Words by Bryce Borlick
Photos by Dan Stewart
My pursuer had caught me. The angry mass of cloud that I was trying to stay ahead of spewed hordes of fat rain drops into the volcanic dirt and lashed at my rain gear. The once idyllic day had turned quite dismal, quite fast, with the obscured horizon only adding to the feeling of exposure and remoteness in this unsheltered land. But I pedaled on, head down, hoping it would pass. And it did. And when it did, I couldn't believe my eyes. Rolling treeless hills faded into the distance, with their electric-green mosses posing a striking contrast to the black lava rock outcroppings, darkened from the fresh rain. Ahead of me in the distance steam rose lazily from an azure hot pool, ringed by white silica mud and surrounded by jagged pumice. And when the sun’s rays finally broke through, a huge rainbow framed it all as if I was dreaming. But this was no dream, no little blue wonderland pill that I‘d swallowed: this was Iceland.
To understand Iceland, you really have to start at the beginning. Iceland sits directly on top of the Atlantic Ridge, which is the seam on the ocean floor where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. 70 million years ago, this seam allowed magma to erupt from the ocean floor and accumulate until the island was formed. This seam is still active today and although volcanic activity has slowed considerably, there is still enough volcanic energy to produce an occasional eruption and to fuel a massive geothermal power industry. It's also not unheard of for new islands to emerge off the coast in a dramatic tryst of fire and water.
But we didn’t come to Iceland for geology lessons, we came to ride mountain bikes through sensory-overloading terrain. And so it only made sense to contract Icebike Adventures to do the guiding, lead by Magne Kvam. Magne’s trail knowledge is unsurpassed in Iceland, and he’s the go-to guy for film crews, visiting pro riders, and even other international tour companies like Big Mountain Adventures. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s got a couple of seriously kick-ass trucks and a wicked home on the outskirts of Reykjavik that we used as a base for the first couple of days. There is fantastic riding just outside the city and we didn’t need much cajoling to hit it up.
There’s a valley, east of Reykjavik, where the mud boils and black gargoyle peaks loom overhead. Innumerable steam vents send giant columns skyward and your nostrils fill with a pungent sulfuric door. It was here that our tires hit the dirt on a well-trodden and narrow singletrack that winds through the highlands, offering stunning vistas of the lush valleys below before plunging downward to get the goods. We pedaled in awe with only silence conveying our collective wonder for this enchanting place. Through the fertile green hills we weaved, stopping periodically to sample some of the many hot springs that pepper the area and to gawk at the bizarre mud pots.
Eventually the trail turned downward and we picked up momentum on the twisting turning rolling singletrack, trying to focus on the trail ahead with all this mind-bending scenery pulling our attention in all directions. We threaded through technical sections of ultra-grippy volcanic rock, blasting blindly through clouds of steam, and we followed ancient lava rivers that provided smooth sections of slickrock, complete with centuries-old shepherd pens. Everything was just so different from anything we had ridden, so otherworldly, that we felt like children exploring the world by bicycle all over again. When we crossed creeks, we’d be doused with hot water, something that’s entirely unexpected. In fact, some of the innocuous-looking trailside streams are hot enough to scald - in Canada you get baked; in Iceland you get boiled. Kilometer after kilometer of this astounding landscape left permanent impressions on us, and for the cherry on top, we ended the ride with a soak at the developed hot springs at the bottom.
This brings me to another aspect of riding in the Reykjavik area; the abundant public spas that are used daily by quite a lot of locals. They have a lot to offer - hot pools, cold pools, big pools, small pools, steam baths, and waterslides. In other words, they’re fantastic and it was hard to not take a shine this post-ride ritual, especially with a nice cold Viking beer in hand. And to top it off, when we emerged from the hot tubs, all limber and mellow, we’d roll back to Magne’s place for a gourmet dinner, courtesy of Maria and Johanna. Every meal on the tour was a culinary delight, showcasing a wide variety of fresh local ingredients. Rumours of bad food in Iceland are entirely unfounded... although it is true that the most popular dining establishment in all of Iceland is a hot dog stand in central Reykjavik called Baejarins Beztu Plysur.
But we couldn’t stay in Reykjavik forever, so after breakfast the next morning we packed up and took a half-day scenic drive north. The coastal town of Akureyri, dubbed the Capital of Northern Iceland, is a busy harbour, with fishing trawlers and other small vessels vying for space amongst the massive summer cruise ships. For a population of seventeen thousand, the urban center is surprisingly elegant with a cosy European feel to the architecture. On the edges of town, green hillsides rise steeply to 1500m and roll away into the virtually uninhabited and wild Icelandic backcountry.
Naturally we headed for the hills and, after a short climb, we were overlooking the valley and the serpentine layer of fog that was slowly burning off. Wildflowers dotted the open meadows around us and we tried our best to avoid them as we each picked our own route through the trail-less alpine. After a while we reached a cliff edge and skirted along the rim on fast sections of slickrock that again offered myriad possibilities for technical roll downs and little rollers to pop off. The infectious giddiness got the best of all of us and we ended up scattered all over the place with no idea who was ahead and who was behind. Magne eventually reeled us in and then guided us down a blazing forest descent that never seemed to go straight for more than a few feet. Although the ride had only taken a few hours, I was beat from the intensity of all the spirited pedaling and I was happy to crack a cold one back at the trucks.
Its just not humanly possible to return from Iceland without a photo of a waterfall. They come in all shapes and sizes, some blue, some green, others chalky brown like chocolate milk. Some you can walk behind, others crash at odd angles and almost seem to disappear into the earth. A few are controlled by trolls. All of them seem to be completely mesmerizing. So we spent the next morning touring some of Iceland’s biggest hydraulic giants on the way to the trailhead, thinking this would surely be the highlight of the day. Wrong.
After a late lunch we picked up a trail headed downstream over barren lunar landscape that rocked and rolled its way downhill at a steady pitch. The canyon just to the side provided scenery the whole way, with the constant roar of the river echoing off bizarrely shaped cliffs. Gradually, the terrain gave way to grasslands, but the pace remained fast on a narrow sinew of hard packed singletrack. The tall grass and shrubs immediately to the side of the trail left little room for error - clipping a pedal almost always caused awkward bobbles and hilarious OTB moments. We raced against the fading light of the day, still taking time though to stop at scenic spots to absorb as much of this immense beauty as we could. After reaching the trucks and packing up, we motored along the coastal roads as the suns rays glittered on the water and provided an almost surreal golden sunset over the fjords. It was a scene, a feeling, a moment, that I will always remember when I think of Iceland.
On our way southward the next day we passed some of the electric blue overflow ponds from nearby geothermal energy plants. With geothermal energy filling roughly one quarter of the country’s power demands and hydro filling the other three quarters, Iceland runs almost entirely on clean energy. Furthermore, the hot water by-product from power generation is pumped directly into urban areas to provide free heat and hot water to residents. And even the excess from that is released into inlets, warming the frigid ocean water enough for swimming. Its safe to say that water, both cold and hot, is well-utilized. Even large energy-intensive industries like aluminum smelting are expanding into Iceland, attracted by the abundant green power and the clean image that goes with it.
Of course, no one can truly harness volcanic power, and in April of 2010 a massive eruption of Eyjafjallajökull reminded us of this as it forced local residents to evacuate and grounded air travel over Europe for 6 days. As the lava erupted up through the glaciated peak, melt water gushed to the valleys below, washing out bridges and other critical infrastructure in its destructive passage. The malevolent black sky rained hot ash and lava rock and violent electrical storms raged in the dark clouds above. In short - it was hell on earth. This is where Magne brought us for our last ride.
Things have cooled down a bit since then but the effects of the eruption still linger. The east side of the volcano, where most of the debris fell, is a vast field of black pumice, and light ash is still visible in the air as a distant haze. Amazingly, you can dig into the earth and literally feel the volcanic heat as the rocks get warmer and warmer as you get deeper. New grasses and electric green mosses have sprouted up all around, thriving on the nutrients brought by the ash. Needless to say, the anticipation was huge as we saddled up and hit the ascent with the fresh pumice crunching under our tires. Behind us, the North Atlantic surf pounded the coastline and cooled us with a light breeze. When we reached the top of the ridge, Eyjafjallajökull came into view a few kilometers to our west, with its benign snow-capped peak belying its potential. But as mesmerizing as it all was, we had singletrack awaiting.
As we pedaled off toward a lush green canyon, the thunder of the falls grew louder and louder, until the tension was almost unbearable. A sinuous singletrack wound down a narrow ridge and delivered us smack dab into the jaws of the beast, with a waterfall crashing just next to us and sending a soaking mist into the air. The rocky landscape of the plateau had given way to lush emerald meadows and plentiful wildflowers, fed by the moist environs and the long days of the northern summer. The singletrack was packed smooth with natural rollers and berms that pulled us faster and faster toward the bottom. However, at every turn new scenery emerged forcing us to stop to take it all in. Green-haired trolls peered up from the canyon floor where the tumultuous water has worn the rock to narrow spires. Sheep dotted the hillsides above and grazed peacefully. We continued onward, down and down, until we reached the final pitch and were spat out at the foot of a massive waterfall, with circular rainbows dancing around us in a disorienting but intensely epiphanal kind of way.
Our final ride ended on a high note, but it wasn't the last note of the trip. Music, and the arts in general, thrive in Iceland and we were lucky enough to be in Reykjavik for Menningarnött, the annual arts festival. We headed downtown at the crack of 11am as the city was starting to come alive with street performers, live theater, photography exhibitions and just about any other art form you can think of. With the streets closed to motor traffic, we spent the day meandering the quaint lanes and wandering in and out of beer gardens. As evening wore on, temporary stages came alive and we moved from one block to another, pulled in whatever direction had the best music pumpin’. When it finally got dark around 11, the fireworks in the harbour bid us farewell with a final display of beauty and fire.
If this all sounds a little bit unreal, it's because, well, it is. The contrasts that this land presents are almost things of folklore: volcanic glaciers, inviting but deadly coastline, and a rich history of violent civility. Enlightened artists and dark winters. Economic wealth turned to uncertainty. An urbane society that still holds a hint of belief in primeval trolls. It's all quite enchanting. But the real attraction, the single thing that makes this the trip of a lifetime, is the stunning beauty of this magnificent land. Regardless of where you come from, you will be simply awestruck by unique treasures that you just won’t find anywhere else on this planet. And you don’t need Alice’s little blue pill, you just need to get yourself to Iceland.www.icebikeadventures.com www.arcteryx.com www.danielstewartphoto.com