The Art of Appreciating Waterfalls

May 20, 2017

Waking up in a field, hemmed in by bedraggled barbed wire fences would be peacefully mundane, if not for the immense glacier presiding over the field from the north.

I’d never imagined a glacier to be like this. All the pictures and drawings I’ve seen in textbooks made glaciers look so simple and technical. It’s just a lot of frozen water together right, one big ice cube, right? Staring one in the face is quite different.

Instead of the flat white, easy to be missed, plane I had imagined, this glacier had a presence. A sloping expanse of white built toward a mounded center, collecting itself and rising up to create its own horizon. A look unmistakably active even forceful.

Throughout the morning, systematically compressing gear back into its “travel size” backpack, pausing to eat breakfast, and attend to personal hygiene, I can’t stop looking at the glacier. Something about being on a windswept plain in Iceland, staring at a glacier gives me a feeling of gravity.

People up, tents up, bowls washed and car packed we spread out the map on the hood of our trusty land cruiser to plot out directions. Today we’re headed to Vik (pronounced wik) a small town on Iceland’s southern coast championed for its purposeful urban design. Along the way there’s waterfalls, an inactive volcano, and more hot-springs. Time to start the day.

False StartIMG_2140

I’ve gotten myself lost many times in life, in all cases, the realization of being lost seems to be the first step toward becoming found. Realizing that we’re lost, in Iceland, with limited cell phone minutes, no google maps and a flat tire, is actually not as bad as one might think.

Turns out more than a few of us have changed a tire before. It only takes a few minutes of pondering to set the tire change in motion. A few more minutes of map gazing and we understand where we went wrong. A short call to the rental car agency assures us the tire insurance will cover it, and if another flat occurs they promise to come to the rescue. Maybe being in Iceland makes it hard to be frustrated, who’s to say.

Back on the road and driving west, across fields of grazing sheep and matted tufts of green grass, we can see a ledge rising up in the distance. The quaint but surreptitious outcropping extends out from the middle of the country like a continental shelf. Just north of this burgeoning plateau is Vatnajokull glacier, supplying Ice cold, clear water to several waterfalls which descend out from its heart.

As we drive closer to the rock face, one such waterfall is coming into view.


Sellalapdsfoss, a line of cascading white water diving into a shallow gravel puddle only to re-emerge as a gurgling brook, is not shy. A gravel trial encircling the falls gives the hundreds of vacationers turned paparazzi unlimited Hollywood access. But, only if they are looking for a glimpse of scandalous water.

Experiencing  this waterfall has to be a wordless affair. The cacophonous water and my own mind slipping in and around the rushing pools make speech irrelevant. All that is left is the feeling of freezing water droplets clouding the air.

As I work my way around the falls my hair, my skin, my somewhat less than waterproof rain jacket are all overrun with water droplets. The pictures delineate a journey from damp to soaking in one loop around Sellalapdsfoss.

Another gravel trail separates from the waterfall trail and skirts the rock shelf. We follow the trail at our lesiure, letting the warm sun dry us.

Hidden Gem

There are a few people scattered along the trail and approaching a well maintained field there are some sitting in the grass. Two guys are laying shirtless on an air mattress next to a camper, confirm this field to be a campground. In fact that is what most campgrounds in Iceland are: a mowed field next to a building with an office and bathrooms (sometimes showers.) The simplicity of it surprisingly comforting.

The trail terminates at a creek on the edge of this field. Looking toward the cliff face I can see a group of people emerging from the same cut in the rock that the stream sprouts from. Wandering over to the opening I can hear a faint rumbling.

The man next to me is taking off his shoes. I bend down to do the same. Together, helping each other find footing, the fellow traveler and I wade upstream and into the crevice.

The rumbling becomes louder, bouncing off the cavernous walls, eclipsing all other sound. The waterfall drops from a bright patch of sky outlined in black by rock walls. The loud rush of water rumbles in my chest and fills me with silence. If I had anything to say no one would be able to hear it anyway. Cold clear water splashes the hem of my pants. The traveler hands me his phone and I take a picture of him by the waterfall, we switch and he takes a picture of me.FullSizeRender(5)

More travelers are approaching from the cave entrance and we leave to make room for them. I follow the man out, my ability to articulate perhaps left with my socks. He is from Florida, he and his wife work 6 months out of the year saving up to spend the other 6 months traveling. Reunited with my socks I tell him of our post college trip, how it’s only day two and I’m still pinching myself.IMG_2157

My feet still thawing I take my socks and shoes out to the field and lay down. I want to soak it all in, the sunlight, the cool water, the rumbling waterfall, the cushy grass. Little by little the rest of the group joins me in the grass, our wet feet a mark of the sight we’ve partaken.

Hot springs Take Two

After filling up on gas, two liters of Iceland style yogurt, called Skyer, and folding ourselves back into the van, we continue west. On the map is tentatively circled the possible location of another hot spring, but we’re not certain. Slowly pulling into a gravel parking lot as two people hike out of the valley in swimwear confirms we’re in the right place.

A valley, carved into the rocky plateau boasts a faint trail and a small stream. Hiking up the trail towels and swimwear in hand we periodically check the water temperature to see if we’re getting closer. Along the way we see a metal pipe bolted to the valley wall the modest spring trickling into this pipe is hot. We must be close.

Spa Time

The pipe of warm spring water terminates at a concrete, rectangular pool, fashioned IMG_2163along the eastward slope of the valley. Abutting the pool is a concrete building with three doors, each leading into an unlit room with pegs on the walls for changing and hanging towels. Probably no one comes to sweep the changing rooms or wash the concrete walls, but that isn’t really necessary.

The water is warm and slightly green, and the slippery bottom of the pool just might be coated by a thin film of algae (scratch that, definitely coated with algae,) but people dunk themselves in more questionable liquids all the time. Just because it isn’t at a spa doesn’t mean it’s not spa quality, nonetheless, I check that I don’t have any open cuts before easing into the water.

We kill a few hours drifting around this rugged spa, perching on the rocky edges where water trickles in and the pool is hottest. Standing where the shallow end slopes toward the deep end using the spa algae to pretend run upward while constantly sliding. Watching the sunlight move through the rocky canyon, coloring the rocks different shades of orange as it goes.

It’s getting a bit colder, and slipping out of the pool to dry off and change becomes a hasty endeavor. The group coalesces at the back of the Toyota where we take turns eating spoonful’s of Skyer out of the containers. The yogurt disappears quickly.

Sunlight Fading Waterfalls Never Waning

We’ve exchanged bright pastures for stunted hills and afternoon shadows. Using the amount of sunlight outside you can trick yourself into thinking its 6pm but its actually 8pm and we are still many kilometers from dinner and our intended campsite. Spewing IMG_2169down from the rocky plateau on the right of the road is another, beautiful, roaring waterfall. With the support of our homemade trail mix and granola bars shipped from home we postpone dinner a bit longer in favor of one more waterfall. Skogafoss, comparable in size to the previous days Gullfoss, (at this point we’ve realized foss means waterfall in Icelandic,) is just as captivating.

Climbing to the top of this behemoth waterfall is not for the cardiovascularly faint. Sally and I take the climb slowly, stopping every few minutes to look back at the sheep grazing at the base of the waterfall. Do they even know how beautiful their home is?

IMG_2171Taking in this moment feels systematically glorious. There’s a relaxed feeling within my rib cage, like the pounding waterfalls have massaged out the knots in my smooth muscle organs. A tightness I’ve always had and never noticed is gone. It feels similar to the moment after letting out a deep contented sigh, that brief pause of release before your lungs flex to take the next breath. That is what I feel like.

IMG_2190We follow a trail beside the river above the waterfall Michael and I wander off to sit in a grassy patch away from the loud water with a view over the pastures bellow. Sally tries to lead the rest of the group toward a glacier which she doesn’t know is 8 Kilometers away. It will take the others the better part of an hour to convince her the hike is too far.

While they do that Michael and I sit and marinate in the present. We’re college graduates, with bright, unpredictable futures, but right now we’re in Iceland and it’s only day two and it’s already amazing.

Dinner… Finally

An hour more of driving and we’re at the campsite. After cooking outside in the wind yesterday the closed in dining area is a welcome change. One group starts setting up the tents while others begin cooking. Seasoned by hunger and a view over the ocean, dinner is delicious.

Until next time.

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