My Iceland Obsession

Only on this remote North Atlantic island do you find such glorious quirks as tolting ponies and entire villages of sleep-deprived puffin chasers

Jun 1, 2002
Outside Magazine
Iceland Adventure Guide

Outside has joined forces with to provide you with the very best that the North Atlantic isle has to offer. Explore the infinite possibilities for unconventional adventures—hike Europe's largest glacier, trek across lava fields, canoe through volcanic landscapes—and succumb to Scandinavian summer delirium.

Viking showers: one of Iceland's many waterfalls.

Map by Jane Shasky

OTHER COUNTRIES MAY HAVE S.A.D. (seasonal affective disorder), which plunges people into dark depression, but Iceland has the opposite affliction: summer activity delirium, a Nordic outdoor madness that runs from June through August and sends locals, who have hibernated during the long cold winter, heading for the glacialrivers and volcanic hills to enjoy all-night kayaking, salmon fishing, off-trail hiking, and river rafting under the midnight sun.

Summer madness also encourages indigenous activities that are so kooky they could be espoused only by Iceland, the sparsely populated, snowed-over landmass in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean whose inhabitants lived in virtual isolation for 800 years. There's spranga, for example, which involves performing aerial flips and gymnastic turns while swinging from a thin knotted rope attached to a vertiginous sea cliff, a sport that evolved from the methods the Vikings once used to hunt birds in their coastal nests. Andwatercross, a contest that happens every year around the northern oasis of Lake Mýyvatn, east of Akureyri, in which the winner is the snowmobile driver who executes the most aquatic laps without drowning his Polaris in the drink. Or Arctic rafting, in which teams lug rubber whitewater rafts up sharp snowy peaks and careen down the flanks.
But my favorite all-night rite of summer is the puffin rescue, an event that takes place every August in the south of Iceland on the tiny island of Heimaey, where millions of birds live and breed. I kept asking about it in Reykjavík, but nobody seemed to know what I was talking about. Then one summer I met shoe magnate Oskar Alex Oskarsson, who's from Heimaey, and he sent me to the island to run ragged at twilight with his mother and her grandchildren. During the day, they toured me around and pointed out the places where thousands of nocturnal baby pufflings emerge from their nests in the cliffs and fly out to sea in search of food. The problem is that, every night, several thousand of the confused little critters, attracted to the blinking lights of town, fly away from the ocean and alight under streetlamps. Enter the town's 5,000 citizens, who don't sleep the entire month of August because they're out all night running after birds.

This is harder than it sounds. We were out from midnight until 4 a.m. chasing after fluffballs the size of runt kittens, cornering them in teams of three or more in parking lots and soccer fields, and storing them in shoe boxes.

We then went home and napped until 6 a.m., when we drove to the beach cliffs and extracted the chicks, whose chirps were emanating from the shoe boxes, and flung them out to sea.

Icelandersí symptoms of summer activity delirium are endless. You too can get in on the madness, but when planning your own expedition to the country's spectacular volcanoes and glaciers, know this:

(1) The weather can go Arctic on you even in summer: Last year on a relatively easy 25-mile trek from Pórsmörk to Landmannalaugar, an American man died of hypothermia because he lacked raingear. So get advice from locals if you plan to venture out on your own.

(2) Whatever you dream of, someone will help you: When I fessed up to Einar Finnsson, one of the crack mountain rescuers who started Ice-landic Mountain Guides adventure tours, that I was harboring fantasies of spending two months walking the country's 900-mile Ring road, he didn't think I was crazy. Instead, he suggested something more ambitious: taking six months and hiking along the off-trail south shore and north fjords as well. He even said he'd map it for me.

(3) All the possibilities for unconventional adventure can make Iceland addictive: On my latest trip here, an immigration official at the Keflavík Airport flipped through my passport and said, "I can see you've been here six times. By the time you come back, you'd better be able to speak Icelandic." His comments amused me not because he thought I should take up a new language, but because he was so absolutely sure I'd be back—and soon.

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