“The Land of Fire and Ice,” that is Iceland. I had the opportunity to lead a couple groups around Iceland this past winter.
Winter in Iceland? Are you crazy?
Yep, the best times to see the Aurora Borealis is during the winter months. Otherwise known as the Northern Lights, named after Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, are electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere. I personally had never seen the Northern Lights until this past February, when we based a whole trip around seeing and photographing this magical phenomenon, despite the fact it’s something that might not happen but probably would. But boy did it ever!
My partner Bob Fletcher and I planned two, 12-day workshops around photographing the lights. Bob had done this before, but I had not. I was really nervous about whether we would see the lights, as anything in nature can be very unpredictable. Despite all the apps on our phones and killer local guides, nothing is guaranteed. Skarpi Thrainsson our amazing local genius, assured us that it would happen.
A couple of nights into our trip, we were having dinner at our hotel when someone checked the sky outside and – bam! -- there they were. The dancing lights of green tones over our building. We all finished dinner, donned our cold-weather gear and headed out. Skarpi took us to a very remote location at the edge of a frozen glacial lagoon, located near the south of Iceland with a 360-degree view of the dazzling lights. I hadn’t felt that adrenaline rush in my photography in quite some time.
The funny thing about going to Iceland for the Northern Lights is that it was just one small part of our photographic journey. The Land of Fire and Ice was borne out of the ocean from explosive volcanic activity. It’s the most geothermally active place I’ve ever encountered, and it makes the landscape so big and beautiful. The black sand beaches against the snowy mountains and pounding surf from the Atlantic Ocean was mind-bending.
We made our way around the island starting in Iceland’s largest city of Reykjavík working our way counterclockwise. The farther we got from the city, where two-thirds of the nation’s population lives, the quieter everything got. At least when we are talking about the amount of people we encountered.
Our adventure led us past amazing landscapes and seascapes, with new and breathtaking views around nearly every bend. Sunrises and sunsets were intense, and the weather seemed to change every 15 minutes. The wind was unrelenting at times, especially when waiting for the sunrise on the edge of a cliff with the surf pounding so hard into the rocks you could feel your body rumble. I was prepared for the weather, and so were all of our participants, making this all totally bearable and immensely enjoyable.
I’ve travelled before to foreign lands where I’ve never felt the need to return, but that’s not the case with Iceland. We went for the Northern Lights, but we were treated to so many opportunities to make amazing photographs: sea-stacks and waterfalls, glacial lagoons with icebergs, black beaches with mirror-like reflections, 10,000-year-old ice washed up on shore and, wow, the ice caves.
Bob and I started planning our next trip to Iceland before we even left. We’ll lead another adventure in September to explore the interior, otherwise known as the Highlands, which is an area not accessible during the winter. We’ll also go back for another winter adventure. I guess you could say we can’t get enough. Iceland was the ice-cream sundae, and the Aurora Borealis was the cherry on top.