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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 71/October 1907/A Trip Around Iceland I

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 71‎ | October 1907

THE

POPULAR SCIENCE

MONTHLY

 

OCTOBER. 1907




A TRIP AROUND ICELAND
By L. P. GRATACAP,

AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY.

THE study of islands, whether the attention of the visitor is directed to their structure or their inhabitants, yields a peculiar pleasure. They are quite definite and unique units. They reveal interesting relations with neighboring continents, of which they so often are merely separated fragments, and they afford texts for suggestive and fascinating speculations as to past geographical conditions.

In their life no less than in their mineral features, they exhibit to the naturalist, familiar with the interpretation of forms, biological affinities with distant or near-by lands, and thereby shed side-lights, frequently instructive, upon the migrations of plants and animals. And they are, or have been, in themselves experimental stations, where the theories of specific change or specific origin may find partial endorsement or helpful refutation.

Long before Wallace wrote his "Island Life," they had attracted observers, and the unity with, or the diversity from, adjoining islands or contiguous mainlands, of their flora and fauna furnished abundant proofs of their ancient separation or their recent union with both.

An island, too, has its limits so irrevocably fixed, becomes, from its isolation, such a definite tract, that its study has the economical value of concentration and persistency. And this advantage obviously reaches phenomenal value, the more remote the island is from any other, because then its peculiarities teach the naturalist lessons in the origin of living species, or supply the geologist with new types of terrestrial architecture.

It was long ago pointed out that

if we visit the great islands of the globe, we find that they present anomalies in their animal productions, for while some exactly resemble the nearest continents, others are widely different. Thus the quadrupeds, birds and insects of Borneo
correspond very closely to those of the Asiatic continent, while those of Madagascar are extremely unlike the African forms, although the distance from the continent is less in the latter case than in the former. And if we compare the three great islands, Sumatra, Borneo and Celebes, lying, as it were, side by side, in the same ocean we find that the former two, although farthest apart, have almost identical productions, while the latter two, though closer together, are more unlike than Britain and Japan, situated in different oceans and separated by the largest of the great continents (Wallace).

These unexpected results warranted the inference that the contrasted areas, despite their nearness to each other, had, for long periods, been severed, and that those, on the other hand, which were widely sundered had been at some time, in some way, united by intermediate connecting land surfaces.

Iceland is an island of most respectable proportions—a little larger than Ireland; it occupies a position on the earth's surface especially interesting from its arctic relations, it furnishes sensational contrasts by reason of the union, within its limits, of the opposed empires of frost and fire; its plant life has European affinities; its insect life is restricted, but also European; its bird life has a European expression, but pertains also to the circumpolar distribution of identical birds in both hemispheres; its geological history is recent and startling, and its scenery strange and magnificent. It is, therefore, not surprising that it attracts scientific and adventuresome visitors, though it seems to the writer that these would naturally increase if, at least in America, this island received some sort of popular elucidation. Such is the purpose of this article.

Besides the especial wonders of its bold and frowning cliffs, its ice-buried mountains and its foaming and tempestuous rivers, Iceland for centuries has been the home of romance. Baring Gould was perhaps the first modern English writer who appreciated and adequately described the bewildering impressions made by Iceland upon a visitor, though he failed to see its most marvelous aspects, and he pays his tribute of praise very well indeed. It was our own Bayard Taylor who, somewhat later, on the pages of the New York-Tribune, remarked,

not that there is no interest in Iceland itself. On the contrary, the handful of old Scandinavians there preserve for the scholars of our day a philological and historical interest, such as no equal number of men have ever achieved in the annals of the world. A thousand years ago they cut loose from Europe and carried the most virile elements of its past almost out of reach of later changes. But Iceland is so remote from us, in an intellectual as well as a material sense, that any satisfactory knowledge of it requires a special appropriation of time and study.

The easier and more common way to Iceland, the one taken by the writer, is by the United Steamship Co.'s steamers (the Danish mail line), which leave Copenhagen, at frequent intervals during the summer, stop at Leith, the port of Edinburgh, and then variously steam northward to Thorshavn on the Faroe Islands. and thence to Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland at its 'southwestern headland, or turn to the eastern coast of Iceland at once, and circuitously, landing at the settlements and towns in the fiord valleys, circumnavigate it, finally disembarking the traveler at Reykjavik.

It was in the latter way that the writer determined to gain some insight into the coastal features of Iceland before he made a short but instructive dash into the interior, from Reykjavik, using for that purpose the indispensable Iceland pony. This is that most conscientious, affectionate and captivating little beast, whose docility and pliability—when knowingly liandled—have made him the Icelander's constant companion, his only available substitute for the trolley and the railroad.

The omniscient Cooke has not been unmindful of the prospects of profit from the chance tourist drawn to the fabled shores of Iceland, and has already provided excursion tickets from New York to Iceland with accompanying arrangements for the equipment and conduct of parties into the interior. In this way the soi-disant explorer may most conveniently form his plans for this unusual outing. Less dependent and more ambitious men arrange with leading guides at Reykjavik for the despatch of men and horses and provisions to the east coast from Reykjavik. They meet these expeditions at some of the settlements, and traverse the island from east to west, fording the rivers, hunting over the moors, fishing in the lakes and streams, possibly skirting the huge icefields, and reaching Reykjavik in time for the returning steamers in September. A third and most important group of visitors are professional men, who also take out considerable equipment, in which clinometers, barometers, thermometers, hammers and collecting boxes and bags replace the gun and rod.

Amongst the latter has been Professor Thorold Thoroddsen, of the University of Copenhagen, who for thirty years has made a laborious inspection of the natural features of Iceland, visiting under circumstances of danger and extreme discomfort, its most inaccessible localities, and Professor K. Keilhack, the German naturalist, whose articles both in geology and in natural history have aided greatly in the scientific interpretation of this domain of wonders, while Professor Slater, of the British Museum, has only recently contributed, in his admirable account of the birds of Iceland, the garnered results of his travel and observation to the growing library of Icelandica. In this connection I should mention the capital "Flora Icelandica," of Stefan Stefansson, which has recently appeared, and wherein the botany of Iceland receives an extended and systematic treatment.

The approach to Iceland was made in an impervious and haunting fog which later became confounded with, and imperfectly dissipated by, torrents of rain. It was a disappointing reception, and all the more vexatious because at Faskrudsfiord, the first stopping-place, occasional raisings of the curtain gave spectral glimpses of vast snowy peaks accumulated in unseen grandeur behind the rolling folds of the mist. It was in a measure a compensation for their obscuration that plentiful showers seamed the steep canon walls of the inlet with plunging silver cataracts. These developed with instantaneous rapidity, leaping down over the basaltic cliffs in innumerable threads.

A word descriptive of the physical configuration of Iceland will make more clear the outline and incidents of the trip about the island. Iceland has in general a subelliptical shape with its longer axis lying northeast and southwest. This approximate form is extended into a sort of lateral excrescence or finger-formed expansion at the northwest margin, in a deeply dissected peninsula, which lies between the Breitfiord and the bay of Hunafloi (see map).

The island is fringed on its eastern, northern and western shores by a continuous succession of inlets, bays, fiord-like arms, which often subdivide and branch at their heads into smaller crevices and communicate with lowlands or valleys leading back into the hills and the interior. The southern shore offers a considerable contrast to this fimbriation of its other coasts, and while it is assumed by Thoroddsen that the southern shore was at one time indented by similar inlets, to-day it presents an entire outline which represents broad margins of sand, flows of mud and detrital deposits, scored by glacial streams, and punctuated by lakes or lagoons, in other words, a fiorded area blocked and filled up by later blankets, and upthrown banks and plugs of sand from the sea, or by the fluviatile washings from the higher country, and the past deluges of sediments from the melting glaciers.

The trip about the island is made up of entrances into these fiords, and of skirting the coast, which presents a series of superb pictures, while the occasional stops permit transient glimpses of the life and industry of the people. Our company, on the staunch little craft Vesta, conducted on its devious ways by the bluff and able seaman, Captain Braun, was one of diversified elements and entertaining contrasts. A little group of French wanderers (among them, the daughter of the great student of hypnotism, Dr. Charcot, and Professor Gourdon, geologist of the French Antarctic Expedition) imparted a continental elegance to our homely equipage, the Englishmen and one most amiable and companionable Scotchman, furnished the necessary insular sobriety and steadiness, a versatile and courteous German trader aided us at all points with explanations and directions, two English ladies revealed unexpected liveliness and powers of amusing comment, and a lovely Icelandic maiden, returning to her home, after a three years' absence in Denmark, provided a becoming touch of sweetness and roguish charm. The crew and officers were obliging and considerate, and some interesting Danes and Icelandic students completed our passenger list, which, however, expanded into unmanageable proportions, as from place to place, on our approach to Reykjavik, new applicants for berths and table-room made their appearance.

I have hinted at our unsatisfactory reception at Faskrudsfiord. In a measure this disappointment was forgotten in the sense of sudden novelty the surprising pictures before us aroused. The cloud-draped mysteries of the Faroe Islands had awakened expectations certainly, but, to the writer, at least, the scene unfolded as the steamer approached the shores of Iceland, and entered the first deep incision in its rocky sides, was of an unrecalled strangeness and incomparable with anything he had seen before.

It was at four o'clock on the afternoon of August 3 that we came in sight of Iceland after passing, many miles before, a low rocky island engulfed in the swinging curtains of the fog, and though the picture was veiled in mist it excited expectation. The island hid itself from the first vulgar stare of curiosity and drew around it its protecting veils of cloud. First indefinite outlines appeared, one range or hill behind the other, with ill-defined and evanescent openings, then steep bold profiles of dipping beds—the lava flows, apparently successive and gently elevated in mass—and then the coast came more distinctly in view with a green veil of vegetation covering but scantily the broad deep and long talus of débris and disintegrating stone, upon which long threads of falling water in silver lines were easily discerned, even to their moving particles.

On, with the palisades, perhaps 1,000 to 1,500 feet in height, revealed and then hidden in alternate intervals, in the drifting mist and hurtling rain. Finally, we turned into Faskrudsfiord, and slowly steaming up over the quiet water we saw on either side the high 'skrees' gushing with water; long sinuous lines of water, often where they fell over short escarpments forming brief waterfalls, and elsewhere broken successional cataracts, until the cliff-sides were fairly fringed and embroidered with argent lace, a really wonderful picture.

At the very head of the bay rose more lofty mountains, one behind another, in solemn vagueness, dashed with broad snow patches, intermittently seen, and always streaked with streams. These fugitive glimpses were tantalizing enough. They were also only partial. The curtains of fog, moving fretfully over the landscape, suggested, as we watched their grudging revelations, many concealed peaks.

On the north shore was a settlement of some sixty houses, with a hospital of the French government for French fishermen and sailors, and another of the Catholic church. We had seen farther out, towards the sea, little farms with small enclosures framed in stone walls, or with turf walls, consisting of grass fields. The cemetery, near at hand, was a quaint silent bleak spot on the edge of the water, with a fence round it, and bristling with wooden crosses. Some small houses were covered with sod and had green roofs. It was all singularly new and exhilarating. The storm refused to lift nor did the rain desist. It came down in deluges, and the streams leaped more impetuously, and the cataracts became swollen and vociferous, until a murmurous roar arose from the shores around us. The fog hung low on the mountain-sides, and, as if from their drenched edges, streams poured over the sheer slopes.

Then out to sea over rolling surges and tilting swells. The palisades of rock continued, with higher peaks at intervals, and then we entered Eskifiord, where the renowned Iceland spar is obtained, those pellucid cakes of carbonate of lime, from which the optician adroitly cuts the Nicol prisms for microscopes, which again in the hands of the lithologist reveal the structure and the composition of rocks. I went ashore at night in a pelting rain, and after some miserable wandering over the shore path, by the little huts and houses, through plentiful pools of water, entered a comfortable ware room where the precious material, weighed in small cleavage rhombs, could be secured. Eighty cents was paid for one of these specimens. New quarries are reported from the south side of the island.

This beautifully clear phase of the carbonate of lime forcibly recalled analogous developments in the palisades—the trap formation—of New Jersey at home. Iceland, indeed, throughout most of its northern section is a vast basaltic terrain, a land built up of igneous effusions exuded from opening crevices in the earth's crust in viscous semi-slaggy flows, and piled upon each other, possibly beneath the surface of the sea. Elevation succeeded, and these accumulations rose gently, with only unimportant dislocations upward. They were built upon a submarine spur, probably extending interruptedly from Norway with a southern arm towards Scotland, the whole hidden chain surrounding a deep northern area which, at some time, when its cow submerged barriers were exposed, may have formed a landlocked ocean, framed indeed on its southern margin by a dry north sea.

The igneous material involved in this construction of Iceland, though analogous to the New Jersey palisades, began its constructive work much later in geological time. The New Jersey palisades date from the Jura-triassic period, those of Iceland are referred to the middle, at the earliest, of the Tertiary age, though continuously since that time through preglacial, glacial and postglacial time, up to the present era, volcanic outbursts and now accessions, whether of lava

PSM V71 D301 Nordfiord.png

Nordfiord. Skirt of fog on mountain.

or ashes, have increased its size. But, in the sequence of igneous additions, the character of the rocks has changed, and differs strikingly from the original basement basaltic flows. Thus have the fires of earth raised a monument above the tides of the Atlantic.

No sooner had this architectural wonder been raised by Pluto, than Neptune and Jupiter Pluvius conceived its destruction, and their machinations for its overthrow were inconsiderately helped by their subterranean brother. Earthquakes have doubtless altered and reduced its size, detaching or sinking broad patches or morsels of its periphery. We can imagine, to continue our simile, that Pluto, groaning and agitated over the envious assaults of the upper gods, helped to knock out some of the underpinning of his own creation.

But in their process of reduction the air deities have made Iceland most attractive, wonderfully picturesque; they have cut out its deep fiords, furrowed its cliffs, dug grottoes in its stony walls, put pinnacles and minarets along its sky-lines; they have led valleys, green with pasture and splashed with the color of flowers, down to its wave-strewn lips; they have dropped island pearls around its coasts; they have

PSM V71 D302 Cupola topped mountain in seydisfiord.png

Cupola-topped Mountain in Seydisfiord.

planted sapphire brooches upon its bosom in the great interior lakes, and spread over its shoulders the braided tresses of a hundred rivers; they have covered its mountains with diamond shields, and in their ruthless attack converted mountainous elevation into ranks of serried hills repeating the ruby pallors of the midnight sun.

Again we left Eskifiord and in our exit reviewed, as before, the steep rocky walls of the fiord, the dipping stratification, the streaming rills. Minareted summits like low parapets fenced the tops of the palisades. We passed a whale fishery with an eviscerated and skinned carcass on the dock before it, and then out over rolling waves with mist and rain, and later entered our third fiord—Nordfiord. The stormy weather was slowly succumbing to more favorable influences, and when at last the vapors rolled up into clouds we found ourselves in a deep strait between lofty walls of rock shooting out of sweeping slopes and undulating upland, which seemed in that northern sunlight, and beneath those frowning sentinels, so desolate, their austerity emphasized by a few isolated farms. One could imagine the wintry terrors of those lonely homes.

PSM V71 D303 Turf covered house at seydisfiord.png

Turf-Covered House at Seydisfiord.

The streams were still running and the terraced weathering of the rocks was well shown. Towards the ocean a range of high peaks was seen, which formed the southern boundary of another fiord, twinned with the one we were in. and far back beyond the head of the fiord rose immense backs of mountains, spotted with snow. We passed again out to sea upon a rolling swell, into splendid clear water, and skirted the superb front of receding basaltic steps, each one of which was a separate flow, and where as many stages as twenty or forty were counted in their structure, showing bold stepped profiles.

At the summits of these amazing walls, erosion and weathering seemed to have worked with greater activity, forming deep alcoves, sweeping recesses, and then cirques were seen between the lofty divisional massifs. Water-ways or shallow fiords divided this remarkable face of rock into component fractions, and as the last one appeared—sentinel to the beautiful Seydisfiord—green slopes encircled its formidable precipices holding lonely farm>, and a s])outing waterfall sprang outward from its riven side. We were at Seydisfiord.

The village of Seydisfiord was perhaps the first which breathed a

PSM V71 D304 Ponies at seydisfiord.png

Ponies at Seydisfiord.

very real air of comfort. It had a hospitable look. A pleasant post office, a well-furnished apothecary shop—in which minerals and curiosities mingled with drugs and extracts—a candy store, a village hotel, and trailing groups of pretty children and young girls were not wanting to impress the senses with an unusual impression of creature and home blessings.

The important human aggregates in Iceland are along its shores. The population of the interior forms minute hamlets, or is strung out into attenuated lines of farms, many miles apart. The shore settlements meet the outside world, the wear and tear of life is greater, and exchange of material in business ways more active. Here education and culture extend themselves more quickly, and world-ideas receive acceptance and circulation. The farmers struggle with the drudgery of harvesting the hay, breeding and raising sheep and cows, making butter and repairing and making implements and houses. They become a conservative and backward element, and miss the reaction with foreign ships and visitors, and the political spirit is with them more dormant and inactive. In the shore-villages, adventure

PSM V71 D305 Falls on the fiordurau on seydisfiord.png

Falls on the Fiordurau on Seydisfiord.

accidents, money-making and dissipation help the movement of life, the attrition is more constant between men, and they emerge more quickly from immature and limiting prepossessions. The farmer is resourceful. brave and wise in his arts, but it seems certain that information and direction would increase his earnings and widen his activity. Banks and means of loaning money have appeared in Iceland, and with them come enterprise, risks and speculation, and attendant amelioration of conditions, with new outlooks and ambitions.

The village of Seydisfiord wanders attractively around the head of the bay, which receives the rushing waters of the Fiordurau (the river of the fiord), and our alert tourists assembled, early on the morning of our arrival, a group of ponies—fat and vigorous, with charming heads and exuberant manes—for an excursion up the valley of this river. The objective motive was a series of waterfalls, one behind the other, which were to be seen up the valley. These falls were the physical symptoms of the recession of the stream itself, as it wore its way backward. The rocks about them were much sculptured and worn, and offered an entertaining geological riddle as to whether the lower falls

PSM V71 D306 Falls on the fiordurau on seydisfoird.png

Falls on the Fiordurau, Seydisfiord.

might not overtake the higher ones, or whether the series represented the scattered parts of a former fall of a height equal to the added heights of each. In the former case, the process would bring about in centuries of time a resultant lofty fall, and in the latter case their separation would probably widen as the river at the upper falls wore its way backward more and more rapidly, and left in its retreat its lagging lower companions.

Some of us rejected the assistance of the ponies, and walked. We made our way over an evil road, from which we wandered promiscuously in search of the tempting flowers, observing among them the rare Pinguicula which looks so like a spurred violet, and which we had taken in Newfoundland. And we ran to and fro avariciously picking up Habenaria, Salix (the dwarf willow), Betula, Rumex, Plantago, Armeria, Polygonum, Gentiana, Ranunculus, Geranium, Parnassia, Potentilla, Epilobium, Papaver, Dryas, Pyrola and many others almost forgetting the falls.

Falls (foss) are common objects in Iceland. They have a strong family resemblance, except the Gullfoss which is unique; but then the

PSM V71 D307 View going out of seydisfiord.png

View going out of Seydisfiord.

family has a high type of beauty. The wall character of the land, the prevalence of great snow fields, and the deluging rains furnish the two elements for first-class waterfalls, and they are excellent. As we scrambled from one to another on the Fiordurau, they improved in looks, and only the restraining finger of time prevented us from chasing the river to its last cranny of refuge. The view back over the fiord and its fringe of houses was one of great beauty.

Certainly the water present in the landscape was not confined to the river. It generously covered everything. Nothing could have been more opulent than the morasses and upland bogs we waded through, driven to the stress of a short cut by the far away summons of the steamer's whistle. Of course, we reached the steamer an hour before she stirred from the dock, with shoes that would have put a Broadway bootblack into a mania of imprecations. We left Seydisfiord regretfully, and here we bade good-bye to the courteous young Dane who will superintend the submarine cable now laid between Scotland—by way of the Shetland and Faroe islands—and Iceland.

Again out to sea, and again the panorama of sloping and beetling palisades, of broad embrasures and galleries, dug out by weathering agencies, with the clear aqua-marine waters rolling languidly over jagged barriers of basalt. Vopnafiord seemed flat. It was our next stopping place. The French ladies declared it looked like Brittany and perhaps it did. They ought to know. It was a low shore, rocky, with green uplands and farms, and many threatening reefs. On again in fog with a coast intermittently seen to the left, and at night we passed into the arctic circle, and, as the day dawned over the magic sea, the air became brilliantly clear, the sky serene and cloudless, the waves docile and appeased.

We were far away from the shore. It was the northern edge of Nord Thingeyar Sysla with remote lines of elevation and long horizontal lines like some topographic section. We crossed the broad Axarfiord, on a sea blazing with light, and approached the islands of Minareyjar dancing in mirage, and soon passed Red Hook, carmine with iron secretions oozing from its jointed rocks, and along an old raised beach with enormous moorlands behind it, which a sporting vice-admiral of England declared were full of patridge (ryper), and which had a most inviting wild remote loneliness expressed in them.

(To he continued)