A mecca for geologists — that’s what Iceland is for Don Barrie, a geology professor at San Diego Mesa College and co-leader of annual summer trips to the island country.
“Something about it transforms me,” he said. “The geology is in your face. It’s easy to imagine how the Earth was formed. It a cliché, but it is the land of fire and ice.”
Barrie and co-leader Matt Ebiner, a retired geography professor and owner of GeoTours, served as leaders for two tours to Iceland composed mainly of members of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association. Several participants are North County residents. Prospective travelers had to be quick to register.
“We knew Iceland was a popular association trip,” said San Marcos resident Laurie Brindle. “So last August, we were poised to hit ‘send’ the moment online registration became available (for this year). According to Matt, it sold out in three minutes. We didn’t make it. Fortunately, a second tour was added and we were in.”
The tours followed the coastal route known as the Ring Road because it wraps around the perimeter of Iceland.
“In summertime, it’s verdant green, with fields of lupine and volcanic landscapes that look otherworldly,” Barrie said. “In southern Iceland, valley glaciers seem to pour from Vatnajokull, Iceland’s largest ice cap, creating rivers of snow and ice falling down onto dark volcanic rock.”
As beautiful as that sounds, Iceland is unique in another respect.
“It’s the only place on Earth where a divergent tectonic plate boundary — where two plates pull apart — slices through the middle of a large oceanic island,” Barrie said. “Straddling an active plate boundary, where the North American Plate moves westward with respect to the Eurasian Plate, was a thrill of a lifetime” during his first trip to Iceland in 2015.
“All I knew after that trip was that I had to return.”
Ebiner and Barrie work to provide new experiences each year. This time it was visiting the site of the 1783-1784 Laki eruption in southeast Iceland. The volcano’s lava, ash and toxic gases changed the Earth’s temperatures, poisoned crops, and caused illness, famine and death in humans and animals.
Getting to the eruption site involved traveling into Iceland’s interior, far from the Ring Road, Barrie said. “We forded several rivers en route.”
The trek was worth it.
“The views from the top of Mount Laki were spectacular, especially looking down on the string of volcanoes running in both directions with a glacier in the distance,” said Cardiff resident John Case. “We learned these volcanoes are referred to as a crater row.”
Luck and timing were working in concert this year with regard to another eruption — that of Fagradalsfjall volcano, which began on Aug. 3.
“There was an underlying tension during the trip about the pending volcanic eruption,” Case said. “We were getting updates from Gisli (our superb Icelandic driver) about earthquakes near the site of last year’s volcanic eruption, signaling the rise of magma (molten rock) upward toward Earth’s surface. We were fortunate the eruption didn’t affect air travel this time.”
Tour leaders Ebiner and Barrie decided to see it firsthand between scheduled tours, and although Fagradalsfjall is not far from the capital city, Reykjavik, the hike to and from the volcano was an arduous 9-mile round trip.
“The terrain was steep and rocky in places,” Barrie said, “but Icelandic authorities have been quick to improve the route and also place safety-monitoring personnel on-site.”
Despite nature’s drama, Solana Beach business owner David Cain found the visit to a puffin colony was his favorite adventure.
“It wasn’t just seeing the puffins,” he said. “It was the whole day’s experience,” which included talking with the family that offered the tour and were stewards for the land; the tractor-drawn cart ride over the wetlands; the hike uphill on the black sand beach; and the walk at the top of the headlands, part of the puffins’ habitat.
“(Iceland) was a trip of a lifetime for me,” Cain said. “It exceeded everyone’s expectations.”
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