I only got four hours: lights on in off-season Iceland

I touched the ground at 6:30 am, just as temperatures dropped below 0 degrees Celsius, winds averaging at 20 meters/second ripped across the runway, and Iceland’s first set of winter blizzards raged from the fjords to the highlands.

Watching the Northern Lights had been a dream of Mehmet’s and mine since reading the His Dark Materials series four years previously. Although the economy is awful, trying to start a business is resource, energy, and time draining, and VERY few people actually recommend visiting Iceland in November – the winter prices were low, Iceland’s economic crash made travel reasonable, and recent tourism promotions lead to some relatively cheap plane tickets.

So Mehmet and I decided to drop everything for a week, and hunt for the Northern Lights in offseason Iceland.

We hit the road in our rental 2WD heading to the west fjords in a blizzard, negative temperatures (that would never rise for our entire trip), and icy darkness everywhere. A glow began to hover on the horizon around 9:00 am, with the sun rising at 10:30. We were famished and looked for food everywhere, but much to our dismay, no restaurants, hotels, or grocery stores had yet opened. We couldn’t even find people to ask for advice. Around 11:00 am a very kind local shopkeeper steered us in all of our cold and delusion to Bernd Ogrodnik the number one puppeteer in Iceland. Bernd also happened to have the only café still open in this region.

“So you’re the last tourists in Iceland?” he asked us as we shivered through the door. After munching down bread and butter, he gave us the news.

“Too bad you didn’t come sooner, the weather has just hit deep lows and it’s only going to get worse over the days to come. Nothing will be open outside of Reykjavík (the capital), you won’t be able to access many of the main sites, and you may not even be able to make it on most of the roads. Iceland is beautiful, but you will miss a lot. Just do what you can, and plan on coming back again – I recommend June.”

Mehmet and I looked at each other wearily. “What about the Northern Lights?” we asked.

“It’s all based on luck.” Bernd replied hopefully. “You never know.”

We peered out the window nervously. It looked as though the sun was setting. It was only noon. With only a few hours left to explore our first day of Iceland by sunlight, Bernd helped us create an itinerary and we shot off towards Snaefellsnes – the setting for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The rest of our trip was much as Bernd predicted. We traveled through whip lashing blizzards, the kind that send snow in a vortex of spirals that make you dizzy and tired and lightheaded – as if gravity has loosened its leash on your mind. We trudged through towns with populations of 99 people or less looking for any food – anything at all – only to find one gas station that closes at six pm. It would be the only source of food for 200 km. We migrated from door to door of hostels and B&B’s looking for the one house that accommodates guests year-round. We put on every layer of clothing we had, braved storms, farm roads, and glacial valleys in the dead of night looking to the sky for any Northern Lights – but there were none.

We saw zero tourists, a handful of Icelanders, and thousands of woolly sheep.

But we did learn a few remarkable lessons about living in the dark backlands of the artic north.

The environment here is mighty, merciless, and mouth dropping. Dramatic empty rolling lava fields sharp with frozen black ash and icy sheets; glaciers paused in a gargantuan tumble, like a billion giant white ogres suspended in a slow motion summersault; toxic gasses, noxious smells, and steaming water burn red scars in the snow through fissures and wounds in the earth’s surface, a reminder of the blood and energy and heat the surges beneath the cold and ice.

The people are hardy, resourceful, skilled warriors. They live in small close-knit communities surrounded by an environment that lives and breathes like a wild animal. They have four hours of strong daylight, with everything else illuminated by the glowing earth and encompassing darkness. But they take this world of extremes and turn it into incredible art, creativity, and color, with sculptures, sagas, paintings, puppets, and graffiti – flowing human emotion into the places they touch. Vegetation is minimal, as is fresh produce and major sources of town entertainment. The center of most villages is the swimming pool – whose open hours in the winter are 7:00 am – 22:00 pm as compared to the grocery store 11:00 am – 16:00 pm. The N1 petrol station is the only other reliable source of food – serving hot dogs, fried fish, and hamburgers. Fish in all of its delicious forms – dried, smoked, boiled, steamed, roasted, grilled, baked, curried, skewed, stewed, raw, crusted, caramelized, broiled, basted, rubbed, and marinated – can be found ubiquitously, along with bread, dairy, and potatoes.

As we looped across the country on the ring road – which is lined with a parade of visitors during the summer, or so we have heard (we have no idea) – off season Iceland challenged us to become heartier, more persistent, and deeply aware of what every local person was doing. How were they surviving? What was the strategy? Sometimes, we artlessly exposed our naiveté – by sliding off a roadside into an icy gully only to be saved by a group of local farmers and priests, their mighty jeep, and a strong rope. Other times we eased into boiling hot pots of sulfuric spring water at the public pools, blending with the village communities who sought it’s warm respite at the end of a dark cold work day.

We ended our trip in Reykjavík, full of visitors, glorious shopping, delicious food, a raging nightlife, bold art, a plentiful assortment of accommodations, and unique galleries and museums. But even here, where we were pampered with heated rooms, restaurants, and a change of clothes, our hearts sought the silent roar of our wild off-season Iceland. On our last night, we peeked our heads into a local travel agency and asked what the Northern Lights forecast looked like for the evening. Pulling up a Northern Lights app on their iPhones, they all exclaimed:

“It’s a class four! In all of our time guiding, we have never seen a class four. Normally we get a one or a two out here. It means the sun storms are going to be insane. It’s been cold, and stormy, and cloudy, but you might get to see them tonight, you never know.”

Mehmet and I enjoyed our dinner, but kept an eye on our watches the whole time. You never know, we repeated. You never know. As 10 o’clock rolled around, we threw on every layer of clothing we owned, jumped in our car, and ripped across the highways and mountains towards eastern Iceland, away from the city lights of Reykjavík.

Glancing out the window while navigating the new drifts of snow and ice, I saw a band of glowing green dance across the sky.

“IT’S THEM, IT’S THEM, IT’S THEM,” I screamed. “Oh my god, there they are, and they are magnificent!” We reeled the car off the highway down a farm road, screeched the car to the halt and watched as green threads of light whipped across the sky, swirling, and dancing, and waving in elaborate patterns of glowing streamers. We jumped and screamed and laughed. We did it! We found them!

Off-season is rugged, and tough. You don’t get to see the sights as much as the on-season traveler, and off-season is generally off-season for a reason. But there is something magical in taking the traveled road during the less traveled time. In fact – that magic can take the form of a glowing green band of light pirouetting into zigzags and spirals, or it can be the last soggy shrimp salad sandwich at the town N1 gas station. But you never know unless you try.*


* “Inspired Beeing” knew what it meant long before I ever did. It popped up in a slew of great bee blog puns (C’est la bee! The sweetest sting! The bees’ sneeze! Snot your beeswax! The girls and the bees! Fill a bees blognet!…). Inspired Beeing was supposed to be a blog about bees and beekeepers – from my backyard to Turkey’s Northeast.

Fortunately, my aspirations eventually grew into the name.  First with the commitment to Balyolu (the honey, beekeeping, and tourism business in Kars, Turkey) and then with my own growth in understanding what makes me buzz.

Inspired Beeing has become a blog that is not just about bees – but about what inspires us. About what or who or how brings out the part of us that is inspiring, when we are living in our groove – living how we want to live.

It is stories about when you and I – when we are the inspired beeings, living an existence that feels right to each of us in our own unique ways. That is what it means to be an Inspired Beeing. Bees happen to bring out this side of me, because they are messengers of a big natural world that makes my human heart sing. But really, when I am interacting with the mighty forces of nature or some of the remarkable people around this world, feeling change, potential, and creativity surge through my connections – that is when I feel most alive, when my very existence is fueled by inspiration that pulses through our cores – well, at least in the “off-season” of beekeeping J.

About Cat

Catherine de Medici Jaffee is a National Geographic Young Explorer, a Fulbright Scholar, a Luce Fellow, the Founder of Balyolu: the Honey Road, and a lunatic about honey culture in the Caucasus. Raised on a farm in the Colorado Rockies, Cat grew up loving animals, dirt, and altitude. Her dedication and passion for animals, agriculture, and women leaders has launched her across the world as a Luce and Fulbright scholar: to raise Aigamo ducks in Japan, to research yak trade caravans in Sikkim, and to study rural women’s migration in Turkey. In particular, Turkey - with its fish hung like laundry from windows, its 9,000 species of flowers, and its delicious honey - continues to lure Cat back to its borders. Cat’s love for Turkey, the mountains, agriculture, and women’s leadership blend together sweetly in her new venture Balyolu and her blog Inspired Beeing. You can most frequently find her jumping on a mountain, running from angry bees, cooking in villages, hitching on dirt roads, or joking with Turkcell about her internet woes. Cat is joined by her partner in crime Claire Bangser, artist, photographer, writer, and globe wanderer who believes in creative storytelling as a way to powerfully connect people across mental and physical borders. From working with small-scale women farmers in Mali, to documenting peoples' lives along a 2,000 mile bike tour in the US, she finds that every person (and bee) has an important story to tell and much wisdom to share (speaking of Wisdom, Claire just published her first book, Ride Somewhere Far. Check it out on our Link Roll). These days, you're most likely to find Claire upside down, yodeling from a mountaintop, making tragic mistakes in Turkish, or eating meat for Cat.

Posted on November 29, 2011, in Environment, Hospitality, Inspired!, Travel. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. You’ve done it again, Ms. Cat. You’ve taken us to someplace we’d never have seen if not for you. Your narrative wraps around us like warm fleece in the fierce, freezing beauty of the landscapes. Really well done, chick, and thank you for sharing this.

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