Thursday, February 27, 2014, started off like any other day of the trip. Cold, crisp, fresh morning air greeted us as we stepped out of our apartment and headed towards our warming rental cars. We had originally made plans to make the trip to Höfn, which is on the other side of the island, and stay the night there. Rumors had been circling among the locals that the northern lights were going to happen that night. With that being main reason why we went to Iceland, I was nervous we weren’t going to see them. We had been experiencing phenomenal weather in Reykjavík where access to darker skies was 30 minutes away. I was worried about that side of the island because of the lack of roads and Iceland’s unpredictable weather. With butterflies endlessly fluttering in my stomach, we got an early start to the day and headed out before sunrise.
We drove for a couple hours until we reached the coast, admiring the solitary houses and farms that dot the landscape along the way. The sun began to rise over the mountains in front of us guarded by clouds, extending its rays and filling the winter whipped landscape with a warm golden haze. Clear blue skies contrasted the light brown landscape.
Our first major stop on the way to Höfn was Seljalandsfoss, a towering, majestic waterfall visible from the main road. You cannot really grasp the grandeur of it until you approach it and feel the mist gently greet your face. You are able to hike behind it, even when it’s covered in ice as it is during the winter. Seljalandsfoss is one of several waterfalls that fueled our small expedition around the area. Seljalandsfoss is the definition of nature’s eternal beauty.
After climbing around the area for an hour, we decided to head to the next destination: Skógafoss. The best thing about having a personal rental car, and not being part of a tour, is the ability to stop, stretch your legs, and explore on foot at will. On our way to Skógafoss, we spotted a herd of wild horses off the side of the road. Naturally, I pulled over.
It was still before noon, and we had already climbed several waterfalls and hung out with wild Icelandic horses. The weather remained perfect; endless visibility, considerably warm, and sunny with few clouds. We kept onward to Skógafoss, just a few kilometers away. Much more massive than Seljalandsfoss, the allure of Skógafoss effortlessly commands your attention from the main road. We were able to get right to the foot of the falls and disappear in the freezing mist. We also hiked to the top of the falls to another set of falls upstream. The weather was nice enough to shed a few layers off and relax, and in the middle of February! The day kept getting better as the journey continued
Being the lead driver, I surprised my group by taking them on a side trip to Reynisfjara Beach. Known for its scenic black sand beach, hexagon-shaped basalt columns, jagged caves, and odd spires rising out of the ocean, it was a nice little treat for the group.
After refueling our cars and appetites in the small town of Vík, we embarked towards Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, another two hours away. I timed it out so that we would arrive at sunset, but time was ticking fast as the winter sun began its descent towards the horizon. The drive passes through barren, ash-covered fields with massive, blue glaciers overflowing the mountain tops in the distance. The people in my car were asleep for most of the drive, and I couldn’t blame them. We’ve been on the road and exploring for the past 8 hours, but I could not handle the raw beauty outside of my window. I had a hard time accepting that it was all real.
I couldn’t contain my excitement as we neared Jökulsárlón. I woke up my passengers just before the lagoon and told them to look left as we passed the moraine and approached the bridge. BOOM! There it was. My heart was racing as I could not wait to park the car and set out on foot. The timing could not have been any better, as the sun was kissing the ridges of the mountains while clouds quickly swirled around them. To my awe, there were seals lounging and playing on the icebergs nearby. I grabbed a couple beers and my cameras, then set out by myself, not waiting for anyone. This was my moment, and I wanted to get lost in it.
It is difficult to explain this particular moment. Already exhausted from the day, all that mattered was to stop everything and watch the sun close out one of the most beautiful days I’ve experienced. The seals were restless, gulls circled above, clear-blue icebergs slowly crashed into each other, dusk was just setting in and yet, there I was, a single note in nature’s elegant composition. The Arctic landscape colors were something I had never experienced, various oranges from the sunset and blues from the lagoon were in complete harmony. I climbed the small hill nearby to soak in my surroundings. It was surreal.
The weather was still on our side, streaks of clear sky cut the thin higher clouds in every direction. The sun had set, and darkness swallowed the landscape. A few people at the lagoon had mentioned that there was a very good chance the lights were going to be visible that night. What better location to view them than Jökulsárlón? Rather than stay out in the cold for another 2 hours, we stuck to our original plan of heading to Höfn to eat and find a place to stay. The group was exhausted and eager to rest as we arrived at a hostel. Finally having the internet at my disposal, I checked the Aurora forecast.
My heart stopped. It read, Kp=6/Storm. I double-checked all the maps and forecasts to make sure this was a current forecast. A level 6 event does not happen often, only about 600 days out of each solar cycle (11 years). Most of the group wanted to rest and soak in a nearby hot spring, but the forecast maps told me that the lights were about to peak. I denied my groups requests to rest and soak repeatedly. This was our chance, and I was not about to let it slip away. I was willing to drive anywhere on the island to see them. Soon after, Kendra, a member of the group, came back from grabbing her stuff from the car.
“Marcus, you need to come outside. Right now.”
“No, can’t be,” I thought. “Is this the moment that so many people put on their bucket list? Is this finally it, or is this another joke from Mike?” I followed her outside.
All available oxygen immediately exited my body and my eyes widened as I looked up and saw the lights dancing behind the gaps in the clouds. Jaw dropped and completely speechless, I did not know how to react as my eyes teared up. Am I really seeing this? A double rainbow moment, if you will. They were far more vibrant and dynamic than I had read about. It was a mysterious electrical river calmly flowing in the sky, the entire sky. Half the sky was glowing a deep red, while brilliant green curtains rippled next to it. I frantically gathered everyone and we quickly headed to a dark field outside the town for a better look.
The skies cleared just for us. We sat there, in a field, in Iceland, in February, and watched the lights blaze across the moonless night sky. The lights were everywhere you looked; each part of the sky offering something different from another. Sharp, define lines of the aurora directly above our heads slowly twisted its way to the mountains in the distance, softening along the way. The lights were constantly evolving and at times, seemed to offer a bridge to the cosmos. The colors got deeper as the Aurora intensified. Vivid greens faded into white spikes which pierced deep in to the dramatic reds and purples higher in the atmosphere, all visible to the naked eye. We were so caught up in the moment, I swear you could hear the lights moving within our atmosphere. We laid there staring at the sky until most of the storm faded away a few hours later. Dim remnants of the lights illuminated the sky for the rest of the night.
Perfect. The day could not have gone any better. From traveling one side of the island to the other, exploring several waterfalls, selfies with wild horses, getting soaked at a black sand beach, watching icebergs float off into the sunset, and to witness the first major solar storm of 2014 hit our beautiful planet, it was truly the most memorable day of my life. From what I can gather, we had the best views on the entire planet that night. Simply perfect.
February 27, 2014, you are forever mine.