Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Iceland: Full Tölt Ahead

Three things happened last year to help me pick my vacation destination. One, my friend David went to Iceland and loved it. Two, my friend Terri let me ride her horse. Three, the global recession.


Somewhere in there may have been an article on native horse breeds because over the winter horse and Iceland and cheap percolated together and came out hiking and riding Icelandic ponies in the backcountry. When I saw that the week of the riding tour was open on the leave board at work, and that I could get a cheap ticket, I went for it.

Those are promotional photos off the Eldhestar website. Aside from the hazmat-looking weather gear, it looks stunningly fun. I mean, who wouldn't want to ride for hours a day cross-country—especially after not having been on a horse for, oh, 30-odd years?

So I signed up for lessons with a woman out in Bayside, and started squirreling away light and warm outdoor weather gear for the trip.

(I realize, in going through these photos, that Iceland appears most sunny and inviting...which it was, kind of.  The sun did come out and it'd get up to 13 or 14 degrees C—about 57 in Fahrenheit! Mostly it was partly sunny, partly cloudy with varying amounts of wind, and mostly 11 or 12 degrees C (52 or 53 Fahrenheit. In the north, in Akureyri, when the afternoon wind would race down the fjord, I would shiver even wearing all my stuff. But back to the south, where I started my trip: looks sunny, felt cold.)

This is Skalakot farm in the south of Iceland, where we started our ride. In the mountains behind the farm are glaciers and Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that disrupted air travel earlier in the year.

The horses never wore halters, but just ran loose. When it was time to saddle up, they'd come into a paddock to be bridled. That's Gudmund there, the owner of Skalakot where we started our trip.

We stopped at Skógafoss, a waterfall on the way to Thórsmörk, our ultimate destination, and again, just let the extra horses accompanying us roam where they would.

I don't know who I'm holding on the left—I had a real hard time with the ponies Icelandic names—but that's Spyta on my right. I rode her the most because she wanted to be in the front, knew the route (so I could spend my attention sight-seeing), and had a beautiful canter which she wasn't shy about using.

Wonderfully shaggy animals. Those manes were great hand-warmers, too!

These horses were like a box of crayons—all sorts of colors. I don't even know what you'd call these handsome boys, who had white manes and brown dappled bodies.

The nice thing about riding all day was, with the tölt we moved at a pretty good clip but without the innards-hating jounce of a trot. Plus, every couple of hours the support 4x4 would pull up and we'd have tea and cookies, or sandwiches. We could also switch horses if we wanted, which I tried, but always ended up back on Spyta. She stumbled a lot, was grumpy in the morning, but we got on well.

We had been warned in the morning that our getting into Thórsmörk park was contingent on which way the wind was blowing, as Eyjafjallajökull was still putting out ash. Our ride in the morning was green and lovely, but when we turned to go into the gorge where the park is, the wind changed, too.

I did not change the settings on my camera; that's how everything looked once we got into the wind-blown ash, like being on the moon. Gudmund handed out masks and goggles and we rode on until we reached the river and we had to switch to some serious 4-wheel vehicles. The horses swam the river unencumbered, then we crossed on our super-truck with our saddles. Our support 4x4 followed.

This kind of crossing was considered no biggie, even though I was nervous and I was riding in the big truck!

The ash at this point was so thick that we rode the truck the rest of the way into Thórsmörk, to Husdalur where we spent the next two nights.

The small paddock where the horses would go to be bridled and saddled in the mornings.

When we weren't riding the horses grazed and wandered where they would, much to the delight of the other guests at Husdalur.

The rivers criss-crossing Thórsmörk are outrageous; even the streams are something to see. I was actually glad not to be backpacking where I would have to ford them; it was enough to do so on horseback or 4x4. There's still quite a bit of ash in the air as the river looks gray and we're still wearing our goggles.

Group shot! I'm in the middle, in my green rain jacket. I could not bring myself to wear the bright orange vinyl raingear provided—it was neither that cold nor that wet. Or so I thought. Hey, I'm just a Humboldt Co. girl...most of the other riders were Scandanavian, with one New Yorker and one German. So why are the Scandanavians wearing the orange? Good question...

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