Iceland: A Saturday jaunt north.

I’ve never thought about my dad so often and so consistently as I have on this trip. In the late 1960s, he was a young officer in the US Air Force, stationed at Point Barrow, Alaska. He had a wife and three young children at the time. My mom and sisters and I stayed the winter down in Los Angeles. He spent the winter alone, in the far north. When summer cane around, we joined him there. I have no memory of our time in Alaska. I was just two years old. But the tales are told in the family from time to time, so I feel as if I can see it all in my mind.

All week, as I traveled around Iceland, I thought of my dad during his time in Alaska. He described it as “damn cold”. It was a military outpost, so not much to do during the long, dark nights. He described quonset huts (Oh my, spell check doesn’t know WHAT to do with that word) and wearing giant parkas, seeing the northern lights and seals and the nearby native Inuit community and again, that it was damn cold. Having never been to Alaska myself, visiting Iceland — especially during this unusual cold spell — brought his time in Alaska to the forefront of my mind. And nowhere seemed more reminiscent of what Alaska must have been for him than my day in Husavik.

The amenities available in Husavik would have been very welcome to a young officer far from his family, stationed at what must have seemed the edge of the world. I think a bit of good food, a few museums, and a nice soak in some hot water would have cheered him up.

Our day started early, with a 7 am departure from the hotel. We were headed for the small airport located in Reykjavik. I didn’t understand before my visits here that the big airport, Keflavik, is located about 50 minutes away from Reykjavik itself. It was built on the site of an American military base used during World War II. Apparently, the Brits thought having an airport next to the city was a good idea. The Americans, instead, took a look around the island and said “Where’s the best site for an air and military installation, based on criteria related to weather, accessibility and building conditions.” Ignoring the airport already in place, they built their own. Later, Iceland took over the site and built their international airport there. It’s quite a small airport by most standards — about the size of the Albuquerque airport. Having flown through and to there, I didn’t realize there was another airport in Reykjavik itself.

Iceland is populated primarily along the coast. The interior of the country, with difficult terrain that is often inaccessible through much of the year. Many folks like to rent a car and drive the entire perimeter on the famous ring road. However, with limited time, we were offered the chance to fly to the north coast. Our destination, Husavik, was a little less than halfway around the island from Reykjavik. What would normally be a 5- 6 hour drive (in good conditions) was condensed to a mere 50 minute flight. Magic!

We arrived at a tiny airport in Reykjavik at about 8:00 am. (Had to stop a t a few hotels for pickups). It resembled the airport in Santa Fe – a small waiting area, two gates, people nodding at each other as they recognize the regular travelers on the route. About 25 of us sat and waited.

A lady sat down next to me. Glancing over at my hands, she did a doubletake and said in thickly accented English, “You are not from here”. I laughed and said, “No.” She responded “I know, because you are doing it backwards!” I was knitting a sock, of course, and she’d noticed that I knit American style, moving the yarn with my right hand. Most Europeans knit in what we call Continental style, “throwing” the yarn with their left hand. It’s a much more efficient set of movements. Lots of American knitters work in that style as well, my mother and sister included. I don’t know why I knit American or where I learned to do so. Too late now to switch!

So we laughed about it and she pulled out her own knitting project. Turns out she’s an occupational therapist in Husavik, heading home after a week’s special training in the big city. She also knits up a storm. She and many of her friends sell their work in a shop near Husavik. She was working on one of her more popular items, a set of gloves with the shape of Iceland on their top side.

She also showed me her sweaters which are loosely based on traditional Icelandic ones but with a bit of a more modern silhouette. Personally, I’m amazed that anyone would sell their handknits. No one in the States would ever pay the kind of money it requires to cover someone’s time knitting here. But I guess if you can afford the cost of travel to and in Iceland, you can afford to buy something that says “Handknit in Iceland”. I wish “Handknit in Cleveland” had the same romantic appeal.

We got up to board our tiny plane and zoomed off (literally, you could hear the zoom on a plane that size). I watched us leave the city and soar above the vast white nothingness once again. Boarding the plane and flying over the arctic landscape again bringing my family’s time in Alaska to mind. We have slides upon slides in the family collection of small planes, people in parkas, and snow covered mountains stretching endlessly into the distance. Even a few of mom’s paintings recall the landscape of that place. (Viewing available at Anna and Joe’s house.)

So… Husavik. Tiny town at the top of Iceland! Population: about 2300.

A local tour operator organized the day for us. First we visited the Husavik Whale Museum. I wasn’t expecting such a sophisticated museum in such a tiny town. Husavik, by the way, is considered the whale watching capital of the country. Great numbers of them are there every year to feed. Whale watching tourism is now the largest industry in the area. The museum does a nice job of educating visitors to the natural history of these gentle giants.

Then off to two more museums.The tiny Exploration Museum focused on the period of time the Apollo astronauts trained for their missions in Iceland, then continued on with a history of Viking and Icelandic explorers. Then to the nearby Safnahusid Museum, which focused on the natural history of the area and the history of the population since settlement. I took special interest in the early agricultural life of the residents plus of course, historic methods for making clothing. There were two spinning wheels on display with mechanisms I’ve never seen before. They were fascinating.

To this day, when I hear that word in my head, it always sounds like Leonard Nimoy playing Spock…. “Fascinating, captain”.

Next we were off to have lunch at a nearby restaurant where we were served a beautiful salted cod and vegetables. And then we made the rounds of four different whale watching tour providers. It was an interesting mashup of sailing craft, small fishing-type craft and even electric boats. Some offered trips out beyond the cove to nearby islands where puffins gather in great numbers. One also offered sailing cruises from here to Norway’s coast and back. A number of former fisherman have changed over to meeting the needs of curious and adventurous travelers. It’s a less physically demanding and much more lucrative livelihood. In fact, I heard time and again of all the ways they are planning to expand services for visitors re: accommodations and things to do (translate to tours). I found myself sitting with an uncomfortable urge to shout out “No, no, no, no, no! Oh be careful what you wish for!!!”

They wish for more visitors. As I learn the history of Iceland and the way most Icelanders lived at subsistence levels for generations, I certainly am in no position to lecture them on the evils of a modern economy. Or the wear and tear on cultural/ecological life that is the inevitable result of increasing tourism. However, as a resident of Santa Fe and an almost lifelong resident of the southwestern US, I do feel I can say with some measure of credibility, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Our day finished with a lovely visit to GeoSea, a new set of thermal pools recently built on the bluffs above the town. Beautifully designed, artfully sighted, and immaculately run, the place was a welcome relief from the cold wind and the on-again-off-again (of the bus) nature of the hosted tour. I think the pictures say it all.

I do wish my dad could have had GeoSea or something similar up in Point Barrow in 1968. Snow covered mountains, northern lights, winter winds, and hours without his family would have been much improved by soaking in hot water. The guys could have had a beer or two while soaking, clowning around and enjoying the view – as we did. Perhaps Barrow has something similar these days?

Naaaaaah. Probably not.

Our day ended with a return flight to Reykjavik and a closing dinner for the conference. No pictures of any of that. Pretty standard round tables in a banquet room, with a few speeches and thank yous, etc etc. It was nice – amazing lamb dinner- but you all are sufficiently familiar with that kind of thing that you don’t need my description. And just like that, Saturday, and the MidAtlantic Tradeshow, were over.

Next up: saving the best for last… two days of checking out fiber-related sites and folks we visit on Rowan Tree trips, plus validation that renting a car and driving myself would have been a TERRIBLE idea.


  1. Super pics and yes you experienced a MUCH more posh ultra cold outing! Some of those shots do remind me of our days in Barrow. I do remember Quonset huts, ocean and tundra and not much else. And French fries with Marcie and Stevie at the officers mess! Strange the things that stay locked in our brains until something unearths them.


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