by Paul Gallagher Published 01/02/2017
The first thing I recall was the temperature (it was obviously low) and added to this was the prevailing wind, driving in from the Atlantic with relentless, skin-numbing determination. The daylight hours in February proved not to be as limiting as I suspected. The sun rose about 10am and set just after 5pm, giving me seven hours of working light. Iceland can be prone to inclement weather but during my visit there was no rain as the temperatures remained too low; snow, however, was delivered in healthy portions, but not so much as to obliterate the detail of the landscape. The light was the best I had ever seen in Iceland. With the sun being so low in the sky but with enough strength over the horizon to illuminate the landscape, it offered a warm glow and was never harsh. When I arrived the conditions were almost perfect with diffused light on the landscape and dark skies above. A truly perfect combination!
As I drove out that first morning everything that I had experienced or photographed before was entirely different. As the sun pushed up above the horizon the entire place had been coated in a deep layer of fine, dry snow and with every surge of the Atlantic air, the white snowdrift took to the air again. Everything and everywhere became a revitalised scene.
I could not rely on any returning to a familiar place to carry on where I left off; I had to completely reconsider the newly transformed landscape before me – consider it a blank canvas on which to begin afresh.
The mighty waterfalls, those white masses cascading over black basalt cliffs during the warmer months, were now caverns, lined in icefalls that supported icicles over a metre long. At the base of the waterfalls there were huge accumulations of ice, resembling giant sculptures and the falling waters were a cold blue. The waterfalls, however cold it was, still continued to flow and, in certain light, the black rocks became almost as blue as the skies above. The other features that had been transformed by the harsh winter were the rivers. Although the coldest of the winter months had passed, the water had continued to flow in them and ice plateaus had formed which had been shaped by the direction of flow.
These features and shapes fascinated me and drew me onto the edge of the water as it roared past. One lesson I learned setting up my camera was that as solid and glass-like as the ledges looked, this was the beginning of the thaw and one such ledge collapsed beneath my boots, pitching me into the shallowest part of the river.
Probably one of the most incredible things about working in river environments at this time of year is that the thaw causes the massive ice plates to break up. The flow of the river had increased with the beginning of the melt and plates of ice had been lifted and pushed onto the surrounding area of the river plain. Arriving there in the evening was a real treat as the sun was setting. At my feet were vast areas of ice that were thick enough to walk upon. The evening light raked across the floor and lit up the ice sheets – giving them an inner glow.
One aspect of Iceland’s landscape that has always enticed me is the raised beaches – the flat lands that separate the sea from the inland cliffs and which were once the immersed sea beds. With winter, these become vast, open white spaces and, with the intertidal lakes completely frozen, perfectly flat except for the occasional glacial erratic piercing the ice. One midday I arrived to heavily laden skies containing the next blizzard with the distant low-lying sun providing the only element of colour in this very monochromatic wilderness.
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