The van from Reykjavik barrels through countryside best described as English moors meet the moon. Mossy volcanic rocks jut from the ground at one bend, yet around the next turn lie rolling green hills and snow-capped peaks. The sun is only just inching above the horizon, even though it’s past 10 a.m.
So far I’ve loved my midwinter visit to the harsh land of Vikings – that is, until our driver reminds us that the water we’re about to swim in is 2 degrees Celsius. Suddenly, I wonder if I should have gone to the Caribbean instead.
I am on my way to snorkel across the continental divide in Silfra, a glacial freshwater lake.
We park beside a cliff crowded with divers. “After the tour, you can jump from here,” our guide tells us, “Straight into a hot spring.”
“Really?” I ask. Heights aren’t my favorite, but hot water sounds much better than the almost-frozen lake.
Our guide laughs. “Kidding. Is freezing here too.”
I follow my fellow intrepid adventurers to a mismatched pile of gear. Putting on our suits takes more time than the dive itself, which will only last 30 minutes (“any longer and you’ll freeze,” they reassure us). We squeeze into dry suits, which have tight seals at the wrists and neck to keep our clothes dry in the water. Cramming my head and thick curls into the three-inch wide neck hole takes several attempts and a strong-armed assist from the guide, but after a few contortions, I’m ready to go.
I strap on fins, mug for the camera, and splash face-first into the glacial lake.
My face and hands, outside of the dry suit, flood with ice water. Immediately, I think of all the other places I could be. Back in my comfy hotel in Reykjavik breakfasting on creamed herring (which tastes better than it sounds). Or down the street in one of the city’s many bookish cafes, curled up beside a roaring fire with a novel.
Too late now. So, like our guide instructed, I take a deep, slow breath and start to count. By the time I reach 10, I’ve forgotten all about the cold.
I am in another world.
Underwater, the rocks appear red at the surface, fading to light brown and murky blue farther down. Through fissures and sun-spiked caverns, I catch glimpses of the distant sandy lakebed. Yellow February sunbeams pierce the waves ahead.
To my left is Eurasia. On my right, America. Below me, a 25-meter trench, which appears so deceptively close that I am sure I can touch the bottom with my fin. A little water leaks through my numb lips into my snorkel, and I sip it. Delicious. Bottled “glacial” water has nothing on this. This is the real flavor of glaciers – almost tasteless, yet instantly refreshing.
Visibility here is 150 meters, or 500 feet. To put that into perspective, if you scuba dive on a reef in the Caribbean, you’ll usually be able to see around 300 feet in any direction. “Crystal clear” takes on whole new meaning in Silfra.
Our guide told us earlier that we’d forget about the temperature once our trip began. I’d chalked that up to the misguided opinion of a crazy Viking, but he’s right. As I hang suspended, I forget everything except the beauty of this place, mesmerized by the maze-life caves beneath me. Occasionally, when I remember I have a camera strapped to my arm, I wake up to snap a photo.
Thirty minutes pass in the blink of an eye. Before I know it, we’ve paddled all the way across the circuitous trench to “the lagoon,” a shallow green pond at the end of our journey. Other swimmers yank off their gloves and hoods, eager to hurry back to our warm van and the hot cocoa that awaits us. But when our instructor heads for thecliff-diving spot, a few of us join him instead. I find myself right back at the edge of the freezing water I just escaped.
Hot chocolate can wait.
“One at a time,” he says, “And don’t look down.”
He leaps gracefully, landing feet-first with no splash. When he pops back to the surface, we line up on the cliff. I’m last. Plenty of time to watch the other divers take running leaps, or tiptoe off the edge, or in some cases panic and give up.
Finally, my turn comes. I inch to the edge. Don’t look down. Of course, I immediately do.
Yikes. That’s high.
But hey, when in Reykjavik, right? I throw out my arms and jump. An instant later, the water hits me, rushing up my nose and into my eyes.
I surface, grinning like a crazy person. “Can I go again?”
Vikings, eat your hearts out.
About the Author: Ellen Goodlett’s mission is to travel to the most otherworldly places she can find on this planet, since trips to Mars aren’t yet feasible. She writes both nonfiction articles and science fiction novels inspired by her adventures. When she isn’t jetsetting, she lives in New York City with a stereotypical amount of cats.
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