Iceland! – The Reynisdrangar Stacks

Helen and I spent ten days in Iceland last summer. One day we’ll return and spend a month – that’s how amazing it was.

We spent all but two nights at the end sleeping in the back of a modified Jeep – the back of the car converted into a bed that was quite comfortable so long as you didn’t attempt to sit up. The Jeep, a 4WD with Iceland-capable tires and suitable road clearance, gave us the ability to explore the island nation as we saw fit, on and off-road. The car also allowed us to drive to and park at some memorable and remote spots to bed down at night.

A quick primer: Iceland has a total population of 330,000. Recently, Iceland’s soccer team advanced to the quarterfinals of the European Championship and 30,000 Icelanders flew to France to cheer on their countrymen. That means that 10% of the entire nation of Iceland travelled in support of their soccer team. I love that.

Here’s another fun fact. From 2006 – 20011, there were roughly 500,000 tourists visiting Iceland annually. It varied from year to year, but not by much. But then growth happened. In 2015, 1.3 million tourists visited Iceland – 5x as many tourists as there are locals. And, to make things more interesting, most of these tourists transit Iceland in the summer months – for the obvious reasons.

Last August, with our kids in sleep-away camp, Helen and I landed in Reykjavik as two of those tourists, picked up our Jeep and began driving north along the coast. That first morning, we parked at the foot of a glacier and, aided by jet-lag, slipped off into a brilliant night of sleep. The next morning we explored the base of the glacier where we had parked and then began day two and our first full day of touring.

It was mid-morning when we pulled off the main ring-road at Reynisfjöru beach. This beach sits at the foot of Reynisfjall, a 1,000 foot tall tuff mountain overlooking the ocean and famous in part for it’s bounty of puffin nests. Puffins, of course, while not technically the national bird of Iceland (that distinction goes to a falcon), may as well be since pictures, postcards and all types of souvenirs depicting puffins overwhelm store shelves across all of this island nation.

And while we thought we were at the beach to see the puffins – and see them we did – we realized quickly we were there for much more than that. There were basalt formations which I’ll share in a future blog post – amazing geometric patterns of rock. And there were the Reynisdrangar Stacks – formations rising out of the sea – nearly 200 feet high.

There is also a slight cave set on the beach which we traversed and which I photographed as well. With the tide coming in, it was bit tricky both getting to the cave and then being inside the cave without getting wet. One particular set of waves came in and nearly did us in, but we managed to stay dry (just barely). Another tourist who’d arrived about the same time we did wasn’t as lucky and got caught up to her waist in the oncoming North Atlantic waves – which I could only imagine was bone numbingly cold. She escaped unscathed but for wet clothes and a bit of embarrassment.

For all the splendor at this Icelandic beach it was this single rock formation that captured my imagination most of all. It was, I suspect, a sight I least expected to see and which, truth be told, made the least sense. A single, skinny, 200 foot tall needle rising out of the ocean. How did it form? How did it survive?

As I made sure I was out of the reach of the incoming tide, I slipped on my 70-200 zoom lens and clicked off a few images of this formation. Next, I turned toward the beach and took the opportunity to scout puffins through my viewfinder – and while they are small birds demanding of a more powerful lens, I was nonetheless able to get one or two decent shots of them in flight.

It was then, out of the corner of my eye, that I noticed this woman walking along the beach and I knew instantly the image I wanted. Her, a vertical line in the foreground and out of focus on the right corner of the frame with the pinnacle in sharp focus behind her. I had to hustle a bit to get into position, pointed my camera and waited for her to walk through my viewfinder. For me, perfection.

I love the symmetry and peacefulness of this image. It’s unusual and, given the rock formation, unexpected. The image is also dreamy and contemplative – with the woman looking down, we can each put ourselves in her place, walking silently, alone on a beach, reflecting inwardly on some aspect of our lives. In the background, nature joins her in this private moment.

I am 1/3 of the way through editing my Iceland photographs. I’m excited to see what else I captured with my camera. At least here, from day two of our trip, I see that I was off to a good start.