfall that outdoes Niagara, not in size and volume but in the happy lack of pitch-and-putt tourism. No casinos, no glitz, just the Hvítá River thundering mightily over a crevasse, then another. Stopping there gave us another opportunity for a mild hike along the gorge, although Andrea advised us to take it easy. She’d got a call warning that poison gas from the eruption of the Bárðarbunga volcano to the southeast was drifting toward Gullfoss. That day, October 9, forty small earthquakes would be registered on the rim of the volcano between midnight and 7 p.m.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss

Fantasy: Bárðarbunga would go postal like the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano had in 2010, its huge eruption of ash and gas trapping travellers in Iceland when it shut down the Keflavik airport (along with most of the airports in western Europe). Not too shabby to be trapped in Reykjavik for a few extra days—especially in a fantasy, when I could re-open the airport the moment I absolutely had to get home.

In mundane reality, a couple of us had already been feeling a hint of asthma before Andrea got her message, and that was as dramatic as things got. We returned to Reykjavik as the light faded and had another excellent meal, this time at the Forréttabarinn restaurant. Two players tried the horse, saying it was as tender as a good steak. I had the fish of the day, having never been sentimental about big fish eyes, and can recommend both the fish and the starters.

Also on the table that night was hockey, with the tournament scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m., and the bus arriving to pick us up at 7:30. We headed to bed early as the rest of Reykjavik partied, and most of us heard. Finally, truly jetlagged, very few of us slept for more than a couple of hours.

And we had to play a team that was expected to beat us?