Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Riding the Long Beaches of Iceland

Along the west coast of Iceland, beneath the great glacier Snaefellsjokull, is a magical riding trail uncovered only at low tide.

This route, across the Longufjorur or "Long Beaches," has been in use by horsemen and women since the Saga Age. Before roads were bulldozed through the Eldborg lava fields in the early 1900s, it was the main highway. Until 1933 you'd buy your soap and nails and flour at a general store out there on the sands, where now you'll find only seals and seabirds, hear only the sounds of surf--or hoofbeats on sand.

"It's a dangerous path if you don't know the tides," my friend Haukur warned, when he took me on the trail for the first time in 1995. When I wrote about that experience in my book A Good Horse Has No Color, I summed it up this way: "This is Iceland."

This August I hope to recreate that ride--with your help. I'm looking for 8 adventurers to sign up for the Trekking Bootcamp offered by America2Iceland from August 10-16: see

Photo by
Note that you need to be a good rider (intermediate or advanced), though the breed of horse you usually ride doesn't matter much. We will, of course, be riding Icelandic horses (it's the only breed in Iceland), but if you can trot and canter all day long, you'll quickly learn to tolt. You also need to be able to swim, just in case.

Why? The trail cuts the mouths of several rivers, some of them deep-channeled salmon streams, others edged with quicksand. The safe paths shift from storm to storm, while the force of the wind and its direction, and the fullness of the moon, decide how fast a rider must cross.

Ebenezer Henderson, a Scottish churchman who traveled throughout Iceland in 1814, described the crossing well: "We advanced at a noble rate, it being necessary to keep our horses every now and then at the gallop, in order to escape being overtaken by the tide before we reached the land. At one time we were nearly two miles from the shore; and I must confess I felt rather uneasy, while my companion was relating the number of travelers who had lost their lives in consequence of having been unexpectedly surrounded by the sea."

Henderson (or his guide) was exaggerating--but not much. In his book Summer at Little Lava my husband, Charles Fergus, told this story:

"A man known as Tobbi--short for Tobias--farmed during the 1600s along the Longufjorur.... Tobbi was known as a poet. One day a group of travelers asked him where they could safely cross over the sands. At work in his smithy, making a tool or repairing some article of iron, Tobbi answered them with a verse:
My work is going very slowly in the smithy,
Even through I'm clattering.
You should aim for Eldborg,
Under the hammer of Thor.
The travelers set off toward Eldborg. Perhaps they dawdled, crossing the sands. The tide rose and caught them, and they drowned. After that, Tobbi lost his ability to compose poetry and could bring forth only gibberish. He became known as Æra-Tobbi, 'Crazy Tobbi.' "

In 1995, riding with Haukur, an expert guide who knew the tides, I was in no danger. But I did get rather wet. We crossed over mudflats pocked with airholes and headed for several grass-topped islands abandoned by the tide like a pod of stranded whales. A sea eagle lifted off one of the islands as we approached and scolded us with a high-pitched cackle. Geese flew over, banking, startled.

We rode north onto the sandbar, across some grassy flats, back out through the sucky mud to the hard wet sand, whose color ranged from black to coffee-colored to tawny to gold. Tide pools, I knew, held tiny shrimp and sea lettuce; their bottoms were mosaics of shells.

The horses got spattered with muck and splashed water as high as our faces—icy, but delightful in the sunshine, since everyone wore rubber boots and rainpants or chaps. These were practiced riders, and they kept up a fast pace. The woman next to me occasionally rode at a trot, balancing above her saddle to spell her mount, yet I matched her speed easily, tolting all the time. Later I overheard her remark to Haukur that I rode a tolt well for an American. He, knowing I understood her Icelandic, grinned at me. “It’s the horse,” he said.

With the islands to our left, we rode on hard-packed sand, the tapping of our horses’ hooves making music with the wind and the seabirds’ cries. I could feel time almost stop, suspended in the wet air between sea and sky, as history clustered all around us.

Close on our right rose the snow-flecked mountains of Snaefellsnes, the Snow Mountain Peninsula. Ahead loomed the Snow Mountain itself, glacier-topped Snaefellsjokull, a classic Mount Fuji-shaped stratovolcano. Jules Verne began his Journey to the Center of the Earth from this mountain, and New Agers now affirm it the third holiest spot on the planet, ascending it in droves on the summer solstice and bringing new riches to the fishing towns down below. Gazing at its beauty, I wondered what the two more-holy places could possibly be.

Then suddenly we were off the sands and into another farmyard. After a short rest, we decided to take a swim--but I've written about that on this blog before. Read it at:

This August, we'll be riding from Gudmar Petursson's farm of Stadarhus, about 40 km from the beach. We'll spend the first two days at the farm, getting used to our horses in a clinic that will get you ready for the trek.

On Day 3 we'll ride 40 km to Hitarholmi, returning to Stadarhus for dinner, a soak in the hot tub, and a good night's sleep in private or double rooms (as we will each night). Day 4 is a 45 km stretch along the beach to Kolvidarnes--and we go whenever the tide is right, so it could be very early or very late. On Day 5, we'll do a 30 km ride out onto the sands and back to Kolvidarnes--again, whenever the tide is right. Then on Day 6, we'll turn inland, riding 30 km to Stori-Kalfalaekur, where we'll say goodbye to our horses. On Day 7, we'll regretfully fly home, with wind-chapped and sun-burned faces--or maybe a suitcase full of rain-soaked riding clothes, you never know. Either way, it will be a magical adventure.

Go to and sign up now for the Trekking Bootcamp 1 on August 10-16. I can't wait to show you the Long Beaches of Iceland.

And if you're not a rider, note that I'm leading a tour this year for you, too. See the riding-optional "Sagas and Vikings" tour offered by America2Iceland on July 10-16: "Sagas and Vikings" is an educational trip for the whole family through the scenes and sagas that have inspired my many books about Iceland, including The Far Traveler, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, Song of the Vikings,  and the latest, Ivory Vikings.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Iceland's Imaginary Landscapes

I'm reading Mountains of the Mind by Robert MacFarlane, a fine book that explores how the landscapes we see are mostly the result of our own imaginings. And I've just come home from a trip to Washington, D.C., where I was welcomed to the board of the Leifur Eiriksson Foundation, which awards $25,000 scholarships to Icelandic graduate students to study in America, or American graduate students to study in Iceland.

Monday afternoon, two of the outgoing Leifur Eiriksson board members, both Icelanders, accompanied me to the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum to see the exhibition "Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed" by photographer Feodor Pitcairn.

None of us knew who Feodor Pitcairn was, and the exhibition--and the companion coffee-table book, which was too heavy (and costly) to come home with me--failed to enlighten us. (Later I learned from his own website that Pitcairn was a "diver, naturalist, and underwater cinematographer" who had created the "signature feature" of the Smithsonian's new Ocean Hall, its "immersive, multi-screen, HD, site-specific video installation.")

All we could discover at the time was that Pitcairn had first visited Iceland in 2011. A newcomer. I wondered what he had expected to see. I wondered what "Iceland" called up from his imagination.

According to the Smithsonian's press office, "The exhibition will convey that Iceland is a geologically active wonder, with diverse and magnificent landscapes. The primordial quality of Icelandic landscapes offers a behind-the-scenes look at how the planet was formed and continues to evolve."

Or, in the words of Icelandic geophysicist and poet Ari Trausti Gudmundsson, written in bold yellow letters high on the front wall: "Nurturing landscapes reside all around us. The more pristine they are, the deeper they touch our mind, evoking humanity. They stir up waves of feelings, though never the same for each of us. This is primordial Iceland."

A large hall on the main floor of the museum, opening out from the famous elephant's rotunda, was set aside for the exhibition. The photographs were immense--one covered a whole wall--and numbered 41, I learned from the press materials. I was not inclined to count. I was mesmerized. Iceland all around me: Beauty all around me. Glaciers, icebergs, volcanoes, snow, steam vents, sulfur pots, cairns, a turf house, some trees. Using a large format digital Hasselblad, Pitcairn captured the color and detail of every lichen-coated stone, every leafless birch twig, every shimmer of ice or mineral rime or Northern Lights.

We were the only ones in the hall for the most part; a few tourists wandered through, but none lingered. We amused ourselves by guessing the names of places without reading the captions--some of which gave no place names, in any case.

We remarked at how odd it was that none of the scenes showed a single tourist. It's hard, nowadays, to find a time when some of these beauty spots are abandoned.

We played at picking our favorites: If you could afford one, which would you want on your own wall? I dithered between a stark scene, nearly black-and-white, of snow and peaks and wind-pruned trees and the glorious glacier shot that opened the show (and made the cover of the book).

Photo by Feodor Pitcairn, courtesy the Smithsonian's press office.

My Icelandic colleagues passed those by. On the far wall, in a cluster of images, was a misty green fjord-side graced with two sheep. Those two sheep were the only animals Pitcairn had found in his imaginary Iceland. "That one," said Halla. "I would like that one for my birthday." (It is not among those images made available by the Smithsonian press office.)

In 1996, I spent a summer living in an abandoned farmhouse on the west coast of Iceland. The sea rose into the hayfields at high tide. Behind us stretched a vast jumbled field of rough lava. Across the fjord, snow-capped mountains fenced the sky, the grand shield-volcano of Snaefellsjokull rising Fuji-like at their furthest tip. I took well more than 41 photographs of primordial Iceland from that spot, each of them touching my mind, in Ari's phrase, and encouraging my imagination.

The next year I met a family who had once farmed there and had chosen to move away. "It's very beautiful," said the farmwife, "but the tides kept taking the sheep."

I will never see the Iceland she saw--or that my Icelandic colleagues see--or that Pitcairn photographs. As MacFarlane explains in Mountains of the Mind, most of what we see in a landscape we bring to it.

Feodor Pitcairn's exhibition "Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed" runs through April 2017. Photos of and from the exhibit are courtesy of the Smithsonian's press office.

Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit, by Robert MacFarlane, was published in 2003 by Random House. I wish I could write like him.

If you'd like to come to Iceland with me and see the land of my imagination, sign up for my "Sagas and Vikings" tour, July 10-16, 2016, at

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Viking Home of the Lewis Chessmen

The Lewis chessmen, the subject of my book, Ivory Vikings, were found on the Isle of Lewis in westernmost Scotland in the early 1800s. The story of their finding is a bit muddled--maybe on purpose--and there are at least two plausible find spots.

Researching the question, I stayed at a guesthouse near the most likely spot, at Baile-na-Cille in Uig. "Baile-na-Cille" is Gaelic for "place of the church." "Uig" comes from the Norse word "vík," the root of "Viking," and the area does indeed have a Viking history.

One rainy day in June, Kevin Murphy, the assistant archaeologist at Museum Nan Eilean in Stornoway, met me there to give me a tour of the nearby Viking Age sites--or at least those that archaeologists have happened upon. Finding ancient sites is difficult here: the landscape can change dramatically in a very short time.

Baile-na-cille, Isle of Lewis
"From late autumn right through to March," Kevin explained, "you can have huge winds here. The whole area can look different after a few months. The whole west side of the Hebrides is like this. You could have three to four meters of sand covering a village and nobody would know about it." Mixed with the sand is pumice from volcanic eruptions in Iceland, the nearest land due west.

We drove a mile or so north to an arc of golden beach called “Borg Beach,” from the Norse for fort. Here, for example, Kevin said, "You’ve got a massive build-up of sand." He gestured toward one of the headlands. "That whole area of green behind the haze is all habitation of some description. It’s a bit conjectural. Nobody’s looked into it. Over there," he said, turning, "that telephone pole is stuck in an Iron Age wheelhouse."

Borg, Isle of Lewis
In the garden of the school behind us, in 1915, the skeleton of a woman was discovered. She had been buried in a typical Viking Age apron gown, with two large oval brooches fastening the straps. "This skeleton was eroding out of the hill, about here, give or take," Kevin said. "The interesting part is that the skeleton gives the impression that it’s early Norse."

Mary Macleod Rivett, another archaeologist working in the Hebrides, Kevin said, "met an old woman who had been at that school then. When Mary was talking to this old lady, she said, 'Oh, there was another one as well, with a helmet and a spear.' What happened to it? 'They put it in someone's shed and it fell to pieces.'"

We drove on to Reef, the site of another ancient graveyard. "What you’re seeing as a dump is an Iron Age burial. It's been completely excavated. Viking Age graves were found here too. This was just a green hillside. The sheep rubbed, the grass eroded, there was this 'blow out'"--a wind storm that scoured sand away until people started seeing skeletons poking out of the dune. "The wind can be really powerful in the winter," Kevin said. "If it's in the right direction, it just starts taking things out. In aerial photos from the 1940s, this is just a grassy hill."

Reef, Isle of Lewis
From the headland on which the graves were found, the golden sand beach stretches out for miles. A river bisects it, flowing from a shallow lake thick with grass and reeds. "The loch looks like a grassy field," said Kevin, "but if you stepped into it you’d be swimming." Between the loch and the beach are ranks of sand dunes riddled with rabbit warrens. As they dig their maze-like runs, the rabbits often turn up ancient artifacts. "Some years you don't get anything," Kevin said. "Some years the rabbits are very busy and you get boat rivets. They could easily be Viking. I think these lochs were probably used as a safe place to pull your boats in for the winter."

Archaeologist Kevin Murphy
At the end of the beach is a pre-Viking drystone tower or broch. "It’s only ankle high now, but you're standing on the top. There’s 20 to 30 feet of sediment covering it." To the Vikings it would have been a distinctive landmark. "Along the back of that hill, there’s been Viking Age artifacts found. You can see walls and mounds and all kinds of interesting things. Check Google Earth--you can see them that way. There's all those humps and bumps! This place really stands out for Norse. This is the spot."

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):