Iceland Day 3: Fjaðrárgljúfur, Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Vatnajökul National Park

I was sad to leave Vik, though there was not much else to see and I knew I needed to move on. Something about the place called to me, in a way. It’s hard to describe. I felt a deep connection to it.

Every now and then I have these moments of complete euphoria. I feel like I’m in a dream, where everything around me is perfect and nothing at all could go wrong. I can only describe a few moments in my life when this has happened, but one of them was on that Black Sand Beach in Vik. Maybe it was the whiskey (that certainly didn’t take away from my state of bliss), or the incredible sights I’d seen, or my determination that this was going to be a life-changing trip; but I associate the feeling with the place, the gentle sounds of waves, the sunlight hitting me just enough to warm me without making me sweat.

My night in Vik was best described as tumultuous. I decided this adventure of camping and “finding myself” required meditation, which I tried to practice most nights before reading my book and dozing off to sleep. It was peaceful, until it wasn’t.

I was woken up by lightning during my night in Vik. I only saw a few brief flashes before it abruptly stopped and I was left disappointed. Lightning is exciting, it’s energizing. Something about the way it crashes sporadically, the ways in which it manifests itself, brings me joy. You will never see the same pattern twice. I spent a few years of my childhood in the Midwest: I miss the storms.

The rest of the night was exactly how I’d been told Iceland would be. At that point in my trip wind had not been an issue, and the weather the day before had been beautiful, so I forwent using my guy lines for the sake of time—my first mistake. Camping on the highest spot in the campground was the next. I struggled to keep my tent from collapsing on me for most of the night.

After packing up my belongings and heading for the nearest gas station for fuel and coffee, I headed toward my next destination: Fjaðrárgljúfur.  Fjaðrárgljúfur is an estimated 2 million-year-old canyon with incredibly steep walls and a peaceful river flowing through it.  It was accessible with my little Honda Civic, though the rocky, potholed roads had me nervous for dings in the rental car. 

It is possible to hike inside the canyon, but it requires getting a little wet and I was mostly interested in taking pictures from the top.

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Along the hike
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Staring down inside the canyon
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Proof I was there (thanks to fellow travelers!)
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Thus began my obsession with the sheep…

Day 3 was less structured than the other two and it was only another hour drive to Skaftafell, so when I saw a road sign that indicated yet another place to hike, I took the opportunity to get out and stretch my legs.

Looking back, taking a detour to Kirkjubæjarklaustur seems like fate. It offered sweeping views the likes of which I’ve only seen in Iceland. The journey started an easy hike up past a waterfall and another short jaunt along a narrow path to find Systravatn: a small lake with a big history.

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Changing rooms and Systravatn

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This was a frequent bathing spot for the nuns.  Once, two of them were bathing when they saw a hand sporting a beautiful gold comb reach out from the water.  As they grabbed the hand, both were pulled down into the water, never to be seen again. 

I followed the trail back down to the road, stopping to take pictures of the view (and of course the sheep) and admiring the rocks and scenery before me. I had another almost-euphoric moment here, although not quite as prolific as the one in Vik. At the time I was hiking, my friend James was in heart surgery. I felt him there, alongside me, and promised him we’d go there together when he got his new heart. A promise I can no longer keep.

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Systravatn
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View of Vatnasjokull NP from the mesa
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Rocks, and a particularly daring sheep

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Though Systravatn and the mesa I’d been hiking was my favorite part about the place, Kirkjubæjarklaustur had other sights to see, including Hildishaugur (Hildir’s Mound), SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESa burial site for a pagan man who supposedly “fell dead” the instant he entered a Christian estate, and Kirkjugólf, a series of basalt columns that have eroded to look like a tile floor.

Moving on from Kirkjubæjarklaustur, I made my way toward Skaftafell to see some rather ominous storm clouds hovering in the mountains.

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After getting things sorted for camping at the Visitor’s Center and checking in with family back home using their WiFi (a God-send), I set up camp and tried to figure out what I’d be doing the next day. I was tired. My legs were sore. I can move for quite a few miles before tiring out, but I was unused to hiking for more than 2 days in a row. And the following day I’d planned the longest hike yet: a 22km scramble up Kristínartindar.

With plenty of time left in the day,  I decided I’d do a short hike to the glacier to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier after I ate something. A hike and a nap later, I felt rested and determined for the following day.

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View of the glacier

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Seeing this made me remember the dangers of mountaineering. You always think “this can’t happen to me”, but no one is immune to death.

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