Thorsmark national park lies south east of Reykjavik and houses the famous Ekjafjallyokull volcano which erupted in 2010. This volcanic eruption is the cause of our calling, ironically so as its fiery blow out in 2010 caused us to be stuck in Menorca for an extra week when the ash cloud hung threateningly over Europe disrupting plane travel. For six weeks we will be doing clearing, conservation and trail work in the national park, partly damage caused by the eruption, partly winter damage and maintenance as the park is only safely accessible for about 3 months of the year.
Mark means trees, and Iceland isn’t famous for trees. In fact we were told a joke, “what should you do if you are lost in a forest in Iceland?” “Stand up and look around!” Thor is the Nordic God of thunder, so well represented in the avengers with his hammer. This would provide the first clue of what to expect.
Travelling as a group of 10 new volunteers we represented England, Scotland, Wales, France, Canada, Bulgaria, America and Denmark. Everyone was sideways glancing to see how fancy each other’s kit was, how much stuff everyone had packed and how we would all fare with our physical adventure. We boarded the bus together and about 2 hours outside the city we entered the national park, stopping at Skellafoss waterfall. The landscape here is on a big, open scale and with very few buildings, cars and people around it is hard to gauge scale. Up close to the drop it was a huge torrent and you could walk around the back of the deluge whilst getting covered in spray, stand under the rock lip and look out at the greenery beyond.
Here the road ended and the 4wd began as our coach with huge tyres bounced about crossing volcanic rock and rivers. We stopped at the site of a glacier lagoon which only a few years ago would have held icebergs however was completely covered in the volcanic eruption. The large open area leads to the carved out rocks which would have once guided the river of water coming from the glacier beyond. The landscape was epic and mesmerising. Where icebergs trapped under the sand are meting, much of this area has turned to quicksand, a reminder of natures power.
After lots more bouncing we arrived to Husadalur where team members were waiting to walk with us the half an hour walk to Langidalur camp, our new home. We met the camp volunteers who were an operations team of 7 and with lots of new names to remember sat down to share lunch and be briefed on life and work for the next 6 weeks. We were to be Thorsmarks trail team, conserving the park trails, repairing volcano damage and general maintenance work. The job promised to be challenging, physical and a rewarding learning curve for all of us. Half the team were sent after lunch to the camp across the river to split the work leaving 6 volunteers, three team leaders and the volunteer coordinator Tony, who assured us previous volunteers had described him as “not as grumpy as he looks.”
The camp comprised of a few wooden buildings, a communal tent and a very open air set up, drying lines, greenhouse, tool shed, compost system. It felt like a working scale model of the den we used to dedicate hours to at the bottom of a friends driveway. It looked out over a vast riverbed with a few independent fast flowing streams passing through, and then the vast landscape of glacier and snowcapped mountains beyond. Words nor photos do it justice. Next we could select our spot to put our tent. Kylie and I chose a valley within our valley. Firstly the hope that despite some tantalisingly gorgeous sun, we would escape the effects of high winds, also the view from our bedroom was penthouse luxury. Most importantly the proximity of a swing set was the draw card. It was hard to believe the view we faced, more like a photo but with the fresh air and bird calls making it real. We fought over who was no 1 and who was no2 in the fictional valley postage system, and unable to agree, decided 1a and 1b was a better compromise.
After an orientation of camp and a peek into daily work and chores, we set off up the hill to explore the closer areas of the park which already had revealed many caves and intricacies. It was a steep climb but quickly you could see over our valley and the valley which sat behind us, an incredible 360 of undisturbed nature.
We did a 7km circuit back into the valley passing some of the caves on the way. Each one has a ghost story or folktale attached which our guides were keen to impart as they had had them imparted to them, never quite sure of the credibility but keen to eat up the mythical Icelandic culture.
Appetites were high as two set about preparing dinner which was shared in the food teepee and slowly we peeled off to bed, aware of the tiring work which would start early the next morning, although disconcerted by the never ending light of the evening.
On day one of work we rose to a gorgeous sunshine welcome to Iceland, the snow capped mountains glistening under blue skies. We made breakfast, packed lunches, had our morning team meeting and were assigned our work waterproofs, big, industrial, bright orange waterproof trousers and anorak. Almost like they wanted to associate you with community service. At 9am the work day began, the work site was Valahnakur, on top of the big mountain behind us. The first task, to get the tools to the top. We started with the logs which we would be using to make log drains. One big log each and a long trawl to the top with several stops. If anyone was in doubt about building muscle here, it seemed not an option. Luckily, it was time for tea break and the view was unbeatable, on the side of the mountain looking down over the vast surroundings with two volcanoes, not your usual backdrop.
We then trooped down to return up the mountain with sledgehammers, saws, spades, rakes, rockbars and drills. We would be redirecting the worn path to a softer angle down the hill and at the same time adding in log drains to filter the water off and prevent soil erosion. We dug a trench to sink the log, pummelled a rockbar into the ground to sink two stopper poles which then both needed drilling, hammering, sawing then landscaping back in. Combined with rocks and adjustments, this was a long process first time round and we got an education in swinging sledgehammers and rockbars. All afternoon Kylie, Maria and I worked on our log drain, stopping to consume vast amounts of tea and biscuits and sandwiches in between. Never again will I step over a log drain so casually again.
From our high vantage point we could see how the weather moved past across the skyline. From a hot morning we had a windy lunchtime and rain late afternoon, so we were muddy as we plodded back down at the end of the day. With two hours of free time before dinner many of us feasted on post work snacks, showered and sat around the cabin waiting for smells to diffuse deliciously from the kitchen. Despite the tiredness, sitting around post dinner over a hot drink listening to Frederik playing gently on the mandolin was all too tempting as the sky never darkened, still in perfect lightness at 11pm and the birds chirping away.
With slightly less than fresh muscles I crawled out of my tent on day two, on breakfast duty and from here the days began to take a similar shape of refuelling, physical work and community life. We became pros at building log drains, often exchanging language lessons, puns and songs as we worked in our changing pairs. When we arrived day one it dawned on me how cut off we were and although excited, six weeks stretched out ahead seeming like a long time. It was then a strange realisation when on Wednesday I walked to Husadalur, our version of the outside world where there was a cafe and wifi, to check on a bank transfer. All of a sudden emails and messages infiltrate your headspace, like white noise which hasn’t existed before. It was like a sweet curse, lovely to be in touch with everyone, but so refreshing to switch off and leave behind half an hours walk from camp. Walking back to Langidalur for the evening meal you could feel yourself relaxing again, hearing streams and birds instead of buzzing with must dos. Once back at camp the familiar set in again, Maria washing the BBQ, Cal and Kylie cooking, Scott and Cat chatting in the hut, but I appreciated afresh the simplicity of it all.
After three days heavy labour, we did some gardening. Joining up with the B’asar team we headed to the lupin fields to weed this invasive species. Lupins were planting on mass by Icelanders as a non native species to fertilise the soil as they transfer nitrogen from the air to the soil. As with all introduced species, their introduction to the chain often means they take over and so we split into groups with trowels, spades and forks to up turn these plants and their strong, hefty roots. The day was scorching and the work equal parts therapeutic and monotonous so it was a great opportunity to share stories and laugh together.
On Friday, the last working day of our first week, we were treated to a hike to Rjupnafell, the second highest peak in the park. Far from being a chance to relax, it worked different muscles and challenged the fitness and strength we had started to build. It was hard to believe how short a time it had been as 18 of us snaked through gorgeous backdrops of mountains of our back garden. We stopped for a break at the troll church, a giant jut of rock, one of many in Iceland where stories and folk tales become blurred together. We filled our water bottles with icy Icelandic water from the stream and pushed on, through snow trails and dizzying paths until we started to climb, zig zagging steeply up the side of Rjupnafell. Everyone separated, pushing forward at their own pace, so as one of the first to the top you could guess who would be next to emerge over the ridge and make their way to the fantastic lunchtime viewpoint at the top.
We were back late afternoon, browned both by the sun and the dust which cloaked our legs. At 7pm some snack food appeared on the table and “beer club” opened, the name of Chas’s bar. This preluded a feast of meat, veg and pasta salad and a night around the bonfire. The light never got less strange, “sunset” falling around 11:30pm, but the light never fading, looking more like evening twilight until sunrise again.