Exploring Iceland in Winter

February 13, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Gale force winds buffeted me as soon as I got out of the Super Jeep on top of Iceland's largest glacier. Snow needles stung my face, making it difficult to see as I joined my group huddled on the leeward side of the truck, attaching crampons to their boots for our hike to the ice cave. Hawk, our Nature Explorer Tour guide, gave us instructions, shouting above the wind. He told us to hold onto the jacket of the person in front of us. We were to let him know if the person behind us stopped holding on. No worry there, as we headed into the wind we stumbled over each other in our eagerness not to be left behind. But getting into the ice cave proved as hard as making it to the entrance. Crawling commando style flat on our stomachs over rock and gravel, we gripped our tripods, while our backpacks scraped against the ice above us in the narrow chute leading to the cave. 

I was in Iceland for a winter photography workshop with Andy Cook of Rocky Mountain Reflections and Nature Explorer Tours, experiencing the adventure of a lifetime. The many incredible locations to see were further enhanced, in my opinion, by Iceland's extreme winter weather conditions. Here are some of the places I photographed:

 

Jökulsárlón

 

When I first saw Jokulsarlson,  I understood just how far north I'd traveled by coming to Iceland. Icebergs the size of freighters floated in the lagoon, amid ice floes and rivers of glacial ice. Snow blanketed the shoreline and swirled above the distant peaks. Occasionally I'd spot a seal swimming in the water. Although the lagoon is just 7 square miles, it looked like the Arctic Ocean to me.

 

 

  

 

  

 

Ice Beach

 

Jokulsarlon has a narrow outlet that leads to the Atlantic Ocean. Eventually, the icebergs in the lagoon travel through this outlet to the sea, where they're tossed around in the waves for a while, then washed up on the black sand beach. You can hear the crack of breaking icebergs with every set of waves. The tricky part of taking pictures there is that seemingly stationary icebergs get floated back into action by incoming waves. If they bump into you, they can easily break your ankle or leg. Rogue waves also cause surprises, as I found out, so it's best to be aware of what's happening around you as you frame your shots. 

 

Ice GemsIce GemsEarly morning light creates gemstone hues in icebergs on the black sand beach. They originate from Iceland's largest glacier,
Vatnajökull.

Jökulsárlón, Iceland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Öxaráfoss

 

A long time ago, the Icelanders believed in trolls and fairies and shared many stories about their hidden lives. When I saw the frozen waterfall at Oxarafoss, I could easily imagine this as a winter palace for elves. 

 

Enchanted FallsEnchanted FallsThe Öxaráfoss waterfalls has an enchanting appearance in deep winter.

Öxaráfoss, Iceland

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laki Lava Fields

 

In summer, these small hills are covered with green moss, but in January, there were black sand and snow designs etched by the wind. I was reluctant to walk across these natural paintings, so I picked my way carefully to leave the designs intact. Look at the left foreground in the image below to see an example of the swirling patterns and wind-carved layers . 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aurora Borealis

 

Seeing the northern lights in Iceland depends on many factors, but one of the most critical ones is whether or not the skies are clear. It's frequently overcast in Iceland during the winter and while there may be northern lights, the clouds can totally obscure them. During the week I was there, I saw the aurora two times: one night, the lights were very dim and stayed close to the horizon, fizzling out fairly quickly. It was disappointing, but it was useful for taking practice shots and figuring out the camera settings to properly expose the aurora while maintaining the sharpness of the stars. The next night was much better. The aurora appeared around midnight and lasted until 3:00 am. The colors grew more vivid as time went on and the lights climbed higher in the sky. Interestingly, the camera sees the aurora better than our eyes, because our night vision doesn't pick up red tones in the dark. It was very exciting to look at my display and see the full range of the lights.  

Aurora MagicAurora MagicNorthern Lights dance in the sky above snowy mountain peaks in Iceland.

Interior mountains, Iceland

 

 

 

Northern LightsNorthern LightsThe Northern Lights shine in Þingvellir National Park.

Þingvellir National Park, Iceland

 

 

 

This trip had a lot of "firsts" for me: first time in Iceland, first time I saw the Aurora Borealis, first time I played tag with icebergs and the first time I've ever had such delicious smoked salmon and rugbraud for breakfast. I look forward to returning there in March.

 

To see more images from this trip, return to the Homepage, open All Photos and click on the Iceland Gallery.

 

 


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