William Lord Watts

Across the Vatna Jökull

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Advancing Jökull

Some little difficulty was experienced in getting all into train, owing to the hurry all the farmers of this locality were in to get this year's wool to the store at Papós [1] , which is situated four days' journey to the east; for tidings had been received that the ice of a portion of the Vatna Jökull, known as the BrerSamerkr had advanced to such an extent as to threaten the cutting off of all communication along the sea-shore, since the advance still continued. In consequence of this alarm every farmer was busy preparing the wool for market; steaming cauldrons were cleansing it from its grease, bands of sturdy Icelandic maidens were rinsing it in the clear water of the mountain streams which are almost sure to be found in close proximity to the farms in this part of the country—patches of white wool were drying upon the ground, while the male part of the community were measuring it in quaint wooden baskets, packing it into sacks, and forming bundles of equal weight to balance on each side of the pack-horses. It would be a very serious thing, indeed, if the road to Papós were to be intercepted, as it would compel the dwellers in this district to journey to Eyrarbakki before they could exchange their produce for the necessaries they require. Leaving Núpstaš behind us, we set out for the advancing glacier, and turned our faces towards the snowy slopes of Öręfa.

The Súla river, or Núpsvatn [2] , had to be crossed. It was deeper than I had before seen it, though its volume of water scarcely seemed to have increased. Its bed was changed to one of pebbles and quicksand. In 1871 it was of pebbles only, in 1874 it was black sand, in 1875 it is again pebbles and sand.

Across the Skeišarár Sandr

We crossed the river and fast sped on our way over the desert of Skeišarár Sandr. This sand occupies an area of 300 square miles. It has been formed by the joint efforts of volcanoes upon the Vatna and Mount Öręfa [3] , which have strewn this tract with sand and ashes, and whose ejectamenta have been brought down by the shifting waters of numerous glacial streams which traverse the Skeišarár Sandr in many directions. It would seem that the portion of the Vatna which here bounds the Skeišarár Sandr upon the north has acted in a similar manner to the Breišamerkr Jökull; for numerous moraines occur upon these sands, some of which are at a great distance from the utmost limit of the Jökull at the present time. Indeed, there has been an obvious advance at this point since,1871 of the fringe of the glacier which almost surrounds the Vatna Jökull. The existence of scratched rocks in moraines in Iceland below the limit of the glaciers does not of necessity prove that such glaciers have bodily advanced, as during extensive eruptions of glacial mountains huge masses of ice frequently slip forward to considerable distances, scratching the harder and furrowing the softer rocks in their progress, which, upon their melting, leave large piles of glacial débris, in no way distinguishable from a moraine stranded upon the lower elevations.

It was blowing hard from the east with heavy rain, but upon the west side of the mountain before us (Öręfa) the sun was shining in the most tantalising manner, so that as we urged our horses along the heavy sands we were fain to fancy ourselves exploring those dazzling glaciers and snowy slopes which seemed to fascinate the sunshine and detain it from reaching us.

We were soon under the lee of the mountains before us. Sheltered from the wind and the storm, we could stop to admire the grand sweep from the Öręfa to the commencement of the Skeišará Jökull. Looking back at Núpstaš, we saw it enwrapped in gloom, the clouds clustering round the Lámagnúpar, ( So called, from a particular kind of bird called Lómi [4] , which frequents this mountain.) a mountain which seems to attract all the bad weather to Núpstaš; and the storm sat heavily upon the western portion of the plain of Skeišarár Sandr, which was exposed to the fury of the east winds.


Crossing the river Skeišará, we reached the Saga-famed Svínafell [5] . Here we stayed to refresh ourselves with the national panacea for the ills of Icelandic travel, namely, a cup of coffee of the real Icelandic brew! The art of making good coffee is one of the greatest accomplishments of the fair sex here, and it is a pity it is not more generally attained by the lady population of other countries. The occurrence of drinkable coffee in Iceland, a good cup of it being always to be obtained at the poorest farm, is the more remarkable, as the coffee sold by the merchants at the various stores is never of the best quality; but is principally the Java coffee. The grand secret of success in this special domestic art is doubtless owing to the fact that the coffee is roasted at home, exactly to the right turn, and deftly manipulated in some particular way which early training and long practice can alone effect. The last and by no means the least adjunct to this national bonne bouche is in most cases a good supply of cream.

Being thus fortified, we were taken to see a birchtree upon the hill behind the farm. This tree might have been five-and-twenty feet in height, and it was considered the largest tree in this part of the island. There is, however, a considerable growth of bushy trees, principally birch, in the valley called Núpstaša skógr, down which the river Súla flows. It is by far the largest wood in the south of Iceland. Núpstaša-skógr is likewise remarkable for containing a breed of wild sheep, which belongs to our friend Ayólver, who is the owner of the skógar, together with the valuable farm of Núpstaš. There is also another patch of wood at the north-west base of Öręfa, which is of great use to Svínafell and the adjacent farms.

The hills behind Svínafell are basaltic; but as we proceeded further eastward, we soon found ourselves surrounded by the more recent products of the volcano Öręfa, which towered above us upon our left hand. Seeing a party of horsemen approaching, we whipped our little drove together, and met them upon the grass which was a few hundred yards off.

The party consisted of an Althing's-man, who was going to Reykjavík to attend the Althing, or Icelandic Parliament, with his servants, and the priest from Sandfell, at whose house he had been staying, and who was escorting him for a short distance. The priest turned out to be a cousin of my man Paul, so after a brief colloquy, and requesting the Althing's- man to convey our greetings to friends at Reykjavík, we rode on to Sandfell.

Our road lay past several beds of white pumice which had all been ejected from Öręfa. A smart gallop over cinders and fragments of lava brought us to the church and parsonage. Sandfell [6] is situated at the south base of Oroefa. Behind it rise barren hills of compact agglomerate, composed of volcanic ash and fragments of lava, but our friend the priest is compensated for his dreary surroundings by having one of the prettiest Icelandic women I have seen for his wife. She seemed quite piqued because I could not own to thinking Sandfell a very pretty place. Going hence, we crossed the stream of lava and agglomerate, which I was informed resulted from the eruption of Öręfa in 1862. This stream is a remarkable one, inasmuch as the agglomerate has flowed down in a semi-molten state, cotemporaneously with the lava, both being mixed together; the agglo- merate appears to preponderate, but this may be the result of the lava being of higher specific gravity, which causes it to sink to the bottom of the stream.

Breišamerkr Sandr

We stopped for the night at Myrum, (Not marked on the map) [7] on the southwest of the Breišamerkr Sandr. The bóndi, like all the people of this district, was hastening to get to Papós with his wool. We supped and breakfasted off some birds which our host called Svartfugl. They were the nicest birds I had ever tasted in Iceland, the meat being tender and plenty of it, and I thought so well of this dish that I took one of the birds away with us for our lunch on the road.

Here we hired a fresh horse, leaving Paul's, which had contracted a sore back, and started over the Breišamerkr Sandr. The sands, like the Skeišarár Sandr are the result of the great efforts of the Öręfa and Vatna Jökulls, more especially the part of the Vatna known as the Breišamerkr Jökull, which was the one whose movements we had to examine.

The road over these sands is long and dreary, especially in such weather as had just overtaken us. We passed an extensive encampment of farmers, who were on their way to Papós; but, despairing of crossing the rivers which traverse the Breišamerkr Sandr upon such a day with heavily laden horses, they had decided on remaining encamped upon the little patch of grass they had reached. About one third of the way over the Sandr we arrived at the farm of Kvísker, which is situated upon a little oasis of grass-land. We found it a very acceptable halting- place, and although we were wet, we were glad to sit down and take coffee and schnapps, and smoke a pipe inside; the room had no windows, and it was filled with planks and carpenter's tools, for the house was being enlarged. We could obtain but little food for our horses, and the greater part of our day's work had yet to be accomplished; so a quarter of an hour saw us again to horse, and rapidly approach- ing the extreme point of the advancing Jökull. This Jökull appeared unlike most of the Icelandic glaciers I have seen. Instead of terminating in an even slope, or steep rounded cliffs of ice, sometimes fissured, but generally very regular, it terminated in an irregular wall of cloven and contorted masses of the rifled and dislocated glaciers; while the more ele- vated masses assumed the form of spires, towers and grotesque architectural shapes. As we were intently looking at them, some of them tottered and fell. It is indeed a serious matter to contemplate the short dis- tance now left between the Jökull and the sea - at one point not more than 250 yards — in addition to this, new rivers have been formed between the Jökull and the sea, which have to be crossed, but which it would be impossible to do with a strong south wind blowing. The Jökulsá is quite bad enough, but to have several miles of road converted into quicksand by the di- verted waters of the Jökulsá, and to have new rivers in addition to the advance of the Jökull, is enough to make the people of the district fear for the road to Papós. One consolation may exist—that the Jökull has advanced before, and, after a considerable time, retreated. Still, as an old inhabitant of the neigh- bourhood informed me, "It never has advanced as it does now," and even upon the other occasion, upon the whole, it gained ground. Alas! poor Iceland—both fire and water appear allied against it; the latter especially, in all its forms—boiling, cold, and frozen, and in the form of rain, hail, snow, and vapour! We were obliged at one point to travel along the sea-shore, where we espied the body of a large fish with some dark objects moving about it. A nearer approach showed it to be a small whale, which, from olfactory evidence, had lain there for some time. The dark objects, startled at our appearance, rose in a covey of —well, the same birds of which we had enjoyed the flavour at Myrum. Svartfugl have never tasted quite so nice to me since. At last the Breišamerkr Sandr were passed; fresh mountains rose before us, and the weather cleared. To our right was a remarkable lagoon, Breiša-bolstašalón [8] ; which is a narrow fjord, twelve miles in length, enclosed upon the south by a large sand-bank running parallel with the shore. This lagoon is open to the sea at the north-east end, but is too shallow for ships to enter.

Evening found us at Kálfafellstašr [9] , a place pleasantly situated beneath the outlying hills of the Vatna Jökull. These hills are principally composed of amygdaloidal basalt, abounding in zeolites; chalcedonies are especially plentiful, and I dare say it might pay to look for the precious opal. This eastern corner of Iceland appears to be particularly rich in zoelites; I noticed the same when I was at Berufjöršr.

We stayed for the night with another relative of Paul — he seemed to have kindred nearly all over the island, and a very superior race they appear to be. This relation was the widow of the former priest of Kálfafellstašr. Here we bought another horse, and hired the widow's son, a lad about seventeen; for we required a man and a lad to drive our horses round to the north of the island while we crossed the Vatna Jökull. The widow and her daughter accompanied us a short distance upon our return journey, and, after two days' riding, we were again at Núpstaš.


Preparations for our journey across the Vatna now commenced in earnest. The sleighs and the snow-shoes had been made according to our instructions. All was there except the men and the butter; enough of the latter, however, turned up in the morning to enable us to make the pemmican, which I at once set myself to work to superintend.

A fire was lighted and a cauldron of water soon heated, and the beef boiled ; then came the work of cutting up an entire ox into pieces the size of ordinary wine-corks. Paul, senior, and I commenced operations by first taking out the bones; and, by dint of sharp knives, and a few hours' hard work, we prepared about seventy-eight pounds' of meat. Twenty pounds of salt butter and half-a-pound of salt were then melted in the cauldron, and the meat carefully mixed with it. After a short time it was ready to be packed in the skin bags in which it was to be carried.

The bags were placed in troughs of water during the operation of filling, to prevent leakage at the seams, and when they were filled they were tied up and laid in a stream close by, where stones were piled upon them to press down the meat. When they were sufficiently pressed, and the contents had become cold (which took about twenty hours), they were each placed in ordinary sacks for more easy carriage; for greasy skin-bags full of meat are rather slippery things to carry, and somewhat nasty things to handle.

By June 25th all my preparations were made, and my men arrived; Paul Paulsen and a cousin of his from Skaptarfellssysla; Helgi, from the farm of Króki; Finnur, from Myrdalssysla; and Eyólfr, from Hörgsdalr: these were to accompany me across the Vatna Jökull. In addition were Bjarni, who was with me last year; the farmer from Raušberg, who carried the post between Prestbakki and Berufjöršr — a deaf and dumb man, and a man named Vigfúss; these four were to return when we reached the mountain which I last year named "Mount Paul," [10] about a third of the way across the Jökull. I had also arranged with Paul's father and little Arni, whom I had hired at Kálfafellstašr, to take our horses from Núpstaš round the east side of the Vatna into the north of the island.

Our equipment, which was to be drawn upon hand-sleighs, consisted of a low tent, four feet high; a large sleeping-bag, which would accomodate six of us—this was eight feet long, and five feet wide — one side being made of a layer of cork and felt, covered with mackintosh, and the other of a stout blanket also covered with waterproof. This bag was open at both ends, so that three could sleep with their heads one way and three with their heads the other. Both these openings were covered by a hood, which proved a great protection to our heads while sleeping, and prevented the snow from getting into the bag. This gave us sleeping accommodation for six persons, with a weight of only sixty pounds. This bed, however, had its disadvantages; for in- stance, if any one was taken with cramp, or dreamt of engaging in any particularly active exercise, its limited dimensions became painfully apparent; moreover, it is almost impossible to keep the inside of the bag perfectly dry, owing to the exhalation from our bodies. I have paid great attention to this matter, but have found that for a prolonged sojourn amidst wet snow, where weight is a subject of paramount importance, it is the best sleeping arrangement that can be contrived.

Our provisions consisted of lOOlbs. of pemmican in skin bags, 50lbs. of butter, lOOlbs. of skonrok, or Danish ship-biscuits, 151bs. of dried fish, 151bs. of dried mutton, 121bs. of gravy soup, 2 tins of "soupe Julienne," in packets ; 6 tins of chocolate and milk, 2 Ibs. of cocoa, and 4 Ibs. of sugar; 2 gallons of proof whiskey, 1 gallon of spirit for burning, 5 Ibs. of tobacco, and 3 tins of Peek and Frean's meat biscuits. I had a small Russian furnace, which is an excellent lamp for heating water or melting snow. These articles, with a good supply of warm clothing, waterproofs, and mocassins (for it is impossible to wear leather boots in the snow), and the necessary instruments and implements, completed our outfit.

[1] Papós, former harbour in the Papafjöršur E of Höfn, by which it has been replaced. back
[2] Súla is the river coming from the western corner of Skeišarárjökull. Súla and Núpsá join to the Núpsvötn (or Blautakvísl). The name Núpsvötn is also used for spreading rivers S of Núpstašir. back
[3] "Mount Öręfa" = Öręfajökull. back
[4] "Lómi" = Lómur, (Lt. Gavia stellata; Engl. Red-throated Diver; Ger. Sterntaucher). back
[5] Svínafell, farm 5 km SE of Skaftafell. back
[6] Sandfell, now deserted farmstead, 5 km SE of Svínafell. back
[7] "Myrum" = probably the farm Fgurhólsmżri, at the omst southern point of Öręfajökull. back
[8] "Breiša-bolstašalón" = Breišárlón. back
[9] "Kálfafellstašr" = Kálfafellsstašur, farm 32 km SW of Höfnback
[10] "Mount Paul" = Pálsfjall back

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