For me, the most spectacular thing about Iceland was the ice. Chicago is a cold place but we don’t usually have spectacular ice formations along the lake (though Winter 2013-2014 ultimately proved the exception) and we definitely don’t have glaciers with blue crystal caves. Regardless of the story how Iceland is green and Greenland is icy, and the names were switched by some zany explorer, Iceland has truly beautiful, mesmerizing ice. As I look back, my favorite images from Iceland are all about the ice.
The first day of the trip, around 11AM, we jumped out of our van to capture a glow-y, orange-pink sunrise. It wasn’t really a spectacular location - more an opportunity to capture good light than anything. We were in a snow-covered, field of hay and mud. The wind had sculpted icy puddles into long, smooth ripples and the rising sun reflected off of them. My images probably wouldn’t stand up to any hard critiques (I can just hear someone pointing out to me that I didn’t adhere to the blasted Rule of Thirds) but they are lovely - abstract and curiously soft and hard at the same time.
We had two full days to shoot ice caves and after we finished the second day, my friend looked at me and said, you know, I thought 2 days of caving was overkill. And then we laughed like crazy because our 2nd day of ice caving was magical, mesmerizing and any other Disney-happy accolade you can think of. We were just so grateful for that 1st day, and for we learned. It was like a warm-up for the big event. On our 1st day of caving, the ice guides taught us how to strap on our crampons and walk wide-footed, like our legs were bowed from being in a saddle too often. They handed us helmets and ice picks and showed us how to lean on them for balance, and how to fling them hard into the earth, in case we fell or slid. We walked on flat ground for a while, and then up the side of a mountain. Only it wasn’t a mountain, it was moraine. It was steep and awkward, the kind of terrain where sometimes you get a little stuck, and aren’t sure which foot to move next. It was at one of those awkward unbalanced moments, almost at the top, that I fell, slamming forward onto my knees and shins, skidding down a foot and then recovering. Everyone was so intense on moving up that no one even noticed my panicked scramble. The next day, my deeply purpled legs shared the story.
At the top, the cave was a long wedge with a low overhang. We set up our cameras and tripods and shot with our heads bent sideways over our shoulders. This cave was rocky with smooth, round, ice-slicked stones. My adrenaline was pumping from the climb, and my fall, and I fumbled my camera, like I’d forgotten how to use it. I finally remembered how to auto-bracket my exposures but my composition skills never really kicked in that day. Whether it was the newness of what we were shooting, or the constraints of working in a group of 6 people, or jet lag, I don’t know, but I was glad to have a second chance the next day.
Early the next morning, we geared up again with crampons and helmets and then hiked about 2 miles from the point where the 4-wheel drive vehicles had to be left. I thought that it would be a bear of a hike but it was flat. When we reached the cave, our guide showed us a narrow snow crack lined with a narrower ledge of snow, about 6 or 7 inches wide. It descended into the cave. My friend was afraid and told me to go first. I remember reaching out, to steady myself on the opposite wall, and being surprised that there was no purchase for my hand. It was just smooth, hard ice. The crack opened into a larger cavern, divided by a glacial river. At first I thought that was it since it was already a much bigger cave than the one we’d visited the prior day but our guide had us sit down on the ice, pull off our crampons and hiking boots and pull on our hip waders. He attached ice screws and ropes to some of the cave walls so that we could shoulder our camera packs, wade into the river and cross it, using the ropes for balance till we reached the bank on the other side. We did that all day, wading back and forth across the river, following the serpentine flow of the caves.
I’m not going to tell you it wasn’t cold. It was. Kneeling on a floor of ice or wading through a glacial river in thin rubber boots isn’t for the faint of heart. But we were so intent on capturing the ice, the river and the deep stillness that none of us really noticed. It was compose, shoot, adjust, compose, adjust, shoot, change locations, compose… There wasn’t room in that process to be cold. It was scary too, walking through that cave and crossing that river. As we left, climbing up the snow ledge and int to the daylight, we started to laugh. That ledge had scared us going down but climbing back up, it was a piece of cake.