Iceland: Rotten Like a Shark

It’s Travel Tuesday and digging through my collection of interesting travel pictures I’m reminded of a half-dozen years ago when we went on a ten day family vacation in Iceland.

My goals for that trip were:

Find lots of epic scenery.

Take lots of amazing photos.

Eat lots of interesting foods.

for whatever one photo is worth:

Hákarl is an Icelandic delicacy. Go Google Icelandic fermented shark and you’ll find all sorts of history of this curious dish dating back centuries and linked to the survival of ancient peoples in a harsh and unforgiving land.

From what I recall, Greenland Sharks whose flesh is mostly unpalatable and composed of high quantities of toxic ammonia were buried on the beach and left to rot. When they instead fermented (and the dogs didn’t die from eating the remains that were dug up) they became a food source, and eventually a deliberately crafted one.

Today, Icelanders largely only consume it on special occasions, in particular at a mid-winter festival in small bites and chased by a shot of the local vodka-like drink Brennivín.

We went to one of the spots in the northern part of Iceland where on a small, remote farm the man in the navy blue shirt ran the Iceland Shark Museum (check the link, he’s on the homepage as of me posting this!) where he shared the history of the industry to create Hákarl. He also produces a lot of the volume of the dish.

Most visitors show up to visit the museum and (from what I understand) pay their Euros to enter the museum. This small fee also includes a small cube, roughly half a centimeter to a side, of some mild, tourist-friendly Hákarl on a toothpick and a thimble-full of Brennivín.

The day we went I pulled out my camera and started snapping pictures even as we stepped out of the car. And though I don’t speak Icelandic from what I could tell the man in the red jacket was (best guess) a commercial buyer who had come to investigate some serious samples. The man in the navy blue shirt was slicing off fresh slabs of fermented shark with that knife in his hand and they were tasting it, and me and my camera-nosy-self was snapping happily away.

I looked up and man in the navy blue shirt had extended the tip of his knife towards me and laying across the tip was a sliver of fermented shark roughly the size of my pinkie finger.

Again, I don’t speak the language and I was a total tourist… yet I had intentionally come here for an experience exactly like this.

So… I hung my camera loose around my neck, thanked him, and popped the slab of freshly sliced fermented shark flesh into my mouth.

Delicacies are such for the precise reason that they are best consumed wrapped in story, steeped in tradition, and savoured in small quantities. To me in that moment, the consistency and taste of what I had just eaten was something that I could only articulate by comparing it to what I imagined it might taste like were I to scoop a bit of congealed bathroom cleaner from the bottom of a particularly old bottle and slip in across my tongue.

Six years later I still have that one moment firmly planted in my mind across ten very full days in Iceland.

And I didn’t even get my chaser of Brennivín until half an hour later at the end of the museum tour and a (much milder) cube of Hákarl.

Backpacking: Foggy Mountain Bridges

In the summer of 2017 we travelled in a group of four adults and two tweens just across the Alberta-British Columbia border to the Mount Robson to climb the Berg Lake trail.

for whatever one photo is worth:

After four nights atop the mountain, camping rough and day-hiking the area we were wet, tired and running low on supplies. The kids had been champion backpackers, helping out around camp, tolerating the rehydrated meals and composting toilets, entertaining us on the day we spent hunkered in the smallish cabin with fifty other people during a torrential downpour trying to dry our clothing, and carrying their share of the weight up and down the mountain.

Kids being kids, they made up funny games to pass the long hours of hiking. They sang familiar and made-up songs to “scare off the bears.” And for most of the trek back down the mountain, a one-day descent of about eighteen kilometers of mixed terrain, they not only kept pace but led the whole group by a consistent distance.

Readers who are familiar with the hike may recognize the bridge in this photo.

From the bottom, the first third of the hike is a long, gradual climb to (and then along) a lake.

After the lake, a rolling traversal near or on a riverbed brings hikers to a second gradual ascent to the top of a waterfall.

Those who know the route usually break here because the next part of the hike is a steep, rocky climb with warning signage near the bottom. A switchback trail leads up through the rocks and trees with the sound of a waterfall in the distance. As a sign that one is nearing the top, this small bridge appears ahead marking that one is about to begin the final stretch towards the upper falls and the nearby campsite.

As the tweens forged ahead on our descent, I came upon a clearing overlooking this bridge along a switchback on the trail. The pair who had been forging ahead with vigor were just standing there waiting… restingcontemplating… who can say?

Skoki: Scrambling Down

High up and nestled in a mountain valley above Lake Louise, Alberta, the Skoki trail is a moderately challenging adventure hike. Sure, you could helicopter in, and sure, you could stay at the lodge (which has hosted celebrities and royals.) Or, you can hike the distance up and over the summit, into the valley and camp rough in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains like we did in 2018.

for whatever one photo is worth:

After three nights in the wilderness, filling our days with wandering trail exploration, circumnavigating Mount Skoki (the hazy one on the right, if I remember correctly), rehydrating our food with hand filtered river water boiled over a firefly stove all while avoiding the swarms of mosquitos, this photo was us clambering back to the trailhead where our truck was parked.

The interesting thing about this hike is that there are multiple and roughly parallel routes in and out. While the base ten kilometers or so doesn’t vary much, the trail splits as you need to decide which path to take over the summit and into the valley behind where the campsites and lodge hide.

We took the main route inbound which took us on a hard climb up and then a winding path down through that forested green ridge in the right of the photo.

On the way out we followed the creek in the centre of the photo towards a pair of glacial lakes (behind me, the photographer) out of frame, that first required some tough (particularly with a heavy pack on) climbs up and between boulders to the edge of the lakes. Then, after a rest at the lakes, the hike continued up a steep ascent to a different pass over the ridge and back down to join the other trail.

The path inbound definitely seemed easier, and the views were great, but we were also fresh and rested on day one.

The path out was much more challenging, but the scramble beside the lakes and the pause we took overlooking a glassy glacial pool still sticks in my mind as a highlight of the trip.

Iceland: Chasing Waterfalls

I snapped close to ten thousand photos over the course of not-quite-two weeks travelling around Iceland in 2014, and disproportional number of those pics included waterfalls.

for whatever one photo is worth:

Skógafoss is a huge waterfall on the Skógá River in the very southern bulge of Iceland. It was one of the first big waterfalls we saw on our trip along the ring road of the island and notable not just because it is an impressive waterfall, but having climbed up the slick and narrow path to overlook the crest I saw something even more interesting.

A trailhead.

On my visit I wasn’t carrying much more than a camera bag, but others sharing the trail with me were lugging much more substantial loads. Backpacking gear. Obvious overnighting equipment. Crampons. Warm clothes. As I turned to climb back down after snapping my photos, they were hopping over a low barrier and setting out on a serious backpacking trip.

The Fimmvorduhals Trail (as I researched later) is one of many incredible adventures in Iceland. From what I can tell it is part of an extensive hiking and backpacking network in that country and people come from all over to walk them.

To be perfectly honest, until I saw those people trekking outbound from where we had stopped for a tourist break, it had not occurred to me that there might be some seriously awesome backpacking to be had in Iceland. We were going to explore by car with the family including my (at the time) seven year old and her grandparents.

To be even more honest, it hasn’t left my mind as a backpacking trip I’d love to take on. Sooner than later. Had there not been a global pandemic, it was actually an idea I’d floated with a friend for this upcoming summer to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. It inspired me to see those people setting out, and a pang of jealousy has always stuck like a splinter in my brain that I got back into an SUV and drove on while they set off into the wilds for something far more epic.

This picture, then, as simple and beautiful as it looks is actually hiding a personal point of interest for me: it’s the trailhead of one of my bucket list hikes.