8. Mývatn-Stöðvarfjorður

Mývatn to Stöðvarfjorður_travel notes 8

August 17th

Total distance covered: 322 km  | 200 miles



Lake Mývatn (“Midge Lake”) derives its name from the huge number of midges (flies) that surround this body of water. The flies didn’t bother us. This area had so much to see and do that we found it difficult to leave. Numerous hiking trails of varying length and difficulty allowed visitors the chance to explore this unique geothermal terrain. We decided to spend the morning here and continue our investigation of the area. Our first hike explored around and through the pseudocraters on the southeast side of the lake. These landforms looked like craters, the bottom portion of a volcanic cone with it’s top blown off. The prefix ‘pseudo’ is added as these craters are not actually vents from which lava has erupted. They are not connected to a magma conduit. Instead, these landforms were created by steam explosions when hot, flowing lava came into contact with lake water. The porous lava rock absorbs the nutrient-rich lake waters creating the conditions for a dense carpet of vegetation. Directly surrounding the lake, green life flourished. Close by however (in areas like Hverir where we hiked yesterday), vegetation is extremely sparse. This juxtaposition makes the lakeside flora extremely attractive to humans and birds alike. I was especially intrigued as to what lay just beyond the crest of these pseudocraters. I rushed off to peer inside. I gazed down at the interior concave bowl where it’s center had begun to rise and form another, much smaller, pseudocrater.  It was as if the smaller landform had reverberated off its limiting walls and started the process of crater formation all over again. The form and its echo brought to mind the impact of a single drop of water on a still lake. What an incredible landform to play in, hide amidst, and be enveloped by. I imagined the joy this earthwork could bring to families and children alike.



Hverfjall Crater loomed in the distance. This enormous, grey-black landform, similar to the pseudocraters, was the result of molten lava meeting the lake waters. Around 2,800 years ago, an explosion resulted in magma meeting water and Hverfjall crater was created. This large, wide landform of ash and pumice rises 656 feet and stretches 3,280 feet in diameter. After climbing the steep slope of small, coarse lava rock, I stood on the rim and peered down at the 460-foot drop to the concave center. This hiking ground proved to be completely different from yesterday. The ground in this area was completely different from yesterday. Today, the ground provided grip for our hike rather then sticking to our boots as it did yesterday. There were no plants on the steep slopes of this crater.  Black and shades of grey comprised this MASSIVE scene.



Along the roadside we spotted a steaming earthen hut. Our guidebook informed us that we could find Hverabrauð (“hot spring bread”) baked in underground ovens in this area. However, to our great disappointment, we were informed at the Visitor’s Center that the ovens were no longer open to the public. Had we discovered someone else’s subterranean oven used to bake bread or cure fish?



A horse coral made from lava rock also attracted our attention as we drove the eastern side of Lake Mývatn. The eclectic combination of wooden gates set off against the lava rock was magnificent. 



Storagja + Grjoagja are old, hot springs that were popular bathing holes until their heat dissipated in the ’90s. While the baiting culture has obviously gone elsewhere, these caves are evidence of one that existed in the past. People often socialized, in the warm waters of the area. While we had enjoyed the Nature Baths last night, I was curious as to what other kinds of hot pools might exist. Where were the “hot springs” in use now? How could I find out where they were? Who frequented these places?



On the road to the Krafla Power Station, both a shower and toilet stood out in the open. The darker soil surrounding this installation emphasized the stark white of the porcelain bowl. What was this? Laughing, Mom and I reminisced about the exposed outhouse we had seen in the Westfjords. Was this a comment on privacy?



We decided to revisit the Krafla Power Station in hopes of finding the Visitor Center. In front of the larger buildings, one drive had potential. With no, “employees only” signs, we continued on to discover a small parking area abutting a gated mass of powerlines. A tiny sign introduced us to the Visitor Center. Our car was the only car in the small parking area, so I was a bit unsure if we had found the right place. During our time driving around the Lake Mývatn area, the parking lots have been full. Here, we were alone. Once we stepped inside, we were greeted kindly by a young Icelandic woman. She asked if we would like to view a short film on geothermal energy. While the video was helpful in describing the buildings onsite and their functions, it offered only an extremely simplified version of harvesting geothermal energy. I was most impressed with the drill heads on display in the lobby. As we were still the only visitors, the lady spent some time discussing these large drill heads. She informed us they were made of industrial diamonds. She also invited us to go up to the top floor and look out at the generator. We were excited to see the inner workings of the plant. As we climbed, floor after floor, doorways leading off the stairwell had signs asking us to keep out. At the top flight we emerged onto a large platform overlooking the floor below. There sitting alone was a sole generator. I’m not sure what I was expecting to see, but this one, quiet machine was definitely not it. Again, where were the people? Slightly disappointed, we headed back down the stairs. At the bottom, beside the doorway, we saw a plethora of hardhats. I wondered when those had stopped being part of the tour? By this time, two more visitors had arrived and were watching the video. We thanked this friendly lady and left the Visitor Center. Outside, the massive buildings, power lines and the complex network of pipes seemed like a completely different world.



We headed for the East Fjords, winding our way through large mountain passes. The mountains in this area are the largest in Iceland, although I must admit, I didn’t feel as dwarfed as I had in the Westfjords. We were headed to Stöðvarfjorður, a small fishing village. While we didn’t have time to visit all of the fjords, I was still particularly interested in Reyðarfjörður. This small town had recently acquired the country’s largest aluminum smelting plant. After taking Julie Bargmann’s Regenerative Technologies course, I can’t help my fascination of industrial landscapes. What impacts might this plant have on its surroundings? Was this plant contaminating the ground? What effects do such a huge operation have on the surrounding community? What do aluminum smelting plants even look like? How is our consumption-crazed society impacting this small town? The building was ENORMOUS, almost a mile long. It felt very separated from the surrounding community, around the bend and out of “sight” sat the enormous factory. We only had a quick glace at this humongous building sitting on the water´s edge. All access was limited. I need to learn more about aluminum smelting if this site is going to have a greater import. What was this industry doing? Where was the power for this immense plant coming from? Why here? Where was the aluminum going? Now that I am in Reykjavík doing research, I am especially happy that we made it to this aluminum smelting plant. I will come back to this topic later, but ALCOA is intrinsically linked to the issues of politics and power in Iceland. The book, Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation by author Andri Snær Magnason describes with wit and imagination political implications surrounding major energy (in particular hydroelectricity) issues and environmentalism in Iceland. 

The Drive from Reyðarfjörður to Stöðvarfjorður was considerably shorted by a 3.5 mile tunnel through the mountains. At first appearance, this tunnel was extremely daunting, a big pipe driven though the mountains? After driving through the tunnel, however, I was impressed with the amount of safety pull-offs and its roomy interior.  It turns out the company, Mannvit, built this tunnel and other similar to it in Iceland. Mannvit is also involved in geothermal works and “green energy”, perhaps this information will prove to be valuable later? 






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Thvottalaugar (Washing pools): a historical “hot spot” of Reykjavik

 (source: Torfbæjum inn i Taækniöld, Annð Bindi)

Even before Iceland’s geothermal waters were harnessed to produce energy, geothermal water was recognized for its important contribution to a community. Iceland’s Ancient records indicate that geothermal springs were used for washing and bathing. Cleanliness was considered an important factor in Nordic life. Carrying baskets of laundry was not a light task. If the distance to hot water was far from the homestead it was a great burden. Women gathered at nearby hot springs or hot streams to use the already heated water for washing. Laundering was hard, steamy, work, but it also served as time for ladies to socialize.

Norse poetic literature emphasized the importance of grooming and cleanliness. This example is from Reginsmal (The Ballad of Regin):

“Combed and washed | shall the wise man go, And a meal at mom shall take;

For unknown it is | where at eve he may be; It is ill thy luck to lose.”

(source: Torfbæjum inn i Taækniöld, Annð Bindi)

In towns with larger populations, laundering was an even larger communal event for the ladies and their children. Because there were many homesteads in these areas, washing often required walking a further distance.Thvottalaugar (washing pools) was a busy locale set to the east in Reykjavik. The road which led from the heart of the city to Thvottalaugar was named Laugavegur (washing road). This road was well worn by women carrying baskets and workers carting loads of wash.

Contemporary Laugavegur is the “major shopping” road of downtown Reykjavik. Traveling east along this road, travelers will find Laugardalur Park where Thvottalaugar remains today (although dry). Along with the gorgeous old infrastructure a structure and signage exist to describe the history of this site.

Thvottalaugar in its Laugardalur Park environs (photographs in October 2011)One of the first trial wells for geothermal water was sunk at Thvottalaugar between 1755, and 1756 by Eggert Olafsson and Bjarni Palsson. Between 1928 and 1930, more wells were sunk in the Thvottalaugar vicinity in pursuit of hot water for space heating. In 1930 enough geothermal water was recovered from these wells to heat Austurbackjarskili, a school in Reykjavik. The school was the first building in the city to be heated by geothermal water. Shortly after the school, the hospital, public pool and approximately 60 residential houses were connected to and utilized hot water from the geothermal pipeline originating at Thvottalaugar.

Vatnavinir Friends of Water recognize the importance of Thvottalaugar and have created a very interesting proposal for the area.


“The washing springs in Laugardalur lie at the centre of the history and development of the City of Reykjavík. Here, maids washed heavy loads of clothes, people and animals bathed, boys and girls learnt their first swimming strokes, experiements were made with cheesemaking and drilling for hot water for heating and electricity.

But steam no longer soars towards the skies and there is little to remind of old times other than stone walls by the dried up stream and grass covered washing tubs now long disconnected.

Vatnavinir propose the creation of a Geothermal Centre to honour the important history of water use in a vibrant way, e.g. by bringing to life the spirit of the old springs – the white linen blowing in the wind, the outlines of people in the steam, the smell of hot water and coffee.

Hot water may again be supplied to the springs and the stream (Laugalækur), now contained within an underground pipe, allowed to flow again along a part of its old channel linking the Botanical Garden and the old washing springs.

   (source: Vatnavinir)

The baths themselves are an education centre around hot water in a historical and geological context and are underground. Guests relax in hot pools while they learn about utilisation and origin of the hot water and geothermal heat through multimedia. In the evenings silence reigns – all screens are turned off and the bath house only used for bathing – but there could be occasional events in the evenings – story and poetry evenings, film screenings, concerts or even naming of children.

A public laundromat is also to be found here where guests and passers-by can wash their clothes. The laundromat is a historical museum on washing utensils and appliances but open to public use. Guests could choose between washing clothes on a washboard in a tub or in a washing machine from 1950. Simple refreshments, reminescent of the food washing women and travellers ate in times past, will be on sale – hot spring coffee and baked bread, fish, potatoes and meat. Paddling pools for children are in old washing tubs. The largest pool is open to the sky but beneath the present surface and white linen blows in the wind on lines above it creating a play of light and shadow in the pool.

   (source: Vatnavinir)

It is also proposed that a small steam power station be erected, which would supply the area with electricity. Thus the project – once upon a time began but never finished – would be brought full circle to its conclusion and the area thereby also made self-sustainable in terms of electricity.” (source: Vatnavinir)

Daylighting the stream and allowing geothermal heat/energy to stimulate this area, as it did in the past, is an extremely exciting prospect. I also see another important aspect to this historical rejuvenation as linking this steamy location back to Laugavegur, the main shopping street. Not only is this path a historical reference, but it would draw people from the center of the city to this lesser known area. I believe Thvottalaugar has huge potential!

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