Day 3 — Hvanngil -> Emstrur (Botnar)

Note: This is part four of a series on my experience hiking the Laugavegur Trail in the summer of 2017. You can see the other posts in the series here. Enjoy!

The third day of hiking started just before the crack of dawn…which at this time of year in Iceland means about 3AM. The light in Iceland is so special for such a long period of time throughout the day because the sun spends most of its time hovering along the horizon. This casts soft light and long shadows, as opposed to the harsh overhead light that you get closer to the equator in the middle of the day. In general, this is great for photography, as it gives you so much more time to shoot with good light. The downside is that sunrise and sunset shoots – when light is the absolute best – are necessarily extremely early and extremely late in the day. So you have more opportunities to get images with good-to-great light, but it’s harder to get images with absolutely spectacular light.

On most expeditions, I don’t have any problem getting up early for sunrise shoots. When I went on my Fall 2013 road trip I did a lot of napping during the harsh midday light and during the deep of night and then shot nonstop in the hours surrounding sunrise and sunset. But when you’re hiking ~12km per day with a heavy pack it’s a little harder to muster up the energy to roll out of bed in the middle of night.

I wasn’t going to go all the way to the Icelandic highlands without getting at least one sunrise shoot in, though, and I had picked today to be the day! I couldn’t shoot a sunrise at Landmannalaugar because we didn’t camp there the night before, I didn’t expect to get much of a sunrise view at the notoriously foggy Hrafntinnusker hut, and the weather was supposed to get cloudier as our hiking went on. So day three at Hvanngil it was!

We headed backwards up the trail a half mile or so to get a better view of the Hvanngil valley and waited. And waited…and waited some more. It seemed like the pre-dawn period lasted forever. I suppose since the sun breaks the horizon at a such a shallow angle the whole sunrise process takes much longer than it would under more normal settings. Eventually, the colors started to pick up and the sun broke through the clouds on the eastern horizon to produce some pretty breathtaking views. Looking back at the images from this morning, I’m kicking myself for not finding ways to get more sunrise and sunset shoots…maybe next time…

After sunrise we headed back to camp for a breakfast of freeze-dried eggs (so much better than you’d expect) and packed up the tent. I talked in the prior post about how weird the transition in scenery was from the Hrafntinnusker hut to Hvanngil, and the journey from Hvanngil to Emstrur provided yet another jarring transition.

Shortly after leaving camp, we forded a pretty sizable river named Bláfjallakvisl (try pronouncing that!). The river was pretty wide and the water nearly reached Lindsay’s waistline at one point, which validated her decision to cross the river pantsless. After crossing the river, we entered a region of seemingly endless basalt flats. On the first day of hiking we passed through some obsidian lava formations near Landmannalaugar, but from here on out basalt would be the flavor of lava rock we’d encounter.

During this stretch we encountered a few caravans of off-road vehicles (nearly all Land Rovers), which was more than a little strange. We felt so connected to nature and felt so far away from civilization that it was extremely odd to see cars – like, actual vehicles! – cruise by us on our four-day trek. Despite creating an uncanny valley of sorts, these vehicles helped spice up the photography a bit. On this hike I found myself perpetually struggling to capture the vastness of the landscapes. It’s hard to resist the tendency to shoot wide angles to try to get everything in the frame, but doing so would de-emphasize the volcanoes and mountains by making them appear smaller in the frame. That’s obviously not desirable, as they’re often one of the key subjects of the image. But even with sticking with medium to medium-long lenses it’s hard to convey a sense of scale when you’re standing in an endless basalt flat. You need something in the frame that a viewer’s eye can relate to and use as a reference point…so placing a hiker or a tent or a sheep or a Land Rover in the image can go a long way towards effectively conveying the vastness of the landscape you’re shooting.

The combination of having gotten up at 3AM, stiff legs (we were on day three of hiking, after all), lots of sun, and long stretches of similar scenery started to wear me down after a while. I was very happy to reach the Emstrur campsite in early afternoon, and after setting up our tent in a fairly secluded location (we had read that this campsite tends to get crowded and can be very noisy) we had a snack and I took a wonderful little nap.

After recharging and watching a steady stream of fellow travelers stroll into camp we went on a short hike to the nearby Markarfljótgljúfur Canyon. The canyon was gorgeous and reminded me a little of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado. Seeing the canyon was especially interesting since every river we had forded on our way down from Hrafntinnusker eventually led into the river that carved this canyon.

We could have ventured around the edge of the canyon for several hours, but we were simply too tired. We hobbled back to camp and settled into our sleeping bags for the last night on the trail…

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