A voyage to Iceland with the Vikings

By Bob Schulman

Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, was settled by the Vikings around 874 A.D. Photo courtesy of Visit Reykjavik/Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson

SOUTHERN NORWAY, Viken Bay -- It’s 879 A.D., and Hallgerdyur is getting her 19-year-old son Skarphedinn ready for his first (and quite possibly his last) voyage to the New Lands. She packs his clothes and a few toiletries in a little box, makes sure her boy says his prayers and makes him promise not to pillage, rape or plunder while he’s away.

Tourists check out a replica of a Viking Long Boat in Iceland’s VikingWorld Museum. Photo by Bob Schulman.Hallgerdyur takes Skarphedinn down to the Long Boat, where many of the other 70 crewmembers (mostly a mix of teenagers like her son and older lads in their 20s) are already on board. She chats with the commander, Ragnar (at age 34 known as ‘the old man”), and asks when he thinks they’ll be back. Ragnar – knowing few of his crew will likely return – tells her it should be in a few months. Having already lost two older sons and her husband, Hallgerdyur knows better.

Rowers guide the Long Boat out of the bay to start the first leg of the voyage: a three-day trip to a supply stopover in Ireland. When they reach the North Sea they hoist the boat’s 40-foot sail to catch westerly winds to the tip of the British Isles, and from there down the coast to the lush Irish countrysides.

After a few days of pillaging, raping and plundering in Irish villages they stock up on fresh water, veggies, calves, piglets and baby lambs (the boat is too small to hold full-grown livestock). They also grab a half-dozen Irish girls for cleaning and cooking chores and to make baby Vikings when they get to the New Lands.

No wonder that Christian sermons on the British Isles used to end with the plea, “Lord, save us from the wrath of the Vikings.”

Underground thermal currents heat Iceland’s iconic Blue Lagoon. Photo courtesy of www.iceland.is.The second and last leg of the voyage takes the boat across the choppy waters of the North Atlantic to one of the New Lands known as Iceland. The trip takes two weeks aboard the 75-foot-long boat, with the Vikings, their captives and the animals all bouncing around on a single, open deck. Five men and one of the girls are swept off the deck during the worst of the storms.

They land at Reykjavik, the site of the Vikings’ first settlement in Iceland five years earlier.

What drew the Vikings to this cold, uninhabited island about the size of Ohio? Lots and lots of grasslands, making the island perfect for raising sheep and other farm animals such as pigs and poultry.

Ironically, Iceland is greener than neighboring Greenland, and Greenland is icier than Iceland.

And why does so much grass grow out here in the mid-Atlantic on the edge of the Arctic Circle? Because much of Iceland’s soil is a beehive of geothermal wonders such as hot springs, geysers, steaming lakes and the like – not to mention dozens of active volcanoes.

Another big draw: The waters around the island are packed with fish, including what one angler called “ridiculous quantities” of prime cod. What’s more, the island’s rivers are home to world-class salmon.

Aurora Borealis lights up the winter sky. Photo courtesy of www.iceland.is.Farm animals and fish kept Iceland’s Vikings well fed and were also used for trade with other Viking colonies. For instance, the Icelanders swapped their goods for furs and walrus ivory from neighboring New Land settlements in Greenland and for everything from silver to slaves from the British Isles.

Like many Viking adventurers, Skarphedinn may have turned in his sword and shield to live off the land (more accurately, the grass) in Iceland. Later on, loaded with cash from his grazing business, he may have moved Hallgerdyur and the rest of his family to his sod-covered home on the island.

Some 80 percent of Iceland’s 325,000 present residents say they can trace their lineage back to the Vikings. A good number also say they have some Irish blood, thanks to the girls captured on the Norsemen’s numerous stopovers on the Emerald Isle.

Historical notes: Another New Land – this one on the western side of the Atlantic -- was added to the Viking map around the year 1000 when Leif Erikson and his lads stepped ashore on a huge island he called Vinland and which came to be known as Newfoundland. Later, the Vikings’ Long Boats are believed to have sailed from their Canadian settlements to places as far south as New York.

About all those hot spots on the island...

Some 80 percent of Iceland’s residents trace their lineage back to the Vikings. Photo by Bob Schulman.Iceland sits atop what geologists call the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a 10,000-mile crack in the ocean floor caused by the separation of the North American and Eurasian continental plates. Sometimes the plates collide head-on, pushing each other up and down like fighting rams. In gentler (but still catastrophic) collisions, the plates just rub up against each other now and then. In both cases, or when the plates move away from each other, gigantic pressures are released exposing a sea of red-hot lava between the plates.

The lava streams upward, melting the earth’s upper crust and sometimes breaking through it to form volcanic mounts to vent out the hot stuff. At other times, steam and gasses from miles below the earth pepper the surface of the 40,000-square-mile island with seemingly wall-to-wall geysers (one, called Strokker, erupts every 5 to 10 minutes), hot springs and geothermally heated pools and lakes (in one, called the Blue Lagoon, hundreds of visitors don swimsuits in near-freezing temps to splash around in millions of gallons of steaming, milky-blue water).

Among hundreds of volcanic mounts dotting Iceland are some 30 “active” (meaning they’ve erupted over the last few centuries) volcanoes. Of these, the country’s superstar is Mount Hekla, which has blown its top over 20 times in the past 1,200 years, the last in 2000. Tagged “The Gateway to Hell,” the mount runs along a 25-mile-long fissure and is nearly a mile high.

Strokkur geyser erupts every 5 to 20 minutes. Photo courtesy of www.iceland.is.Two special treats are in store for tourists: In the summer, the whole island comes to life under constant sunlight (for fun, take a stroll in the midnight sun). Winters bring the jaw-dropping sight of Northern Lights dancing across the sky, the Aurora Borealis.

The country’s 800,000-plus annual visitors have a choice of some 340 tourist-class hotels ranging from a dozen luxury properties to boutique inns and guest houses. Another option is to camp out.

Chowing down: As you might expect, lamb and cod dishes abound on Icelandic menus. Among other popular dishes are: skyr (much like yogurt, but technically a soft cheese), plokkfiskur (a yummy stew made from boiled fish, potatoes and onions served in white sauce), rugbraud (dark rye bread, usually rather sweet and traditionally baked in a pot or steamed in special wooden casks buried in the ground near a hot spring) and hardfiskur (dried fish, typically – surprise, surprise – cod).

Getting there: Iceland’s international airport is a four-hour nonstop flight from eastern U.S. terminals and seven hours from western airports.

More info: Visit the Icelandic Tourism Board (www.visiticeland.com).

Featured Archive Contact Us