A Special Book

 

I have just finished The Stones Speak by the prolific, much-loved, 20th Century writer, Thórbergur Thórdarson, born in 1888, who grew up on a remote family farm named Hali in southeastern Iceland, very near to Hvannadalshnúkur, the highest peak in Iceland at 2119 metres.

I bought the book at the Þórbergssetur museum, where our tour group stopped on July 18th, two days into our 10 day bus tour. The centre was built in 2006 in Hali, (near Reynivellir in Southeast Iceland) and is dedicated to this unique man. He was largely self-educated, being too poor to attend high school or university.

The Stones Speak, translated in 2012 by Professor Julian Melton d’Arcy of the U. of Iceland, is Thórdarson’s only complete book that has been translated into English. Written when he was in his 60’s, this is an inspired, witty and sometimes caustic collection of his earliest memories – those of a precocious, hypersensitive visionary who lived very close to nature.

The book is, in my opinion, a must-read for folks who plan to visit Iceland and really want to work at understanding its recent (20th C.) history and its people. The introduction and notes by d’Arcy deserve to be read both before and after reading the book. They even contain the simplest, best guide to Icelandic pronunciation that I have found.

I went to Iceland because it was my wife’s choice and must confess that, uncharacteristically, my only research before the trip was to google the heck out of each place we were visiting on our Ring Road tour and look for things worth escaping from the pre-arranged options to see. And because we were arriving in Reykjavík (KEF) at 6 AM on the red-eye from Toronto on July 16th I was looking keenly for the most interesting places we might explore that day on our own. Our Grand Hotel was only a half-hour walk or a # 15 city bus from the centre of town. These were, for this dyed-in-the-wool self-directed traveler, the vital facts, since we were not due to meet our tour director at the hotel until 5:30 P.M.

Combined with the superb tour itself, reading The Stones Speak has given me wonderful, intensely personal insight/hindsight into the unique Icelandic people. It was, for me, not an easy read. It does not grab you like The DaVinci Code. I put it down and picked it up several times, as I have done with Proust, until realizing that, by making margin notes and studying maps and breaking down words in what is for the superbly gifted Daniel Tammet this oh-so-special language, I fell in love with Iceland and humanity in general, starting with the folks in 1890’s Suðursveit. 

If you have already visited Iceland, take the time to study The Stones Speak. You will, through it, reconnect with human nature and, perhaps, yourself.

P.S. If you have not gone yet, check out Guide To Iceland, a great website community to which my post travel research luckily led me. They justifiably claim to be an “unrivalled source of information.”

 

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Going By In A Bus

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Jöjullsárlon Glacial Lagoon – Iceland

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Literally “going by in a bus.”

We passed the above on our way to visit the author Thórdarson memorial site in nearby Hali. Our date with the above lagoon was later that afternoon. There were poles quickly and determinedly going by the window as I shot AVCHD video with my Sony Alpha A-6000 using Sony’s e-mount SEL18-55mm zoom lens that has internal stabilization.

This is a screenshot I took while editing the video. The stains on the baby icebergs are volcanic fallout probably from the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption in southern Iceland. The added colour in the ice enhances the photo.

Behind, and just below the Parasitic Jaeger in full flight, is the gloomy-faced glacier whose calving produces the ice in the lagoon. For me the image creates a very special mood. I am grateful to my A-6000 and to the photography djinns for my being on the correct side of the bus as we whisked by between posts on our way to tea and a tour at the Hali Farm.

We had paid days in advance for a large, yellow, amphibious duck boat tour of the lagoon. When we arrived from Hali it was raining and I had to leave my camera in the bus and don rain pants, etc. For someone who has seen the Rockies’ Columbia Ice Field close up, this wasn’t much ice and the hectic decision making and running around caused by the bad weather induced me to tune out. We were treated to what seemed like standard tourist jokes by the young, non-icelandic park guide on the boat.

We dutifully chomped on 1000 year old glacier ice that he used a pick to break off for us from an armful-sized chunk.  To his credit, he held it in his bare hand with long-suffering, smiling patience. The chunk must have been captured earlier and kept in a fridge because we never saw him collect it. I was relieved when it was thrown back. Maybe it was, too.

Pale blue or not, it tasted like… ice. No hint of blueberry. To my undiscerning palette, it didn’t seem to have gone bad during that thousand years. Whatever molecules, if any, it may have absorbed from Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 were invisible and tasteless.

There were many similar craft chugging down into the water at regular intervals. Ours had a bullet hole in it. We learned that they were originally US Navy craft. The afternoon sailings should have been canceled and our $60 pp refunded. I would then have walked around in my rain suit shooting under an umbrella. My camera, always the third person on our holidays, sulked for a day or so. I told it it hadn’t missed much. That didn’t help.

I have only now told “A” that it helped me capture the above surprise that just may be my favourite of the whole trip. Was it my imagination, or did I hear a tiny, high pitched sob of relief?

I may just treat it to its first partial eclipse of the sun on Monday. I’ll protect its face and mine with a piece of #14 welders glass I used to shoot the Venus Transit on June 8, 2004 and the solar eclipse on December 25, 2000.

AVCHD video has been a recent possibility for me. My old movie program on my PC would not accept HD video, so I’ve only been using it for about 18 months – after upgrading to an iMac desktop. AVCHD has made producing decent images of unpredictable moving subjects so much easier.

Iceland on the whole has been wonderful. The people we met (mostly associated with the tourist industry) were generous with their attention and many spoke impeccable English.

Later on our 10 day ring road circuit we had a chance meeting and delightful conversation at breakfast in the Kia Hotel in Akureyri  with two brilliant Icelanders whose names are, I’m sure, household words there. More later on that.

 

Iceland

We visited Iceland for 10 days in July. Above are a few photos I selected to send to my granddaughter who is 3 going on 7 and intensely involved in our holiday. Did you see a volcano? A geyser? A waterfall? A glacier? Are there trolls there?

She asked her preschool teacher to show her where Iceland was on the globe. Think her mother put her up to that… My first encounter with a map happened at the front of a class of kids I didn’t know – 3rd grade in a new school… But that is to digress…

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Politics is pretty depressing these days. Envy that infectious child-like innocence.

Newfoundland 2005.7 “God Guard Thee, Newfoundland”

The Arches Park, n. of Rocky Harbour
Tuesday, July 26: Englee, Arches and back to Rocky Harbour

Englee is a beautiful little community about 2 1/2 hours south of St. Anthony on the east coast. The drive from Englee to Rocky Harbour is another 4 1/2 hours. St. Anthony to Rocky Harbour is 4 1/2 hours, so our Englee visit added about 2 1/2 hours of driving to our Tuesday. If you climb up the long steps on Barr’d Island, you’ll be treated to one of the most beautiful views in the world – i.e. it was worth the extra driving.

We then drove back to Rocky Harbour, stopping at Arches Provincial Park for some more beautiful scenery. Our last, since we were flying home from Deer Lake on Wednesday at 15:15. We visited the Cemetery and the Lighthouse in Rocky Harbour before we left for Deer Lake Airport, about 55 minutes from Rocky Harbour on NL 430 South. Returning the car at the airport was very smooth. Boy, did we get our money’s worth out of that car!

Wednesday, July 27: Home to the GTA

One more heartwarming story about Newfoundland. We checked our bags at the airport. Then security noticed my Swiss Army Knife on my person. I thought, “I’ll be sorry; I’ve had it for a long time.” But they offered me the chance to put it back in my suitcase, which meant retrieving it from the storage area.

Now, a real treat for reading down to the bottom. A Newfoundland language lesson!!! With Mark Critch, Candice Walsh and Travel Yourself.

I will return there. That’s a promise. Note: I kept my promise, returning there in 2014.

God guard thee, Newfoundland!

Newfoundland 2005.6 – Vikings and Low Growing Trees

On our way to L’Anse aux Meadows
 Monday, July 25: L’Anse Aux Meadows Viking Settlement and the Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve

The L’Anse Aux Meadows Viking Settlement is more than 1000 years old. The original French name for the place, found on a French nautical chart from 1862, was L’Anse à la Médée (The Médée’s Cove). There may indeed have been a ship called La Médée, since it was not uncommon to use Greek mythology when naming them. See the above link for more about its franglais roots, and for more about the Settlement. It needs no further description. Here are some photos:

Busted!

I am inclined to cram a touring day really full of experiences. An ‘orrible vice, I know. I was attempting to turn a legal 45 minute drive from the Viking Settlement to the Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve into an illegal 33 minute trip (wasn’t sure when the guided tour hours were) and was stopped for speeding on the way.

The officer: “Do you, perchance, know why you were stopped?”

Me: “Yes, Officer.”

Officer: “And are you aware that your speed was more than 20 kph faster than the speed limit?”

Me: “Er… no, Officer, Sir.”

Officer: “Are you from away?”

Me: “Yes.” Big trouble coming, I thought.

Officer: “Don’t let me catch you speeding again.”

He handed me a written warning instead of a ticket and let us go. Again, the delightful mercy and grace of these island people surprised and overwhelmed me.

Burnt Cape:

Burnt Cape is a hugely important botanical reserve. It contains rare plants that are not found anywhere else. Trees over a hundred years old grow out rather than up (less than a foot up!) because of the biting winds. We were taken on a superb interpretive tour. Our guide also told us of a time when she had a group out to see the rock formations near The Oven and a polar bear appeared below them that had swum from Labrador. The visitors had no clue how dangerous it was and were snapping photos.

Sound familiar? Like anyone we know?

She was preparing to abandon them, if necessary, and run for her own life but managed to persuade them to make a hasty, sensible retreat. Some photos:

Newfoundland 2005.5 – North to St. Anthony

 

We started this trail to Phillips Garden at Port aux Choix, but bailed when we realized we didn’t have enough time.
Sunday, July 24: Port Au Choix, St. Barbe and St. Anthony

Port aux Choix

From Rocky Harbour the drive north to St. Anthony is 347 km.,  north along the west coast. Our first stop was to visit the Port au Choix National Historic Site. Different again, informative (there is an excellent interpretive centre with many fascinating historic displays, letters and artefacts) and, yes, it’s drop dead gorgeous. We were feeling so uniquely isolated that we decided to try and phone our eldest daughter at our home in Ontario. Success! So cool! Kindly ignore the flip phone…

St. Barbe Ferry Port

We also went off the main road to grab a bite and check out St. Barbe, a little further north, where one takes the ferry to Blanc-Sablon, Labrador.

St. Anthony

Then we drove on to St. Anthony and visited the Sir Wilfred Grenfell Interpretation Centre, dedicated to St. Anthony’s truly great medical missionary, who graduated in Medicine in London, England in 1888 and four years later volunteered to come to Newfoundland. He was recruited by The Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen (RNMDSF) to care for the fishermen and communities here. Grenfell’s work expanded to include helping the indigenous peoples of Newfoundland and Labrador. He sometimes traveled in a hospital ship to serve the huge, diverse and far-flung community. By 1914 his mission was world famous and a charitable society, the International Grenfell Association, was formed because of influence from a group of New York businessmen who wished to advance his work. A concise description of the history of Grenfell’s life and of both the RNMDSF and IGF, is given at the above IGF link. Both the British Mission, serving 70 UK ports, and the St. Anthony-based IGF are still going today!

We stayed at the Haven Inn in St. Anthony for two nights. On Monday we planned to visit the Viking Settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows.

Now, there’s a screwed up franglais name for a ninth century Nordic village! So typically Canadian.

Sorry…

Newfoundland 2005.4 – À Cap St.-Georges et Gros Morne

Western Brook Pond from the dock
Western Brook Pond, seen from the cruise boat dock.

Friday, July 22: To Cap St.-Georges and Rocky Harbour

Cap St.-Georges

Our first leg was from Twillingate, via the Trans Canada Highway, all the way to Cap St. George on the southwest coast. We wanted to visit a French community in Newfoundland and maybe see some whales. We sort of struck out on both those goals. It was, perhaps, a little late for whale season and decades late for parlez-vous season. We stopped at a Tourist Information office near Port Au Port and learned that the French-speaking information person was from Québec.

After the bilingual TI Centre we visited Our Lady Of Mercy Church in Port au Port and then drove to the Parc Boutte Du Cap  at the very tip of the peninsula. It amazed me to see big RV’s allowed to boondock in the unserviced parking lot. Just another way in which Newfoundland is so welcoming to visitors. Totally laid back and generous.

We drove back north and stayed in Rocky Harbour at the Fisherman’s Landing Inn where Maxxum had us reserved for two nights.

Saturday, July 23: Gros Morne, Two Rather Gigantic “Ponds”

This was a busy day. We drove a short way north and visited Gros Morne walking to the dock at Western Brook Bond and taking the boat tour.

A colleague of Anita’s at home had said we must also visit Trout River Pond, around the bay from Western Brook Pond but still in Gros Morne National Park. Someone we met on the first tour had done it and raved about it. So we carped the diem and drove back south, past Rocky Harbour and took a boat tour of Trout River Pond, which we found terrific.

Western Brook Pond:

A few, fit folk got off the boat at the steep end of the pond, planning to hike up (no doubt) to get that iconic photo with their arms outstretched standing on a scary-looking rock overlooking the whole pond from west to east.

Now the photos of the Pond: Very deep, very steep, and ultra, ultra clean:

Trout River Pond:

This is an exceptional UNESCO World Heritage site. The geology of the exposed features of reddish rock dates back to when two continents – Africa and North America – collided about 300 million years ago… give or take… the same collision that formed the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains. Our boat tour, appropriately called A Journey Through Time, explained so much to us. The “pond” is full of fishy life and we saw a female moose in a forested area near the shore.

We ate a simple supper in a very nice family restaurant in Trout River.

We did not have time to investigate the science beyond what we learned on the boat. But we returned in 2014 with friends, visited the fantastic information kiosk and toured the tablelands with an experienced naturalist. Add some time to your holiday to see this unique area properly!